405 The Putney Debates


Following the attenpt by parliament to close the army down without pay, and the resulting August 1647 coup, the army was a seething mass of worries and resentments. Thrown into the mix were the radical political ideas of the Levellers. Together, all of this threatened chaos and even mutiny. So Cromwell and Fairfax invited representatives of their brothers in arms to thrash all of this out in the open forum of the General Council of the Army, at the church of Sy Mary’s in Putney, in October 1647. The resulting discusson is the earliest example of demands for genuine democratic reform in English history.

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Hello everyone and welcome to the History of England ****

Now I hope you will indulge me on this one; today we are going to talk about a few days only. Not as bad as when we spend two episode on one day, but you know, bad news for those of you who want me to cut the waffle and get on with it. But this is a very special occasion in English history, when for the first time in recorded memory at least, ordinary people in a position of power got to debate extraordinarily radical ideas about government, effectively genuinely democratic ideas; the concept of universal manhood suffrage comes up for example which for its time is quite extraordinary. I give you ladies and gentlemen, the Putney Debates

In brief, the Putney Debates cover a couple of weeks in late October and November 1647, at St Mary’s Church in Putney, on the banks of Old Father Thames.  It occurred when the Army council came to discuss the Case. Now by and large, if you will permit me a mini rant, when I see folks talking about ‘forgotten history’ or history they try to hide from you’ by and large I either roll my eyes or in extremity, reach for the sick bag. I might reach for a Douglas Adams quote in fact, when the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation was described by the Encyclopedia Galactica as “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

But look, when Kenan Malik wrote an article in the Grauniad saying we should be put up against a similar wall for ignoring bits in our history like the Putney debates, or lawyer and historian Geoffry Robertson weeps that we make so little of a period which, and I quote, ‘established what today are regarded as universal values’[1] – well now you are talking my language, I might roll my eyes at our appalling crime of editing out from our national narrative early toad sexing studies, but now we are talking about English political radicalism I am on your side, Kenan, and long live the marketing department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation! So on the cause of remembrance, I did my own little pilgrimage to St Mary’s, dragging Jane, Jimmy and Jessica there too. The church was burned down in the 1970s so is much restored; but beautifully done. I happened to meet John there, a minister of some sort, and we have a buttock clenchingly emotional and enthusiastic discussion which was most horribly awkward, but we agreed the soldiers at the debate would have approved of the way it had been done – altar in the middle of the church, no Laudian altar rails, and that the debates were hugely important. John told me that the church was the centre for the Inclusive Church group of the CofE, and so it’s progressive tradition continues.

Also, it is hard in this case to accuse the 18th, and 19th centuries of ignoring the Putney debates, because no one knew much about them. The Newsbooks of the time merely mentioned there’d been an army Council. There seemed no record. Then one day the super famous historian Charles Firth was having a chat with the Librarian at Worcester College Oxford, one Henry Pottinger, which led him to a pile of notes. They turned to be a discovery that must have wobbled Firth’s chin to the very last dewlap, transcriptions of a meeting in 1647. These were detailed, often verbatim records of the General Council meeting that took place between October 28th and November 8th 1647. Golly that must have been a moment for Charles. Now this happened in 1891, but the moment when the Putney Debates really began to come to the centre stage was not until they were published in full by A S P Woodhouse in 1938. [2]

The real hero of the Putney Debates, then, might be said to be a Londoner  of humble origins, one William Clarke. He was on the army secretariat working to John Rushworth, Fairfax’s secretary. He had a system of shorthand in which he took the transcript, and then in 1662 in an idle moment, dug them out, transcribed them and lodged them at Worcester College where they mouldered until Charles Firth happened by.

We don’t have everything by any means, the fullest notes cover just a few days verbatim, but it is undeniably fascinating to hear the voices of people so far back and in such depth and such a fascinating conversation. They are easy to find if you want to have a butchers – I have put a link on the website page for this episode.

