A Case Study by Francis Lee for The Saker Blog
Civil wars are by their nature rather messy and often brutal affairs involving inter alia internecine conflicts, secessions, forced reunifications, mass murder, military stand-offs and long-lasting periods of bitterness. Most states in Europe and North America have not managed to avoid this regrettable pattern of conflict, looking back, this much always seemed unavoidable. The English Civil War was no exception in this respect. In layman’s terms this was ostensibly a war fought between the King (Charles I) and Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell and his fellow parliamentary radicals, including Henry Ireton, Arthur Haslerigg, John Campden and John Pym, who led the political revolt in Parliament which precipitated the civil war 1642-1649. Cromwell’s creation of the New Model Army was the crucial military factor in this war with the turning point being the key battles of Marston Moor (near York) 1644, and Naseby (in Northamptonshire) 1645 where the King’s army was routed.
The Putney Debates, as they were called, emerged after the war – with the exception of the battle of Worcester as late as 1651, but the war was over by this time. The debates were a series of discussions which took place firstly between Parliament and the (captive) King, and thereafter, between various factions within the New Model Army and the Levellers (1) concerning a new parliamentary constitution for England. The debates were held at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, in Putney, (a small borough in London SW15) in October and November 1647. The church even today still stands on the south side of the River Thames. These debates were of an equal importance as was the Magna Carta which took place in England in 1215. But the movements in the geographical deep-terrain which gives rise to earthquakes, can also be seen as being analogous to the political and social upheavals in politics, history and society. The civil war was one such event among many, including the American civil war 1861-1865. But for now we will confine ourselves to the conflict between the English King and the common people.
Grandees (Conservatives) & Radicals
During the summer of 1647, the attempts by the “Grandees” Cromwell and his son-in-law Ireton to negotiate a settlement with King Charles in the aftermath of the First Civil War had lost them the support of military and civilian radicals. The Levellers criticised Ireton in particular for servility in his negotiations with the King and Parliament and accused the Grandees of betraying the interests of the common soldiers and people of England. In October 1647, five of the most radical cavalry regiments elected new Agitators—known as the “New Agents”—to represent their views. The New Agents issued a political manifesto: The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, and endorsed the constitutional proposals drafted by civilian Levellers in the Agreement of the People.
The radicals wanted a constitution based upon manhood suffrage (“one man, one vote”), biennial parliaments and a reorganisation of parliamentary constituencies. Authority was to be vested in the Lower Chamber, the House of Commons rather than the King and the Upper Chamber, the House of Lords. Certain “native rights” were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law.
The Grandees responded by inviting the New Agents and their civilian supporters to debate their proposals before the General Council of the Army. In the absence of Commander-In-Chief, of the New Model Army, General Sir Thomas Fairfax, discussions were chaired by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. A committee was formed to finalise all constitutional proposals. Cromwell vetoed demands made by radicals who called for the overthrow of the monarchy and worked with Commissary-General Henry Ireton to moderate the extremism of the Levellers. Ireton insisted that his own Heads of the Proposals covered all the issues raised in the Case of the Armie and the Levellers’ Agreement with far less radical disruption of society.
The New Model Army, Cavalry Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, emerged as the highest-ranking Leveller sympathiser, calling for Parliament to break off negotiations with the King and to force through a new constitution on its own terms. Other Leveller spokesmen were the Agitators Edward Sexby and William Allen, and civilians John Wildman and Maximilian Petty.
The debates began on 28 October 1647. For three days, the proceedings were transcribed verbatim by the secretary William Clarke and a team of stenographers using a system of shorthand. From 2 November, however, all recording ceased. The debates were not reported, and Clarke’s minutes were not published at the time. They were lost until 1890 when a transcription was discovered in the library of Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian C.H. Firth
Much of the recorded debate centred around the franchise. The radicals regarded the right to vote as fundamental to all freeborn Englishmen—a right which had been won by fighting for freedom in the civil war. Cromwell and Ireton, however, regarded the idea of manhood suffrage as tantamount to anarchy. To the indignation of the radicals, they insisted that the vote should be restricted to property owners, prompting Sexby, Rainsborough and others to ask what it was that the ordinary soldiers had been fighting for all this time. After several days spent in heated debate, both sides appeared willing to compromise to a certain extent. The Levellers agreed that servants and alms-takers should be excluded from the franchise; the Grandees conceded that soldiers who had fought for Parliament should be granted the vote.
