In 1649 England did something unprecedented – after nearly a decade of civil war, they tried their king for high treason and had him executed. The year after, 1650, they set themselves up as a commonwealth.
However, ten years later they decided to invite Charles I’s 30-year old son – also called Charles – back to England and reinstate the monarchy. So why did they go to all the trouble of deposing a King only to invite him back?
Bringing back the King
England’s problem was that a significant majority never wanted to get rid of the monarchy completely. There were radical voices calling for the introduction of new freedoms and democracy, but these were very much on the fringes.
For most people, the news that England had been turned into a Republic was shocking and a desire to return to the traditional English constitution – a stable country with a king who would behave himself within reason – remained.
The problem lay with King Charles I and his refusal to compromise even when he had little other choice. After his capture at the end of the first Civil War negotiations proceeded to place him back on the throne.
He did have to make a number of concessions if the Parliamentarians were to reinstate him however – promising that he would not target Parliament’s leaders and that he would devolve power. Charles’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings ensured he was particularly averse to the latter demand.
Rather than accepting the concessions, Charles escaped his captors, fled north and tried to forge an alliance with the Scots.
The plan backfired. The Scottish Presbyterian army entered negotiations with Parliament for the handing over of the suppliant king and pretty soon Charles found himself in custody of the Parliamentarians again.
By this time attitudes had hardened. Charles’ intransigence seemed to make peace impossible. As long as he remained on the throne, it seemed, war would continue. The only choice was to kill the King.
Life without kings
With Charles gone England was now a commonwealth led by the powerful hand of Oliver Cromwell, but pretty soon he found governing the country was not as easy as he might have liked. First there was a kingdom to secure. Charles I might be gone, but his son was still at large.
The young man who would later be Charles II raised his own army to challenge Parliament. He met with little more success than his father and was defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. Legend has it that he hid in a tree to evade Parliament’s forces.
Furthermore, Cromwell soon had his own problems with Parliament. In 1648 Parliament had been purged of all those who were not supportive of the New Model Army and the Independents. Even so, the remaining Rump Parliament was in no mood to simply do Cromwell’s bidding and in 1653 Cromwell dismissed it and set up a protectorate instead.
Although Cromwell refused the Crown, he was King in all but name and soon started to show royal tendencies. He governed in much the same way Charles had, only recalling parliament when he had to raise money.
Strict religious order
Cromwell’s regime soon became unpopular. Strict observance of Protestantism was enforced, theatres were shut down and ale houses across the country closed. Military failures in a war against Spain damaged his reputation abroad, and England was largely isolated from her European neighbours, who were fearful revolution and discontent would spread to the continent.
However, Oliver Cromwell was a strong leader: he provided a powerful figurehead, commanded widespread support (particularly from the New Model Army) and had an iron grip on power.
When he died in 1658 rule passed to his son Richard. Richard soon proved to be not as proficient as his father had been: Oliver had run the country into debt, and left a power vacuum as head of the army.
Parliament and the New Model Army became increasingly suspicious of each others’ intentions and the atmosphere became increasingly hostile. Eventually, under the command of George Monck, the army forced Cromwell from power – he resigned his position as Lord Protector peacefully to resign with a pension.
This paved the way for the return of Charles I’s exiled, namesake son; an opening for the return of a monarch had appeared.
Parliament began negotiations with the young Charles to bring him back to the throne on condition that he agree to certain concessions. Charles – who was a little more flexible than his father – agreed and was crowned in 1660. Charles had his coronation a year later and England had a King once more.