Behind the Republic

Inventing a Republic
April 17, 1998

Conservatism at its most radical." In this, his first book, Sean Kelsey announces his aim of salvaging the reputation of the parliamentary republic that governed England from the execution of King Charles I in 1649 until 1653. Thus his target - set out on the opening page - is "the conventional wisdom" that depicts the Rump Parliament as dilatory, time-serving, corrupt and ineffectual. In fact, such an opening is largely a rhetorical flourish since 23 years ago Blair Worden very largely did this particular job for him. There might still be a residual task of breaking loose from the historical mould that has Oliver Cromwell as the hero occupying centre stage and the New Model Army as a congregation of saints, but essentially the originality of Kelsey's book lies elsewhere. He is chiefly concerned with the initiatives seized by the Rump to create and buttress a new, and in the event, short-lived experiment in civilian government.

Convinced republicans might have been few in 1649 but Kelsey makes much of the pride they took in launching and upholding the new regime. He depicts not only their actions but the institutions that they revised or created, the political vocabulary and iconography they adopted, the spectacle that was carefully devised, and the code of honour that underpinned the republican system. This is primarily a study not of politics but of political self-fashioning and of political culture.

The appropriation of the former royal palace of Whitehall is discussed at some length as a deliberate device "to supplant and outshine the Stuarts". So is the republic's cultivation of ceremony and pageantry, "a collective political self-consciousness which stood in the place of regal pomp"?

Kelsey also examines the republican icons that replaced those of the abolished monarchy - its great seals, coinage, the Commonwealth coat of arms and the proliferation of Parliamentarian portraits. New ground was broken by the Commonwealth in other respects - significantly different methods of record keeping and new conventions of dating documents were introduced.

Though ultimately there was no hope of completely annihilating the image of the monarchy, the republic did all it could to achieve this result. The Commonwealth refashioned "the gravity and dignity of traditional forms". As others have frequently observed, some use was made in this achievement of the republican ideology of classical Greece and Rome. Ultimately, however, as Kelsey rightly insists, what emerged in England in the early 1650s in both language and forms was an unmistakably "vernacular republicanism" in which familiar domestic motifs were aggressively brandished.

The most controversial aspect of the Rump Parliament, as previous historians of the subject such as Worden and Ronald Hutton have recognised, is its forcible dismissal by Cromwell in 1653. Kelsey's view, elaborated in his sometimes awkwardly integrated final chapter, is that the "Rump had not done too little - it had gone too far". Civilian authority had been firmly established and the country had become acclimatised to the novelty of republican rule. The forms and practice of government had creatively blended tradition and constitutional experiment. "By endowing the whole panoply of parliamentary rule with the dignity of executive authority, the Rump had put as much distance as possible between itself and the moment of its inception". The dissolution of the Rump, Kelsey argues, was not on account of its shortcomings but was deemed necessary to prevent Cromwell's relegation to employee status.

Kelsey's sources are wide ranging and he draws heavily on the physical evidence of buildings, artifacts, portraits and prints, although the rather poorly reproduced illustrations in the book do scant justice to this dimension of the author's efforts. However, he seems most at home with written documents such as the journal of Lodewijck Huygens, the outpourings of political journalists, and the carefully contrived effects and fictions of the diarist Bulstrode Whitelocke. There are some repetitions in the treatment, and counter-evidence that points in a different direction from that in which the author is heading, tends to get played down. The writer's style, just occasionally too rhetorical, is lively and effective. Inventing a Republic justifies its inclusion in a new series dedicated to exploring the interactions between early modern politics, culture and society, and in its exposed position as the opening volume whets the appetite for the projected volumes to follow.

R. C. Richardson is head of history, King Alfred's University College, Winchester.

Inventing a Republic: The Political Culture of the English Commonwealth, 1649-1653

Author - Sean Kelsey
ISBN - 0 7190 5057 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 242

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