1647 – A year of tumultuous and unstable ‘peace’


Speaker: 1647 was the first year of peace after Parliament’s victory in the First Civil War. But rather than a return to pre-war normality, the year brought more instability, as the lives of the British and Irish peoples were turned upside down


The year began when the defeated king was sold to the Westminster Parliament by his Scot’s captors and ended with an imprisoned Charles I, signing a secret treaty with the Scots, which would have imposed Presbyterianism on England. It was also a year in which Oliver Cromwell suffered an illness that kept him out of political life for over a month and by the time he recovered,  a majority of both Houses of Parliament pushed for a settlement that would pay off the Scottish army, disband much of the New Model Army and restore Charles I in return for a Presbyterian settlement of the church. Cromwell rejected the Scottish model of Presbyterianism which threatened to replace one authoritarian hierarchy with another. The New Model Army, radicalised by Parliament’s failure to pay the wages it was owed, petitioned against these changes but the Commons declared the petition unlawful. In response,  factions within the army demanded a settlement of their grievances, inspired by John Lilburne and the Levellers, the soldiers demanded new political and religious rights, leading to tense debates in Putney church during the autumn, between Cromwell and Henry Ireton on the one hand and Levellers like Thomas Rainborough and John Wildman on the other.


            In this programme, part of a series exploring the critical years of the mid-17th century, social historian and author, Dr Jonathan Healey of the University of Oxford, takes us through the dramatic events of the year of 1647.


Dr Healey: At the beginning of 1647, Parliament had won the war. But the process of winning that war had brought an acrimonious split within their own party. Not only this, but the King had surrendered not to them but to the Scottish army. For now, Charles remained critical. There could be no peace without him, most thought. Over the next twelve months, the different sides would engage in a dangerous game of brinkmanship and negotiation. The fate of the country would hang on the outcome of these.


As a hard winter began to thaw in 1647, Parliament managed to get the Scots to hand Charles over, in return for a substantial payment. In February, the Covenanter army marched out of England and Charles was moved to the sumptuous Holdenby House in Northamptonshire. Here he was lavishly entertained, and allowed to pay visits to his new landowner neighbours, including the Spencers at Althorp, with whom the king played bowls.


At Westminster, Parliament was anything but united. On the one side was the so-called ‘Political Presbyterians’, led by Denzil Holles, who wanted the swift Restoration of the King – albeit on a restricted constitutional settlement – so that they could reduce the power of the religious radicals and the New Model Army. On the other were the Independents, supported by the gathered congregations and the radical sects, with allies in the Army.


For the Army, a sizeable, victorious force, there were several non-negotiables. They wanted arrears of pay, they wanted not to be sent to Ireland except under their own commanders, and they wanted Indemnity for acts committed during the war. This last was extremely important, for wartime actions like the requisitioning of horses might be reinterpreted as theft by a vindictive peacetime magistrate. And horse theft was a capital crime.


In London, meanwhile, a radical political movement had begun to stir. Associated with religious Independents and grounded in a sophisticated network of print distribution and petitioning, it did not have a name yet, but it started to worry that Parliament, having defeated royal tyranny, might become tyrannical itself. What, then, should be done? The answer, perhaps, lay in setting outside certain key fundamentals that could not be altered by the legislature; and in frequent elections. Among the leaders of this movement were men like John Lilburne and William Walwyn, but it also drew support from London women – Elizabeth Lilburne, for example, and Katherine Chidley. What it didn’t have, yet, was much in the way of contacts in the army. That would come soon, though. In February, the radicals launched their biggest appeal yet: a massive petition, known to posterity as the Large Petition. It asked for legal and social reforms and was presented to the House of Commons, addressed as the ‘supreme authority of this nation’.


At the end of February, a delegation from Parliament, led by the Presbyterians, travelled to meet army delegates at Saffron Walden in Essex. They were shocked by what they saw.