The background then, and where we got to last week. There is conflict in the air; people are worried that the Presbyterians are cutting a deal with the king. The Levellers are agitating, trying to bring the army round to a radical agenda. Soldiers are dead worried; they are very proud of what they have done and who they – in their own words, they were ‘no mere mercenary army’; they had answered parliaments call and fought for English liberty. They therefore deeply resented their unpopularity, due to taxes, and the fact they were often quartered on ordinary people, they resented that despite their sacrifce their pay was massively in arrears; and they had no indemnity about things done in wartime. And so Edward Sexby and John Wildman had persuaded 5 Agitators to put their name to a Leveller inspired document called the Case of the Army Truly Stated which accused the army leaders, or grandees, of betrayal, and called for radical changes.

This had been debated on a General Council on 21st October. Very probably the meeting had been spent by the Army Generals defending their actions, with the then conclusion that the details of the Case would be considered at the next meeting on 28th October. The Case, let it is said, is a big document.

The meeting convened at St Mary’s Church, Putney. There would have been a lot of people there; I have never seen a number, but there must have been a hundred maybe – each regiment had 2 Agitators and there were officer reps too. Plus, absolutely remarkably, the Generals had invited along some civilians; Levellers, would you believe with is very open minded of them. In particular – John Wildman, a real radical firebrand who had once been in the army;  and also a man we don’t know a lot about, Maximillian Petty.

There’s a couple snippets of historiography I should give. Firstly, these debates have often been very much analysed from a Leveller perspective. Frankly, after the civil wars reference to the Levellers is pretty rare until the late 19th century, but in the latter half of the 20th century of course everyone became very excited about the wonderful history of original thought, democratic beliefs, political radicalism and activism the Levellers represented. Meanwhile, there was clearly a deal of unrest in the army; some of the regiments had been radicalized , and while the Putney debates were going on the Levellers were sending out pamphlets like topsy bad mouthing the Army command, Cromwell and Ireton in particular.

So, if you like this kind of radical activism the Putney debates look like a fractious attempt to seize power and justice from a duplicitous elite. John Rees for example, author of a History of the Levellers, basically reckoned the Grandees of the Army, Fairfax, Cromwell Ireton had no choice but to have the meeting and invite Levellers along because the army was on the edge of mutiny. That they never had any intention of open debate and enquiry, they were pretending all along, just trying to deflect, obfuscate and shut everyone up.

Other historians more recently have pointed out that seeing the Putney debates through 21st Century eyes sells it short. Other views are available, but in all likelihood this is not just an another example of a revolution betrayed. The Putney Debates are a genuine attempt by a group of people to grapple with an uncharted, dangerous territory in an extraordinary situation, and arrive at a solution that would work. That the guiding principle of debate at the time is to reach consensus. There’ll be more examples in the debate, but just as one example, in July Cromwell had said at a meeting

“If you be in the right, and I in the wrong, if we be divided I doubt we shall all be in the wrong,”

Also, this is primarily about the army, not the Levellers, although they are clearly a factor. But this is an army meeting the vast majority there are soldiers. There is enormous respect and shared between all of them, whatever their rank. Fairfax would publicly declare he would live and die with the Army. Both he and Cromwell were held in enormous regard by the rank and file – afterall they’d been through multiple battles together, and shared the same religious beliefs. Plus they had all signed up to the Army’s Solemn Engagement not to disband until their grievances were met. Unity is critical to all of them, they value it very highly. All of them want a solution. And the fact that Levellers were invited is simply extraordinary; the Putney debates started at least ,in a spirit of openness, and a desire to solve very, very difficult problems.





One more bit of blather, which is about women. The debates have a lot about liberties, rights and voting and all that. There’s naff all here about women; when we talk universal suffrage, we are talking manhood suffrage; women were assumed to be represented by men. There’s generally little radicalism about sexual equality in the English Revolution, though there is some, through religion and petitioning. For example Katherine Chidley had declared on a petition

“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other good laws of this land.”

But that does not come through in the Putney debates. The poorest he appears, the poorest she does not.

