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Protectoral council (act. 1653–1659) was a small, permanent, and powerful executive body, sometimes called by contemporaries and later historians the council of state or the privy council, which operated throughout the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard Cromwell, from 16 December 1653 until spring 1659, and whose members were appointed under, and empowered by, the written constitutions of the period. The ‘Instrument of government’ of December 1653, which set up the protectoral system, re-established an executive arm of government, separate from elected protectoral parliaments possessing legislative power. It was to comprise Cromwell, as lord protector, acting in conjunction with an executive and supervisory council of between thirteen and twenty-one members, most of whose founder members were named in the constitution. The ‘Humble petition and advice’ of June 1657 slightly reduced the council's role, though the basic structure of government was unchanged, and it provided for a permanent executive council of up to twenty-one members to be selected by the lord protector (Richard Cromwell from 3 September 1658). In practice, changes in the membership of the council during the five and a half years of the protectorate were modest and just twenty men served for part or all of that period.


Fourteen founder members of the protectoral council were named in the ‘Instrument’ in mid-December 1653—Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper (later first earl of Shaftesbury), John Disbrowe, Charles Fleetwood, Philip Jones, John Lambert, Henry Lawrence, Richard Major, Edward Montagu (later first earl of Sandwich), Sir Gilbert Pickering, Francis Rous, Philip Sidney (later third earl of Leicester), Walter Strickland, William Sydenham, and Sir Charles Wolseley—with a fifteenth member, Philip Skippon, added later in the month and before the text of the constitution was officially published at the beginning of January 1654. They were a mixed bunch. In age they ranged from twenty-three (Wolseley) to seventy-three (Rous, the only councillor with pre-1640 parliamentary experience), with two in their twenties, five in their thirties, four in their forties, three in their fifties and one in his seventies upon appointment. Their geographical origins and links were equally diverse, ranging from the south-west (Rous) to Yorkshire (Strickland and Lambert), from Kent (Sidney) to south Wales (Jones), but while many councillors had links with East Anglia and the east midlands (Disbrowe, Fleetwood, Lawrence, Montagu, Pickering, and Skippon), none came from the far north, the north-west or the west midlands. In terms of religion and faith, all of course were protestants, but of very different complexions and degrees, starkly revealed in December 1656 by the very different lines they took in parliament when James Nayler's allegedly blasphemous offences and punishment were debated. Lambert's critics often sneered that his faith was shallow, bordering on atheism, Montagu later shocked Samuel Pepys with his sceptical utterances, and Pickering reportedly ran through a range of beliefs during the 1640s and 1650s. Conversely, Lawrence, Rous, Skippon, and, later, Wolseley published religious works reflecting their own profound beliefs and the surviving letters of several other councillors point to deep and radical faiths, notably those of Fleetwood and Lawrence, who strongly supported liberty of conscience and were sympathetic to Baptist beliefs.

On the other hand certain characteristics were common to most or all of the fifteen founder members. All came from the upper end of the social scale and even Skippon, reputedly a waggoner in his youth, was born into a minor gentry family. By 1653 all had added to their inheritances with the ease of those who had emerged on the winning side in a civil war. At least eleven of the fifteen had attended Oxford or Cambridge universities and at least ten had studied at one of the inns of court. Three (Ashley Cooper, Pickering, and Wolseley) were baronets by 1653 and Sidney, son and heir of the earl of Leicester, held the courtesy title of Viscount Lisle. After the Restoration three (Ashley Cooper, Montagu, and Sidney) entered the peerage through inheritance or creation. Another common factor was that many, though not all, had existing personal links with Oliver Cromwell. Disbrowe was his brother-in-law and Fleetwood his son-in-law, Major was father-in-law to his son Richard, Jones had worked with him in south Wales and was a friend, and Lawrence had been his landlord in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, in the early 1630s; through the latter, personal links may have been made with Pickering, who was Lawrence's cousin, and on to Montagu, who was Pickering's brother-in-law. Although their political backgrounds varied, with Wolseley coming from an actively royalist family and Ashley Cooper initially fighting for the king in his native Dorset, most had a solid record of supporting the parliamentary cause in the 1640s. Disbrowe, Fleetwood, Lambert, and Skippon were senior army officers with experience of national campaigning, while Ashley Cooper (after coming over to parliament in 1644), Jones, Montagu, and Sydenham had more limited experience of regional campaigning or garrison command; Sidney had also shown parliamentary sympathies when he campaigned in Ireland in the early 1640s. Of those with no real military experience, Lawrence, Major, Pickering, Rous, and Strickland had given political or administrative support to the parliamentary cause in the 1640s, either at a county level or in parliament.

