Platinum Jubilee: the decade the UK was a republic instead of a monarchy

With all its pomp and circumstance, the British monarchy is one of the main symbols of the United Kingdom in the world. It is a global brand and is worth millions. Many millions.

This institution with more than a thousand years of history is considered one of the main sources of British “soft power” (ability to attract others).

The consulting firm Brand Finance estimated the brand value of the British monarchy for 2017 at around US$87,000 million, of which some US$32,869 million corresponded to the buildings and other assets of the Crown and the rest US$54 billion constituted the intangible value of the monarchythe economic benefits that it could generate for the United Kingdom in the future.

A YouGov survey conducted in mid-March in the United Kingdom reveals that 81% of those consulted had a positive image of Queen Elizabeth II, who this year celebrates her platinum jubilee on her 70th anniversary on the throne.

Due to its popularity and millenary history, it is difficult to imagine the United Kingdom without a monarchy, and yet there was a period in the 17th century in which the United Kingdom abolished the crown.

What happened?

A king who loses his head

In the 1640s a clash broke out in England between King Charles I and Parliament that led to a civil war.

British historian Blair Worden, who has written extensively on that time and spent most of his career teaching at Oxford University, points out that three separate crises came together in those circumstances.

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King Carlos I tried to emulate the absolutist monarchs of France and Spain.

“There was a constitutional crisis. Carlos I sought to become stronger, in the style of the absolutist monarchs of France and Spain, but at a time when he was in a weak position: he did not have enough money. He depended on the income of landlords, whose rents were not increasing. Furthermore, inflation was rising rapidly because there was a growing bureaucracy to pay.

“The Crown depended on Parliament to raise funds and when Parliament did not agree to it, the monarch tried to raise taxes without counting on Parliament, which produced a constitutional crisis“, explains Worden.

At the same time, there was a religious crisis over the monarch’s insistence on imposing Anglican practices on the Church in Scotland, something the Scots resisted and which led to the so-called ‘bishops’ wars’.

“The third is a British crisis, because the kings of England were also sovereigns of Scotland and Ireland. At the beginning of the 17th century, the English were taking land in Ireland, which generated a local revolt against them, in such a way that, around 1640, the political and religious crisis coincided with the crisis between England, Scotland and Ireland. Worden points out.

The civil war ended with a triumph of Parliament over Carlos I, although events would take a turn that no one had foreseen until then.

“In order to win the war, Parliament had to recruit an army that became very radical and revolutionary, and in 1649, as a result of the pressure of that force, the king was executed and the monarchy abolished. The House of Lords was also dissolved and deleted. They were things that no one had imagined in 1642, when the war began,” says Worden.

Execution of Charles I

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Carlos I was tried for treason against his people and sentenced to be beheaded.

The beheading of Charles I, moreover, was preceded by another absolutely unusual event: his trial and sentence to death on charges of “high treason” against his kingdom.

“This was a very new concept. Normally, people were prosecuted for treason because they had acted against the king and they invented the doctrine that it was the monarch who he had betrayed his subjectsWorden points out.

To ensure that the procedure proceeds according to its objectives, the army -led by Oliver Cromwell- is in charge of purging Parliament, forcibly preventing those of its members who do not agree with the trial and conviction of the monarch from participating in the process.

From kingdom to commonwealth

After the abolition of the monarchy, a new form of government called the Commonwealth of England was formed.

“Essentially it was what we would now know as a republic. There was a Council of State, elected by the members of Parliament, which exercised executive power with a rotating leadership. The collection of royal palaces was put up for sale, with the exception of a few that were kept for the Council of State, and the people of England were declared the sovereign power,” historian Anna Keay, author of the recently published book, tells BBC Mundo. The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown).

A reformist agenda was launched that included changes in the church, which became much more Protestant in its rituals. Furthermore, in that period The United Kingdom had the first written constitution in its history..

“There were a lot of changes in the way people lived their lives. Thus, for example, weddings were no longer held in churches, as they became secular events. And anyone who had fought on behalf of Carlos I during the civil war was prohibited from participating in the government of the country”, he points out.

This parliamentary government would last for about four years and, according to Blair Worden, was accused of being “as tyrannical” as the king had been, since it combined executive and legislative powers without any counterweight.

But the power would be concentrated even more from 1653 when, after a coup that would dissolve the Parliament, Oliver Cromwell stands as “Lord Protector” of the nation.

“It is as if Cromwell had half restored the monarchy. He is not called king. His powers are circumscribed, but it is a kind of return to the mandate of a single ruler with parliaments that are convened on a regular basis and that have their constitutional powers guaranteed. He doesn’t wear a crown, but he wants to have the power of a king. He wants to be able to exercise the power and get their policies enforced. But he is also worried about being accused of usurping, ”says Worden.

