The Act of Oblivion: Guest Post by Historian John Polsom-Jenkins

Charles II in exile. Philippe de Champaigne, 1653
By early 1660, England and Wales had been in a state of civil war since 1642 and engaged in intermittent related conflicts in Scotland and Ireland since 1638, to say nothing of foreign wars against the Dutch and increased colonial engagements. The success of Parliament against King Charles I had resulted in the traditional structure of England: its monarchy, government, courts, and national church, being dismantled and replaced with a series of experiments in republican government and more radically reformed religion. However, Parliament ultimately found itself unable to negotiate a political and religious settlement between the varied interests who had fought against the King, especially since a wide range of fanatical religious groups had developed during the unstructured years of war, some of them now espousing a radical social agenda, all of which was deeply threatening to those who still believed in a rigid social structure and unified national church.

Parliament eventually having felt compelled to put the King on trial and execute him for treason against his own people, and with his son in exile on the continent, the reins of government fell to the army and Oliver Cromwell in particular. In the 1650s, Cromwell succeeded in creating a sort of hereditary military dictatorship (the Protectorate), in which he fulfilled the role of king in all but name.  When the Protector passed on in 1658, his son, Richard, inherited his mantle but wore it unconvincingly and was persuaded to resign in April 1659. This left the army in charge of the country and it was George Monck who emerged as its foremost and most decisive general. Monck had been a royalist commander under Charles I before joining Parliament to lead its forces against the Irish. Once again, Monck demonstrated his preference for strong, stable government and, in March of 1660, began negotiating directly with Charles II (whose Scottish coronation had been moved as a result of Monck’s attacks) to secure his Restoration to the throne of England. Charles was restored by May.

By the time Charles returned to England, popular opinion had swung in his favor and the army was decidedly on his side, but ruling the country would be no easy task. The extravagant celebrations which accompanied Charles’ entrance into London on his 30th birthday, 29thMay, 1660, masked a country which had suffered years of bitter warfare and division. How to unite the Parliamentarian idealists, who had seen their hopes (in many cases for no less than bringing about heaven on Earth) dashed, with the Royalists, who had suffered military defeat, exile, and confiscation of their property, and who were now anxious for payback?

Charles II was canny enough to realize that for the country to heal, or even cease to tear itself apart, there would have to be plenty of forgiveness, not least from himself. Before he even set foot on English soil, the Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion, or Act of Oblivion as it is usually referred to, had been agreed on and passed by the interim Convention Parliament. The Act of Oblivion offered a general pardon towards the King’s disloyal subjects for anything they might have done in the regular passage of warfare or governance during the Civil War and tried to prevent the “late Differences” from being perpetuated further by instigating fines for factional name-calling for the following three years (£10 for gentlemen; 40 shillings for everyone else).

Although the Act of Oblivion and Charles’ Declaration made from exile in Breda both represented a genuine attempt at reconciliation in April 1660, they both left unsaid some uncompromising realities. Charles had many who had followed him into battle and exile at the expense of their families, estates, and fortunes and who now expected their loyalty to be repaid. However, the new King could ill-afford to reinforce divisions and push his former opponents back to rebellion. Indeed, his Restoration could not have happened without the support of former opponents in the army, especially Monck.

Further, there were limits to forgiveness. Those most personally offensive to the King, those regicides most directly involved in the trial and execution of his father, were excepted from the general pardon, the new regime famously even going to the length of exhuming the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, in order to give the corpses a traitor’s death. Of the forty-one surviving signatories to Charles I’s death warrant, only nine shared this fate with the unfortunate corpses along with four others regarded as contributing to the regicide (a preacher, Charles’ guards). Others were saved by family connections, excuses, or running into exile. Charles II needed to restrain himself from being too vindictive in order to preserve the peace, but it was also dangerous to allow those who had so blatantly challenged the divinely-appointed status of his family to rule to do so without consequence.

Perhaps the Act did do something towards consigning the divisions of the immediate past to oblivion, but new divisions developed from the old and Charles’ brother was deposed within five years of taking the throne.

For the verbose legalese of the Act in its entirety, see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp226-234

Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins
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