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.

The instinct for modern parallels leads us to think of the Presbyterians as the right wing of the Parliamentary cause and the Army as its left. Yet the Cromwellian peace terms of 1647 were much more generous to the crown than those of Holles’s party. The Army’s primary political interest was in the achievement of social reform and liberty of conscience, not in the imposition of constitutional limitations. In ‘tender, equitable and moderate dealing with the King’s party’ the Army saw ‘the most hopeful way to take away the seeds of war’. To the Presbyterians, by contrast, as to the Whigs later in the century, constitutional formulae were the essential means by which the political ambitions of the Stuarts would be held in check. Unlike their Whig successors, however, the Presbyterians were firm enemies to religious toleration. After a war waged to rescue the Calvinist orthodoxy of the Church of England from its Laudian assailants, they were not willing – as the Cromwellians were – to restore the episcopacy through which Laud and his king had worked. Still less were they willing to tolerate the challenge to Calvinism which the Civil War aroused from an opposite political quarter: from the sectarian congregations whose heresies were spreading with frightening speed in the city and in the New Model.

It was the New Model which in the early spring of 1647 Holles resolved to crush. His opportunity arose from the defeat of the Royalist Ormonde in Ireland in February, which opened the way for the Parliamentary reconquest of that country. The New Model, whose strength and morale were inseparable from its sense of unity, would in Holles’s scheme be broken up, some regiments being sent to Ireland under new commanders, the rest being disbanded. If the Army should resist, Holles had the makings of a counter-revolutionary force. There were the Presbyterians in Scotland, who could be brought back to crush the infidel sectaries. There were the ‘reformadoes’, Parliamentary soldiers previously disbanded and now eager for fresh service. And not least there were the Presbyterian colonels and majors within the New Model itself who, once geographically separated from their colleagues in the high command, could be turned against them. In the spring of 1647 it was Presbyterian revolution, not Cromwellian revolution, that seemed the likeliest outcome of the Civil War.

The rock on which Holles’s policy cracked was the determination of the soldiers to stick together and their refusal to leave for Ireland unless their own commanders were restored to them and their grievances met. Those grievances were essentially material ones. Starved of massive arrears by the Parliamentary and city treasuries, the soldiers were forced to live by free quarter, a recourse which they resented because it deepened the civilian hatred of them. The troopers whom Parliament wished to disband were offered only desultory sums, while those allocated to Ireland foresaw little hope of payment there. Parliament had further offended the soldiers by failing to grant them immunity from prosecution for deeds committed by them in their Civil War duties, a hazard to which the antimilitary public mood would inevitably expose them upon disbandment. Holles’s underestimation of the Army’s resistance was not as crass as it can look in retrospect, for earlier disbandments of underpaid and unindemnified soldiers had been effected with little difficulty, His mistake lay in the brutal insensitivity with which he encouraged the Commons to greet the New Model’s protests. A House which welcomed formal remonstrantces from its Presbyterian supporters was persuaded by him to censure the respectful petitions of the Army which had won the war for it, and to intimate that their promoters were ‘enemies of the state’.

In Presbyterian eyes, the recalcitrance of the troops could be explained only as the product of conspiracy. Either the soldiery had been secretly infiltrated by Cavaliers or Levellers, or the Cromwellian commanders had incited the resistance for their own political ends. To Woolrych such explanations are needless. The system of representation by the agents emerged spontaneously from the ranks and ‘owed little if anything to Leveller inspiration’. The five regiments which took the lead in choosing agents were cavalry regiments, where articulacy was higher and communication quicker than in the infantry. Representatives of each troop gathered, as the Army would recall, ‘to choose two or more for each regiment, to act in the name of and in the behalf of the whole soldiery ... in the presentation of their rights and desires’. Officers who failed to support the soldiers were powerless before them. The Presbyterian commanders who urged their troops to serve in Ireland were forced to resign their commands and in some cases had to flee the Army for safety. Soon the agents’ network had spread to the northern army, where it elicited similar support and secured the replacement of the Presbyterian general.

