Britain’s Third King Charles Should Be Its Last

The latest British monarch will be the first King Charles since the Stuart dynasty of the 17th century. The revolutionary struggle against the Stuarts gave birth to a radical democratic tradition — one that will be unfinished as long as Charles III is king.

Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales sits in the House of Lords Chamber during the State Opening of Parliament in London on May 10, 2022. (Alastair Grant / AFP via Getty Images)

From 1642, England’s King and Parliament were at war with each other. The English revolution of these years culminated in the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649, after which the Stuart monarchy was replaced by a Commonwealth. Leadership of the Parliamentary camp lay with figures such as Oliver Cromwell, who wanted to preserve oligarchic rule. However, the struggle against Charles Stuart also created an opening for more radical ideas about a truly democratic and egalitarian society.

After the military defeat of the monarchists, radical members of Cromwell’s New Model Army pressed for an open discussion about the kind of political system they wanted to establish. At the Putney Debates of 1647, Thomas Rainsborough made a famous argument in favor of democratic government, which his fellow officers dismissed as “anarchy”:

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under . . .

I do hear nothing at all that can convince me why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of burgesses. It is said that if a man have not a “permanent interest” he can have no claim; and that we must be no freer than the laws will let us be; and that there is no law in any chronicle will let us be freer than that we now enjoy. Something was said to this yesterday.

I do think that the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them. And truly, I think that half a loaf is better than none if a man be an-hungry. This gift of reason without other property may seem a small thing, yet I think there is nothing that God has given a man that anyone else can take from him.

And therefore I say that either it must be the law of God or the law of man that must prohibit the meanest man in the kingdom to have this benefit as well as the greatest. I do not find anything in the law of God that a lord shall choose twenty burgesses, and a gentleman but two, or a poor man shall choose none. I find no such thing in the law of nature, nor in the law of nations.

But I do find that all Englishmen must be subject to English laws; and I do verily believe that there is no man but will say that the foundation of all law lies in the people; and if it lie in the people, I am to seek for this exemption. Every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the law of God nor the law of nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under, and for him, for aught I know, to lose his life under . . .

Published in 1649, a German engraving depicts the execution of King Charles I. (British Library)

Rainsborough was assassinated by royalists in 1648, although there were persistent rumors that some of his parliamentary allies also had a hand in his death. Charles I was executed the following year. Soon afterward, a group who called themselves the True Levellers launched a short-lived agricultural co-operative on common land.

Their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, composed a pamphlet in 1652, The Law of Freedom. Winstanley argued that having overthrown the monarchy, it was now essential to uproot the social and political order over which the late king had presided. He argued that land and other resources should be held in common: “The nations of the world will never learn to beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and leave off warring, until this cheating device of buying and selling be cast out among the rubbish of kingly power.” 

Winstanley began the pamphlet by addressing himself to Oliver Cromwell. He congratulated Cromwell on having ousted the monarchy, but reminded him that he could not have achieved this victory without the soldiers of the New Model Army and the civilians who assisted them. He also warned that Cromwell might suffer the same fate as Charles I if he merely preserved the old system with a new figurehead:

To His Excellency Oliver Cromwell


God hath honoured you with the highest honour of any man since Moses’s time, to be the head of a people who have cast out an oppressing Pharaoh. For when the Norman power had conquered our forefathers, he took the free use of our English ground from them, and made them his servants. And God hath made you a successful instrument to cast out that conqueror, and to recover our land and liberties again, by your victories, out of that Norman hand.

That which is yet wanting on your part to be done is this, to see the oppressor’s power to be cast out with his person; and to see that the free possession of the land and liberties be put into the hands of the oppressed commoners of England. For the crown of honour cannot be yours, neither can those victories be called victories on your part, till the land and freedoms won be possessed by them who adventured person and purse for them.

Now you know, Sir, that the kingly conqueror was not beaten by you only as you are a single man, nor by the officers of the Army joined to you, but by the hand and assistance of the commoners, whereof some came in person and adventured their lives with you; others stayed at home and planted the earth and paid taxes and free-quarter to maintain you that went to war.

So that whatsoever is recovered from the conqueror is recovered by a joint consent of the commoners: therefore it is all equity, that all the commoners who assisted you should be set free from the conqueror’s power with you: as David’s law was, the spoil shall be divided between them who went to war, and them who stayed at home.

And now you have the power of the land in your hand, you must do one of these two things: first, either set the land free to the oppressed commoners who assisted you and paid the Army their wages; and then you will fulfil the Scriptures and your own engagements, and so take possession of your deserved honour. Or secondly, you must only remove the conqueror’s power out of the King’s hand into other men’s, maintaining the old laws still; and then your wisdom and honour is blasted for ever, and you will either lose yourself, or lay the foundation of greater slavery to posterity than you ever knew.

