Body politic founded on law for the common ‘weal’ or good. Political philosophers of the 17th century, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, used the term to mean an organized political community. In Britain it is specifically applied to the period between 1649 and 1660 when, after the execution of Charles I in the English Civil War, England was a republic.
History The Commonwealth was proclaimed on 19 May 1649, a few months after the execution of Charles I. It was declared that the country would be governed not by a monarch but by ‘the supreme authority of the nation, the representatives of the people in parliament’. Despite this, control of the press was tightened, and strict laws were made against blasphemy.
The early years of the Commonwealth were spent at war – fighting Royalist uprisings in Scotland and Ireland, and a trade war at sea against the Dutch. Politically, the Commonwealth was a time when many new and controversial ideas were proposed. Groups such as the Levellers and Diggers, and religious sects such as the Ranters demanded radical reforms. The Commonwealth saw the publication of Thomas Hobbes's political tract Leviathan (1651), which advocated an absolutist government, and James Harrington's Oceana (1656), a scheme for an oligarchical political system (government by a small minority). The New Model Army also pressed for radical reform. When the Rump – the members of Parliament who still sat in the Long Parliament – failed to make changes, Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Parliament by military force on 20 April 1653. He is said to have shouted, ‘In the name of God, go!’ and, pointing to the Mace, ‘Take away that bauble’.
Cromwell called a ‘Parliament of Saints’, the Barebones Parliament, but, when that failed to agree, accepted the offer to become Lord Protector, beginning the period known as the Protectorate (1653–59). The Commonwealth came to an end in 1660 with the Restoration of Charles II.