The army had been organising itself, not as a military body, but as a political unit. Soldiers’ grievances had been distilled into a single petition. It was addressed to Sir Thomas Fairfax, their commander, but somehow the Parliamentary delegation men got  their hands on a copy. Soon it was revealed to the Commons, and Holles was tasked with drafting the Common’s response. He left the House at around 9pm one evening, returning shortly afterwards with a hasty declaration expressing ‘high dislike’ for the petition, fuming that the officers who encouraged it would be considered ‘enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace’. Holles’ so-called ‘Declaration of Dislike’ passed the Commons that night, and the Lords the next day. Parliament ordered that it be read out to each regiment – an act of gross provocation and an insult to the honour of the Army generals.


            By early April, tempers were flaring in the Commons. At one point, Denzil Holles nearly came to a duel with Henry Ireton – an officer in the New Model, who had been elected as a ‘recruiter’ to replace absent royalist MPs, and who had married Bridget Cromwell, Oliver’s daughter. Meanwhile, the Presbyterians were pushing ahead with a plan to reduce the Army’s size. In response, Fairfax summoned nearly 200 of his officers to meet in Saffron Walden’s great medieval church – everyone down to the captains and lieutenants. Soon, some 151 officers would sign a document: the Vindication of the Officers of the Army. It preached solidarity between officers and men, not just for the good of the soldiery, but for England. ‘We hope…’, it said, ‘that in purchasing the freedoms of our brethren that we have not lost our own’.


            Still Parliament pushed on.

            By this point, though, something new had happened in eight of the Cavalry regiments. Since the middle of April, they had elected representatives, known as ‘agents’ or ‘agitators’, two from each regiment. At the end of the month, three Agitators, William Allen, Thomas Shepard, and Edward Sexby, presented a paper on behalf of all sixteen to Fairfax before putting it to the Commons. It accused MPs of trying to break the army and set themselves up as tyrants. The Commons ordered an emergency sitting, at which its officer-MPs, Cromwell, Ireton, Skippon, and Fleetwood, were told to ride hard up to Saffron Walden and to settle this smouldering discord. Arriving, they found the town on edge. Soldiers were standing ready to fight, some posted on street corners with drawn swords.


In the shadows, the Agitators were creating their own administrative network and were starting to think about propaganda, looking to employ ‘able pen men’ and printers ‘to satisfy and undeceive the people’.[1] They were cavalrymen, so likely to be literate members of the middling sort, and their horses meant they could communicate more quickly with each other by racing across the byways of Essex and Hertfordshire and down to London. Soon, contact was being made between them and the London radicals – Edward Sexby seems to have acted as a go-between. He, William Allen, and others travelled to the Tower, where they visited John Lilburne. The Agitators in the army were making contacts with the radicals in London.


On 20 May, the Lords voted to invite the King to Oatlands, just nineteen miles from Westminster. Here they hoped he could be persuaded to strike a deal with the Presbyterians. Even with the crescendo of the previous weeks, this was major escalation, for a royal treaty would have drastically weakened the position of the Army and their Independent allies. Holles even thought he might be able to raise a force of his own, to counter the New Model, made up of the London Trained Bands, the northern Parliamentarian army – which was no longer under Fairfax’s command – and the growing band of disbanded soldiers who were gathering in London. Then, on the 25th, Parliament finalised the plan for disbandment: it was to take place over the first two weeks of June, at separate rendezvous locations. Divided, they hoped, the New Model Army could finally be conquered.


Now, though, the Agitators were acting fast. ‘Pray, Gentlemen, ride night and day’, wrote one of them from London to his fellows.[2] In Hampshire, Thomas Rainborough’s regiment of foot, without orders, suddenly started moving north towards Oxford, where the artillery train was stationed.


On the 29th, Fairfax called a Council of War at Bury St Edmunds, where the Agitators had established a headquarters. It was to be a critical moment. The Agitators presented a petition asking Fairfax to call a general rendezvous, in direct defiance of Parliament. It would bring together the whole of the New Model in solidarity. Fairfax, after consulting with his officers, agreed.


By this point, a new gambit was in motion that would escalate things dramatically. But it came not from the High Command. It came from the Agitators.


On the evening of 31 May, Cromwell received a visitor at his lodgings in Drury Lane. His name was George Joyce, a cornet – the lowest rank of commissioned Cavalry officer – in Fairfax’s lifeguard. He was here to tell Cromwell of a plan that would change everything.


