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What is a Protectorate?

By Matt Brady
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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A protectorate is a nation, region or territory that receives military and diplomatic protection from a larger nation acting in the role of protector. The relationship is often made official with a treaty, whereby the smaller territory remains mostly autonomous and self-governing, but may agree to forfeit some political independence in exchange for the protector's services. Treaties are usually drawn up so that the relationship is recognized by international law. The Protectorate is also known as a period in English history during which the Commonwealth of England—England, Ireland and Scotland—was governed by a Lord Protector. This short period lasted from 1653-59.

Small nations typically enter into a protectorate relationship for the obvious reasons: they can benefit from the economic, political and military protection. Larger nations, on the other hand, become protectors for a larger variety of reasons. A larger nation might enjoy playing the role of the good samaritan for the sake of improving its international image and political clout. Protectorates can also be used by protectors to combat a political or military enemy. In this scenario, a protectorate might be strategically positioned in a region that the protector can use as a base of military operations, or it might be a territory that the protector feels necessary to guard in order to keep it from falling into enemy control.

The protectorate relationship and its various manifestations have gone by many different names. Tributary, vassal, colonial and commonwealth states are all essentially forms of protectorate relationships, in which some autonomy is given up to a larger nation in exchange for economic, political and military services. A suzerainty—in which a territory is internationally controlled by a suzerain, or ruler, but is allowed to govern itself domestically—is practically identical to a protectorate's relationship with its protector. Some protectorates are also referred to as insular areas.

The Protectorate Period in England lasted from 1653-1659. It was defined by the formation of the Commonwealth of England, which came to incorporate England, Scotland and Ireland. The Commonwealth of England initially began in England in 1649, with the beheading of King Charles I and the overthrow of the English Monarchy. At that time, Parliament declared the government a Commonwealth and a Republic.

In 1653, the Commonwealth had come to encompass Ireland and Scotland. During that time, military and political leader Oliver Cromwell took over as ruler under the title of Lord Protector. Cromwell divided the Commonwealth up into military regions to be governed by major-generals that answered directly to Cromwell. When Cromwell died in 1658, the position of Lord Protector was handed down to his son Richard. Richard, however, wasn't able to effectively command the Commonwealth, which opened the door for the monarchy to be restored in 1659 under the rule of King Charles II.

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