Ok, so the meeting convened on 28th October in the church. They had come to discuss the Case of the Army Truly Stated, but the night before the grandees had been ambushed; and presented with a new document, signed by the Five Leveller Agitators of the Army. It was called The Agreement of the People and it was a much more impressive document than the Case of the Army. Much better written, much shorter – just 6 pages – it was a Leveller inspired document probably written by the William Walwyn, John Wildman maybe Henry Marten the MP. It is the core programme of the army radicals and Levellers; unlike the Case, it dealt in general principles and was consciously drawn up as a constitution. It will be the main subject of debate, so we should spend a few minutes on it. I have put a link to it on the website.

Unlike all the rebellions we have come across before, The Agreement did not seek to re-establish an ancient constitution. It took the view that they should start from scratch. That is something very new.

The Agreement restates the Leveller position that power derives solely from the people. It assumes the ultimate imperative is the safety of the people. It therefore now introduces something ultra new, if there can be a hierarchy of newness, but I used to work for Sirius Cybernetics so I like hyperbole. It introduces the idea of natural law, inalienable rights of the people that not even parliament can overturn, higher than statute law. These are freedom of religion, which also meant parliament had no authority over matters of religious morality such as blasphemy, for example;  immunity from conscription, and equality before the law. An elected parliament was sovereign, in all other respects, legislative and executive, above any form of secular authority such as magistrates. but not even it could pass any laws contrary to the safety of the people. [3]

Then there are a load of specific provisions; parliamentary constituencies must be reformed – and the new equal constituencies based on numbers of people, not equal areas of tax revenue, as had been proposed in the heads of proposal. The devil as always in the detail. That sounds really dull, get on with the next bit, but it ain’t. That means representation is now based on people, not property and wealth. That’ll come up in the debate for sure, because it assumes everyone gets to vote. Not just householders.  There’s other stuff – parliament every two years, soldiers to have indemnities – but that’s the guts of it. It does not mention king and Lords, but their role will get debated. Another extraordinary point for the time is that it almost never mentions God. But as Wildman says in the debates ‘we cannot find anything in the word of God what is fit to be done in civil matters’.[4]  It is a belief that God has little to say on civil laws, because religious morality is the business of the individual.

Ok, so we are in the church. Let’s go.


Cromwell chairs the meeting because Fairfax had taken ill and excused himself. He opened it, and invited anyone  assembled to speak. Edward Sexby, one of the Army agitators presented the meeting with a new paper, the Agreement of the Paper which the Council agreed to consider. Before it is read, Sexby expressed fury within the of the army with parliament, which were refusing to pay them what they were owed, and whom the suspected were agreeing a soft treaty with the king, and their belief that the king will never agree to a compromise. This is read by Milo of the Crowther Players

EXTRACT ONE                                    Sexby

The cause of our misery is upon two things. We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going about to do it we have dissatisfied all men. We have laboured to please a king, and I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him; and we have gone to support an house which will prove rotten — I mean the Parliament, which consists of a company of rotten members.

EXTRACT TWO                                   Cromwell

‘An Agreement of the People’ was then read out. Rather delightfully Willim Clarke didn’t know the person, so called him ‘Buffcoat’, presumably because I was a cold day. It turns out to have been Robert Everard, one of the New, Leveller Agitators who had signed the Agreement. I’ll give you a flavour of the agreement

“An Agreement of the People of England, and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety.

Having, by our late labours and hazards, made it appear to the world at how high a rate we value our just freedom, and God having so far owned our cause as to deliver the enemies thereof into our hands, we do now hold ourselves bound, in mutual duty to each other, to take the best care we can for the future, to avoid both the danger of returning into a slavish condition…”

Near the end of the Agreement it concludes

So we question not but every true Englishman that loves the peace and  freedom of England will concur with us.

Cromwell starts the discussion, and talks at some length with his initial response to what he has just heard; and so this is a gut reaction. He has three concerns about consequences; the effect of making such dramatic changes now, at the end of a long civil war; the long term consequences of such a constitution; and potential conflicts with commitments already made


Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom… There will be very great mountains in the way of this… and therefore, we ought to consider the consequences, and God hath given us our reason that we may do this. It is not enough to propose things that are good in the end, but suppose this model were an excellent model, and fit for England and the kingdom to receive.