Over the last couple of days Joyce had gathered a force of 500 Cavalry troopers. His original purpose seems to have been to seize the Army artillery train at Oxford, to make sure it stayed loyal to the New Model, presumably rendezvousing with Rainborough’s lost regiment.


At some point, though, Joyce heard that Parliament had decided to move the King from Holdenby, perhaps even bringing him to London. This was an immediate danger to the Army’s cause, so Joyce left new orders to his men at Oxford, telling them to ride hard the next day to Holdenby, where Joyce would later join with them. Then he set off for London to meet with Cromwell and tell him of the plan.


Having met with Cromwell, Joyce rode up to Holdenby, arriving before his troops coming from Oxford, on the 2 June. The soldiers guarding the King, who was at Althorp playing bowls, immediately welcomed Joyce. But, that night, their commander Colonel Richard Graves slipped away. If Graves, who was fiercely loyal to Parliament, returned at the head of a larger force, who knew what might happen.


In the morning, Joyce wrote urgently to Cromwell for further instructions. Then, later that day, he consulted his fellow soldiers, and they were agreed. They would have to move the King. So, at 10pm, the cornet entered the royal bedchamber and told the startled Charles that he would be moved in the morning, promising that he would be unharmed.


            In the early hours that night, Charles was roused from bed. Joyce’s troopers were gathered outside the massive mansion, ready to join the road, destination as yet undetermined.


            At this point, Charles was defiant. He asked Joyce what commission he had: whom did it come from? ‘It came from the soldiery of the army’, Joyce replied. ‘Have you no document?’, Charles pressed. Joyce gestured to the men behind him: ‘Here is my commission’.


‘Behind me’, pointing at the men.

Charles wryly conceded the point. ‘It is a fair commission and as well written as I have seen a commission written in my life.’

Did Joyce mean that his commission was simply one of force? Perhaps that’s what Charles thought. More likely, Joyce meant that his commission came from the ranks. It came from the wills of the men not the steel of their swords.


But where should they go?

Joyce suggested Oxford or Cambridge. Charles had a different idea. He had fond memories of Newmarket, where – he remembered – the air was clear. Joyce agreed. It was a remarkable coincidence, for this was exactly where the New Model had decided to hold its rendezvous.


‘Certainly God hath appeared in a mighty manner’, wrote Joyce that evening. ‘Let the Agitators know’, he told his messenger, we have done nothing in our own name, but what we have done hath been in the name of the whole army.’[3]

            That same day, Oliver Cromwell would leave Westminster, and ride north. He, too, made for Newmarket.


As Fairfax’s army was gathering on a large heath outside Newmarket, Parliament began to appreciate that it had stirred a hornet’s nest. Sitting all through the night of 3 June, they agreed to retract the notorious Declaration of Dislike. But it was too late. On the 5th, a crucial document was being read and acclaimed by the Army on the heath. The Agitators had consulted for this one too, but it was largely written by Henry Ireton. Known as the Solemn Engagement of the Army, it vowed only to disband once the Army’s grievances had been met, and once the ‘freeborn people of England’ were safe from the tyranny of Holles and his allies, and once a ‘common and equal right, freedom and safety to the whole’ had been established. It also called into being a new army governing body to monitor exactly when these demands had been met: to comprise not only the high command, but also two representatives of the soldiers of each regiment, this was to be called – the ‘general council of the army’.


            The army packed up, ready to march south towards the capital, ready for a showdown with Holles and the Presbyterians. On 10 June, Fairfax sent a letter to the City of London, assuring them that despite the army’s march, he wished for no coup against the government. Parliament responded by ordering his army to stay at least forty miles away. From London, though, the signs weren’t encouraging. Drummers raising men for the Militia that would fight the New Model Army were roundly jeered by local lads. The Trained Bands were refusing to rally against the New Model.


The next move was for a group of officer MPs to prepare Impeachment charges against eleven key Presbyterian Members of Parliament, led by Holles. A declaration was issued, in which the Army claimed to speak for the nation:

‘We were not a mere mercenary army hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by several declarations of parliament to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties’.


