Henry Ireton (1611-1651) – Soldier and political thinker

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Put simply, Henry Ireton was the ‘brain’ of the New Model Army.  It was Ireton who was responsible for most of the key army publications produced in the aftermath of the civil war, from the Solemn Engagement of June 1647 to the Remonstrance of November 1648 which demanded that the king should be put on trial. In contrast to his father-in-law, Oliver Cromwell who often responded to questions with more questions or suggestions that matters be referred to committees, Ireton gave a full and forthright defence of the negotiating terms set out in the ‘Heads of Proposals’. In this regard, the position that he adopted at Putney was certainly intellectually consistent, even if it is legitimate to also see him misrepresenting the position of his opponents for rhetorical and political effect.

Ireton was baptised in 1611, the son of the gentleman German Ireton of Attenborough, Nottinghamshire. Henry was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, graduating BA in 1629. He underwent legal training at the Middle Temple but although he may have practised law before the civil war, he was never called to the bar.

Ireton supported ‘root and branch’ reform of the Church of England and, like Cromwell, was a supporter of broad toleration for Protestants, though he did not support the notion in the Agreement that liberty of conscience should be protected as a reserved right. Ireton sided with Parliament at the outbreak of the civil war. He was made captain of the Nottingham troop of horse and fought at the battle of Edgehill.  By the end of the year, he had risen to the rank of major in Colonel Thornhaugh’s regiment. It was in this capacity that he first met Oliver Cromwell and in June 1643 both men were involved in the battle of Gainsborough, a notable Parliamentarian victory. Ireton left the regiment to work under Cromwell as deputy governor of the Isle of Ely. Here, critics alleged, he turned the Isle into a ‘little Amsterdam’, permitting soldiers to preach from pulpits and allowing religious meetings in private houses. It was claimed that his government was so religiously liberal that London radicals were immigrating there to enjoys its freedoms. By 1644, Ireton had risen to be Quartermaster-General of the Eastern Association forces, led by the Earl of Manchester. Ireton played some role with Cromwell in the downfall of the aristocratic commanders, including Manchester, ushered in by the Self-Denying Ordinance and the creation of the New Model Army.

By the spring of 1645, Ireton was colonel of his own horse regiment and had been elected as MP for Appleby. By the Battle of Naseby in June he had been appointed Commissary-General, in command of the Cavalry’s left wing at the Engagement. Ireton was wounded at Naseby and briefly captured by the Royalists but freed again as the battle turned decisively against the Cavaliers. He had recovered enough from his injuries to take part in the storming of Bristol in September 1645 but was wounded again, his arm broken by two pistol shots, leaving him in pain for months. It was at Bristol that we first catch potential glimpses of Ireton as a political thinker and writer: he was the likely author of the letter from Fairfax, summoning the Royalist commander Prince Rupert to surrender, which included an outline of a monarchy regulated by Parliament.

The alliance between Cromwell and Ireton drew closer still with Ireton’s marriage to Cromwell’s daughter Bridget in June 1646. The choice of minister was indicative of Ireton’s religious outlook, conducted by William Dell, one of the most radical of the Independent chaplains in the New Model Army. The marriage was a fruitful one, with four children (a son and three daughters) all surviving to adulthood. (His son, also named Henry, would go on to serve as an MP as well during the reign of William III).

Ireton’s own Parliamentary career was without note until the spring of 1647 when he spoke in defence of the army’s March petition. This drew him into direct conflict with the leader of the Presbyterian faction at Westminster, Denzil Holles. Their antagonism escalated to physical threats, with both men leaving the Commons chamber to fight a duel. No swords, however, were drawn, and Holles and Ireton were ordered to drop the matter. In April, Ireton would be instructed by Parliament, along with the other military MPs, to quell discontent within the army. Despite his reservations about the radicalism of some of the proposals coming from the Agitators, the hostility of Parliament at this point to the army, led Ireton to make common cause with the rank and file. It was most likely Ireton’s initiative that led to the creation of the General Council of the Army, both an innovative representative body and an attempt to more effectively manage the Agitators. It was probably Ireton too who authored the key ‘mission statements’ produced by the army in June 1647, its Solemn Engagement of 5 June and the Declaration issued on the 14th. The latter text presented the army as a body fighting not for pay or plunder, but the rights and liberties of the people.