What do you think the consequence of would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another, and one county against another?

Cromwell has a further worry; the commitments they had sworn to, and whether these ideas would cut across

We have in the time of our danger issued out declarations; we have been required by the Parliament, because our declarations were general, to declare particularly what we meant. And (having done that) how far that obliges or not obliges [us], that is by us to be considered—if we mean honestly and sincerely and to approve ourselves to God as honest men. And therefore, having heard this paper read, this remains to us: that we again review what we have engaged in, and what we have that lies upon us

This is a critical point and relates to another concern about the practical requirements of settling a nation divided by years of war; Commitments have already been made, and whatever agreement comes out it must be supported by all as far as possible, again in the spirit of consensus. Cromwell and Ireton will constantly come back to this point

None the less he encourages debate

None the less Cromwell again encourages debate, concerned that the meeting must reach towards consensus

I have no more to say but this: we having received your paper, we shall amongst ourselves consider what to do; and before we take this into consideration, it is fit for us to consider how far we are obliged, and how far we are free; and I hope we shall prove ourselves honest men where we are free to tender anything to the good of the public.


EXTRACT  THREE                               Rainsborough:

Colonel Thomas Rainborough responds to Cromwell. Worth bearing in mind he and Cromwell have a difficult history, and he’s a bit sarky at Cromwell’s objections; good lord man, he says, so we’re hardly strangers to difficult times, and the important consideration is to do the right thing:

There are two objections…made. The one is division. Truly I think we are utterly undone if we divide, but I hope that honest things have carried us on thus long, and will keep us together, and I hope that we shall not divide. Another thing is difficulties. Oh, unhappy men are we that ever began this war! If ever we [had] looked upon difficulties, I do not know that ever we should have looked an enemy in the face.

That truly I think, let the difficulties be round about you—have you death before you, the sea on each side of you and behind you—[and] are you convinced that the thing is just, I think you are bound in conscience to carry it on; and I think at the last day it can never be answered to God, that you did not do it

Despite their previous disagreements, despite the fact that Rainsbrough now no longer belongs to the army, he’s in the Navy now, and has no right to be on the council, Cromwell makes no effort to close him down, and Rainsborough’s will be a voice throughout. They then return to the point that any new commitments agreed from this new paper must fit with those made to parliament and king previously, in things like the Heads of Proposal. This is not just a delaying tactic for Cromwell and Ireton; promises made by the army must be honoured, if a national consensus it to be reached. AS committee is established to clarify the overlaps, which duly reports back in a couple of days to the meeting.

At this point Colonel William Goffe intervenes, and I think it’s a rather nice example of the way the Godly army carried on. And William Goffe was very Godly


I say, go about what you will, for my part I shall not think anything can prosper unless God be first [publicly] sought. It is an ordinance that God hath blessed to this end.

It’s therefore agreed to go away, consult God, including a prayer meeting the following morning. Interestingly, Thomas Rainsborough was not at the prayer meeting; he went into London and met with John Lilburne in his prison. Which is interesting.


The following day’s debate contains the crux of the debate. After a morning in prayer the agreement was read and then Commissary General Henry Ireton spoke determined there should be no more shilly shallying, and is the most resistant of all the speakers to radical change.

In this he states his first objection to an aspect of the case of the Agreement of the People. This extract and all the words of Henry Ireton are read by Dr Richard Grove, heritage expert, friend and partner in the HOE tour

EXTRACT FOUR                                                 Ireton:

It is said…that every man that is an inhabitant is to be equally considered, and to have an equal voice in the election of parliamentary representatives…and if that be the meaning, then I have something to say against it….In choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by, no person has a right to this, who does not have a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom…if we take away this law, we shall plainly take away all property and interest that any man has

Battle is joined; the Agreement of the People seems to be proposing democracy, universal suffrage, surely not. It is Thomas Rainsborough who most consistently presents the army case – though most of the agitators also support his view. These are possibly the most famous words from the Putney debates, are argue that yes, of course every man must have a say

EXTRACT FIVE                                                    Rainsborough:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath 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 hath not had a voice to put himself under

Ireton stays firm – the voting profile must change, but the primacy of property be retained

EXTRACT SIX                                                      Ireton

I do not mean that I would have it restrained to that proportion that now obtains, but to restrain it still to men who have a local, a permanent interest in the kingdom, who have such an interest that they may live upon it as freeman, and who have such an interest as is fixed upon a place, and is not the same equally everywhere

Rainsborough holds his ground; and raises the stakes – for what have we fought, and shed all this blood?

