Why the Putney Debates Still Matter Today

On this day in 1647, the New Model Army gathered in Putney to demand a constitution which enshrined government by consent – centuries later, we can still learn from their radical democratic vision.

General Thomas Fairfax heads a New Model Army council meeting in 1647. Credit: Creative Commons

Parliamentary sovereignty, manhood suffrage, and freedom of religion; now three of the foundational tenets of the British constitution. In 1647, however, these ideals bore the hallmark of a group of political and religious radicals and their military sympathisers, then camped within striking distance of the capital.

The movement advocating for these principles as the basis of government, known as the Levellers, was relatively short-lived and had lost most of its supporters by the 1650s. But in the tenuous peace between the First and Second Civil Wars, the movement’s aim to ‘level out’ an unequal society attracted the attention of many officers and men of Parliament’s increasingly independent-minded military, the New Model Army.

The Levellers were masters of rapid, large-scale, public communication via printed pamphlets and petitions, but their ideas found their clearest expression in their proposals for a new constitution, The Agreement of the People, presented to the commanders of the New Model Army over two weeks in autumn of 1647. Held in a small town some six miles from London, these discussions became known as the Putney Debates.

The weeks and months before the Putney Debates had established the New Model Army as a political force to be reckoned with. While the English Civil Wars are often presented as a straight contest between the Cavaliers and the Parliamentarians, MPs had found themselves increasingly at odds with a third faction: their own professional army.

Barely two months after Thomas Fairfax took command of this newly centralised force, the New Model had roundly defeated the Royalists under King Charles at the Battle of Naseby in April of 1645 and captured the remaining royalist strongholds in Somerset and the Midlands. Even with Charles under house arrest, few Parliamentarians envisaged that the defeat of the Royalists would lead to the abolition of the monarchy. Instead, MPs aimed to force the captive king to accept parliamentary limitations to his powers, before restoring him to the throne as a constitutional monarch. Negotiations were ongoing between Charles, Parliament, and the officers (known as Grandees) in the summer of 1647 over what form the new constitution should take.

In the meantime, the army’s wage bill continued to go unpaid. MPs were uncomfortable with the presence of a standing army in peacetime, and they proposed either disbanding the army wholesale or redeploying it to Ireland. In response to these concerns over conditions (which J.A. Sharpe characterised as ‘trade-union issues’), several regiments elected representatives known as Agitators.

These Agitators reflected the widespread support amongst the troops for the more radical political and religious movements, such as the Levellers, which had emerged in the 1640s. Many men were now asserting their ‘natural rights’ as Englishmen to take part in government, which the historian Christopher Hill connects to the radical Protestant belief in the equality of all people before God. The Agitators were particularly troubled that, despite having done all the fighting, they were now being excluded from the constitutional negotiations by a civilian parliament which broadly favoured returning the King to power.

Together with the Grandees, the Agitators formed an Army Council to present their concerns to Parliament, who responded by ordering the army to disband. The army ignored this, took the King into custody, and marched on London.

They quickly captured the city from Parliament’s militia and set up their headquarters at Putney. Camped a mere six miles from the heart of political authority, with custody of the King, and the largest military force in the kingdom, the New Model Army found itself with the power to reshape the constitution without much reference to either Parliament or the King.

The Grandees’ preferred constitution, the Heads of the Proposals, called for a new parliament every two years, restrictions on Royalists holding office, and a system of church governance based on bishops. Unhappy that the Grandees seemed likely to restore Charles to power with few concessions, more radical elements with the New Model elected new, unofficial, Agitators. They endorsed a different constitution, the Agreement of the People, which reflected the influence of the Levellers.

It also called for biennial parliaments, which was to be reformed into a single chamber with supreme authority in the kingdom, with no mention of any role for the King. The constituencies would be redrawn and the electorate would be dramatically extended by removing the property qualification and enfranchising all men over the age of 21 who were not servants, royalists, or in receipt of alms.

The Grandees agreed to meet the Agitators to discuss the Agreement and delegates crammed into St Mary’s Church, Putney, for the first day of debate on 28 October. Oliver Cromwell presided, with his son-in-law Henry Ireton representing the Grandees and their Heads. The Puritan naval officer Thomas Rainsborough emerged as the leading advocate of the Leveller’s Agreements.

The first three days of the debates were recorded verbatim by secretary William Clarke. In the transcripts, Rainsborough makes an impassioned case for the rights of all Englishmen to participate in government, particularly as it was the soldiers of the New Model who had won the war for Parliament. He summarised the Leveller doctrines of universal equality and government by consent, saying that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, 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.’

The response of the Grandees was unenthusiastic. Ireton feared that enfranchisement would lead to anarchy, saying ‘no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom’. Cromwell feared that such radical disagreements threatened to fracture the unity of the Army. Just over a week into the debates, Cromwell dismissed the Agitators back to their regiments to quell unrest, and in their absence the Grandees resolved to present their manifesto, the Heads, to the army for their approval.

The debates finally disbanded with the escape of the King from Hampton Court on 11 November, seemingly confirming the Agitators’ belief that he was negotiating in bad faith. By 1648, with the Second Civil War in full swing, any plans for open consultation on the new constitution were dropped, and it would be six years before a settlement was finally reached.

Historians disagree on whether the Putney Debates represent the failure of a revolutionary movement, or in fact mark the first serious discussion of the principles of legal equality and universal suffrage which underpin the modern constitution. Clarke’s transcripts were lost until the 1890s, and so their influence in their own time is unclear, particularly as the Grandees gradually suppressed the more radical elements in the New Model.

By the 1940s and ‘50s, however, the Putney Debates and the wider Leveller movement had become a touchstone for social historians searching for the roots of Britain’s radical political traditions. Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson connect Putney with the transformation of radical religious ideas into popular political discourse. Universal suffrage found its first serious expression at Putney, and several articles of the Agreement are now cornerstones of British democracy. The 1689 Bill of Rights and in turn the first drafts of the US constitution arguably owe their emphasis on individual liberty and government by consent to the impassioned articulation of radical democratic thought at Putney.