With a shared political moderation—none had signed the death warrant for Charles I—their paths converged during the early 1650s. Seven of the fifteen sat in the Rump Parliament (1648–53) and six served alongside Oliver Cromwell on the interim council established in the spring of 1653 in the wake of its dissolution. All but two (Fleetwood, who was absent in Ireland, and Skippon) were original or co-opted members of the nominated assembly, where almost all of them were identified by contemporaries as active moderates and show up in surviving sources as having played a part in the assembly's resignation on 12 December 1653. Presumably under Cromwell's influence, the ‘Instrument’ named this leading band of assembly moderates and resigners as founder members of the new protectoral council, adding a handful of senior army officers, including Skippon, the absent Fleetwood, and Lambert, who had played little recorded part in the closing weeks of the assembly and its resignation, together with two others who, although members of the assembly, had played a less prominent role throughout its existence—Major, allied to Cromwell by marriage, and Sidney, one of the few members of traditional peerage families prepared to serve in high office during the 1650s. Why other prominent moderates who had played a role in the assembly's resignation, as well as other old friends and allies of Cromwell, were not named to the protectoral council in December 1653 remains unclear. The haste with which the new government was formed probably led to the omission of some, while others may have been offered and declined seats in council, though only one such is known, William Pierrepoint.

Despite subsequent changes these fifteen founder members continued to provide the core of the council until the end of the protectorate and only modest alterations were made thereafter. The constitution empowered lord protector and council to appoint further councillors, up to the maximum of twenty-one, during the first nine months of the protectorate, before the meeting of the first parliament in September 1654, and in fact three new councillors were added over that period. Edmund Sheffield, second earl of Mulgrave, and Nathaniel Fiennes, a younger son of the first Viscount Saye and Sele and brother-in-law of Wolseley, both possessed rather mixed parliamentary backgrounds and perhaps were added principally to strengthen conciliar links with the traditional peerage, while Humphrey Mackworth, a more active but still obscure figure, brought substantial legal and administrative experience to the council, though his Shropshire roots reveal no prior connection with Oliver Cromwell and he had no experience of national politics. Conversely, three members effectively left the council during the latter half of 1654. For reasons that remain obscure but may reflect political differences that emerged in the course of the first protectorate parliament, Ashley Cooper ceased attending meetings at the end of 1654, Major attended rarely, if at all, after autumn 1654, in his case possibly due to ill health, and Mackworth died suddenly in December 1654. Thus the council had an active membership of fifteen from 1655 to 1657 when the ‘Humble petition and advice’ was implemented.

In the restructuring of the council in summer 1657 Ashley Cooper and Major were formally dropped and at the same time Lambert was dismissed from all his military and civilian offices, including that of councillor, on the grounds of his opposition to constitutional change and his refusal to take the new oath of allegiance. With the exception of Lambert, Oliver Cromwell chose to reappoint all the remaining active members of the outgoing council, while he also took the opportunity to add two new councillors, his elder surviving son Richard, part of the deliberate promotion of his presumed heir and successor during the closing year of his protectorship, and the council's influential secretary, and in effect secretary of state, John Thurloe, who was now made a full member of the council. Thus during the latter half of 1657 the membership stood at sixteen. Thereafter no new councillor was added. Sheffield died on 24 August 1658 and Rous, although technically still a member until his death in January 1659, ceased attending after early August 1658, doubtless on grounds of old age and ill health. In practice, therefore, after his own elevation from the council to the office of lord protector on 3 September 1658 Richard Cromwell inherited a body of thirteen members. Despite rumours that as protector he would add further councillors at the beginning or in the course of his brief protectorship, in fact he did not do so, and no further change was made.

