In Our Time: The Putney Debates

The Putney Debates were held (in Putney) in 1647 when the Parliamentary forces first felt they had won the Civil War – Charles I was safely captured – and these meetings were held between differing factions in the New Model Army to discuss the way the country should be governed thereafter. They ended inconclusively, when Charles I escaped and the Civil War re-ignited. However their influence has been felt throughout political thought since then, as the re-discovery in the early 20th Century of the notes from the meetings made clear. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Justin Champion (Royal Holloway, University of London), Ann Hughes (Keele University) and Kate Peters (Murray Edwards College, Cambridge).

To put the debates in context they started the programme by talking about the causes of the Civil War – Charles I believed that as the divinely anointed King he had the right to do what he wanted but Parliament believed that he also had to heed their counsel. As well as the politics of the situation there was a religious aspect, many felt that the King was too close to Catholicism. Despite Parliament not really wanting to go to war against the King in the end it became inevitable, and hostilities broke out in 1642. At first the King had the advantage. Parliament’s troops were very localised, and often refused to fight outside their region, so eventually they decided that in order to win the war they needed to form a New Model Army.

This army was a professional army, which was under a cohesive chain of command rather than being lots of local forces stuck together haphazardly. I think they were saying that there was a rule that Members of Parliament couldn’t be part of the army, so that it was separate from the politics. Many of the soldiers were volunteers, and there was pride in the honour & professionalism of the force. As well as this the army felt they were fighting for a cause – for their country and for the True Religion (and many in the army were more radical varieties of Protestant).

The New Model Army turned the tide of the war and by early 1647 the King’s forces were defeated. The King himself was taken captive from the house he was staying in, by a relatively junior cavalry officer (backed up by the 500 soldiers under his command). And now the problem was to negotiate a settlement with the King. They were saying on the programme that really want people wanted at this point was to return the situation to normal – King back on the throne, peace time law & order restored. Obviously with the proviso that the King would now listen to Parliament and behave himself.

One stumbling block that had to be overcome, from the New Model Army’s point of view, was that the army’s pay was significantly in arrears. They also wanted a proper legal statement of indemnity for the soldiers – i.e. that the blood they’d spilt in the war would not be counted as murder now the war was over. The first proposals put forward by Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and other Grandees of the army for a settlement with the King did not provide for these conditions to be met first – it would happen after the King was restored. This did not go down well with the more radical elements of the army which made their grievances known via petitions and via the Agitators.

The political culture of the time was a very informed one – the experts were telling us how all sides in politics published pamphlets and wrote petitions to be presented to their opponents or political leaders. So the population were generally politically active & well educated about the issues of the day & what the various sides of any debate were. Therefore it wasn’t an unusual step for the New Model Army to present a petition to its leaders putting forward their grievances about the settlement. What was a new step was that they began to organise themselves politically – each regiment elected its own Agitator and these men met to discuss the issues that each of their regiments wanted raised. And it’s the representatives of these Agitators that met with Cromwell, Ireton etc in the Putney Debates. Many of them were part of the movement that would become known as the Levellers.

When the Putney Debates started in October 1647 the subject had moved on from simply being about pay and indemnities. The Levellers had published a couple of pamphlets setting forward their opinions on how the country should be run now that the war was over, and so the constitution of the country was under debate. The Levellers’ ideas were pretty radical for their time – they thought that every man over the age of 21 should have the vote. Both of these were regarded as appalling by the more conservative participants in the debates. Ireton said that universal suffrage would be anarchy, that you should only get the vote if you had a fixed & permanent interest in the country (i.e. were a land owner). The Levellers felt that by their fighting for their country they should get a say in the running of it – the cause they had fought for was important otherwise the army lost its legitimacy.

On the subject of religion the Levellers were also pretty radical, they felt that people should be allowed to worship as they pleased (I suspect there was an unsaid “so long as they’re Christian & not Catholic” here…). This was also too radical for the other side of the debates – Cromwell & Ireton were in favour of increased tolerance of different forms of Protestantism but they felt there should be a universal Church to which everyone belonged and any tolerance was to be within this Church.

The debates ended inconclusively after a few weeks – the King escaped from custody, and the second phase of the Civil Wars started. The notes taken during the debates weren’t publicly available at the time, and were lost to historians until the early 20th Century. Despite their lack of conclusion at the time they can be seen as the first steps towards our modern Parliamentary Democracy.

This was a programme that seemed like it had bitten off more than it could chew! It felt like they needed to give so much context that the meat of the programme got a bit short-changed. And it reminded me how little I actually know about the Civil Wars.