Gradually, grudgingly, Parliament yielded to the Army’s demands for pay and indemnity. Yet its concessions came too late to prevent the emergence in the Army of a political will, and a political programme, which changed the course of the Puritan Revolution. As Major-General Skippon, who knew his soldiers well, observed when warning Parliament in May against ‘the disobliging of so faithful an army’, ‘provocation and exasperation makes men think of that they never intended.’ By June the Army was assuming a political role commensurate with its contribution to victory. It demanded guarantees of liberty of conscience and a reform of the system of Parliamentary representation as far-reaching as that which would be effected in 1832. With radical ideas came radical action. A party of horse under the agent Cornet Joyce captured the King from his Parliamentary guards at Holm-by House and escorted him to the Army’s quarters at Newmarket.

By now the Army saw itself not merely as the defender of its own interests but as the champion of the ‘godly’ or ‘honest’ party throughout the nation: of persecuted sectaries, of virtuous tenants and copyholders exposed to the malice of Royalist landlords, and of provincial radicals to whom the war had given powers of which the post-war reaction threatened to deprive them. ‘All the honest people in the city and country,’ reported a friend to the agents in May, ‘send to us to stand to them or they are undone.’ Flattered by such solicitation, the soldiers persuaded themselves that they had enlisted to remove oppressions which in reality seem scarcely to have figured in the recruitment of the Civil War armies. From July the Army, emboldened by its new confidence and encouraged by its friends in Parliament, negotiated directly with the King, to whom they offered the terms outlined in the Heads of the Proposals. Holles’s Parliamentary opponents, protesting at the mob tactics of the London Presbyterians, withdrew from the capital and entrusted themselves to the Army, which at their invitation made a triumphant entry into the capital on 6 August. Holles and other leading Presbyterians were driven into exile.

The entry into London was the peak of the Army’s achievements in 1647. Until that time the tensions between the agents and the senior officers had been contained, for the agents, although eager for swifter and more extensive interventions in national politics than their seniors were willing to countenance, had grasped the dependence of the Army’s political effectiveness on the maintenance of its unity. They had never questioned the rules of military discipline. They had taken, however reluctantly, the point repeatedly made by Cromwell, that the Army could bring peace to the nation only by winning over a majority of MPs, not by violating Parliament’s privileges, for ‘if that authority falls to no thing, nothing can follow but confusion,’ and Really, really, have what you will, that you have by force I look upon as nothing.’

Yet in the late summer the Army’s vaunted unity fell apart. Woolrych, sympathetic to the Heads of the Proposals, believes that the Army could have restored the King on those terms when it marched into London if only Charles’s deviousness and obtuseness had not blinded him to the uniqueness of the opportunity the Army had given him to return to power. Thereafter the Army lost its faith in the King, questioned the integrity of Cromwell and Ireton in persisting with negotiations with him, and flirted with an impracticable republicanism. Other developments contributed to the growing discontent in the ranks, although in the crucial weeks the evidence becomes too thin for us to trace the process of the Army’s disillusionment as we would wish. A personal quarrel between Cromwell and Rainborough was one source of trouble. More important perhaps – and an influence to which Woolrych gives surprisingly little weight – was the recurrence of the Army’s earlier financial grievances. Certainly its leaders blamed ‘the discontent and disorder of the soldiers’ in the autumn, and ‘the sad distractions of the kingdom’ that ensued, on the Army’s arrears and on free quarter – a point which Parliament took, albeit too late.

With the collapse of unity came the demise of the representative machinery created earlier in the year. The London Levellers moved in, and secured the replacement of the agents by faceless men who seem never to have been elected by the ranks and who became puppets of the infiltrators. The Levellers then incited the troops to mutiny. The Putney Debates, called in order to heal the rifts, only exacerbated them. They were followed by the mutiny at Corkbush Field, which in turn inevitably produced the suppression by the high command of the participatory politics of the New Model. Henceforth the distinction between political and military dissent, which the senior officers had acknowledged in the spring and summer and which had been the foundation of the Army’s achievements of those months, was lost. The Putney Debates, far from being the crowning jewel of Army democracy, were a symptom and a cause of its collapse.

The most satisfying accounts of complex and controversial episodes are often those by historians who know how to make their own judgments clear while giving the reader the room and the evidence for independent assessment. Woolrych’s mastery of that technique, evident in his earlier works, here becomes an art, to be savoured by anyone with a feeling for narrative composition. So it is no complaint to propose that the material he presents will bear some emphases different from his.

