Restoration of the Monarchy - restored an Absolutist state?

"A Thoroughgoing Restoration of all the Essentials of an Absolutist State". Discuss the validity of this judgement upon the Restoration Settlement.
After two decades of instability and strife, the English hoped to find the solutions to both in the ancient institution of the monarchy. When he came back to England to be restored as King, Charles II was so impressed by the weight of public feeling in favour of the restoration that he felt a fool for staying away so long. Indeed, especially coming after 20 years of civil war and revolutionary government, the speed and relative ease of the restoration surprised many contemporaries, and some even talked of supernatural forces at work in bringing the monarchy back. However, a more plausible reason is that England’s political order was collapsing and breaking apart by this time, and many politicians saw the need for restoring the monarchy to re-establish order and effective government. The direction of events had also been influenced by the work of many royalists, in England and in the exiled Court.

The End of the Republic was signalled on the death of Oliver Cromwell on 3 September 1658. That the Republican system of government had come to rest so heavily on one man perhaps showed the desire for stability and even monarchical government. Indeed, in the year before his death Cromwell was even urged by supporters to take the crown himself. However, he still ruled effectively, building a balanced administration with people drawn from different sides of the Republican movement and also from outside it. After his death his son Richard took over but, lacking his father’s political sense, he could not hold the position and fell after less than a year. The Rump parliament and the army took turns in trying to keep control of the situation, but without Cromwell they had become weak, divided and exhausted.

The increasing royalism in the country was shown in the election of more than 100 known Cavaliers to the Convention, which assembled to sort the constitutional situation out, much to the dismay of Presbyterian politicians who still hoped to be able to severely limit Charles’ power. The Convention took only a week to decide that a restoration of the monarchy was the only way to ensure stability. It was greatly helped in this decision by Charles’ Declaration of Breda, which reasserted Charles’ divine right to rule "by the laws of God and man" and stated how he intended to rule. This set the agenda as it gave the Convention something to base their deliberations on. It greatly reassured many people and doubtless eased Charles’ path to restoration by its comments on the three major problems of the time : amnesty for Republicans, the land question, and religion. On all these he gave his own rather reassuring views while leaving the details to parliament, therefore passing on potentially controversial and divisive problems while appearing to make good his promise to rule with Parliament.

The Restoration brought a re-establishment of the old social order as well as the King. The aristocratic landed elite had been badly shaken by the years of Republican rule, when the old deferential social order seemed to be breaking down and ancient privileges became ignored. When Charles came to power, he returned the old system of the landed families having their traditional roles in local government - the crown once again relying on the leading men of the counties. The extent to which they had fallen from both power and privilege during the Interregnum helps explain why they, represented as they were in Parliament were, were anxious to build up the King’s power, to prevent it happening again.

The elite, who dominated parliament, formed the settlement with the aim in mind of reasserting what they saw as the traditional balance of the constitution. One of the reasons that Charles was accepted back so readily and with so few limitations on his power is the popular view of monarchy as a system of government that had grown up, especially among the landed classes. The King was to be able to rule, choosing his own ministers and advisers, forming domestic and foreign policy, dispensing justice, protecting his people from revolt and attack and defending the established church and Christian morality. At the same time, he was to be restricted by laws preventing him from abusing his position - he was not to be able to make laws or levy taxes without consent. It was felt that if kept in these limits Monarchy would be the best form of government, being rational and avoiding the disorder of the years without a monarch.

However, although this system of limited monarchy was the intention of the men in Parliament who decided on the terms of the restoration the restrictions on the monarch that were essential to it were in general of a moral rather than a legal nature, and many remembered that Charles I had shown that if a monarch wanted to push back the limits of his power neither the courts nor the Parliament could easily stop him, and this must have been on many minds as they decided on the exact form of the restoration. Yet, Charles I operated in a very different situation. He had alternative sources of income if Parliament should deny him money, which his son simply did not have. In any case, the upheavals of the 1640’s and 1650’s were great severe enough, especially on the nobility, to make the need for strong monarchy seem more important that fears of monarchy originating from the fading memory of Charles I, and the royalist upsurge this created restored many privileges to the King, and also led to a re-assertion of belief in divine right by many people. Indeed, it was true that discussion about the basis for government, which had been so intense in the 1640’s, virtually stopped in the reign of Charles II - people still questioned him on specific issues but rarely on the foundations of his authority.

