Christmas is cancelled!

What were Cromwell’s main political and religious aims for the Commonwealth 1650-1660?

On 30 January 1649 Charles I the King of England was executed. Since 1642 civil war had raged in England, Scotland and Ireland and men on opposite sides (Royalists and Parliamentarians) fought in battles and sieges that claimed the lives of many. Charles I was viewed by some to be the man responsible for the bloodshed and therefore could not be trusted on the throne any longer. A trial resulted in a guilty verdict and he was executed outside Banqueting House in Whitehall. During the wars Oliver Cromwell had risen amongst Army ranks and he led the successful New Model Army which had helped to secure Parliament’s eventual victory. Cromwell also achieved widespread political influence and was a high profile supporter of the trial and execution of the King.

After the King’s execution England remained politically instable. For example, Charles I’s son joined with the Scots in a failed attempt to recapture the throne at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The Parliament then in power was known as the ‘Rump Parliament’ because it was made up of men who had been elected in 1640 (‘The Long Parliament’) but now only contained those who had been allowed to stay after a purge of Parliament in 1648 by the Army. Over the course of the war the leaders of the Army were increasingly radicalised and soon became impatient with the inactivity of this parliament. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell forcibly removed ‘The Rump’ from power and replaced it with a new group called the Nominated Assembly (also known as ‘Barebone’s Parliament’ or the ‘Parliament of Saints’). This was religiously motivated and designed to put in government those who would push forward religious reform in line with Puritan ideas. These men were unelected, and despite initial feelings of optimism, the experiment failed and lasted less than six months.

A new constitution was proposed: an elected governor known as The Lord Protector who would rule with the assistance of a Council of State. In December 1653 Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector and he moved into the former residence of Charles I at Whitehall Palace. The regime gradually gained more of the trappings of monarchy and there were those who thought Cromwell should be offered the crown in order to promote stability and peace. Cromwell refused to be made King but when he was re-installed as Lord Protector in 1657 his ceremony was reminiscent of a traditional coronation. He also named his heir and successor: his son Richard Cromwell.

In September 1658 Oliver Cromwell died and the government was thrown into turmoil. His elected successor Richard came into power but his reign was fraught with difficulties and in less than a year he resigned as Lord Protector. The ‘Rump Parliament’ was reinstated but soon there were calls for the original members, who had been expelled by the Army in 1648, to be reinstated. In February 1660 these men were allowed to return and so the original ‘Long Parliament’ (elected in 1640) once again sat in Westminster and was now known as the Convention Parliament.  In May 1660 this Parliament declared Charles II to have been King since the execution of Charles I and invited him to return to England to take up the throne.

The decade between the execution of Charles I and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was a turbulent period in British history. There were many in the country who wanted to see reforms in religion to make it more Puritan and less like the Catholic Church. However, some groups of people took these ideas further and formed radical groups such as the Quakers who were seen by many as a threat to the regime. There were also political differences over how the country should be governed and whether Cromwell should rule as a monarch rather than as Lord Protector. Finally, despite the end of the civil wars, warfare continued. Parliament embarked on a series of wars with the Dutch Republic over trade and Cromwell went on campaigns in Scotland and Ireland to try to establish the Commonwealth and subdue opposition.

This resource contains original sources written by people who observed and reported on these events. Their accounts contain clues about Cromwell’s main aims during this period, as well as the difficulties that he came up against trying to implement them.


History Hook – Starter Activity

Report of Sir Henry Mildmay to the Council of State, 15 December 1650

  1. What is the attitude of author of this report towards the celebration of Christmas Day? Can you explain his views?
  2. What does this report reveal about popular attitudes towards the celebration of Christmas? How would you explain them?

Extract from a letter to Secretary Nicholas, September 1650

  1. What does this letter suggest about the success of Cromwell’s armies in Scotland and Ireland?

Letter to the Admiralty Committee, May 1652

  1. How did the keelmen feel towards naval service? How might you explain this?
  2. How did they try to avoid being put on board ships?

Extract from a letter to Secretary Nicholas, March 1655

  1. What purpose would Cromwell and the Major Generals have had for punishing those who had fought for the King by taking away their estates?
  2. Do you think that the writer of this letter supported the rule of the Major Generals? Explain your answer.

Extract from a letter to Secretary Nicholas, March 1655

  1. According to this letter, do you think the men who went to sea for the Western Design supported Cromwell?
  2. What is going to happen to “2,000 young women of England”?
  3. The author writes that these women had “lent the rebellious State” their “silver thimbles and bodkins” because many women gave their family silver to the Parliamentarian war effort in the 1640s. What do you think the writer of this letter thought of that?

Letter to the Admiralty at Whitehall, April 1655

  1. What does this source tell us about the way in which Penruddock was dealt with by the government following his failed uprising?
  2. What reasons do you think Penruddock would have had to rise up in rebellion against the government?
  3. What does this source reveal about the judicial system during the Commonwealth?

Extract from letter with news from Charles II in exile, January 1657

  1. What do you think the writer meant by the phrase “that would have sent the Protector to heaven in a fiery chariot”.
  2. What might have been the causes of these plots and treasons in Cromwell’s England?