Two modern experiences have contributed to modern understanding – and in some cases perhaps misunderstanding – of the Army politics of 1647. First there was the conclusion of the Second World War, when the protracted demobilisation of the victorious British soldiers offered a parallel to the political education gained by the heel-kicking Cromwellian troopers awaiting disbandment after their defeat of the King. The second was the Time of Troubles in the universities from the late Sixties. I hope it is not too crude a simplification of the apparent sympathies of Woolrych (who draws neither parallel) to suggest that they lie closer to 1945 than to 1968. He is certainly kinder to what he sees as the pragmatic, law-abiding and essentially homegrown radicalism of the agents who flourished in the spring and summer of 1647 than to the intruded, self-righteous and mutinous idealism of the Levellers. The agents ‘always spoke out of their own experiences as soldiers, and mainly about the grievances of soldiers’. Yet by the autumn ‘unstable’, ‘excitable’, ‘violent’ men were to be found ‘haunting’ or ‘hanging around’ the Army’s quarters. It is as if greasy long hair had replaced short back and sides.

Is Woolrych’s contrast between the earlier and the later phase of the Army radicalism of 1647 too starkly drawn? His claim that the system of representation emerged spontaneously from the ranks in the spring can be neither proved nor disproved, but while some political discussion and organisation clearly took place independently of the commanders, it is hard to imagine Cromwell and Ireton as innocent bystanders. The democratic machinery, although it later escaped from their control and became directed against them, worked in its earlier stages wholly to their advantage. Through it the Army’s unity was preserved and the policy of Holles resisted and defeated. Through it, too, Cromwell’s opponents in the high command were driven out, and some of his key supporters –Pride, Tomlinson, Barkstead, Harrison, Overton – installed as colonels in their places. Intentions must not be measured by results, and we cannot say how quick Cromwell and Ireton were to see the advantages which the agents might bring them. Yet the capacity of the agents to speak for whole regiments, the rapidity with which their organisation spread across the regiments and to the northern army, and the productivity of their printing-presses would surely have been inconceivable without some degree of connivance from on high. The agents were described as chosen by – or, perhaps more revealingly, ‘chosen from’ – the troops, but what we know of 17th-century electoral habits allows ample room for the possibility of guidance from above.

Naturally Cromwell and Ireton presented themselves to Parliament as restrainers rather than inciters of the agitation, and indeed they may not have been involved directly. Cromwell was anyway scarcely present in the Army during the critical weeks. Yet his underhand involvement, of which the evidence happens to afford us a telling glimpse, in George Joyce’s enterprise of June is unlikely to have been an isolated moment of contact. Joyce was one of the ‘officer – agents’-captains, lieutenants and cornets – whose role in the emergence of the representative system Woolrych freely acknowledges. Another was Captain John Reynolds, who quickly emerged as the chairman of the agents – and who was a favourite of Cromwell. Later writings and Statements by two other agents, Edward Sex-by and William Allen, point to the closeness of the ties they had enjoyed with Cromwell – as does the rapidity of their promotions. Perhaps the retrospective narrative in which the disenchanted captain Edward Wogan accused Cromwell of manipulating the agents has a core of truth, for all its errors and distortions.

If the radicalism of the troopers in the spring and early summer was conceivably less spontaneous than Woolrych implies, we must also ask whether it was as self-contained, and whether it was not more open to ideas from above and from outside. Ireton’s intimation at Putney that it was he who had directed the Army’s attention to the unfair distribution of Parliamentary constituencies suggests that it cannot have been the agents alone who effected the extension of the Army’s concerns from material to political demands. And what of the soldiers’ relations with civilian radicals? Woolrych allows a ‘trace’ of Leveller influence here and a Leveller ‘flavour’ there. He acknowledges the links between some agents and the politically-conscious Baptist congregations of London. He is alert to the agents’ sense of community with the ‘honest’ party across the shires, particularly in East Anglia and the Home Counties, the areas where the New Model was quartered. Yet the implications of so much continuous interaction may not have been fully absorbed. While clearly the Presbyterian claim of April that the Army was ‘one Lilburne throughout’ was mischievously unfair, the Leveller impact on the Army may have begun earlier, and become stronger, than Woolrych suggests. The pleas for law reform and for ‘the liberty which Christ hath purchased for us’ which the officers had to edit out of the demands prepared by the troopers for Parliament in May are unlikely to have been conceived in ignorance of comparable demands elsewhere. In July the Army leaders found it necessary to invite the Levellers Wildman, Petty and Walwyn to the debates at Reading on the Heads of the Proposals, debates in which it took all the ingenuity of the senior officers to persuade the agents to drop their demand for the release of John Lilburne from the Tower. It is true that the Levellers were not the destabilising force at Reading that they would be at Putney, but that may be because in July their aims retained a broad coincidence with Cromwell’s. It may have been Leveller policy, not Leveller power, which altered between July and October.

