The Interregnum is airbrushed as a mere gap between two kings, but we were among the first in Europe to scrap the monarchy.
England makes much of its monarchy as a symbol of continuity. It is part of this country’s identity and sense of distinctiveness, particularly now that it is one of the few remaining monarchies in Europe. Yet it is worth remembering that in the mid-17th century it was, for 11 years, one of the few republics in Europe, blazing a trail that shocked many contemporaries on the Continent. In January 1649, the monarch was put on trial and publicly executed, and shortly afterwards the monarchy itself was abolished and England was declared a republic. How did these extraordinary events come about?
Back in the summer of 1642, when England descended into civil war, such an outcome would have seemed inconceivable. Parliament had taken up arms against Charles I not with a view to deposing him, let alone establishing a republic, but because they felt that he had been “seduced by evil counsellors” who were encouraging him to establish “popery and arbitrary power”. In such a national emergency, the Houses of Parliament argued that they could exercise royal authority on his behalf, “after a more eminent and obligatory manner than it can be by personal act or resolution of his own”. Drawing on the medieval idea of the monarch’s two bodies, they claimed to be fighting to protect the royal office from the person of Charles I.
But as the war dragged on, it seemed to a growing minority, especially among the leaders of parliament’s army, that the King was himself to blame for causing the conflict and then, following his defeat, for the failure to find a settlement. In the spring of 1648, the army officers held a prayer meeting at which they resolved “to bring Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for the blood that he had caused to be shed”. A few months later, they urged parliament to bring Charles Stuart, “the capital and grand author of all our troubles”, to justice. Finally, when the House of Commons persisted in trying to negotiate a settlement with the King, the army intervened and purged the Commons of all but a radical minority.