Extract from letter with news about the coronation of Cromwell, March 1657

  1. What might the reasons have been for people wanting Cromwell to become King of England?
  2. What might the reasons have been for people not wanting Cromwell to becoming King of England?

Letter to Secretary Nicholas about the restoration of the monarchy, March 1660

  1. Does this letter suggest that people in the country at large were pleased that England would have a King again? What tells you this?
  2. Is there any reason to doubt if this letter is a complete picture of the opinions of ordinary people in 1660?

Teachers' notes

This lesson has a video starter activity based on one of our documents to ‘hook’ students into the lesson tasks that follow.

This lesson could be used as part of a teaching programme for any of the thematic studies for the GCSE history courses relating to the study of Warfare and British society or Power and Authority. The documents provided here give some insight into aspects of domestic and foreign policy during the Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell when England was a republic. The sources for example reveal the impact of puritan beliefs on the celebration of Christmas, the nature of martial law, Cromwell’s treatment of royalist supporters, his foreign policy and its effects at home. Other documents provide evidence of Charles II’s court in exile and some detail surrounding the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

We hope that these records will offer students a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis. Teachers may also wish to use the sources to develop their own lessons in a different way or combine with them other sources available from our Civil War website which has a whole section devoted to Oliver Cromwell based on extracts of his speeches and letters and sources from others writing about him.

All sources in this lesson have been provided with a transcript (modernised in some cases) and more difficult language has been explained in square brackets to support students. Obvious differences in the spelling have not been altered. Each source is captioned and dated to provide a sense of what the document is about. All document images and can be downloaded as a pdf file for educational purposes.

Please note that some of the letters in this lesson were written to or from somebody called ‘Secretary Nicholas’. He was Secretary of State for Charles II, son of the executed Charles I. ‘Secretary Nicholas’ was living in exile in Europe and he kept in regular contact with people in England to keep informed about what was happening and the likelihood of Charles II returning to the throne.  Therefore teachers could by way of extension ask their students to:

  • Re-look at the letters and identify which ones were to or from ‘Secretary Nicholas’.
  • Consider if this might affect the accuracy of the information contained within the letters and/or if they might alter any of their answers to the questions.
  • Consider why some of these letters are now included in government papers.
  • Take a look at the Great Seal of Elizabeth I and compare her seal to that of Cromwell and Charles I shown in the History Hook video.

Finally, all of the letters used in this lesson were written to inform their readers about England in the 1650s. Some were written by people loyal to Cromwell and others written by Royalists, were not. Thus, students could also write their own letter using the sources:

  • Imagine you are living in England in the 1650s and have a friend living abroad who wants to know what life was like. Use the sources in this activity to compile your own account.
  • Decide if you want to support Cromwell and his regime or the exiled King Charles II and try to make your report persuasive.

Connections to the curriculum

Key stage 3

The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745

Key stage 4

AQA GCSE History (8145)

Thematic study 2B Britain: Power and the People c1170 to the present day, part two: Challenging royal authority: the short and long term impact of the English Revolution including the significance of trial and execution of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth.

Edexcel GCSE History (9-1)

Unit: Warfare and British Society, c1250-present, option 12, Warfare and English Society in the Early Modern Period: the experience of war.


History A, Explaining the Modern World (J410). Unit: War and British Society c.790-2010: Charles I’s personal rule 1629–1640; the Civil Wars and the abolition of the monarchy; the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.


External links

Oliver Cromwell: his life, legacy and significance

Professor John Morrill considers why Oliver Cromwell remains one of the country’s most controversial public figures


Source 1: Report of Sir Henry Mildmay to the Council of State, 15 December 1650 (SP 25/15 pp. 54-55)

Source 2: Extract from a letter from Sir George Radcliffe to [Secretary Nicholas], 2 September 1650 (SP 18/11 f2)

Source 3: Letter George Dawson to the Admiralty Committee, 12 May 1652 (SP 18/36, ff. 79-80)

Source 4:  Extract from a letter [Secretary Nicholas] to Jos. Jane, 4 March 1655 (SP 18/125, ff. 9-11)

Source 5: Extract from a letter [Secretary Nicholas] to Jos. Jane, 4 March 1655  (SP 18/125, ff. 9-11)

Source 6: Letter from Captain Henry Hatsell to Colonel Jno. Clarke, Admiralty Chamber, Whitehall, 18 April 1655 (SP 18/96 f. 78)

Source 7: Extract from letter to Charles Perrott to Jos. Williamson, Saumur, 25 January 1657 (SP 18/153, ff. 97-98)

Source 8: Extract from letter from Charles Perrott to Williamson, 6 March 1657 (SP 18/154, f. 25)

Source 9: Letter from William Downeman alias Mr. Mills to Thomas Betts [alias Sec. Nicholas] 16 March, 1660 ‘Flanders Correspondence’ (SP 77/33 ff. 31-33)

Back to top

Related resources

Women and the English Civil Wars

How did these conflicts affect their lives?

The Great Seal

What can it tell us?