I have just mentioned that Charles I enjoyed much independence because of the alternative sources of income he had aside from grants from Parliament, and this may have been in the minds of the members of the Convention when they drew the limits of Charles II’s finance, as it was this that held Charles back from exercising power approaching that of an autocrat , at least for the first part of his reign. It had been the intention of the MPs at the Convention to make a financial settlement generous enough to cover the expenses of the crown, but the eventual settlement was not sufficient. This was because the fear of the king becoming more independent, but more importantly modern finance was simply not understood by most of the MPs. As a result even the grant for paying the arrears of the army and navy was about £375,000 short of what was needed, and it did not provide the £1.2 million per year it is estimated would be needed for royal expenditure. This can be excused to an extent though as it was not thought the standing army would be retained, and so expenditure was higher than anticipated, though it is also true Parliament did not want to maintain the high levels of tax the 1650’s had seen. However, the result of these financial inadequacies in the Settlement meant the power of Charles to rule independently of Parliament was severely restricted - as it was he had debts of £1.25 million by 1664. Later his position would be improved by grants from Louis of France and increases in revenue from trade, but at the time of the Restoration he was very dependant of Parliament for money.

Another factor preventing Charles from having the financial and political independence to become more of an unlimited monarch was his personal lifestyle, which involved great extravagance. For a start, his mistresses and bastards (of which 14 were acknowledged) had to be paid for, and the lavish and expensive nature of his lifestyle meant it was hard for ministers to persuade parliament to provide more money for him. However, even without the nature of his lifestyle he would have had financial problems.

The Restoration Settlement was a complicated mix of expectations and relief, anticipating a return of the "Good Old Days" which people saw as having existed before the 1640’s, of great freedom and power, and of both practical and moral limits to Charles’ power, and so it is difficult to discern from all this whether it did restore the essentials of an absolutist state. The years of the Republic do not seem to have left an instinctive fear of the powers of monarchy, but rather the reverse, as the legislation of 1660 and following years was deliberate in restoring the monarchy to the constitutional position it had occupied in the years before the revolution. The Militia Acts for example gave the King sole control of the militia, and the Revolution Act of 1661 laid down severe penalties for anyone claiming that Parliament could rule without the King. Other acts such as those in favour of "tumultuous petitioning" and in favour of censorship showed the great reaction in favour of the crown at that time. The position that Charles inherited was very powerful - he could dissolve and call parliament, could veto legislation, could make foreign policy.

However, he was limited in becoming an absolutist monarch by both his personal lifestyle and style of rule, and also the financial position he was in. The shortage of money in his reign meant he was dependant on Parliament, and this was a major obstacle to him being independent. What we know of his personality suggests that his preference of frivolity and license as opposed to the tedium of day-to-day politics was detriment to good relations with parliament and effective running of government by himself. However, in the end, the position he inherited had the makings of an absolutist state. The financial restrictions upon him would always be a very great obstacle but even Charles, by the end of his reign, had shown there were ways past these. Those who framed the Restoration Settlement had been largely badly treated by the years of the Republic and uppermost in their mind was keeping the monarchy strong. They had very definite ideas of the boundaries within which the monarchy should operate and the constitutional balance of the Settlement would be lost if he chose to ignore those boundaries, but they were more moral than constitutional, and a determined, strong and concentrated King could have taken advantage of the pro-royalist backlash against the years of the Interregnum and what it stood for to become, in effect, an absolute monarch. Charles II did not have such a character and perhaps not the necessary ambition either, and this was perhaps the most important reason why the restoration Settlement did not restore an absolutist state to power, but rather a state where Parliament and King shared authority.



