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Life in Cromwell's England

The years 1649 to 1660 were odd ones for English men and women. The king had gone, the Lords had gone, there was no proper Parliament and there was no Church of England. Daily life changed in quite dramatic ways.

Many of the English people's traditional amusements were banned by the Puritans. Bull-baiting and bear baiting pits were closed. In these pits, hungry dogs would be set to attack a chained bull or bear. Men of all classes, from the poorest street ruffian to noblemen, would bet on whether the bear or the dogs would triumph. The cock-pits, where hungry cockerels were set to fight each other, were also banned.

Theatres were destroyed and actors who continued to perform their plays risked being publicly whipped. The traditional maypoles (a pole with coloured ribbons around which village people danced) were pulled down. Religious festivals were abolished and at Christmas, for example, soldiers went around London, from house to house, pulling Christmas dinners out of families' ovens. This also happened on the last Wednesday of each month, which was a fast day. On such days, wrote one Londoner,

"not one of us, young or old, ate so much as a morsel of bread for twenty-four hours together".
(Quoted in "The Making of a Nation" A.J. Patrick.)

On Sundays the rules were even stricter. It was considered God's day and had to be devoted entirely to religion. All games and sports were banned. It was even illegal to go for a walk, except to attend a religious service in your own parish. Neither could you do any housework, again for fear of being fined or put in the stocks. The laws were difficult to enforce but good Puritans were encouraged to spy on their neighbours and denounce any un-Puritanical behaviour. They could then claim some of the fine as a reward.

There was a positive side to Cromwell's rule, however.

  • The law was reformed tp make justice cheaper and swifter.

  • New schools and universities were founded.

  • England's trade was encouraged and new colonies founded, even this meant war with Holland and Spain.

Although Cromwell had created a government which was efficient and totally lacking in corruption, by the time of his death in 1658, it was extremely unpopular. There were two main reasons for its unpopularity:
- It was extremely dull and boring
- It was too expensive. High taxes were imposed to maintain the standing (permanent) army.

Religion in the Commonwealth

Puritan church services were long; up to three hours. The congregation sat with their hats on, and sometimes people took notes. Sometimes the sermon was about a current problem and sometimes an extract from the Bible was discussed. For the first time there was freedom of religion. Even Jews could worship freely. In the end, despite Cromwell's wishes, the Church of England and Catholicism were banned, however. Any other form of worship was allowed though, and dozens of unusual sects flourished.

One sect was the Quakers. Often they went from church to church, interrupting with shouts any service they did not like. Quaker services themselves were odd. One witness wrote:

At their meetings, after a long silence sometimes one, and sometimes more (as at one time five together) fall into a great and dreadful shaking and trembling of their whole bodies and all their joints with such risings and swellings in their bellies and their bowels, together with such screechings, yellings, howlings and roarings, which doth not only amaze and affright the spectators but also cause the dogs to bark.
(Quoted in "The Making of a Nation" A.J.Patrick).

When they had worked themselves up to a frenzy they preached, believing their words came directly from God. they taught that any human being could communicate with God and that nobody was more important than anyone else. They were considered dangerous because they had no respect for rank, titles or governments.

One Quaker leader, William Penn, who later founded the Colony of Pennsylvania in America, shocked the King's Court after the Restoration (when Charles II returned to the throne) by standing with his hat on in the presence of the king.

The Quakers still exist today as the accepted and respected Society of Friends.

Other unusual sects included the Aposticals who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true and had to be obeyed. Some, therefore, climbed onto roof tops to preach; others left their families and wandered around the country, penniless, to preach. Then there were the Ranters who did not believe that sin existed and that everything, including wives, should be shared!

Cromwell's death

Unfinished portrait of Oliver Cromwell started just before his death

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (unfinished miniature) 1657.

The Protector continued to rule, alone and unpopular, until his death in 1658. Historians have argued ever since whether his nine years in power were positive or negative. Cromwell was buried with great pomp and ceremony but one observer, John Evelyn, observed that it was:

"... the joyfullest funeral that ever I saw, for there was none that cried but dogs, which soldiers hooted away with a barbarous noise, drinking and taking tobacco as they went."
(Quoted in "The Making of a Nation" A.J. Patrick.)

For a year Richard Cromwell ("Tumbledown Dick") tried to rule as Protector. He was not enthusiastic, however, and could not command the support of the army.

Finally, General George Monk, commander of the army in Scotland, rode south with his men to London. On the way he asked ordinary people what kind of government they wanted. There was only one answer: King and Parliament, as they had had before.

Charles II was invited back from exile in Holland, and with great enthusiasm was acclaimed king in London in May 1660.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.