The advent of the Protectorate in December 1653 ended a period of constitutional experiment and uncertainty. Since the effective collapse of the king’s government early in the civil war, both executive and legislative functions had in practice been exercised by a parliament, almost always in session. Down to 1649, the Long Parliament had run the country, technically acting with and on behalf of the defeated king; following the trial and execution of Charles I and the abolition of monarchy, the purged remnant or Rump of the House of Commons of the Long Parliament had run the country. In April 1653 Oliver Cromwell, parliament’s commander-in-chief, had used the army to end the rule of the Rump by ejecting or dissolving it. He acted thus because he and the army had become frustrated by the Rump’s failure to advance what they believed to be important and urgent reforms in several fields, including justice and the legal process, poverty and social problems, the promotion of godly religion and the pursuit of a purer, more godly society. Viewing the Rump merely as an ad hoc, stop-gap regime, they had also been urging it to make a long-term constitutional settlement by agreeing the forms and operation, the rules and regulations, for the future government of the nation, and then by dissolving itself and making way for that new government. Having dragged its feet over this, too, in spring 1653 the Rump pressed ahead with a new constitutional settlement to be contained in a Government Bill. Cromwell and his senior army colleagues believed the Bill to be faulty in some way, to contain provisions which would imperil the parliamentary cause and further inhibit reform, and the Rump’s refusal to drop or amend its Bill precipitated the crisis of April 1653 and led Cromwell to use the army to eject the Rump on 20 April.
Shying away from naked military rule, Cromwell and the army officers sought a new form of civilian government, and by early July they had established a non-elected body, comprising around 140 men who in theory represented England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but instead of being elected by the people they were selected by the army and its friends on the basis that they were deemed godly, were sympathetic to reform and would advance the type of godly reformation which the army was seeking. This body, known variously as the Nominated Assembly, the Barebones Parliament, the Little Parliament or the Parliament of Saints, first met on 4 July 1653, when it was opened by Cromwell, acting in his capacity as Lord General of the army. In a long and exultant speech, he welcomed the Assembly and handed over to it supreme executive and legislative powers over the three nations. The Assembly was seen as a medium-term solution, designed to hold power for around eighteen months, giving way to a second nominated assembly for a further year and then, in the mid 1650s, making way for elections and a return to more traditional parliaments. In practice, the Assembly soon became deeply divided between moderate reformers and a far more radical and active minority who sought to sweep away existing religious and judicial frameworks, even though nothing had been agreed and established to put in their place. By the second week of December the moderates had had enough and, in a clearly pre-planned move, early on 12 December they joined in signing a letter resigning their powers back to Cromwell. For the second time in eight months, the existing government and constitution had collapsed and in the resulting power vacuum effective governmental control had reverted to the army and its commander-in-chief, though once again they drew back from direct military rule. It was in these circumstances that the Protectorate was established in mid December 1653.