There is a gaping hole in what passes for British history taught in many of our schools. While many students will know of an English civil war fought between King Charles I and parliament in the 1640s, few will get any sense of the revolutionary process that brought Oliver Cromwell to power as England’s first non-royal head of state.
Instead, Charles’s execution will be presented as the work of bloodthirsty “regicides”. The anti-royalist forces will be stereotyped as killjoy Puritans who failed to grasp the quintessentially English method of bringing about change ever so gradually.
For anyone who wants to know what a travesty this picture is, there is no better place to start than the Putney Debates, which took place at St Mary’s Church in Putney, south London, on 28 October 1647.
They perfectly capture the flowering of democratic debate that emerged from the English Revolution – and detail radical proposals for constituting society in a totally new way.
The transcript of the Putney Debates, which was discovered in 1890, record a long but riveting argument at the general council of the New Model Army – the parliamentary army which had turned the tide against the royalist forces to win the First Civil War.
In 1642 Charles raised an army against the English parliament, which he saw as purely a means of raising revenue. It was unthinkable for him that the “divine right of kings” should be diluted by allowing parliament a meaningful role in forming policy.
The resulting frustrations of some MPs found a loud echo among the wider population, particularly in London, and large crowds presented petitions to the House of Commons.
Yet the parliamentary leaders were initially hesitant to harness this enthusiasm when civil war broke out. Their armies were raised in the usual way, with unqualified landowners leading conscripted soldiers.
They were convinced to change tack by Cromwell, a minor landowner and MP for Cambridge, who created an army based on freedom of worship and the conviction of volunteers – whatever their class.
As Cromwell argued, “If you choose godly honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them... I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”
Each regiment of Cromwell’s army elected “agitators” – representatives who would put the views of ordinary soldiers to the army grandees.
The success of this policy left the royalists defeated and Charles under house arrest. But the parliamentary leaders were equally imprisoned by their ways of thinking.
In particular, they could not imagine a country without a king. This enabled Charles to set the terms of the debate over a new constitutional settlement, even as he prepared a counterblow against parliament by enlisting the support of a Scottish army.
The New Model Army thus became increasingly sympathetic to the ideas of the Levellers – the name given to radical pamphleteers such as John Lilburne. They demanded the vote, religious tolerance and an end to parliamentary corruption. In return they were accused of wanting “a world turned upside down”.
Finding their support among the “middling sort” of artisans and minor traders, the Levellers chafed against the lack of democracy thrown up by a system that was moving towards capitalism but still reflected the feudal customs of the past.
At the Putney church, civilian Levellers such as John Wildman and Maximillian Petty joined fellow traveller agitators such as Thomas Rainborough and Edward Sexby in calling for the New Model Army to advocate “An Agreement Of The People” to parliament.
This was an extraordinary and novel call for a constitutional settlement based on the consent of the population, rather than a sovereignty based on the monarchy or even on parliament.
The Agreement called for parliamentary elections every two years and for the franchise to be extended to all free men. As the agitator Rainborough famously said during the debate, “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.”
But this message was repeatedly resisted by the army grandees, particularly General Henry Ireton, who said he “would have an eye to property”. He contended that while all Englishmen had a god-given right to live in England, only those “with a fixed permanent interest” (land worth at least 40 shillings) should be able to elect its parliament.
Rainborough had a series of rejoinders. Hadn’t god given man reason in order to better his position? What about the soldiers who had lost their estates while fighting for parliament? And why should men obey laws which they were allowed no part in forming?
Ireton responded by pointing to the dangerously radical potential of such a wide franchise – the result could be “anarchy” he said. Ireton found support from the aptly named Colonel Rich, who contended that “if the master and servant shall be equal electors... there may be a law enacted that there shall be an equality of goods and estate”.
This was not Rainborough’s intention, and it would be misleading to retrospectively paint the Levellers in socialist colours. Their denunciations of the “negative voice” (or veto) of the king and House of Lords were genuinely radical, but not all of them were republicans. They were a product of their time, and did not call for women’s equality.
And while some might have welcomed the social levelling that Ireton and Rich warned of, others denied that political and economic equality had any kind of relationship.
Meanwhile some Levellers such as Petty accepted that beggars and servants (a large section of the population) should be excluded from the franchise as they could not vote independently.
These weaknesses were not the result of individual flaws, but a reflection of the social interests of the Levellers.
Whether artisans, horsemen or traders, they desired to access the market, which was increasingly dominating social relationships, on equal terms with their aristocratic “betters”. The frustration of these desires led to radical questions about where power and authority should be located.
Despite this, the Levellers and agitators won the argument in the general council and in a committee established by Cromwell to turn down the heat.
But then the king escaped from house arrest and instigated a second civil war. While this confirmed that there was no trusting Charles, it also allowed Cromwell to kick the Levellers’ proposals into the long grass.
A few points stand out. First, the Levellers were completely justified in denouncing Charles, the representative of absolute monarchy, as the architect of the civil wars. Historian Charles Carlton estimates that 190,000 people in England and Wales died as a result of these wars – at a time when the population of Britain was below five million.
Second, while the Putney Debates were grounded in religious language and preceded by long prayer sessions, the substance of the debates went far beyond religion. Religion provided a common vocabulary for expressing grievances and notions of justice – a vocabulary that could be put to very different ends by different speakers.
Finally, the Levellers’ concept of popular sovereignty goes far beyond the pale imitation we currently enjoy. The “negative voice” of monarch and lords, which they briefly silenced, still requires permanent abolition.
But while the redistribution of wealth was always likely to be problematic for the Levellers, socialists today see economic and social democracy as essential partners of genuine political democracy. We should find inspiration from that church in Putney 360 years ago in our struggles today to create a truly democratic society.
A free exhibition marking the Putney Debates has just opened at St Mary’s Church, Putney High Street, London SW15. For details go to » www.putneydebates.com
The Putney Debates, presented by Geoffrey Robertson, Verso
The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined, Paul Foot, Viking
The Far Left in the English Revolution, Brian Manning, Bookmarks
England’s Turning Point, Christopher Hill, Bookmarks