Up the Levellers

Paul Foot

  • The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-53 by Ian Gentles
    Blackwell, 590 pp, £14.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 631 19347 2

‘The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he.’ This assertion by Colonel Thomas Rainborowe in November 1647 seems almost a cliché, as much part of the democratic history of England as the Magna Carta or the Tolpuddle Martyrs or Paine’s Rights of Man. Yet for two and a half centuries after Rainborowe said his piece, no one knew anything about it. The Colonel’s controversial view was expressed in the middle of a furious debate at the General Council of the New Model Army, which was meeting in Putney at the height of the English Revolution. The debate was scribbled down in shorthand by the Army secretary, William Clarke, who had a remarkable knack for appearing at and recording decisive historical events. He was, for instance, on the scaffold at Westminster 14 months later, on a cold January morning in 1649 when King Charles had his head cut off.

Clarke carefully bound his record of the Putney Debates with all his other voluminous notes, and left them to his son George. George, a solid Restoration Tory, was also a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He quarrelled with the college authorities, and sulked off to Worcester College, to which he bequeathed his huge library. His father’s record of the Putney Debates lay buried, unseen and apparently unnoticed, in the bowels of the college library for the whole of the 18th and almost all the 19th centuries. During that time, historians of the English Revolution had to make do with state papers and memoirs. When, in old age, William Godwin came to write his four-volume History of the Commonwealth, he had no idea that the Putney Debates had ever taken place. His surprising hostility to the Leveller Party of the 1640s was founded on his deep suspicion of any political activism which went further than words or argument. His stern approach to the Levellers, who were in truth his ideological ancestors, might have been seasoned – and his account enormously improved – if he could have savoured in full one of the most passionate and crucial arguments in English history.

In the late 1880s, a young history don at Oxford, Charles Firth, called on Mr H.A. Pottinger, the librarian at Worcester, who’d revealed that he had uncovered something remarkable. To Firth’s excitement, the librarian produced William Clarke’s bound volumes, including his record, carefully transcribed from his own shorthand, of the debates at Putney. Firth worked on the manuscript, trying to make sense of the innumerable gaps, the hasty insertions, the wrongly-numbered pages. He handed the first results of his endeavours to his hero and mentor, the historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner, who was just completing the first edition of his monumental History of the English Civil War. Delighted at the discovery, Gardiner crammed into his third volume a typically fair and faithful account of the Putney Debates. In 1891, 244 years after it was spoken, Colonel Rainborowe’s declaration was published.

The democratic significance of the Putney Debates was not fully appreciated, however. Firth’s version of the Clarke papers was published only in a scholarly edition by the Camden Society. Even as the poorest he, and, much later, the poorest she won the right to vote, the arguments and aspirations of the Levellers, who were the first to demand a widespread franchise, were confined to a small circle. The few scholars who took the Levellers seriously – G.P. Gooch, say, or the American Theodore Pease – restricted themselves to short sections on the Putney Debates. In 1938, a new edition of the debates was published by A.S.P. Woodhouse, with a foreword by the radical Oxford don, A.D. Lindsay, who had stood in a famous by-election that year as an anti-Tory candidate. Woodhouse’s version gave life and spirit to the debates, and became popular reading in the rising radical tide of the late Thirties and Forties. It inspired many of the debates that took place in the British Army at the end of the Second World War – debates which laid much of the foundation for the Labour landslide of 1945.

In 1645 the New Model Army, under Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax, had successfully defended Parliament against the King. Charles I, licking his wounds, was determined not to concede an inch of his divine right or a penny of his royal income. The majority of the landed gentlemen in Parliament were determined to do a deal with the King. They were delighted that the Army had cut Charles down to size, but terrified of the new and efficient military power they had created. They demanded that the Army be disbanded, or, better still, packed off to slaughter Catholics in Ireland. What they overlooked was that the Army they were trying to disband consisted of young officers and a rank and file who knew their power and were determined not to let it slip back into the hands of the Presbyterian Parliament. The more that reactionary majority and their friends in the City demanded that the Army disband, the closer the Army moved to London. In August 1647, it entered the City, forced its arrears of pay from a suddenly compliant City and persuaded Parliament to reverse all its demands for disbandment. Only then did the Army retire, but not far away, to Hammersmith and Putney.

For months the Army had seethed with democratic ideas. The troops elected ‘agitators’: ‘at the time,’ Ian Gentles reassures his readers, ‘the word “agitator” had none of its modern pejorative ring, and meant simply one who had been empowered to act on behalf of others.’ There was, however, nothing remotely ‘simple’ about such a proposition. The idea that a rank-and-file soldier could represent and make decisions for his fellows was as alarming to the men of property in the 1640s as it is today. Even worse, the rank and file, once they sniffed democracy, were determined to keep it and extend it. They demanded, and got, a printing press. They insisted, and got, representatives on a new executive, the General Council of the Army. Above all, they linked up with the Leveller Party, the first ever ‘left-wing’ party in Britain, which had its own elected executive and its own regular newspaper. The Levellers and their new recruits in the Army proposed something even more alarming than agitation. They proposed that Parliament be elected by the people.

