Howard Brenton: A forgotten revolution – the historical context to 55 Days

As his fascinating new play 55 Days opens at Hampstead Theatre, starring Mark Gatiss as King Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell, playwright Howard Brenton provides an insight into the pivotal, tumultuous historical background to the drama, and the men who embodied it…


Recently I met a Frenchman in London and we fell to talking about the high drama of the climax of the French Revolution: the struggle between Danton and Robespierre.  ‘In this country you don’t remember you also had a revolution,’ he said, adding, rather waspishly, ‘and you don’t realise you still live with the consequences’.

He was right.  The heroic, horrific story of our revolution, the Civil War that began in 1642 and resulted in the execution of King Charles I in 1649, is not part of our national consciousness.  Only a vague impression of flamboyant Royalists in frilly costumes (goodies) and grim Puritans in round helmets (baddies) persists.

But the struggle between Parliament and Charles I founded this country.  Although we were a republic – of a kind – for only eleven years, when the monarchy was restored in 1660 its authoritarian, medieval power was broken forever.  Nearly all the demands of the Parliamentary rebels became the democratic furniture we now take for granted.  Mind you, it took time: Doug Henshall, who plays Oliver Cromwell, pointed out in rehearsal that universal male suffrage, one of the principle demands of John Lilburne and the Levellers, only became law in 1918.


The cause of the war was a lethal cocktail of money and religion.  It was a long time being stirred.  Traditionally it was Parliament’s duty to impose taxes and grant the money to the King.  But, from the time of Henry VIII’s break with Rome by marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533, MPs were entering Parliament from a new middle class.  They were non-conformist, virulently hostile to Catholicism and suspicious of the bells and smells of the Church of England, of which, of course, the Monarch was head.

Parliament began to realise its one great power: the threat to withhold money.  A dangerous question began to be whispered in Westminster corridors: which was sovereign, Monarchy or Parliament?

Elizabeth I, a brilliant political obfuscator, papered over the problem by flattering MPs and calling herself  ‘sovereign in Parliament’.  But her successor, James I, had none of it.  He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, anointed by God to rule.  MPs should do what they were told, particularly when God’s anointed was broke.  In 1611 he finally lost his temper and closed his fractious Parliament down, ruling for ten years by scraping money together selling privileges and Dukedoms to his friends.

In 1621 he recalled MPs to give approval to a future marriage between his son, Charles, and a Spanish, and therefore Catholic, Princess.  The non-conformists were outraged.  The marriage never took place but the suspicion that the Stuarts were secret Catholics was fatally lodged in Parliamentary minds.

Mark Gatiss as King Charles I – Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

Charles I came to the throne in 1625.  He repeated his father’s political follies but on a grander scale.  He married a devout Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France.  In 1629 he locked MPs out of Westminster.  The Eleven Years’ Tyranny began.  Rich men were forced to buy titles; if they refused they were heavily fined by the Court of Star Chamber.  In 1635 he imposed a universal tax: ‘Ship money’.  An ex-MP, John Hampden, refused to pay and was convicted but many followed his example.

Then in 1639 he imposed a new, high Anglican prayer book on Calvinist, Presbyterian Scotland.  The Scots rebelled.  Charles was forced to recall Parliament to ask for money.  They granted it but on two conditions: the closing down of the Star Chamber and the arrest of the Earl of Stafford, the King’s hated advisor.  Stafford was executed.

For Charles it was the last straw.  In 1642 he went to the House of Commons with three hundred soldiers to arrest five MPs.  They were warned beforehand and fled.  Six days later Charles left London to gather an Army to fight Parliament for control of England.  He raised the Royalist standard at Nottingham on August 22nd.


It was a terrible conflict. Cities, towns, villages, families divided all across the country.  The economy was ruined.  It is estimated that 190,000 people were killed out of a population of five million.

The first major battle was at Edge Hill, near Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a ferocious stalemate; so many died or were wounded that both sides felt there was no going back.

Many inconclusive engagements followed in 1643.  But the MP for Cambridge and previously for Huntingdon, Oliver Cromwell, was proving himself a military leader of genius and he had a plan for radically retraining and re-equipping Parliament’s forces.

In 1644 Charles lost control of the North of England when he was defeated at the battle of Marston Moor by combined Parliamentary and Scottish forces.

Then, in June 1645, Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’ defeated him decisively at the battle of Naseby.  The Royalist cause was lost.