It called for liberty of conscience, a purge of the present parliament, a statutory limitation to the length of parliaments, and to the reapportionment of seats, so that they better matched each constituency’s tax burden. Royalists, save an egregious few, were to be pardoned: renewal was to be the order of the day, not retribution.


On 23 June, the Army issued an ultimatum to Parliament, giving them until the next night to suspend the accused eleven members. The deadline passed, so the next day, Fairfax moved the army to Uxbridge, just fifteen miles from Westminster, spreading his infantry out from Watford to Staines. On the 26th, the worried Eleven Members asked for permission to leave the House. It was granted.


The Presbyterians in Parliament had been broken. The Army now agreed to withdraw its headquarters to Reading. Charles, meanwhile, asked to come to Windsor and – after careful thought – Fairfax allowed him to move to Caversham, helpfully adjacent to the Army HQ. His confinement under Fairfax was fairly genial: he was allowed to communicate with the Queen, to worship with the Prayer Book, and to see his children. To Charles this all suggested how desperate the Army were to please him.


The key players in the three camps: King, Parliament, and Army were now converging on a small patch of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, in the wooded foothills of the Chilterns, just north of the winding River Thames. The King arrived at Caversham on 3 July, while the day before, emissaries from Parliament had begun negotiations with the Army at an inn, in High Wycombe. Charles spent several days pressing representatives of the Army to make him an offer. Henrietta Maria, meanwhile, had sent a representative to Reading to negotiate a settlement. His name was Sir John Berkeley, a former diplomat and once a rather tempestuous Cavalier, whose years of military experience had now left him with a genuinely pragmatic bent. He was a smart choice, for he was respected by the officers of the New Model as an honourable and capable opponent from the war. Ireton and the Yorkshireman John Lambert were sent off to prepare a document setting out the Army’s expectations of a future settlement.


On 16 July, the first General Council of the Army met, in Reading. It included the Agitators, who called for an immediate march to London. Cromwell and Ireton argued against: this would be a wholly illegitimate display of force, and in any case, they hadn’t even decided what they would do once they took power. At some point, Ireton slipped away.


That night, he sat up late. With him, deep in discussion, was the Queen’s agent Berkeley.

In the morning, as the General Council sat down for another meeting, Ireton entered the room, bringing with him the first draft of a remarkable document. It was a set of proposals for the final settling of the kingdom, to be offered to Charles as a basis for peace.


The Heads of the Proposals, as Ireton’s document came to be called, was the most promising set of terms produced yet – considerably more generous to Charles than the current offer from Parliament. In the Heads, Parliaments were to be time limited, constituencies reformed; the armed forces controlled by Parliament for ten years, the previous offer said twenty. In constitutional terms, this was about settling balance between king, Parliament, and people, not about grabbing power for themselves. Only a small handful of Royalists were to be prosecuted, and most were to get off much lighter than under the Newcastle terms. Crucially, the Book of Common Prayer was to be allowed, though not mandated; bishops could remain, and there was to be no coercion in the church. This would have allowed Charles to maintain the rudiments of his old Church, but it would also allow for the protection of the Independent congregations.


Ireton acknowledged they were a work in progress. The Agitator William Allen, asked for more time to consider them for: ‘I suppose it is not unknown to you that we are most of us but young Statesmen’.[4] So the document was sent to a committee of twenty-four: half officers, including Ireton and Lambert, and half Agitators. At some point, quite possibly as a result of discussions in committee, a series of additional ‘common grievances of this people’ were added. These suggest significant dialogue with the London radicals: an end to the excise, free trade, fairer taxation, and simplification of the law. The new proposals, reported a newsletter, could ensure that ‘Monarchy may be so settled, but not to be so hurtful as formerly.’[5]


The king wasn’t yet willing to treat. He distrusted the officers, he said, largely because they hadn’t asked for personal preferment.[6] But Parliament was at last starting to move in the right direction. On the 20th, it heard the Heads. So the Army began to withdraw into Bedfordshire, away from Westminster.


The King was relocated to Woburn Abbey, the grand country estate – as it happens – of the Russell family, Earls of Bedford. Perhaps, in the house of the great moderate of ’41, the wounds of war might finally start to heal.


