Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) – In the chair

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Oliver Cromwell’s prominence at the Putney Debates was a quirk of fate. The illness of Sir Thomas Fairfax meant Cromwell took the chair for the most momentous days of the whole proceedings. With Henry Ireton, Cromwell gave the lengthiest defence of both the army leadership’s conduct of negotiations and its peace proposals. Cromwell’s strategy in the debates, however, notably differed from that of his son-in-law Ireton. Where Ireton chose a direct line of attack, picking holes in the arguments of his opponents, Cromwell instead tended to take a more placatory line, suggesting that contentious matters be considered by a committee or supporting calls of other participants, notably William Goffe, to seek guidance from God through prayer.

Some historians have seen this stance as a genuine attempt to preserve army unity. Yet, the authenticity of Cromwell’s approach at Putney was questioned by some of those present, not least Colonel Thomas Rainsborowe. At the debates, Rainsborowe complained that he would not be allowed to attend the Council of Officers for much longer, having received a letter that his regiment was to be taken away from him. Cromwell attempted to smooth over this issue, stating that he was glad ‘wee shall enjoy his [meaning Rainsborowe’s] company longer than we thought we should have done.’ Rainsborowe, however, had little patience with what he clearly saw as empty flattery, curtly replying, ‘If I should not be kick’t out.’ The agitator Edward Sexby’s attack on Cromwell at the outset of the debates also revealed the personal hostility towards the Lieutenant-General felt by some of the Agitators.

As much as Cromwell’s approach at Putney may have been strategic, offering a more sympathetic stance to the more aggressive tack taken by Ireton, it was also revealing of Cromwell’s political thinking (or rather lack thereof).  As the historian John Morrill has put it, Cromwell’s contributions to the debates revealed an ‘unsophisticated political thought which owed nothing to Aristotle or Edward Coke and everything to the Old Testament.’ Cromwell stated that he considered constitutional forms mere ‘dross and dung’ in comparison with Christ. The type of government established was much less important to him than its ability to support God’s work. In this regard, Morrill has seen the debates as significant in shifting Cromwell’s thought in relation to the king. He seems to have come to the view of Goffe and Sexby that the Almighty had now turned against Charles. In contrast to those members of the army, such as Thomas Harrison, who demanded the king be immediately brought to justice, however, Cromwell urged that the moment had not yet come to proceed against him.