In his favour, Cromwell had the prestige he had accumulated as a military leader during the war against Charles I, as well as in subsequent wars in which he defeated pro-monarchy forces in Scotland and Ireland, incorporating these territories into the Commonwealth.

On the other hand, the statesman was a great defender of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, something that would remain as a legacy.

“It is a period of great debate and there is no government that can really control freedom of expression. There is a great expansion of printed publications: pamphlets, books, newspapers. It’s kind of an extraordinary experiment in theology, with religious groups arguing with each other and there’s a lot of debate about the principle of freedom of conscience,” explains Worden.

Richard Cromwell

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Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as Lord Protector, but was unable to retain power for long.

Cromwell dies in 1658 and, in his place, his son Richard is appointed as the new Lord Protector, but he fails to retain power and shortly after the monarchy is reinstated.

A revolution that no one wanted

When analyzing this period in which the United Kingdom did not have a monarchy, historians agree that one of the elements that led to its failure was the fact that, from the beginning, no one had had the intention of establishing a republic and that this , somehow, was installed by accident.

“They (who overthrew and tried Carlos I) wanted to punish the king, but they were not republicans in the current sense. They did not believe that the monarchy was bad. In principle, what they wanted was to have good monarchs who were controlled by the law and did not act arbitrarily, ”says Worden.

Anna Keay points out that, even after the monarch was executed, there was no consensus on what was going to be done and weeks passed until the abolition of the monarchy was decidedsomething that he assures was only possible because parliamentarians in favor of the king were prevented from voting on whether he should have been prosecuted and on what the new political regime should be.

Thus, the Commonwealth of England would be born from that act of force and wrapped in a lack of consensus in favor of the republic.

Worden points out that between 1649 and 1660 there is no government that has a broad base of support.

The republic fails because no one wanted it. It happened almost by accident. Those who abolished the monarchy were very divided among themselves and had no faith in the republic. So when the final stage of the protectorate is reached, the revolution collapses from within. They were deeply divided on religious issues and fought each other.

“Meanwhile, most of the population views them with rejection. The nation had tolerated Cromwell because under his command there had been peace, but once the army starts fighting each other in 1659 and 1660, public support for the regime disappears, ”says the expert.

1656 stamp commemorating Cromwell's protectorate.

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1656 stamp commemorating Cromwell’s protectorate.

Thus, in May 1660 Parliament agreed to restore the monarchy, after which he returned to the country and Carlos II, son of the late Carlos I, assumed power.

controversial legacy

As the figure of Oliver Cromwell himself, considered by some as a traitor and by others as a patriot, the republican stage of the United Kingdom generates controversy and conflicting opinions.

Blair Worden believes that the civil war that led to this period sowed the seeds of the current political polarization that characterizes that country.

“English politics is very antagonistic. You have a government, you have an opposition and they are supposed to hate each other. And that really goes back, I think, to the 17th century. It is there at the end of the 17th century, when we had the first two political parties, the Tory Party and the Whig Party, and they are the continuation of the Royalist Party and the Parliamentary Party in the civil wars”, he points out.

Anna Keay, for her part, affirms that although it was a constitutional failure, this stage left a “wonderful” legacy.

It was a period of immense energy, intellectual activity, and change.. Literacy increased tremendously. Newspapers began to be published and read on a regular basis. The idea that Parliament could be a sovereign body gained real prominence, as did the notion of religious toleration, which not only became a credible idea, but was practiced for a time.

“Scientific research also had a great boost, as new ideas were tested and there was a more open mind towards new ways of doing things,” says the historian.

Printed publication from 17th century England.

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Printed publications experienced a great boom during the years of the Commonwealth.

From a political point of view, Keay points out that the United Kingdom really emerged at that time, since once the Republican Army took control of Ireland and Scotland, they were politically united with England for the first time.

“So, although the political structures did not last, the changes that were possible due to the turmoil and radicalism of this period would become very important in the development of the British Isles in the decades and centuries that followed“, it states.

It highlights that although the reign of Carlos II meant the restoration of the monarchy in terms very similar to those of Carlos I, in 1688 there were a series of political changes that really transformed the regime by establishing the king’s obligation to consult with Parliament, as well as the convocation of that legislative power at least once every three years. In addition, the need to legally enforce religious tolerance and freedom of the press was established.

“That way, a generation after the restoration of the monarchy, great changes that were a kind of legacy of the republican years would come into force and change the monarchy to make it, in essence, a constitutional monarchy,” concludes Keay.

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