But the reaction was already under way.

On the 20th, demonstrations by conservative crowds outside Parliament became so rowdy that a guard had been appointed. The disorder got worse. Then, on the 26th, came anarchy.


It began with a procession by the City leaders to Parliament, to present petitions about control of the City Militia. Gathered with them was an angry crowd of apprentices and disbanded soldiers – making fearsome noise and egged on by Presbyterian ministers, they invaded Parliament, first the Lords, then the Commons, where they threw street shit in the faces of MPs. The House was forced to vote to invite the King to London – the invaders even joined in the vote themselves.


Denzil Holles made his way back to the Commons, ready to lead the Presbyterians once more, Parliament briefly adjourned, and the City prepared to fight off the New Model. They knew an army advance on the capital was now inevitable. Drums were beaten through town and a letter was sent to Fairfax telling him to stay away. Independents were making themselves scarce, and the speakers of both Lords and Commons, plus eight peers and some fifty-seven MPs fled Westminster, making their way to the Army.

On the 28th, Fairfax made the call. His army, finally, would march on London, at the request of the two speakers. Its hand had been forced by events.


At Woburn, Charles, was mulling over the Heads. He still thought he held all the cards. Berkeley, the Queen’s agent, was exasperated: under the offered terms, he thought, ‘never was a Crown, that had been so near lost, so cheaply recovered.’ Then, perhaps believing the new threat from London would encourage a better offer from the Army, Charles sent word he was ready to negotiate. Fairfax and Cromwell dispatched a delegation of four officers, including Henry Ireton and Thomas Rainborough. They rode out to the King at Woburn and were ushered into the royal presence. Negotiations lasted for three intense summer hours. If, in this fleeting moment, an agreement could be reached, then the Army could march to London with the King at its head and settlement would be ensured.


What if Parliament didn’t accept the settlement?, pressed Berkeley. ‘They would’, said the soldiers. But what if they didn’t? ‘If they will not agree, we will make them’, declared Rainborough.


But Charles was implacable, despite Berkeley’s efforts: ‘You cannot be without me. You will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you’, he insisted. The Army commissioners genuinely thought that the Heads would be acceptable. Charles saw it as just more evidence of the divisions amongst his enemies, just one more chance to play them off against each other. Rainborough was so disgusted that he left the negotiations and returned to camp, fuming. Any faith he had in monarchy was gone.


On Tuesday 3 August, the 15,000 strong army marched out onto Hounslow Heath, just twelve miles from Westminster. That evening, joined by their MP supporters, the Army was marching towards London, strung out over a mile and a half. In the dead of night, forward units under Rainborough took Southwark; as the sun rose, the City’s western defences yielded without a shot fired. Then, on Thursday, the church bells rang out, and next day Parliament was sitting again. Denzil Holles fled the country.


In early September, Fairfax moved his headquarters again, this time to the small village of Putney.

Here, in the village’s small, elegant church, the General Council of the Army now sat, meeting every Thursday.


Initially the Council’s focus was on the Heads of the Proposals, about which Charles was starting to making positive noises once again. Meanwhile, as the Army quartered around the capital, and with its arrears still seriously delayed, the civilian radicals, milling around the camps, sharing pamphlets and slogans, were creating stronger bonds with the soldiery.


Crucial to the radicals’ efforts was John Lilburne. He was currently locked up in the Tower, where he was visited by a cordial Cromwell, who tried without success to buy him off. Asking Lilburne why he had fallen from those who were his friends, Lilburne replied that it was his friends who had fallen from him. Instead, Lilburne penned an open letter to the soldiers warning them against the leadership. They shouldn’t trust the Army ‘grandees’, he wrote, ‘further than you can throw an ox’.


The most startling development, though, was the appearance around the end of September of new Agitators, sixteen in all, across five Cavalry regiments. On 18 October, two of their number got an audience with Fairfax, where they presented him with a forceful, if rather convoluted, manifesto. Called The Case of the Army Truly Stated, it was probably written – at least in part – by a twenty-five-year-old ex-soldier named John Wildman.


