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Marchamont Nedham was a skilled propagandist who sold his services, and his A True State is best viewed as a good example of semi-official propaganda. Sir Charles Wolseley was a newly-appointed Protectoral Councillor, an insider, a government man, who naturally praised the new regime. Although government censorship was not as strict at this stage as it was during most of the seventeenth century, the newspaper editors were generally very cautious and they were invariably hesitant and uncritical when reporting on the regime of the day, with a strong tendency to take a pro-government line and avoid anything remotely controversial. Accordingly, historians should not and do not take these uncritical assessments of the Protectorate at face value. Instead, historical assessments of the Protectorate tend to be quite balanced, with positive achievements run against failures and limitations. 

Many of the Protectorate’s weaknesses, limitations and failures sprang from the circumstances in which the regime was born and from its written constitution of December 1653. For all its civilian appearance, the regime rested upon military might and the army, the Instrument was hatched by a small group of senior army officers, perhaps with limited civilian assistance, and the constitution had no wider standing, endorsement or legitimacy. It restored a semi-traditional government, with a single head of state, so alienating many firm republicans who had welcomed the abolition of monarchy in 1649 and who deplored the advent of the Protectorate as a step back towards semi-monarchical rule. On the other hand, although the Protector and his regime sought to reconcile ex-royalists and few, in fact, openly and actively opposed the Protectorate, equally few actively supported it; most royalists always viewed the regime as an unwelcome aberration, with something of the night about it, and yearned for the restoration of the traditional Stuart monarchy. Similarly, strict supporters of the old Church of England and of a narrower Presbyterian system were never won over by the religious freedom of the Protectorate, and some of the sects which flourished at the time were seen by many as heretical, troublesome or disturbers of the peace. The complex and inadequate financial provisions of the constitution, compounded by the continuing presence of a large and expensive army and navy and by the regime’s attempts to reduce taxes in order to court popularity, led to increasing state debt and severe financial problems. The constitution failed to give Protector and Council clear and adequate powers to run government during lengthy intervals between parliaments, and after the first Protectorate parliament was dissolved at the earliest opportunity and without settling anything, the executive struggled to run the country in strict accordance with its constitutional powers. All three Protectorate parliaments were problematic and contained many opponents of the Protectoral regime; the first two were heavily purged at or near the beginning of the session, though the first still proved troublesome and the second got out of hand and had to be dissolved once the pre-session purge lapsed, while the unpurged third parliament triggered a breakdown in the relationship between Protector and army and precipitated the coup of spring 1659. In the course of the Protectorate, the executive resorted to questionable financial ploys, bullied defendants, their legal advisors and even judges, imprisoned without trial, for a time experimented with a novel and semi-military form of regional government and imposed a heavier level of censorship, though in all this the Protectoral regime probably acted less harshly or questionably than most Stuart monarchs and most early modern regimes. In the end, the regime survived for barely five and a half years, collapsing and swept away in May 1659. Most of its principal goals, both in healing and settling and in advancing godly reformation, had made limited headway by that time and many were largely reversed or rendered irrelevant by the traditional monarchical government restored in 1660.

Yet it is right that we should remember the Protectorate and that on a number of grounds we should commemorate the anniversary of its foundation in December 1653. Firstly, the Cromwellian Protectorate was the first truly British government in our history, the first to lay serious claim to rule over and to pull together the disparate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Secondly, the Protectorate was the first and so far the last government in our history to be empowered and to operate according to the terms of a detailed written constitution. Thirdly, that constitution raises a number of issues which are still very much alive today – whether there should be a written constitution to lay out the mechanisms of government; whether there should be a single head of state and, if so, what titles and powers that individual should possess; how power should be divided between the legislature and the executive and how one arm of government should relate to the other; whether parliament should comprise a single elected chamber or whether it is desirable to balance it with a second parliamentary chamber and, if so, what powers that second chamber should possess and how its members should be elected or selected; whether it is sensible or practical to unite the British nations into a single polity or whether separate or devolved governments should exist in each; and whether there should there be a single, state church or a plurality of faiths of equal standing, none of them tied to, or promoted by, the state? Fourthly, while the Protectorate government met with mixed success during its own day and many of its policies were undone at the Restoration, it did leave some more durable legacies which continued or re-emerged in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including a shift in the balance of power in Ireland, a system of taxes which raised far more than the early Stuart fiscal system and which more effectively tapped the wealth of the nation, a demonstration that Britain had the resources, will and ability to be a front rank military nation and to maintain dynamic and interventionist foreign, colonial and commercial policies and the establishment of a range of strong and vibrant Protestant faiths which could not thereafter either be crushed by, or accommodated within, the restored state church. But fifthly, the real importance of the Protectorate is not to be measured primarily in the sometimes tenuous or uncertain long-term legacies it left behind. Rather, it rests in the fundamental decency and moderation of the regime, in its attempts to work for the good of the people and to achieve something positive, in its pursuit of progress, improvement, liberty and godliness, in its integrity and vigour even in the face obstacles, opposition and disappointments. The new regime generally held true to the path Cromwell set for it in December 1653 – “to act for God and the peace and good of the Nation, and particularly…to consider and relieve the distress of the poor and oppressed”. We should remember and commemorate it.


down to
 December 1653

The protectorate established, 
12-15 December

The protectorate inaugurated, 
16 December

The protectorate 
at work, 
17-20 December

The new written constitution

the instrument of government 
– full text

The instrument of government 

The protectorate 



Picture of Robert Cromwell






















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