But Charles was slippery.  In 1646 he surrendered to the Scots rather than to Parliament, hoping the always unstable alliance between them would collapse.  It didn’t work out: the Scots sold him to Parliament in January 1647 for £400,000.

At first Parliament did not know what to do with the King.  But, typically, he engineered his own downfall.  He entered into secret negotiations with Scottish Presbyterians promising them religious reforms in England if they invaded.  He then escaped to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.

The Scots invaded in 1648, joining with Royalist forces in the brief ‘Second Civil War’.  Cromwell defeated them at the Battle of Preston.  Parliament turned Carisbrooke into Charles’s prison.

55 Days (£9.99)


Parliament had created an Army to defend it.  But now the Army had its own mind, the years of fighting had radicalised it.  On December 6th 1648 Presbyterians in Parliament voted down a motion calling for the King’s trial. The Army moved against the institution that gave it birth.  It was the first, and only, military purge of Parliament in our history.

It is at this moment 55 Days begins.


Oliver Cromwell and Charles Stuart were very different men but both were complex and difficult, with strange inner lives.  Cromwell was trying to bring a new kind of England into existence which he could not easily describe (we call it a ‘constitutional monarchy’).  Charles, by his lights, was defending a traditional England centuries old.  One was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, the other for a past that was a fantasy.  You could say both lost but the country won.


Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell – Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

…suffered episodes of depression.  He would prevaricate, delay, wracked with self-doubt.  Then he would act decisively in a whirlwind of politicking.  He had no formal position as leader of the rebels.  He was an MP but his faction, the Independents, was just one of many.  He was second-in-command of the Army, not its commander.

But all, from the radical Lilburne to the moderate Lord Fairfax, deferred to the ‘chief amongst men’.  This personal power, that mesmerized people around him, came first from his brilliance and courage in combat.  But it also came from his belief that Parliament’s rebellion was God’s ‘providence’, a divine intervention in humanity’s activity.  His inner torment was a continuous self-questioning: how could he be certain that he was acting by that providence?

But when he was certain his ferocious conviction would carry people with him.   And, indeed, many did believe that Oliver Cromwell had direct contact with the divine will.

Actually he was improvising.  For all his public ferocity he was a moderate, a knocker-together of heads, forever seeking agreement between the various factions amongst the rebels.  Until the last moment he sought an accommodation with the King.  Deep down he wanted to return to his farm, to sit by the hearth and let his mind at last be still.  Whereas  …


…had no sense of moderation.  He was sickly as a child and hero-worshipped his elder brother, Henry, the heir apparent.  But Henry died when Charles was 12 and the formidable training of a future monarch fell upon a neurotic boy.

There is something ‘encased’ about his psychology.  In modern terms he was aware that he was in a gigantic, unique existential predicament: that of a king appointed by God.  I see him as having a bright inner mirror, with an image of himself that he was forever trying to live up to, that of a king alone.  ‘Kings are not bound to give accounts of their actions but to God alone.’  This made him impossible to negotiate with.  He had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements, he guarded himself against any emotion when confronted with the deaths of so many of his subjects.  He had to be cold, for God.  He knew he must never cry.

Photograph by Catherine Ashmore

He was not, despite his marriage, a Roman Catholic.  He believed that the Church of England maintained the true catholic tradition.  He saw himself as a protector of the vision of a sunlit ‘merrie England’ at peace with its monarch, a past to which he would return the country.

Charles and Oliver did not meet during the trial, as they do in the play.

But they did meet once, before the Civil War.  Cromwell was in a Parliamentary group that went to Charles with a petition.  Charles gave them short shrift and did not remember the occasion.  Cromwell did, bitterly.

A note: I wrote this for the programme of the Hampstead Theatre production of 55 Days, which plays until November 24. 

NHB are delighted to publish Howard Brenton’s play 55 Days. To order your copy with 20% off – no voucher code required – just click here.

55 Days is currently premiering at Hampstead Theatre, starring Mark Gatiss as King Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell. For more information, and to book tickets, click here.

Here’s a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

“This is a great costume drama (although it can also be staged in a mix of period and contemporary costumes, as with the production at Hampstead Theatre, or in modern dress) from the author of Anne Boleyn, for a cast of thirteen men and two women, requiring two strong male actors for the lead roles. It is a vivid and deft debate play that truly evokes the past and brings a human scale to cataclysmic events. Anne Boleyn has rapidly joined the ranks of our Top Ten most performed plays – Howard Brenton is definitely a playwright to keep an eye on if you are interested in large-scale historical plays.”

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