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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Pride's Purge



What became known as “Pride’s Purge” took place in London on 6th December 1648 and resulted in the formation of the “Rump Parliament” that later agreed to the trial and execution of King Charles I. Members of Parliament who were most likely to be sympathetic to the King were arrested or otherwise persuaded to stay away from Parliament.

Colonel Thomas Pride

The officer who carried out the purge was a brewer turned army officer, named Thomas Pride.

He came from a Somerset family but is known to have been apprenticed to a London haberdasher in 1622. His date of birth is not known, but must presumably have been around 1608 if his apprenticeship began at the usual age of 14.

However, with his indentures served, Pride decided to try his hand as a brewer and was very successful, becoming the owner of at least two breweries in the 1640s. He continued his business interests throughout his life, using his political connections to enrich himself.

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Thomas Pride joined a London “trained band” but soon obtained a captaincy in Colonel Barclay’s regiment of the army led by the Earl of Essex. When the New Model Army was formed in 1645, Pride became a lieutenant-colonel but was virtually in charge of his regiment due to the absence of its colonel, Edward Harley. He distinguished himself at the decisive Battle of Naseby on 14th June 1645, and in later actions in the West Country.

However, although the Army fought for the cause of Parliament, the two did not always see eye to eye. One issue that divided them was the attempt by Parliament, during the spring of 1647, to disband the Army without giving the men their arrears of pay. Thomas Pride organised a petition of his regiment, demanding the signatures of all its members. This action was not approved by Colonel Harley, who had Pride summoned to the bar of the House of Commons to explain himself. Undeterred, Pride continued with his protest and presented his petition.

In July 1647 he helped to draft the articles of impeachment laid by the New Model Army against those Members of Parliament (the “Eleven Members”) regarded as being the Army’s greatest enemies. However, he did not have the support of all his regiment’s officers, a number of whom resigned out of loyalty to Parliament. As these included Colonel Harley, Thomas Pride now took his place at the head of the regiment.

The background to the Purge

It is often assumed that the English Civil War was fought between King and Parliament as though the whole of Parliament was of one mind in opposition to King Charles. This was not so, because there was a whole spectrum of opinion represented there, including many who regarded the War as simply an attempt to persuade the King to rule in a different way; these members did not seek to depose him, let alone have him beheaded. Indeed, that was the view of the vast majority of members at the outbreak of the War.

However, opinions changed during the conduct of the War, especially after Charles renewed his campaign in the “Second Civil War” of 1648-9 and was seen to be attempting to do deals with whatever groups and factions might support him. These factions included royalist sympathisers within Parliament.

In September 1648 a group of parliamentarians began negotiations with King Charles at Newport on the Isle of Wight, where he was being kept prisoner in Carisbrooke Castle. However, although a document was agreed (The “Treaty of Newport”) it did not find favour with the Army, especially when Parliament voted to allow Charles to return to London and be restored to his property.

Mainly at the instigation of Henry Ireton, a counter-document entitled “The Remonstrance of General Fairfax and the Council of Officers”, or more simply the “Army Remonstrance”, was drawn up and adopted by the Army Council on 18th November. This made clear the Army’s determination that Charles should be put on trial, as well as proposing sweeping constitutional changes.

Parliament now dithered over its response, the general attitude being that the Treaty negotiations should be given a chance to continue. Clearly, they could not accept both the Treaty and the Remonstrance, but there appeared to be every chance that the Treaty would win the day.

The Purge

Pride’s Purge was therefore the Army’s way of forcing the issue, and it can be seen as little short of a military “coup d’etat”, achieved by threat of force. It has been suggested that Colonel Pride was only the instrument of the Purge, rather than its driving force, but it is clear that he was involved in its planning and was enthusiastic in its execution.

After a force of 7,000 men had moved into London in early December (many of them camped in Hyde Park), on the morning of 6th December Thomas Pride mounted the steps of Parliament, which was ringed by soldiers, and brandished a piece of paper on which were listed the names of those Members of Parliament whom the Army distrusted. It is not known exactly how many names were on the list, but it could have been about 180. Not being a parliamentarian, Pride was not able to match names to faces as the members arrived, but he was helped in this task by Lord Grey of Groby.

In all, 45 members were arrested and taken away, but word soon got around and many of those who might otherwise have attempted to enter decided not to bother. There was only one violent incident, when William Prynne tried to get past and was pushed back down the stairs. When Prynne asked “By what authority and commission, and for what cause, they did thus violently seize on and pull him down from the House”, Pride pointed to the soldiers who had their muskets ready to fire, replying that “there was their commission”.

Although Thomas Fairfax, the Army General, was not made aware of the Purge until after it had taken place, and was furious when he found out, he had little choice but to accept it as a “fait accompli”. It certainly suited the ambitions of the political leader of the coup, namely Oliver Cromwell, who now found that the new “Rump”, at first comprising as few as 80 of the 470 or so members of the former House of Commons, was much more amenable to his will.

The Treaty of Newport was soon forgotten, being annulled on 13th December, and plans for the King’s trial went ahead. When Charles’s death warrant was signed, one of the signatories was Colonel Thomas Pride.

Thomas Pride died on 23rd October 1658, not long after Cromwell had died but before the Restoration of King Charles II. He therefore escaped the wrath of the new regime that would be directed against the Regicides. However, had his dead body been in a better condition it is possible that it might have shared the indignity suffered by those of several of his colleagues (including Cromwell and Ireton) in being dug up and hanged posthumously.

Pride’s Purge was important not only for its effect on the course of history, but also because it was the last occasion on which the democratic process in England was set aside by force of arms.


© John Welford