The Case had been signed by the New Agitators at Guildford a few days earlier. It castigated the Grandees and the General Council for their political failures. Power, it claimed, was originally vested in the people and their representatives. The current parliament should be dissolved within ten months, followed by a general election in which all Englishmen aged twenty-one and over – except Royalists – should have the vote. It also demanded liberty of conscience and drastic reform of the law.


The Case was soon available to buy. This was dangerous stuff, but Fairfax – perhaps against his better judgement – agreed to discuss it at the next General Council, due to sit on the 21st. At that Council, the Case was referred to a committee, expected to produce a stern rebuttal. Instead, it wrote to the New Agitators and asked them ‘in a friendly way’ to attend the next General Council, scheduled for Thursday 28 October. It was to be a monumental decision.


The day before this meeting was due to take place, one of Cromwell’s soldiers, Robert Everard, was at the Army headquarters at Putney. Here he presented yet another document. The Grandees were expecting to discuss the Case, but what Everard brought was something completely different. It was a short pamphlet – just a few pages – approved the same day at a meeting between the New Agitators, Wildman, and some other civilian radicals.


Its pages contained a strident statement of first principles. Parliament was sovereign – there was no mention of the King or the Lords – but it could not override certain basic rights: freedom of religion, freedom from Conscription, and equality before the law. There should, meanwhile, be biennial Parliaments, inferior in authority, only to the electorate itself. Crucially, it suggested that the Franchise should be reformed so that constituencies reflected not tax contribution – as in the Heads – but the number of people. It was a document of quite fundamental radicalism: based on the premise that the defeat of the King – and the ‘Norman Yoke’ he represented – had left the people a blank slate on which to scrawl their own, new, rational and equitable laws. Even the document’s name conveyed its democratic character: it was an Agreement of the People, and its approval by the whole population, the authors hoped, would form the basis of a new English constitution.


            The next morning, the 28th, the General Council met, as usual, in Putney Church. Over the next three days, one of the most remarkable meetings in the whole of English history took place, in which soldiers and civilians argued about the future of the constitution, the nature of sovereignty, and the right to vote. It was a pivotal moment in the revolution.


Fairfax was unwell, reposing at nearby Turnham Green, so Cromwell took the chair. Ireton was there too, as was Thomas Rainborough, a man whose presence probably raised some eyebrows, given a recent heated feud he’d had with Cromwell. The whole debacle had left the ever-irascible Rainborough furious with his commanding officers and – one suspects – rather spoiling for a fight.


Also in Putney church was Edward Sexby, two civilian radicals: John Wildman and Maximilian Petty, and two New Agitators.

Sexby began. ‘The cause of our misery is upon two things’, he said. ‘We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going to do it we have dissatisfied all men.’ They had laboured to please a King who would only be happy if they cut their own throats, and they had supported Parliament that was just a ‘Company of rotten members.’[7] He told Cromwell and Ireton bluntly that their reputations had been ‘much blasted’ by their attempts to please the King and the Parliament.


The Agreement was then read. Cromwell, responding, tried immediately to pour cold water. The Agreement promised ‘very great alterations of the very Government of the Kingdom’, he agreed, but he wondered if ‘the spirits and temper of the people of this Nation are prepared to receive and go along with it’. Perhaps it was ‘good in the end’, but how would it be implemented? Critically, he and Ireton argued both that adopting the Agreement – however desirable – would in practice be very difficult; and they argued that the Army was bound by its previous promises since June, namely to obey Parliament and promote settlement with the King. The new path forged by the radicals would force them to go back on these.


Rainborough responded, speaking with fluent eloquence. He scoffed at the suggestion that this would all be too difficult: ‘when Parliament embarked on the wars, surely they had considered there might have been some difficulties?’ And he turned to history: ‘If writings be true’, he averred, ‘there hath been many scufflings between the honest men of England and those that have tyrannised over them.’[8] In the end, Cromwell acknowledged he was not ‘wedded and glued to forms of government’, indeed, he was prepared to acknowledge that ‘the foundation and supremacy is in the people, radically in them’. But all that came out of the first day’s debate was the appointment of a committee, which would look through previous Army declarations and see where the Agreement might be compatible.