Woolrych questions the extent of that power even at Putney. He notes the speed with which, in November, the regiments disowned the ‘upstart agents’ who had followed the Levellers’ lead, and argues fairly that the outbreak of mutiny at Corkbush Field is less significant than its failure. The new agents, he points out, were never accepted by the Army Council as representatives of the regiments, a position formally retained by the ‘old’ agents, whom the Levellers had condemned as ‘too flexible’, and whose replacement, Woolrych believes, the Levellers ‘engineered’. Yet engineers need instruments and materials. How did the regiments come to be so pliable? How were they so easily persuaded to jettison the agents who had championed them earlier in the year and to allow the Levellers’ colourless puppets to usurp the place of those agents in the Army’s councils? Woolrych’s account explains why the Levellers failed, but not why they got as far as they did.

It also makes the very decision to hold the Putney Debates a puzzle. Why were the officers willing to engage in protracted debates with men who posed so small a threat to them? Of course, the threat may have looked larger than it was. Woolrych reveals that one regiment, Robert Lilburne’s, was already in mutiny at the time of Putney, although, since its hazy demands included the restoration of the King, its grievances were unlikely to be appeased by the airing of Leveller republicanism at the Army Council. Cromwell gave Parliament a different explanation of the Putney meetings. They had been held, he maintained, in order to flush out the true opinions of the new agents, and to demonstrate the folly of their arguments for Parliamentary reform to the ‘many honest officers’ – not troopers – who were impressed by them. If he was right, then Ireton’s decision to raise the franchise issue may not have been the blunder which Woolrych attributes to him.

I suspect that Woolrych is over-impressed by the Army’s efforts to persuade itself that its troubles of the autumn of 1647 had arisen solely from external manipulation. The distinction between the old and the new agents was, after all, not as sharp as it suited the Army’s memory to suppose. While some of the old agents may have been disowned by their regiments, the most powerful of them, Allen, Sexby and Lockyer, worked alongside the new agents and were a powerful force at Putney. It may even be that some of the old agents resigned, not because their troops had rejected them, or because they disagreed with the Levellers, but because, having committed themselves in the summer to Army declarations and engagements incompatible with the new republican claims, they preferred to make way for men whose consciences were not comparably bound. At all events, the power struggle at Putney seems fully intelligible only against a background of more extensive regimental discontent than that which Woolrych portrays.

One aspect of the Army’s ideology appears to interest Woolrych less than others: its religious commitment. His sceptical treatment of the impact of sectarian beliefs is a healthy corrective to some recent studies, for the Army of 1647 more often spoke the language of secular rights than of godly reformation, and there were as yet only early signs of the blood-curdling providentialism with which, in the following year, the Army would plan the regicide. Yet even in 1647 the Army’s sense of political identity was intimately related to the belief of at least some officers and soldiers that God had given them a historic mission and that their victories had been the Lord’s. The Army’s acknowledgements of its sense of God’s presence at its meetings are treated by Woolrych, with an uncharacteristic failure of sympathy, as peripheral eccentricities (‘outpourings of puritan piety’).

The boundaries of Woolrych’s inquiry are firmly drawn. He is primarily concerned with the politics and machinery of the Army debates rather than with the issues of principle which were debated – and which, after all, have been amply discussed elsewhere. And although the debates belonged to the wider political drama of post-war politics, Woolrych reports the labyrinthine national scene only in order to illuminate – with marvellous clarity – its impact on the Army’s behaviour. Those restrictions, logical as they are, may have over-encouraged his tendency to regard the Army’s politics as self-contained. They may also narrow the readership of a longish book. I hope not, for although the story of Army politics in 1647 has often been told, it has never been told as thoroughly, as judiciously or as vividly as in this beautifully constructed work.