The ultra-radical of the time was one, Gerard Winstanley, who in pursuit of the Levellers demands was leader of a political and religious sect the ‘Diggers’ an anarchist outfit that were even more radical than the Levellers. His rhetoric was characterised by an incendiary Protestantism. He spoke as follows:
The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man … True freedom lies in the enjoyment of the earth … if the common people hath no more freedom in England but only to live among their elder brothers and work for them for hire, what freedom then have they in England more than we can have in Turkey or France … While the Kingly reign of one man called Charles (the first) all sorts of people complained of oppression … whereupon you that were the Gentry, when you were assembled in Parliament, you called upon the poor common people to come and help you … that top bough is lopped off the tree of tyranny, and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still and keeps the sun of freedom of the poor commons still.(2) Of course it doesn’t take much to deduce that Winstanley was a man talking before his time, and indeed before ours. And further: …No person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here permanent and fixed interest in this Kingdom. (3)
Although the Army Council did not carry the Levellers’ proposal that the Agreement of the People should be adopted as the Army’s official constitutional programme, a vote was secured for a mass rendezvous at which the Agreement would be presented to the troops. The radicals hoped that it would be adopted by popular consent of the soldiers, then pressed upon Parliament and the nation. However, Cromwell and Ireton were alarmed at the extremism of the Levellers. Fearing a collapse of constitutional authority, Cromwell was determined to maintain discipline in the Army at all costs. On 8 November, he proposed and carried a motion that the meeting of the Army Council should be temporarily suspended. The Agitators and representative officers were ordered back to their regiments. A new committee, consisting only of officers, was formed to draw up a manifesto in the name of Sir Thomas Fairfax and the Army Council to be presented to the troops in place of the Levellers’ Agreement. The proposed general rendezvous was modified to three smaller reviews — resulting in the near-mutiny at Corkbush Field on 15 November 1647 and the suppression of the Army radicals.
Meanwhile, the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court on 11 November 1647 was to dramatically change the situation. The New Model Army closed ranks as a second civil war threatened. The representation of rank-and-file soldiers on the Army Council was quietly dropped early in 1648, and never tried again.
As is often the case the reactionary old order eventually made a come-back and the revolutionary/democratic impulse was to an extent contained, this much is true of most civil wars, but the restoration was, however, only partial. Parliament was strengthened and Kingly power which was by now purely constitutional after Charles 1 had had his head chopped off for Treason in 1649. This was the irreversible culmination of the ancien regime. Thus parliamentary democracy, with all its faults, (and faults if had were many) was the outcome of what was essentially a revolutionary war, a class war: the war of the emerging class coalition against the King and the old order.
But the political struggle of the ordinary peoples continues as it always does – having established the gains made by the revolution paid for in sorrow and blood. Sad to say, however, that these gains which were made have been gradually chipped away and undermined by counter-revolutionary forces currently in the ascendent. This is apparent all over the West. What was true in the 17th century is blindly obvious today, and analogous to our own times where the structures and institutions which were meant to govern without favour and mediating between the demands and interests of the polity, have undergone a structural transformation and now serve only the rich and powerful. This has been the pattern; during the English Civil war, and for that matter all civil wars. since the ordinary people have an innate radical instinct, not always conscious, but a political disposition to push for political and economic reforms; for the common people are like a plant – a plant which will always push up and struggle towards the light. As the Italians say
La Lotta Continua.
* Fairfax’s descendants were to emigrate to America as it then was and settled in that part of Washington, Virginia now called ‘Fairfax’.
(1) The Levellers. Probably one of the most important factions among various other anti-monarchist groups, Ranters, Diggers, Baptists, Quakers, with strong representation in the New Model Army.
(2) Attributed to Gerard Winstanley – leader of the ‘Diggers’ a revolutionary sect further out than the Levellers. ‘
(3) Major Thomas Rainsborough – Cavalry Commander whose mounted troops became known as the ‘Ironsides’ in the New Model Army. Leon Trotsky, no less, was rather impressed by this name. He wrote ‘’In 1644 Cromwell’s “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King’s horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score British workers can learn much from Cromwell.’’ (Where is Britain Going – Leon Trotsky 1925)
God’s Englishman – Christopher Hill – 1970
The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill – 1974
Film ‘Cromwell’ 1970
Richard Harris as Cromwell
Sir Alec Guinness as King Charles
Dorthy Tutin as the Kings Wife
This was a very good production – particularly well-acted – and historically accurate. It also didn’t take sides. You can get it on Amazon £4-50