The following day’s meeting of this committee took place not in Putney church, but in the lodgings of the quartermaster-general.[9] In the morning, a prayer meeting was held. Then, after refreshment, the civilians joined with Robert Everard, first gathering by the door – engaging no doubt in hushed conversation – before Cromwell, again in the chair with Fairfax still indisposed – called them to come closer.[10] At some point, Rainborough entered. He was late, he said, because he’d been forced to visit London the previous night. Whom could he have been meeting?


Cromwell tried to get the committee to consider previous ‘engagements’ – pulling out a handy 164-page compendium of the Army’s declarations. Rainborough, though, wanted to discuss the Agreement as a matter of urgency: ‘to see whether it were a paper that did hold forth justice and righteousness’. Rainborough held the room. So the Agreement was read, then the first clause read again. It was the one that stated that Parliamentary constituencies ‘ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of inhabitants’.


This, Ireton thought, would be an easy win. Surely, he argued, this implied giving every male inhabitant the vote. It was manhood suffrage. Whether this was the actual intention isn’t clear, but what happened in the heat of the debate was that Rainborough – not, himself, one of the authors – decided to press the point that it was. ‘[F]or really I think’, he said, ‘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’.


Ireton countered: ‘For my part I think it is no right at all. I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the Kingdom, and in choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here, no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this Kingdom.’ Rainborough was advocating manhood suffrage; Ireton believed voting rights should be vested in those who owned property.


Ireton was forensic and clever; Rainborough eloquent, logical, and passionate. Ireton argued that manhood suffrage was a threat to property. Rainborough questioned ‘what we have fought for’, is it a law ‘which enslaves the people of England that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all’? The debate was hot, and Rainborough in particular argued with considerable force, but it never quite boiled over into full-blown acrimony. Ireton specifically disavowed ad hominems: ‘We speak to the paper, and to that matter of the paper, not to persons’.


As the debate opened up, Ireton was gradually losing the room – save for his father-in-law Cromwell – and even Cromwell was ready to compromise. Sexby and Wildman both made heartfelt pleas for democracy: to Sexby, if the soldiers had been fighting for anything other than ‘a right to the Kingdom’, then ‘we were mere mercenary soldiers’. Now, it seems, ‘except a man hath a fixed estate in this Kingdom, he hath no right in this Kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived!’ Manhood suffrage, Sexby argued, ‘was the ground that we took up arms, and it is the ground which we shall maintain’. To Wildman it was ‘the undeniable maxim of Government: that all government is in the free consent of the people’.


Other officers tried to foster a compromise: perhaps foreigners could be excluded? Maximilian Petty, the civilian radical, thought that perhaps they could. Maybe servants, apprentices, and the very poor shouldn’t have the vote, either? Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that women should get the vote.


By the end of the day, it seems, an agreement had been made that the vote should go to all men save servants and almstakers. After all this, the poorest he, let alone the poorest she, was to be excluded. But it would be a radical redistribution of power nonetheless.


On Sunday, a break allowed Rainborough to visit Lilburne in the Tower. Then, Monday’s debates brought some startling statements about Charles: he was, said one Captain Bishop, a tyrant and a ‘man of blood’. The radicals were arguing that there could be no safety with Charles still enjoying any power. Cromwell, though, still thought that the Army couldn’t legitimately overthrow him. In any case, simply sweeping away the constitution in favour of a new one wasn’t going to solve everything: even the best regime, Cromwell pointed out, was but ‘dross and dung in comparison of Christ’. There then followed a lengthy argument over the King’s right to veto bills from the Commons, in which Wildman was provocative, Ireton once again enjoyed himself rather too much, and nothing was agreed.


By now, though, the momentum was elsewhere. Wildman had written a pungent denunciation of Cromwell, Ireton, and the ‘Grandees’, and it was already circulating among the regiments, even while Rainborough and Ireton were arguing over the Franchise. New Agitators were appearing across the whole Army, and the men of Robert Lilburne’s regiment[11], John’s brother, were already in open defiance. In fact – on that momentous second day of debate, officers had been repeatedly called out of the room to discuss how to deal with them after they had refused orders to march to Newcastle and remained in the Dunstable area. Agents were trying to get the soldiers to subscribe to the Agreement. Perhaps the radical takeover of the Army could be completed not by persuasion at Putney, but by infiltrating the ranks in the field.