Attendance and business

Attendance levels at the formal meetings of the protectoral council fluctuated, slipping somewhat both during parliamentary sessions—most members of council were elected to Oliver Cromwell's two protectoral parliaments and became members of the nominated second chamber from autumn 1657—and in high summer, but normally ten or more councillors were present at the recorded meetings. However, this overall attendance pattern conceals considerable individual variations. Old age and ill health probably explain the rather mixed records of Major, Rous, and Skippon, while several councillors held other military and civilian offices that caused occasional or longer absences. Fleetwood was in Ireland as chief administrator until the late summer of 1655 and although on paper he was a member of council from its inception, in practice he did not take up his seat until the closing weeks of 1655. Montagu was likewise absent for several periods during the latter half of the protectorate serving as a general-at-sea; Disbrowe was involved in admiralty business in 1654 and served as major-general of south-west England from the spring of 1655; while Fleetwood, Lambert, and Skippon became major-generals with regions of their own from the autumn of 1655, though Fleetwood and Lambert commanded from London by deputies [see Major-generals]. In addition Sydenham and Montagu were treasury commissioners and Fiennes a commissioner of the great seal for most or all of the protectorate, Pickering and Jones held senior and sometimes demanding offices in the lord protector's court and household, Sydenham had provincial responsibilities as governor of the Isle of Wight, and Jones had extensive public and private interests in his native south Wales. In contrast Lawrence attended the council assiduously and was very active as its ‘president’ or chairman. Several of his colleagues, including Fleetwood (after his return to England), Lambert, Mackworth, Strickland, and Wolseley, also attended regularly. The two protectors could attend council meetings and both did so quite regularly. Oliver Cromwell was present at about 40 per cent of the formal meetings held during his protectorship—his attendance record was at its highest in 1655–7 but was patchier in both 1654 and 1658—and Richard Cromwell attended a little over half the meetings held from the beginning of his rule until the third week of January 1659, after which no attendance record survives.

The surviving records of the protectoral council, comprising draft and fair order books, volumes listing council committees, copies of money warrants, and a large collection of assorted letters, petitions and other papers received, not only provide information about attendance but also throw light on other aspects of the council's work. They indicate that members held on average fifteen formal, recorded meetings per month during the course of the protectorate, though it met more frequently—twenty times or more per month—during busy periods, such as the opening months of the protectorate and in the wake of the royalist rebellions of the spring of 1655. It met less frequently—ten times per month or less—during parliamentary sessions and the closing months of Oliver Cromwell's life. Meetings were normally held at Whitehall Palace, generally in the ‘old council chamber’ formerly used by the royal privy council, though sometimes elsewhere, including the lord protector's own apartment at Whitehall or, when the protector was in residence, at Hampton Court. Above all, the conciliar records confirm that the council handled a mass of business, clearly often struggling to keep on top of affairs, ranging from high matters of state, including matters of peace, war, and diplomacy, state finances, and the decision to call parliament, through to lesser administrative, private, and local business. However, these official conciliar records, rich though they are, conceal as much as they reveal. The order books are just that, lists of decisions taken and letters sent, and they carry no record of debates or discussions; indeed, there exist no plausible and accurate accounts of debates within the protectoral council. Moreover the official records occasionally reveal that sensitive council decisions were being placed under secrecy and were deliberately omitted from the order books. Compounding these difficulties, newspapers and other contemporary sources indicate that, over and above the formal meetings recorded in the order books, lord protector and council frequently held private and informal meetings that pass entirely unnoticed in the official records and whose contents are almost entirely unknown.