Bibliography

Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: A History of England 1603-1714, , Longman, 1980

John Miller, Restoration England: The Reign of Charles II, Longman, 1985

Robert M Bliss, Restoration England 1660-1688,

Geoffrey Holmes, The Making of a Great Power: Late Stuart and early Georgian Britain, Longman, 1993
After two decades of instability and strife, the English hoped to find the solutions to both in the ancient institution of the monarchy. When he came back to England to be restored as King, Charles II was so impressed by the weight of public feeling in favour of the restoration that he felt a fool for staying away so long. Indeed, especially coming after 20 years of civil war and revolutionary government, the speed and relative ease of the restoration surprised many contemporaries, and some even talked of supernatural forces at work in bringing the monarchy back. However, a more plausible reason is that England’s political order was collapsing and breaking apart by this time, and many politicians saw the need for restoring the monarchy to re-establish order and effective government. The direction of events had also been influenced by the work of many royalists, in England and in the exiled Court.

The End of the Republic was signalled on the death of Oliver Cromwell on 3 September 1658. That the Republican system of government had come to rest so heavily on one man perhaps showed the desire for stability and even monarchical government. Indeed, in the year before his death Cromwell was even urged by supporters to take the crown himself. However, he still ruled effectively, building a balanced administration with people drawn from different sides of the Republican movement and also from outside it. After his death his son Richard took over but, lacking his father’s political sense, he could not hold the position and fell after less than a year. The Rump parliament and the army took turns in trying to keep control of the situation, but without Cromwell they had become weak, divided and exhausted.

The increasing royalism in the country was shown in the election of more than 100 known Cavaliers to the Convention, which assembled to sort the constitutional situation out, much to the dismay of Presbyterian politicians who still hoped to be able to severely limit Charles’ power. The Convention took only a week to decide that a restoration of the monarchy was the only way to ensure stability. It was greatly helped in this decision by Charles’ Declaration of Breda, which reasserted Charles’ divine right to rule "by the laws of God and man" and stated how he intended to rule. This set the agenda as it gave the Convention something to base their deliberations on. It greatly reassured many people and doubtless eased Charles’ path to restoration by its comments on the three major problems of the time : amnesty for Republicans, the land question, and religion. On all these he gave his own rather reassuring views while leaving the details to parliament, therefore passing on potentially controversial and divisive problems while appearing to make good his promise to rule with Parliament.

The Restoration brought a re-establishment of the old social order as well as the King. The aristocratic landed elite had been badly shaken by the years of Republican rule, when the old deferential social order seemed to be breaking down and ancient privileges became ignored. When Charles came to power, he returned the old system of the landed families having their traditional roles in local government - the crown once again relying on the leading men of the counties. The extent to which they had fallen from both power and privilege during the Interregnum helps explain why they, represented as they were in Parliament were, were anxious to build up the King’s power, to prevent it happening again.

The elite, who dominated parliament, formed the settlement with the aim in mind of reasserting what they saw as the traditional balance of the constitution. One of the reasons that Charles was accepted back so readily and with so few limitations on his power is the popular view of monarchy as a system of government that had grown up, especially among the landed classes. The King was to be able to rule, choosing his own ministers and advisers, forming domestic and foreign policy, dispensing justice, protecting his people from revolt and attack and defending the established church and Christian morality. At the same time, he was to be restricted by laws preventing him from abusing his position - he was not to be able to make laws or levy taxes without consent. It was felt that if kept in these limits Monarchy would be the best form of government, being rational and avoiding the disorder of the years without a monarch.

However, although this system of limited monarchy was the intention of the men in Parliament who decided on the terms of the restoration the restrictions on the monarch that were essential to it were in general of a moral rather than a legal nature, and many remembered that Charles I had shown that if a monarch wanted to push back the limits of his power neither the courts nor the Parliament could easily stop him, and this must have been on many minds as they decided on the exact form of the restoration. Yet, Charles I operated in a very different situation. He had alternative sources of income if Parliament should deny him money, which his son simply did not have. In any case, the upheavals of the 1640’s and 1650’s were great severe enough, especially on the nobility, to make the need for strong monarchy seem more important that fears of monarchy originating from the fading memory of Charles I, and the royalist upsurge this created restored many privileges to the King, and also led to a re-assertion of belief in divine right by many people. Indeed, it was true that discussion about the basis for government, which had been so intense in the 1640’s, virtually stopped in the reign of Charles II - people still questioned him on specific issues but rarely on the foundations of his authority.