EXTRACT SEVEN                                               Rainsborough

…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…

…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.

And I would fain know what we have fought for. For our laws and liberties? And yet this is the old law of England—and that which enslaves the people of England—that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all!

The chief end of this government is to preserve persons as well as estates. For the preservation of all the native freeborn men, they should have an equal voice in elections.

Ireton is concerned there will be anarchy if everyone has a vote

EXTRACT EIGHT                                                 Ireton

…if this be allowed, because by the right of nature we are free, we are equal, one man must have as much voice as another, then show me what step or difference there is, why I may not by the same right take your property, though not of necessity to sustain nature.

But Ireton is losing the crowd. A civilian member of the Levellers steps in, Maximillian Petty, voice by Henry of the Crowther players

EXTRACT NINE                                                  Maximillian Petty

…it does not destroy property, to give men a voice….

William Rainsborough, Thomas’s brother agrees, and here we are joined by another honorary member of the Crowther players, Craig:

“the chief end of this government is to preserve persons as well as estates, and if any law shall take hold of my person it is more dear than my estate”


EXTRACT TEN                                                     Rainsborough

Rainsborough was also affronted at being accused of being an anarchist, and pointed out that laws of God prevent rich men from being oppressors, and poor men from stealing. God, and belief in the providence of his direct intervention in affairs, constantly appears

God hath set down that thing as to propriety with this law of his – Thou shalt not steal. And for my part I am against any such thought, and, as for yourselves, I wish you would not make the world believe that we are for anarchy.

Cromwell tries to take the heat out of the debate and emphasise this is an open discussion; but again makes the point that there must be a workable solution that will work and heal divisions.

I know nothing but this, that they that are the most yielding have the greatest wisdom; but really, sir, this is not right as it should be. No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but [that] the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy; for where is there any bound or limit set if you take away this [limit], that men that have no interest but the interest of breathing [shall have no voice in elections]? Therefore I am confident on’t, we should not be so hot one with another.

Ireton also gets involved to try and take personal heat out of the conversation:


But later he will also support Cromwell’s point that anything they agree to must be more generally acceptable to the country at large or else just lead to more conflict and bloodshed:


For the radicals, though this is not enough. There’s a resonance here with other conflicts I think, first world war and second world war spring to mind, where returning soldiers who have been through hell ask  – is this what it’s all been for, is this all there is? 


EXTRACT ELEVEN                                             Sexby:

We have engaged in this kingdom and ventured our lives, and it was all for this: to recover our birthrights and privileges as Englishmen; and by the arguments urged there is none. There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little propriety in the kingdom as to our estates, yet we have had a birthright. But it seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived. If we had not a right to the kingdom, we were mere mercenary soldiers…

…Do you not think it were a sad and miserable condition, that we have fought all this time for nothing?

Ireton want to drag people back to why this war had really been fought:

EXTRACT TWELVE                                            Ireton

Give me leave to say but this one word. I will tell you what the soldier of the kingdom hath fought for. The danger that we stood in was that one man’s will must be a law.

EXTRACT THIRTEEN                                         Peters

Imperceptibly, the debate is moving forward; the preacher Hugh Peters restores some harmony restating something on which they could all agree. Peters is officially and initially  voiced by Izzy of the Crowther players, though after here are some competing thesbians for the role. I mentioned that Hugh Peter was a table-bashing puritan preacher, which is why there’s so much table action in what follows:

Upon the will of one man abusing us we reached agreement…I hope it is not denied by any man that any, wise, discreet man that has preserved England is worthy of a voice in the government of it

The discussion continues with many new voices; but it is becoming clear that Rainborough and Sexby are carrying the day. Even Ireton has come to accept that the franchise should be extended. This next extract contains an objection to universal suffrage – but shows how far he has come through the debate


EXTRACT FOURTEEN                                       Ireton

If you do extend the latitude [of the constitution so far] that any man shall have a voice in election who has not that interest in this kingdom that is permanent and fixed, who hath not that interest upon which he may have his freedom in this kingdom without dependence, you will put it into the hands of men to choose, [not] of men [desirous] to preserve their liberty, [but of men] who will give it away.