Ireton attempted to keep the Agitators on board during the drafting of the army’s negotiating terms. The settlement presented in the ‘Heads of Proposals’ offered a tantalising mix of generosity to the king and his supporters with radical proposals for religious freedom and constitutional change. However, Charles’ continued preference for playing his opponents off each other, rather than negotiating in good faith, provided capital for the Grandees’ critics. It also led to increasing frustration among the army rank and file that the king was being offered a soft peace that, in particular, would leave soldiers without adequate Indemnity for actions undertaken in the war.

It was this discontent which led to the Putney Debates at which Ireton was the most eloquent spokesman for the Grandees. Ireton’s defence of the property qualification for voting against the principle of manhood suffrage, placed him on ‘the wrong side of history’. Yet Ireton was articulating what was, at the time, an entirely intellectually respectable position. He can, though, be accused of exaggerating both the restrictiveness of the seventeenth-century electoral system and, thereby, the radicalism of his opponents’ position.  The Franchise in England was not as narrow as he made out, particularly in some London wards. The change proposed by his opponents was not, therefore, as unprecedented as he claimed. Ireton’s comments also pre-empted the use of the ’Leveller’ label as a term of political abuse. It was notable that, in engaging with the Agreement’s proposals for electoral reform, which made no direct mention of the Franchise, he chose to associate them with the clear call for men over 21 to receive the vote in The Case of the Armie Truly Stated. He thereby painted Rainsborowe, Petty, Wildman and other advocates of manhood suffrage as also intent on subverting property rights, by claiming that they were directly uncoupling property and voting qualifications. It was a successful strategy in the sense that it flushed out supporters of the more uncompromising position in The Case of the Armie but it was a miscalculation in that it revealed that the mood in the army, among officers as well as Agitators, increasingly favoured broadening the Franchise. In attacking the Agreement, though, Ireton did make a number of salient points that the radicals would need to grapple with over the coming years, not least how they would make the Agreement stick if it could not command the support of the majority of the English people.

The debates had an important, if indirect, impact on Ireton’s thinking. The statements some participants made in favour of bringing the king to justice precipitated Charles’ escape from the army’s custody. It was this which finally convinced Ireton that further attempts to negotiate with the king were fruitless. Following the defeat of the Royalists in the Second Civil War, Ireton appears to have attempted to resign from the army, seemingly frustrated at Fairfax’s unwillingness to seize the political initiative. His resignation was rejected and instead Ireton turned his efforts to exerting pressure on his Commander-in-Chief to support purging Parliament and bringing the king to justice. Ireton now entered into an alliance with those civilian radicals he had smeared as ‘Levellers’. Ireton’s regiment issued a petition for justice in October 1648 that according to the lawyer Bulstrode Whitelocke was ‘the beginning of the design against the king’s person’. Though historians have noted some ambiguity within the petition, it explicitly stated that the king was ‘guilty of all the blood-shed in these intestine Wars’. Ireton’s lengthiest political work, the Remonstrance of November 1648 was undoubtedly critical to laying out the justification for both Pride’s Purge and the trial and execution of the king. The argument made in the Remonstrance that Charles had broken his covenant with the people by waging war upon them, thereby absolving them of their duty of obedience, was exactly the case that the President of the High Court of Justice, John Bradshaw, would make in his closing statement to the king. Ireton himself would be appointed a commissioner to the High Court and would add his signature to Charles’ death warrant.

Ireton resumed his military career following the Regicide, playing a leading role in the brutal Cromwellian campaigns in Ireland. He also invested heavily in lands there, acquiring an estate of over 13,000 acres. He died in November 1651, falling ill during the siege of Limerick. Ireton’s body was brought back to England and interred in Westminster Abbey. It would rest there until January 1661 when his remains, along with those of Cromwell and Bradshaw were dug up and subjected to posthumous punishment for treason.

Modern historians have been much kinder to Ireton than either his radical critics or the Restoration regime. Most now see him as less of a Machiavellian manipulator than a man with strong intellectual convictions of his own. Indeed, if anything, we can suggest that it was the strength of these convictions which actually led him to overplay his hand at Putney. Nonetheless, at critical points, he was prepared to listen to and collaborate with Agitators and civilian radicals. Recent research shows, for example, that he was more committed to the Agreement of the People as a plan of settlement in late 1648/early 1649 than radicals, notably John Lilburne, made out. Whatever our Assessment of him, Ireton was undoubtedly one of the most significant figures of the English revolution.