In the light of the limited and incomplete nature of the conciliar sources, including the generally sparse and disappointingly discreet surviving papers of the councillors themselves, historians have struggled to reconstruct a full picture of the council's role and to present clear and substantiated assessments of its political power. The two written constitutions of 1653 and 1657 laid out its intended or theoretical role. It was to be a permanent and executive advisory body, charged with advising the protector on all aspects of government. The ‘Instrument of government’ gave the council certain powers of its own—including examining and admitting or excluding newly returned MPs and electing a new protector on the incumbent's death—which it lost under the ‘Humble petition and advice’. However, its real power under both constitutions was to control the lord protector, for article after article laid down that in key aspects of government—the raising and spending of state finances, the employment of the armed forces, and the appointment of senior officers of state—the protector could act only with the advice and consent of the council or at least of a majority of councillors. Some of these restraints operated at all times, others passed temporarily to parliaments while they were in session. Detailed provisions prevented the protector from removing existing or adding an unlimited number of new councillors at will, thus giving the council a degree of independence. But contemporaries and scholars alike have been divided on how and how far these paper provisions operated in practice. Broadly, those historians who portray Oliver Cromwell as an ambitious, power-hungry, omnipotent head of state, especially those who see elements of tyranny or dictatorship in his rule, tend to belittle the role of the council; those who see him as a less grasping and more ‘constitutionalist’ and consensual politician give greater credence to the evidence of effective conciliar powers and restraints.


Contemporary opinion of the council ranged from the wild praise of the regime's propagandists and apologists to the biting condemnation of its opponents, who saw it at best as an empty façade and at worst as actively abetting Cromwellian tyranny. The most subtle contemporary observers, especially foreign diplomats in London, were aware of its potential role and power but were often frustrated in their attempts to discover the true workings of conciliar government. In the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, biographers of Oliver Cromwell and historians of the Cromwellian protectorate typically either ignored the council completely or alluded to it briefly and dismissively as a powerless vehicle for the protector's will, though it is noticeable that both S. R. Gardiner and C. H. Firth were careful to accord it more space and to argue for effective conciliar independence and restraint upon the protector.

Since the closing decades of the twentieth century, however, historians have been more willing to take seriously the evidence, scattered and incomplete though it is, that the council possessed vigour, political clout, and independent resolve and did act as a genuine and effective restraint upon the roles, actions, and powers of both protectors. There is no doubt that the written constitutions invested the protectors with considerable authority and that Oliver Cromwell at least towered over his regime. Equally, there is no doubt that at times the council itself became divided—over whether to call another parliament in summer 1656, the punishment of James Nayler in December 1656, the handling of the Militia Bill in the opening weeks of 1657, and the kingship question in the spring of 1657. However, it was not until the final divisions of the spring of 1659 and the military coup, supported by some in the council, that ended Richard Cromwell's rule and the protectorate as a whole, that conciliar divisions opened up along clear and consistent military–civilian lines. Despite occasional attempts still to portray the council as a powerless administrative drone or to see it as hopelessly torn between (wider) civilian and military factions for much of the protectorate, the weight of recent historical opinion has been running against these negative assessments. Instead, historians of the protectorate now tend to interpret the council as an effective, generally united, and quite powerful executive that fulfilled its constitutional role and exercised substantial political as well as administrative powers at the heart of protectoral central government.

Peter Gaunt


TNA: PRO, letters, papers, and petitions received by the council, SP 18 · TNA: PRO, draft and fair order books, warrant and pass books, and committee book of the council, SP 25 · CSP dom., 1649–1659 · Thurloe, State papers · The writings and speeches of Oliver Cromwell, ed. W. C. Abbott and C. D. Crane, 4 vols. (1937–47) · P. Gaunt, ‘The councils of the protectorate, from December 1653 to September 1658’, PhD diss., University of Exeter, 1983 · P. Gaunt, ‘Cromwell's purge? Exclusions and the first protectorate parliament’, Parliamentary History, 6 (1987) · P. Gaunt, ‘Interregnum government and the reform of the Post Office, 1649–1658’, BIHR, 60 (1987) · P. Gaunt, ‘“The single person's confidants and dependants”? Oliver Cromwell and his protectoral councillors’, HJ, 32 (1989) · B. Coward, The Cromwellian protectorate (2002) · P. Gaunt, ‘“To create a little world out of chaos”: the protectoral ordinances of 1653–54 reconsidered’, The Cromwellian protectorate, ed. P. Little (2007) · B. Worden, ‘Oliver Cromwell and the council’, The Cromwellian protectorate, ed. P. Little (2007)


TNA: PRO, SP 18, SP 25