The Putney Debates – A founding moment of British democracy

By the summer of 1647, Parliament had won the First Civil War.  At the battles of Naseby and Langport, the New Model Army had crushed the Royalist field armies and the King himself was now their prisoner. But all was not well on the parliamentary side.

There was disquiet and dissatisfaction in the New Model’s ranks. These victorious soldiers increasingly feared that Parliament and the Army’s leaders  – popularly called Grandees – were preparing to betray the political and religious ideals for which so much blood had been spilled over the previous years of bitter fighting.

Their grievances were forcefully represented by their elected representatives, the Army Agitators who declared ‘all degrees of men should be levelled, and an equality should be established’. Their radical manifesto, The Agreement of the People, proposed religious toleration, a general amnesty, an end to Conscription, legal equality applied to everyone, biennial Parliaments and equality of the number of voters in each constituency.

The Grandees – especially Oliver Cromwell – interpreted this as a direct challenge to their authority at a time when they were offering the King generous terms of settlement in their Heads of Proposals.

In an attempt to resolve these differences, General Council of the New Model Army, chaired by at various points by Fairfax and Cromwell, came to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Putney, on 27 October 1647 to debate the way forward.

As Professor Ted Vallance of the University of Roehampton says the result was a rough and egalitarian debate which fuelled the journey to Regicide and arguably created a founding moment in the history of Britian’s democracy.

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The World Turned Upside Down - The British Civil Wars 1638-1651
The World Turned Upside Down - The British Civil Wars 1638-1651
The Putney Debates – A founding moment of British democracy
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Listen here

The World Turned Upside Down - The British Civil Wars 1638-1651
The World Turned Upside Down - The British Civil Wars 1638-1651
The Putney Debates – A founding moment of British democracy
/

Also available on

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Contributor

Ted Vallance

Director of the Graduate School, University of Roehampton

Ted Vallance is Professor of History at the University of Roehampton. He is the author of four books, most recently Loyalty, Memory and Public Opinion in England,…

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Sources

Excerpts from the Putney Debates and An Agreement of the People (1647) in Andrew Sharp ed., The English Levellers (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Phil Baker, ‘Putney Debaters’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)