The General Council of the Army was due to meet on 28 October 1647. On the 27th, a document was delivered to the Putney headquarters. It was called ‘An Agreement of the People’ and was signed by agitators from five regiments. It was almost certainly written by the most persuasive of the Leveller leaders, William Walwyn. It was simple and concise. Its central demand was that the very next year, ‘the people do chuse themselves a parliament.’ This was a central issue in the Putney Debates, which took place under Cromwell’s chairmanship the next day, and spilled over into further, angrier sessions, on 1 November and 2 November. The Council was dominated by agitators who favoured the extended franchise. The opposition was left to Cromwell, who tried to refer the more controversial questions to a committee and to his son-in-law, the Commissary General, Henry Ireton. ‘I think,’ Ireton said, ‘that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here – no person has a right to this that hath not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom.’ After all, he went on (and on and on) was there not a danger that a parliament elected by the people might confiscate property? And if that could happen, was this not taking away a ‘fundamental part of the civil constitution’?

Ireton’s main opponent was Colonel Rainborowe, who followed up his famous remark about the poorest he with something even more important: ‘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.’ Back and forth the argument raged between the rank and file, who argued for a representative democracy, and the grandees, who could not understand how any political system could survive which threatened those whom Ireton called ‘the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies’. It is an argument which has been raging ever since. The vote started to be conceded, reluctantly and gradually, more than two hundred years later, but its democratic impact was skilfully and comprehensively contained by the persons in whom all land lies and the corporations in whom all trading lies. Rainborowe and his allies won the vote in the Army Council that misty November afternoon in Putney. They won again in the Whitehall debates the following year, after the second civil war. Once again, the majority who wanted to establish a freely-elected parliament with most men voting was coolly ignored, and went on being ignored until the Levellers were crushed in 1649. Eleven years after that, in 1660, the entire Revolution was overthrown, another even more ridiculous king was enthroned, and the franchise for almost everyone postponed for two and a half centuries.

There is no more exciting period in English history than 1647 to 1649. No wonder so many historians have swarmed around it. No wonder that Woodhouse’s rendering of the Clarke papers was reprinted in 1951, 1955, 1966, 1974 and 1986. No wonder that the arguments of the time are mirrored by similar squabbles among scholars, some of whom pretend to be free from bias. Charles Firth’s Cromwell’s Army (1902) is a careful, rather tedious study of minutiae about provisions, discipline, artillery etc. Mark Kishlansky’s The Rise of the New Model Army was published in 1979, the first year of the Thatcher Government, an appropriate time for his revelation that there was nothing very political about the New Model and indeed nothing very revolutionary about the 1640s. Ian Gentles is not dull like Firth or reactionary like Kishlansky. He tells his story with relish and verve. At times, he gets so caught up in the debates that he invents reactions to them: ‘Rainborowe’s sardonic comment, “I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all properly must be taken away,” must have prompted a murmur of approval. Encouraged, he continues ... ’

The murmurs and the encouragement can be put down to Enthusiastic Historian’s Licence, by no means a fault. Mr Gentles knows his feelings and does not disguise them. He is excited by the revolutionaries he describes, but on the whole he does not approve of them. He finds the Leveller leader John Lilburne ‘long-winded and conceited’; Rainborowe ‘truculent’ and ‘sour’; William Thompson, who fought to a heroic death in the 1649 Leveller mutiny, ‘at bottom was one of those figures who is familiar in all revolutions; the man of violent or criminal propensities who for a time camouflages his lawlessness beneath the rhetoric of resistance to unjust authority’. Gentles pooh-poohs the demands for universal suffrage with the (irrelevant) projection that it would have led to a Royalist majority in Parliament, ridicules the idea that the Army could have been paid by soaking the rich, and is on the lookout all the time for ‘extremists’. I think I detect in certain tell-tale Gentles phrases (most notably, ‘the locomotive of history’) a Marxist training. If so, as so often, the training has been abandoned for something much safer. He is back on track with Gardiner and Firth, adoring respectable revolutionaries like Cromwell and Fairfax, excited by the Revolution but suspicious and frightened of its consequences.

Yet his account is so comprehensive and fair that it cannot suppress the truth about the achievement and the political daring of the Levellers. There was never more solidarity in the Army than at the height of debate and discussion. John Lilburne may or may not have been a bore, but it was his astonishing personal courage and persistence that dragged a prisoner’s ‘right to silence’ from reluctant authorities: a right considered so important by American revolutionaries in the 1770s that they wrote it into their new Constitution. It lasted in Britain for nearly three hundred and fifty years. The Levellers wrote some of the greatest political pamphlets in our history. When George Orwell picked out his plums of English pamphlets, he included Tyranipocrit, a glorious outpouring of invective against the twin monster – the Tyrant who oppresses and his chief ally, the Hypocrite, who justifies the oppression. Until recently, it was assumed that this was written by William Walwyn, though the editors of a recent anthology of the Writings of William Walwyn (Georgia, 1989) ascribe it to an anonymous Leveller in exile.

There is no doubt at all who wrote The Hunting of the Foxes, an ever-topical assault on revolutionary grandees who betray and persecute the people who fought for them. ‘Was there ever a generation of men so apostate, so false and so perjured as these? ... You shall scarce speak to Cromwell about anything, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent even while he doth smite you under the fifth rib.’ The author was Richard Overton, the father of all challenging journalism. Overton had neither the wisdom of Walwyn nor the maniacal courage of Lilburne. His most precious weapon was his wit, which he wielded savagely against hypocrites of all kinds, especially clerical hypocrites. He could see both sides of an argument as clearly as he could make up his mind on one of them, and he could always, even when his colleagues were infuriated by it, see the joke. There was no more eloquent representative of the spirit and achievement of these Levellers. For all his suspicion of these ‘extremists’, Ian Gentles cannot keep them down.