You know that while the King was in the height of his oppressing power, the people only whispered in private chambers against him: but afterwards it was preached upon the housetops that he was a tyrant and a traitor to England’s peace; and he had his overturn. The righteous power in the creation is the same still. If you and those in power with you should be found walking in the King’s steps, can you secure yourselves or posterities from an overturn? Surely no.

The spirit of the whole creation (who is God) is about the reformation of the world, and he will go forward in his work. For if he would not spare kings who have sat so long at his right hand governing the world, neither will he regard you, unless your ways be found more righteous than the King’s.

You have the eyes of the people all the land over, nay I think I may say all neighbouring nations over, waiting to see what you will do. And the eyes of your oppressed friends who lie yet under kingly power are waiting to have the possession given them of that freedom in the land which was promised by you, if in case you prevailed.

Lose not your crown; take it up and wear it. But know that it is no crown of honour, till promises and engagements made by you be performed to your friends. He that continues to the end shall receive the crown. Now you do not see the end of your work unless the kingly law and power be removed as well as his person . . .

You will say, “We must be subject to the ruler.” It is true, but not to suffer the rulers to call the earth theirs and not ours, for by so doing they betray their trust and run into the line of tyranny; and we lose our freedom and from thence enmity and wars arise.

A ruler is worthy double honour when he rules well, that is, when he himself is subject to the law, and requires all others to be subject thereunto, and makes it his work to see the laws obeyed and not his own will; and such rulers are faithful, and they are to be subjected unto us therein, for all commonwealth’s rulers are servants to, not lords and kings over, the people.

But you will say, “Is not the land your brother’s? And you cannot take away another man’s right by claiming a share therein with him.” I answer, it is his either by creation right, or by right of conquest. If by creation right he call the earth his and not mine, then it is mine as well as his; for the spirit of the whole creation, who made us both, is no respecter of persons.

And if by conquest he call the earth his and not mine, it must be either by the conquest of the kings over the commoners, or by the conquest of the commoners over the kings. If he claim the earth to be his from the kings’ conquest, the kings are beaten and cast out, and that title is undone.

If he claim title to the earth to be his from the conquest of the commoners over the kings, then I have right to the land as well as my brother, for my brother without me, nor I without my brother, did not cast out the kings; but both together assisting with person and purse we prevailed, so that I have by this victory as equal a share in the earth which is now redeemed as my brother by the law of righteousness . . .

No man can be rich, but he must be rich either by his own labours, or by the labours of other men helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbour, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work, then are those riches his neighbours’ as well as his; for they may be the fruit of other men’s labours as well as his own.

But all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labours of other men, not by their own; which is their shame, and not their nobility; for it is a more blessed thing to give than to receive. But rich men receive all they have from the labourer’s hand, and what they give, they give away other men’s labours, not their own. Therefore they are not righteous actors in the earth . . .

At the first view you may say, “This is a strange government.” But I pray judge nothing before trial. Lay this platform of commonwealth’s government in one scale, and lay monarchy or kingly government in the other scale, and see which give true weight to righteous freedom and peace. There is no middle path between these two, for a man must either be a free and true commonwealth’s man, or a monarchical tyrannical royalist.

If any say, “This will bring poverty,” surely they mistake. For there will be plenty of all earthly commodities, with less labour and trouble than now it is under monarchy. There will be no want, for every man may keep as plentiful a house as he will, and never run into debt, for common stock pays for all.

If you say, “Some will live idle,” I answer, No. It will make idle persons to become workers, as is declared in the platform: there shall be neither beggar nor idle person. If you say, “This will make men quarrel and fight,” I answer, No. It will turn swords into ploughshares, and settle such a peace in the earth, as nations shall learn war no more.

Indeed the government of kings is a breeder of wars, because men being put into the straits of poverty are moved to fight for liberty, and to take one another’s estates from them, and to obtain mastery. Look into all armies, and see what they do more, but make some poor, some rich; put some into freedom, and others into bondage. And is not this a plague among mankind?

Well, I question not but what objections can be raised against this commonwealth’s government, they shall find an answer in this platform following. I have been something large, because I could not contract myself into a lesser volume, having so many things to speak of.

I do not say, nor desire, that everyone shall be compelled to practise this commonwealth’s government, for the spirits of some will be enemies at first, though afterwards will prove the most cordial and true friends thereunto.

Yet I desire that the commonwealth’s land, which is the ancient commons and waste land, and the lands newly got in by the Army’s victories out of the oppressors’ hands, as parks, forests, chases and the like, may be set free to all that have lent assistance, either of person or purse, to obtain it; and to all that are willing to come in to the practice of this government and be obedient to the laws thereof. And for others who are not willing, let them stay in the way of buying and selling, which is the law of the conqueror, till they be willing.

After Cromwell’s death, the English ruling class brought back the monarchy, in the person of Charles II. The egalitarian ideas of Rainsborough, Winstanley, and other figures on the left wing of the seventeenth-century revolution were forgotten for many years in the aristocratic climate of the Restoration. But the modern socialist movement recovered their memory and identified them as some of its early forebears.