Strange Talk at Putney

Blair Worden

  • Soldiers and Statesmen: The General Council of the Army and its Debates, 1647-1648 by Austin Woolrych
    Oxford, 361 pp, £32.50, June 1987, ISBN 0 19 822752 3

In the archives of Worcester College, Oxford there lies one of the most remarkable and affecting documentary legacies of the English past. The papers of William Clarke, a secretary in the Cromwellian Army, contain his transcript of the meetings at Army headquarters in late October and early November 1647 which posterity knows as the Putney Debates. The officers, soldiers and Levellers who debated the Parliamentary franchise and the post-war settlement of the kingdom bequeathed an unrivalled glimpse of 17th-century political articulacy below the level of political privilege. It was at Putney that Thomas Rainborough spoke for ‘the poorest he that lives in England’, and that he heard, in the pleas of Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton for the rights of property, ‘nothing at all that can convince me, why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of burgesses.’ It was there that Ireton quarrelled with the Levellers, in terms close to those of Hobbes’s Leviathan four years later, about the obligation of men to perform their political covenants. And it was there that the Levellers John Wildman and Maximilian Petty mounted the fundamental challenge to the constitution that would be rewarded by the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords two years later. Even the sophisticated qualifications of modern scholarship, which have dwelled on the distance that separates the language and presuppositions of the soldiers from our own, have not dimmed the wonder both of the survival and of the content of Clarke’s record.

The Putney Debates have been much celebrated by the insular strain within the 20th-century Left, which has accorded them a special place in its pedigree. In them has been found evidence of a democratic promise of which the nation would be cheated by Cromwell’s betrayal of the Levellers and then by the cynical depravity of the Stuart reaction. The riches of the debates survive scrutiny from a less demonological perspective. Yet it was long before they received scrutiny at all, for after the deposition of Clarke’s papers at Worcester College on the death of his son in 1736 they were allowed to gather dust their neglect, like that of Pepys’s diary at Magdalene College, Cambridge, a commentary on the intellectual condition (or the intellectual priorities) of the 18th-century universities. Only late in the 19th century were the Clarke Papers thoroughly studied, by the great historian of the Puritan Revolution C.H. Firth, who published the most important of them and in whose exclamatory pencilled annotations the romance of discovery survives.

And yet, runs the argument of Austin Woolrych’s elegant and meticulous book, the Putney Debates were as eccentric as they are exciting. The franchise, after all, was not on the agenda at Putney, and was peripheral to the proposals for constitutional reform debated there. The issue arose, Woolrych believes, only because of a ‘tactical blunder’ by Ireton when he and his fellow debaters were wearied by several hours’ discussion without air or refreshment. Ireton’s ‘sheer love of contention’ needlessly exposed disagreements on issues which preoccupied the Levellers far less than they have interested posterity. In any case, the Levellers were a civilian rather than a military group who, though they manipulated the regiments, enjoyed only superficial support among them, while Rainborough, for all his eloquence, was an irritable and idiosyncratic loner, driven, it seems, as much by personal grievance as by any lucid programme.

To Woolrych, Putney was but a stage, and not the most attractive or necessarily the most important stage, on a longer road of Army politics which had begun, as Clarke’s record of them had begun, many months earlier, and in which abstract rights and principles counted for less than the Army’s material grievances and its amour-propre. Woolrych’s theme is the rise in the spring and summer of 1647, and the fall in the autumn, of the political machinery which enabled soldiers representing the troops to participate with senior officers in the remedy of the Army’s grievances and in the formation of its terms for national settlement. The rise was the achievement of the ‘agents’ who emerged from and spoke for the ranks. The fall was the fault of the Levellers, to whom Woolrych allows little of their customary glamour.

The story begins in the spring of 1647. In the previous year the Parliamentary army had won the English Civil War. Who would win the peace? The King, by playing off his enemies against each other? The Presbyterian majority led in the Commons by Denzil Holles, which had wanted only a negotiated settlement between King and Parliament, not the outright victory which aroused populist hopes of religious liberty and social transformation? Or the Cromwellians in the New Model, who believed that the Presbyterians would replace monarchical tyranny with parliamentary tyranny, and to whom radicals increasingly looked as the vehicle of deliverance? By February 1647 the advantage lay with Holles, whose hopes were boosted by the Presbyterians’ success in persuading the Roundheads’ Scottish allies to yield the captive King to Parliament and to leave for home. Holles’s strength lay in the anti-military reaction in the city and the country which followed the war. From all sides came demands for the disbandment of the forces, for an end of the hated national and local committees which had organised the war effort and raised huge taxes to finance it, and for a return to normality. Holles exploited such feeling to the full.

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