Ireton has weakened; he’s now arguing from the angle of ‘ if you do this, be careful of the consequences, and that there must be limitations. And there’s then an interesting exchange between Cromwell, Petty and another man, Lieutenant Colonel Reade. It’s interesting just because that the assumption that underlies it is a universal manhood suffrage, but with limitations , and Petty and the Levellers meet them half way, conceding that those most vulnerable to influence should be excluded


If we should go about to alter these things, I do not think that we are bound to fight for every particular proposition. Servants, while servants, are not included. Then you agree that he that receives alms is to be excluded?

Lieutenant-Colonel [Thomas] Reade:

I suppose it’s concluded by all, that the choosing of representatives is a privilege; now I see no reason why any man that is a native ought to be excluded that privilege, unless from voluntary servitude

EXTRACT FIFTEEN                                            Petty

I conceive the reason why we would exclude apprentices, or servants, or those that take alms, is because they depend upon the will of other men and should be afraid to displease them.


There is general agreement that there must be change and better representation, but there must be limits also; you might notice that the idea of votes for women has at no point been suggested! A group convened to examine specific proposals. The Putney debate are not just about freedom vs tradition – it is about a group of people genuinely trying to work out what could be implemented.

The discussion moves on. It becomes very detailed about the proposed reforms in the body politic, touching on the contention that, as representatives of the people, all power should be vested in the commons. The issue raised is then about the role of the king – should the king have a negative voice – meaning, should he be allowed to veto legislation?

John Wildman was one of the most radical and aggressive of the Levellers, with an army background like Sexby. He thinks the king is an alien power to the power of the people, and throws the Lords into the pot as well. Ireton engages fully in the debate, but also restates the opinion held by almost everyone at the time.

EXTRACT SIXTEEN                                            Wildman

To give the King a legislative power is contrary to his own oath at his coronation, and it is the like to give a power to the King by his negative voice to deny all laws. And for the Lords, seeing the foundation of all justice is the election of the people, it is unjust that they should have that power. And therefore I conceive the difference only is this: whether this power should be given to the King and Lords or no.

EXTRACT SEVENTEEN                                     Ireton

The government of Kings, or of Lords, is as just as any in the world, is the justest government in the world.

During the remain debates, one intervention signals a feeling that will grown and grow. In 1647 the army was actually surprisingly positive about King Charles and his role, plenty of Goodwill. George Bishop was a religious radical  who had written reams of pamphlets. In 1654 he would become one of the very first  Quakers. He was at Putney, and stated a very different viewpoint which after the Second Civil war will become an inferno among an Army betrayed.

EXTRACT EIGHTEEN                                        Captain Bishop (one of the army agitators)

I say it not in respect of any particular persons, but I say that the reason is a compliance to preserve that man of blood, and those principles of tyranny, which God from heaven by his many successes given hath manifestly declared against, and which, I am confident, may yet be our destruction if they be preserved.


I think that’s enough on the content of the debates, you might think too much! It’s pretty substantial but definitely worth looking at. On a personal note one of the things I found interesting is that several of them find useful reference to the events and experience of the Scots; for example at one point John Hewson, an ex shoemaker and now Colonel, says about the king:

The Scots have made provision that he should have no negative voice among them, and why should not we make the same provision?

I’ve always thought the Scottish revolution must have had more influence on English constitutional history than is normally allowed.

Anyway. let me summarise the rest and where we get to.