I have just mentioned that Charles I enjoyed much independence because of the alternative sources of income he had aside from grants from Parliament, and this may have been in the minds of the members of the Convention when they drew the limits of Charles II’s finance, as it was this that held Charles back from exercising power approaching that of an autocrat , at least for the first part of his reign. It had been the intention of the MPs at the Convention to make a financial settlement generous enough to cover the expenses of the crown, but the eventual settlement was not sufficient. This was because the fear of the king becoming more independent, but more importantly modern finance was simply not understood by most of the MPs. As a result even the grant for paying the arrears of the army and navy was about £375,000 short of what was needed, and it did not provide the £1.2 million per year it is estimated would be needed for royal expenditure. This can be excused to an extent though as it was not thought the standing army would be retained, and so expenditure was higher than anticipated, though it is also true Parliament did not want to maintain the high levels of tax the 1650’s had seen. However, the result of these financial inadequacies in the Settlement meant the power of Charles to rule independently of Parliament was severely restricted - as it was he had debts of £1.25 million by 1664. Later his position would be improved by grants from Louis of France and increases in revenue from trade, but at the time of the Restoration he was very dependant of Parliament for money.

Another factor preventing Charles from having the financial and political independence to become more of an unlimited monarch was his personal lifestyle, which involved great extravagance. For a start, his mistresses and bastards (of which 14 were acknowledged) had to be paid for, and the lavish and expensive nature of his lifestyle meant it was hard for ministers to persuade parliament to provide more money for him. However, even without the nature of his lifestyle he would have had financial problems.

The Restoration Settlement was a complicated mix of expectations and relief, anticipating a return of the "Good Old Days" which people saw as having existed before the 1640’s, of great freedom and power, and of both practical and moral limits to Charles’ power, and so it is difficult to discern from all this whether it did restore the essentials of an absolutist state. The years of the Republic do not seem to have left an instinctive fear of the powers of monarchy, but rather the reverse, as the legislation of 1660 and following years was deliberate in restoring the monarchy to the constitutional position it had occupied in the years before the revolution. The Militia Acts for example gave the King sole control of the militia, and the Revolution Act of 1661 laid down severe penalties for anyone claiming that Parliament could rule without the King. Other acts such as those in favour of "tumultuous petitioning" and in favour of censorship showed the great reaction in favour of the crown at that time. The position that Charles inherited was very powerful - he could dissolve and call parliament, could veto legislation, could make foreign policy.

However, he was limited in becoming an absolutist monarch by both his personal lifestyle and style of rule, and also the financial position he was in. The shortage of money in his reign meant he was dependant on Parliament, and this was a major obstacle to him being independent. What we know of his personality suggests that his preference of frivolity and license as opposed to the tedium of day-to-day politics was detriment to good relations with parliament and effective running of government by himself. However, in the end, the position he inherited had the makings of an absolutist state. The financial restrictions upon him would always be a very great obstacle but even Charles, by the end of his reign, had shown there were ways past these. Those who framed the Restoration Settlement had been largely badly treated by the years of the Republic and uppermost in their mind was keeping the monarchy strong. They had very definite ideas of the boundaries within which the monarchy should operate and the constitutional balance of the Settlement would be lost if he chose to ignore those boundaries, but they were more moral than constitutional, and a determined, strong and concentrated King could have taken advantage of the pro-royalist backlash against the years of the Interregnum and what it stood for to become, in effect, an absolute monarch. Charles II did not have such a character and perhaps not the necessary ambition either, and this was perhaps the most important reason why the restoration Settlement did not restore an absolutist state to power, but rather a state where Parliament and King shared authority.



Bibliography

Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: A History of England 1603-1714, , Longman, 1980

John Miller, Restoration England: The Reign of Charles II, Longman, 1985

Robert M Bliss, Restoration England 1660-1688,

Geoffrey Holmes, The Making of a Great Power: Late Stuart and early Georgian Britain, Longman, 1993

1 comment:

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