Putney debates

During the English Civil War of 1642-1651, the ousting of the king saw the need for a peace agreement that might serve as a constitution for the new-look England. At the Putney Debates of 1647, various factions put forward their proposals

How did the Civil War come about?

Disagreements between Charles I and the Parliament had been simmering for several years before full-blown civil war broke out in 1642. At first, Charles's Royalist forces had the upper hand, with further promise of support from the Irish Catholic Confederation, which was fighting Parliamentarian forces in Ireland.

But in 1643 an agreement between English and Scottish parliaments brought the Scottish army into the war, and the balance changed. At the battles of Naseby and Langport in June and July 1645, the first showing of the Parliamentarian New Model Army under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the Royalists suffered major losses.

Charles I's surrender in May 1646 concluded the first phase of the civil war, though he rejected all proposals intended to bring a peace. However, he did reach a secret agreement with the Scots regarding Presbyterianism in England, which incensed the English Parliament.

Why was a new constitution needed?

There was also growing unrest between Parliament and the New Model Army, many of whom were still to be paid. It was important to reach a constitutional agreement with the King. The Council of the Army, under Henry Ireton, put forward a draft document, the 'Heads of Proposals', based largely on old constitutional principles. A more radical proposal, the Agreement of the People, came from extremists in the army, known as the Agitators, and their political allies, the Levellers.

Who were the Levellers?

In 1649 the True Levellers, or Diggers, began the first communist movement. They believed that true liberty meant land was free to everyone. They moved onto enclosed land in Surrey to grow vegetables. At this time food was in short supply and expensive. The landowner had them ejected and similar groups across the country found landowners and Parliament unsympathetic. The movement was over within two years.

Why Putney?

To discuss the ideas put forward in Heads of Proposals and the Agreement of the People, a debate was held during the autumn of 1647. The New Model Army, which had taken London from the Presbyterians, was based in Putney, making it the obvious venue for the debate. With Oliver Cromwell chairing, they began at the Church of St Mary the Virgin on 28 October 1647, and moved to Quartermaster Thomas Grosvenor's lodgings on 29 October.

What was the nature of the discussion?

The discussion found itself focusing on who should have the vote. Ireton and his Proposals had gone for householder suffrage, while the Levellers were after a wider franchise including small traders and craftsmen. During the debate there was a lengthy exchange between Ireton and Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who went even further than the Levellers, saying: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; 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."

What did the debates decide?

As a few tentative agreements were on the verge of being made, the debates broke up on 11 November, when Charles's escape from detention threw everything into confusion.

The early debates were transcribed by secretary William Clarke and a team of stenographers. Clarke's minutes were lost until 1890 when they were rediscovered at the library of Worcester College, Oxford.

Putney Debates record book, 1647

Putney Debates record book

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Copyright: © Copyright © Worcester College, Oxford. Used by permission

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