There is a lot of debate about one aspect of the constitution which had clearly been dealt with in existing commitments – the role of the king, the chief magistrate, being restored to his previous position with limitations. This is a commitment in the Head of Proposals. Some feeling in the army was steadily moving against the king as Bishops’ quote suggests; but many still held firmly to his role and a fair deal of goodwill still existed; even the Levellers never would agree on their view. No one at Putney is yet arguing for republicanism – but some have personal resentment, and since both lord and king are not appointed by parliament others argue they should not have a veto, should merely be magistrates under parliamentary control. But by allowing this discussion and engaging in it in subsequent committees, the grandees had effectively given ground and conceded it was open for debate.[5]

Many of the issues then were referred to a committee to help resolve them. It’s been claimed this was a delaying tactic, both by angry levellers at the time and historians subsequently; but as some historians have noted, this is evidently not so; the success of the committee meetings are often over looked and no attempt was taken to stuff them were Grandee placemen – it included 18 officers and 18 agitators. In fact their report embraced the revolutionary concept of powers inalienable powers of the people reserved from parliament, the powers of commons was enormously enhanced in relation to King and Lords; it was to be biennial, constituencies were to be revised and voting also – but the decision as to what extent the franchise was extended was left to parliament.[6] It might be of interest to know that the existing franchise was probably 212,000; the tentative agreement of the Putney debates of all except servants and the recipients of poor relief, would have mean about 1.2 million, in a total population of around 5 million.

There was another meeting of the full General Council on 1st November, again Cromwell presiding; the debate focussed on king and lords and Cromwell could not understand the obsession with the King’s royal veto, and in addition could see no ‘visible presence of the people, either by subscriptions or number’ in favour of The Agreement of the People.

By the end of the meeting though, a Declaration to Parliament was agreed, based on the findings of the committee; the Commons were to be supreme, and a new election held by September 1648 at the latest. Despite the fact that it was to be presented to parliament rather than imposed on it, the radicals and Levellers had virtually won the General Council over through the Putney Debates. Ireton and Cromwell cannot have been pleased. At a further meeting on 5th November with Fairfax in the chair, silently presiding, a letter was approved to be sent to parliament alleging the army was opposed to discussions with the king, which basically said everything Grandees had said to parliament was a big fat fib with brass knobs on; Ireton was furious and stormed out – so much for consensus[7].

The background to all of this was the rising sea of turmoil and dissent elsewhere. On 30th October, King Charles informed his captors at Hampton Court that he withdrew his parole, an example of Charles scrupulously observing a specific oath he had made rather than suggestions made in negotiation. So that gave people plenty to worry about – he was up to something.


The army meanwhile was in uproar. The Levellers were launching attack after attack on Cromwell and Ireton’s reputations. Wildman was far more interested in power than in compromise, and he produced a document called A Call to all Soldiers to the Army by the Free People of England denouncing the pair of them and inciting them to replace their officers; new Leveller agitators were being raised in some regiments, including the regiment of Robert Lilburne. Robert by the way, is John Lilburne’s brother, and loyal to Fairfax and Cromwell. They have another brother too, Henry, of whom we’ll hear in the next episode. Robert’s regiment had also refused to go to Newcastle, whence it had been ordered, which is mutiny by any other name.

But meanwhile other soldiers in the very same regiment, 400 of them, had declared their loyalty to the King would you believe! Fairfax had also received petitions from a number of regiments expressing resentment against the behaviour of their own agitators asking for them to be sent back from the Council, and undertaking to submit to any decision Fairfax decided. Hewson’s regiment sent a petition condemning the forces of division – and everyone knew they meant the levellers and agitators.

The Levellers continued to whip things up; for Lilburne I think there was only one consensus, and that was his consensus. On 3rd November, their version of the Agreement of the People appeared on newsstands, completely ignoring and undermining therefore the process going on at the Putney Council in which they’d been included. In prison, Lilburne told Lewis Dyve his royalist cell mate, that they were planning to purge parliament and arrest Cromwell and his faction of officers. Lilburne was also often seen freely walking around London.[8]

It is all going pear-shaped. The Army handcart is rattling through the caves measureless to man not on the scared Rover Alph down to Xanadu’s sunless sea but down to bottomless perdition there to dwell in penal fire and all that.