At Putney, progress was gradually being made towards a statement of the Army’s desired settlement, but the radicals were pushing for a general rendezvous and arguing against further dealings with the King. On 8 November there was another battle over the Franchise in which Cromwell suggested that manhood suffrage ‘did tend very much to Anarchy’. By this point, though, Fairfax and Cromwell had decided that the debates had gone far enough. The radicals were winning the argument; they couldn’t under any circumstances be allowed to win control. Under a  new motion by Cromwell the officers and Agitators were sent back to their regiments.


On the 9th, Fairfax ordered the rendezvous, but – in order to prevent the New Agitators turning it into a mass uprising against the Grandees – it was to be spread over three places and four days starting next week. Events were now moving very fast. ‘If no settlement could be found’, wrote a Royalist newspaper, ‘a general insurrection against the wealthier sort’ was surely inevitable.[12] That day, John Lilburne had been granted bail from the Tower. Who knew where he might turn up next.


Nor was he the only one at large. On the evening of the 11th, Charles escaped from Hampton Court. He had received warning, he said, that the Agitators were plotting to kill him. On hearing the news, Fairfax thought Charles was going north. He wrote an urgent letter to Lambert at York, telling him to post guards on the main roads. But Charles turned the other way, and by the morning of the 14th he had reached the Isle of Wight, where he placed himself in the hands of the moderate Colonel Robert Hammond, who also happened to be Cromwell’s cousin. Charles was soon installed at Carisbrooke Castle, which was not especially comfortable, but did have an excellent bowling green.


By now the radicals had gained a new name: they were being called Levellers. In print, they urged the Army to disobey orders and commit to a single general rendezvous. On the 15th, the first official rendezvous began at Corkbush Field near Ware in Hertfordshire. As the troops gathered, civilian radicals passed around them distributing copies of the Agreement. John Lilburne had travelled up from London, and was waiting at Ware for the opportunity to give a stirring speech. Fairfax arrived, trying to soothe the ranks. Then – some considerable time later – another regiment appeared on the field, that of Thomas Harrison, but without its officers. Many carried copies of the Agreement of the People, stuck in their hatbands, with the words ‘England’s freedom and soldier’s rights’ scrawled over it. It seemed that a full scale radical mutiny was taking place.


But Fairfax met them with determination. A group of his officers, probably including Cromwell, rode into the men, plucking some of the papers out of their hats before the rest, duly chastened, voluntarily took them out.


Then, Robert Lilburne’s regiment also arrived, again without most of its officers. It had been in open revolt for three weeks already, and Fairfax already knew they were coming. By the time they arrived, they had already marched twenty miles, and Fairfax was able to address his other regiments – to noisy cheering – while Lilburne’s waited nearby. When Lilburne’s men refused to back down and remove the copies of the Agreement that they, too, kept in their hats, a group of officers charged them with swords drawn. The officers, again almost certainly including Cromwell, then plucked the papers from the mutineers’ hats, and they submitted. Eight or nine of the mutineers from Corkbush Field were subjected to instant court martial and sentenced to death, all were pardoned bar three, who were left to draw lots. The loser was shot.


John Lilburne returned to London. For now at least, the Leveller revolution was over.

Another unusually cold winter was setting in, and the country was heading for disaster once more. Now the king would begin negotiations with the Scots and open a Second Civil War that would bring previous year ruin not just to the country but to the monarchy and to Charles himself. 1647 had been a year of politics, ideas, negotiation, treaties and constitutional propositions. It had failed to generate a settlement of the country’s problems, so the next year would be one of violence.


Speaker: You can read more about the events of 1647 and the other critically important years of the 17th century in Dr Healey’s acclaimed book, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, published by Bloomsbury. He discusses two of the years, 1642 when the conflict began and 1660 when the monarchy was restored, in other podcasts, available now on our website, www.worldturnedupsidedown.co.uk. And on our Spotify and Apple podcast channels, you’ll find more than 50 other programmes, and a range of other resources about Britain and Ireland in the 17th Century.