The sixth of December 1648 was an important day in English Parliamentary history, but one that is often forgotten and rarely invoked by commentators on the British Parliamentary system generally. The reasons for this, although probably complex, are perhaps rooted in the fact that the British Parliamentary Establishment never seems to openly remind the electorate of previous historical situations which the current ‘Elite’, if that is a fitting way to describe them, may be anxious to avoid. The historical situation to which I here refer being that of ‘Pride’s Purge‘, one of the key landmark political events of the late 1640s, when England was still embroiled in its Second Civil War.
However, in spite of this, the ‘living-heritage‘ section of the UK Parliament website does make an albeit brief reference to Pride’s Purge; although the exact circumstances under which it took place are not necessarily dealt with in sufficient detail for your average layman to understand in any real depth whatsoever. To be brief, and to the point, following Parliament’s defeat of the Royalist Armies in 1646, Charles I had been taken prisoner and attempts had been made by the leaders of the Parliamentary military faction, generally known as ‘The Army Grandees’, who included Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law Henry Ireton and other senior officers, to negotiate a settlement with the King. And, it was the continual attempts by certain elements within Parliament itself to actively frustrate this process that were to lead in turn to the set of circumstances which were to set in motion the events of December 6th 1648: culminating in Pride’s Purge.
Readers of this post will probably be starting to compare the events of 2019, and the seemingly unending Brexit Debate, and ultimate stalemate, which have effectively created the scenario that was in its turn to lead up to the recent decision by Boris Johnson to call an election on December 12th, with what was happening at the close of the 1640s. In fact there is no comparison at all, other than the fact that the present leader of the House has been unable to persuade a sufficiently large majority of MPs to vote his much hyped ‘Brexit Deal’ through; in the same way that the leaders of the Military Faction within the Parliamentary Movement of the 1640s had been unable to field a sufficiently large Parliamentary majority of their own to see their proposals approved by the House. There the similarity begins, and there it ends simultaneously. In spite of what Nigel Farage and his supporters may tell you, the EU is not an Absolutist Dictatorship and none of its representatives have thus far ever held the kind of power that King Charles I was able to exercise through his celebrated Royal Prerogative.
Attempts to limit the power of the Seventeenth Century Monarchy in England had begun as early as 1628, with the so called ‘Petition of Right‘. An attempt to enshrine certain basic rights in constitutional law, which would prevent the King or Monarch from infringing those rights and therefore provide some sort of legal protection for the lowliest of his or her subjects. As such, the ‘Petition of Right’ is seen first and foremost as the successor of the ‘Magna Carta‘ of 1215, and secondly as the predecessor to the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Parliament’s failure to limit the power of the King in the decade that followed was to culminate in the First English Civil of 1642 to 1646. Following the Royalist defeat and the imprisonment of the King, however, Parliament itself was so ill equipped to deal with the grievances of a number of key elements within its Army Faction that an irreconcilable rift ensued, which would effectively result in the military coup d’etat generally known as Pride’s Purge.
On 29th May 1647 officers and men of the Parliamentary New Model Army had presented a document, now generally referred to as ‘The Solemn Engagement‘, to the House of Commons; following a threat from Parliament to disband its forces. The full title of the document first adopted on that date, which had been univerally accepted by the General Council of tne New Model Army, which was to all intents and purposes the main power in the land following the complete collapse of any organized Royalist command structure, was ‘A Solemne Engagement of the Army, under the Command of his Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax’. At its core the document’s contents basically consist of a list of grievances the New Model Army felt Parliament needed to address before it was willing to stand down. These included a considerable arrears of pay among many units which had not received regular payment for long periods of time whilst hostilities had been on going.
Following his initial capture by Parliamentary forces, Charles I had done as much as he could to exploit the various factions within the Parliamentary Movement to his advantage. And, his subsequent escape during a key series of debates between those prominent members of the Army Council, historically referred to as ‘The Grandees’, and members of the disaffected ‘Leveller Movement‘ from within the New Model Army’s lower ranks, had sparked a Second Civil War. This was to continue until January 1649 when Charles himself had been executed. And, it was the fact that Charles had so masterfully played off each opposing faction within the Parliamentary ranks against the other that had necessitated the events of December 6th 1648 in the first place. Indeed, it was the King’s open encouragement of the anarchy that had ensued in the aftermath of his own succesful escape from Hampton Court Palace, that was to result in the decision by the Army Council that all further negotiations between Charles and Parliament should cease; and that he should be committed for trial as ‘The Man of Blood‘.
The day began with Colonel Thomas Pride drawing up members of Pride’s celebrated Regiment of Foot directly outside the entrance to St Stephen’s Chapel as the House of Commons was about to convene for its morning sitting. Nathaniel Rich‘s Regiment of Horse were also present, as was Lord Grey of Groby, who helped to identify some of those who were to be subsequently arrested. In all some forty five Members were taken into custody by troops standing on or about the stairs leading to the House, while Pride himself was stationed at the top of the stairs, overseeing the exclusion of a further one hundred and eighty six, who the Army Council believed unlikely to support its measures for establishing a court to try Charles I for high treason; for his role in the incitement of the Second Civil War. The resignation in protest of another eighty six disaffected Members was to result in the ‘Rump’ of remaining Members unilaterally forcing this through on 6 January 1649, in spite of protests from the Upper House.
An interesting anecdote which is generally missed out by most contemporary historians, when recounting the events of 6th December 1648, is that following the Restoration of 1660, which had taken place some two years after Pride’s own death in 1658, the Colonel was among those whose bodies were ordered to be dug up and suspended on the gallows at Tyburn. Others who were intended to face a similar fate were Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and the Lord President of King Charles I’s trial hearing, John Bradshaw, who had passed sentence on the King. According to tradition, Pride’s corpse had become so badly decomposed that it was impossible for this posthumous mockery of an ‘execution’ to be carried out. These barbarous acts illustrate fully the despotic nature of the system of Monarchy that those elements within the Parliamentary Movement, such as the Levellers, who had been suppressed under the Commonwealth on account of the nature of their radicalism, had fought so hard to bring to an end.