Over the weekend before the next General council meeting, Cromwell and Fairfax put their heads together. And on 8th November they went on the offensive. With Fairfax in the chair, Cromwell moved to send the representative officers and agitators back to their regiments. Such was his and Fairfax’s personal prestige, that it was agreed without even the need for a vote. The Council then ordered a committee to put together a Remonstrance to be presented for approval to the whole army at a rendez vous. Committees were appointed to help Fairfax prepare the remonstrance which would reconcile the Army’s previous solemn engagement with the Case of the Army and the Agreement of the People. Remarkably, although Cromwell and Ireton were involved, so also were Rainsborough and John Wildman, neither of whom were even in the army.

The following day, 9th November the Grandee fight back continued.  The Radicals and Levellers on the council were determined that the rendez vous of the army would be in one place. They fully intended to highjack it, induce a mutiny throughout the army around the Agreement of the People and march on parliament. 21 radical officers had indeed just sent a letter to parliament identifying the king as ‘your capital enemy’.

Fairfax wasn’t having it. The army regiments were too widely dispersed he ruled, rendez vous would be held across four days at three locations so that he could visit and address each regiment in person. The radicals and the Levellers in London were outraged; this was a way to subvert the Agreement of the People, and they began preparing for a large scale mutiny, as the General Council was wound up and the representatives sent back to their regiments to prepare for the general meetings of the army. Then just to make sure no one was able to chill out over the weekend, news came in on 11th November – the King had indeed done a bunk, he’d gone over the wall. He had escaped from Hampton Court, fled and was running like a bunny. No one knew to which warren he was headed.

So another crisis then, that’s good. Find out how things turn out next time – a royalist uprising? Mutiny in the army and a republican democratic commonwealth? Presbyterian counter Reformation, Grandee fight back? The possibilities are endless.

Anyway until next time, I do hope you have enjoyed the Putney Debates it really is quite a story. I have plenty of links on the website on the podcast post, do go and have a look, including a link to an excellent episode on Melvyn and the In Our Time podcast, still the gold standard of history podcasting.

Until next time then, best wishes from me and all the Crowther players, good luck, and have a great week.



[1] Robertson, G: ‘The Levellers’, pVIII

[2] Mendle,M, Ed: ‘The Putney Debates of 1647’

[3] Robertson, G: The Leveller: The Putney Debates’, p XX

[4] Woolrych, A: ‘Britain in Revolution’, p392

[5] Kishlansky, M: ‘Consensus Politics and the Structure of Debate at Putney’

[6] Gentles, I: ‘The New Model Army’, pp 98-99

[7] Woolrych, A: ‘Britain in Revolution’, p393

[8] Gentles, Ian: ‘The New Model Army’, p100





8 thoughts on “405 The Putney Debates

  1. Thank you for the recommendation of the ‘In Our Time’ episode. I follow that podcast but there are so many I will never catch up. While there I also listened to the episode on the highland clearances so am prepped for your next Scotland episode.

  2. Golly! What an episode! I knew it was going to be a doozy based on the topic, but I did not expect high grade table-thumping work from the Crowther players too! I even found Ireton surprisingly convincing. I can absolutely understand why someone at that time might think universal suffrage was a terrible idea, based on history up to that point. Ancient Greece and Rome were rather prone to demagoguery, after all.
    The Levellers made the classic mistake of all revolutionaries and threw away a really good outcome in pursuit of an ideal one. A huge own goal. Unbelievably frustrating. They’ve only got themselves to blame there.

    1. Yes you might be right. Obviously I like to think of the Levellers as far thinking heroes, but as the nextr few months will show they are poor politicians

  3. Loved, loved, loved the episode. Having the words of the various ‘players’ read by the C players was inspired and made the words come alive in a new way. Not that you don’t David, but it was cool to her different inflections and what not to differentiate the words of the various participants. Great episode.

    1. Thanks Kathryn! There’d been quite a gap between the last performance of the Crowther players soit was great to get everyone involved!

  4. Bravo! David and all the Crowther Players, Bravo!

    Best episode ever.

    No time specific comments now, but wow what great work.

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