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date: 30 June 2022

Putney debatersfree

(act. 1647)

Putney debatersfree

(act. 1647)
  • P. R. S. Baker

Putney debaters (act. 1647), were a group of parliamentarian soldiers and civilian Levellers who, following the defeat of the royalists in the first civil war, came together to discuss the prospective settlement of the nation at the headquarters of the New Model Army at Putney, 6 miles upstream from London. Among the issues they debated were the right of all men to have the vote, the place of the monarchy and the House of Lords in a settlement, and whether Charles I had any future as the nation's king. The debates took place between 28 October and 11 November 1647, and on the first and probably on a number of subsequent days they were held in St Mary's Church, Putney. However, the venue for the proceedings on 29 October and for at least part of those on 30 October was in a nearby house where the army's quartermaster-general of foot, Thomas Grosvenor, had his lodgings. Throughout their duration the Putney debates took place within the forum of the general council of the army and its committees.

Background to the debates

The general council—which comprised the general officers and two officer and two soldier representatives, or agitators, from each regiment—was conceived in June 1647 in the New Model's solemn engagement, a military covenant in which the army declared that it would obey an order from parliament to disband once a number of its material and political grievances were redressed. Agitators had first appeared in a number of regiments in April, and the general council enabled the army's commanders, or grandees, to assimilate the existing agitators into the New Model's command structure and to consult and include all ranks in the army's major political decisions.

From May 1647 onwards some of the general officers and agitators were in contact with their fellow political and religious Independents or more extreme sectaries in London who shared their opposition to the design of the parliamentary presbyterians to disband the army, restore the king on moderate terms, and establish a coercive national church. This army–civilian co-operation, which provides a precedent for the Putney debates, was no doubt facilitated by the pre-existing links that many army members had to the capital and its suburbs. For example, among the army debaters at Putney Colonel Robert Tichborne, Lieutenant-Colonel William Goffe, Captain Edmund Rolph, Lieutenant Edmund Chillenden, and Trooper Edward Sexby were all former London apprentices. Colonel John Hewson was of a London family, the brothers Colonel Thomas Rainborowe and Major William Rainborowe originated from Wapping, and Trooper William Allen (fl. 1642–1667) had lived in Southwark before the outbreak of the war. Chillenden had ties to the capital's separatist community, and Hugh Peter, chaplain to the artillery, was an established and influential figure within city Independent circles. Meanwhile, the willingness of the New Model to consult its supporters in London is reflected in the presence of the Leveller leader William Walwyn at army headquarters in July, the same month in which the two civilian Putney debaters, Maximilian Petty and John Wildman, participated in discussions at headquarters concerning The Heads of the Proposals, the settlement that the army offered to Charles I in the summer of 1647. The Heads was drawn up in consultation with the grandees' Independent allies in the Lords and the Commons, and they proposed to limit the executive powers of the monarch through the creation of a council of state.

Over the following months criticism of The Heads in some quarters of the army led to the appearance of a new set of agitators, who were more commonly referred to as agents. These agents were not official regimental agitators with seats on the general council, and they never displaced the original agitators. However, more than thirty agents put their names to a series of pamphlets in which The Heads was denounced as a betrayal of the New Model's demand in its engagements that the resolution of the army's grievances should precede any treaty with the king. This argument was most forcefully advanced in a publication of October signed by fifteen agents, The Case of the Armie Truly Stated. Although this pamphlet was an implicit attack on the grandees and threatened to divide the army, at the insistence of Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell its authors were invited to send delegates to the meeting of the general council on 28 October to explain their position. This invitation explains the presence of the agents and their civilian advisers, none of whom was a member of the general council, at the Putney debates.

The debates and their participants

The manuscript record of the Putney debates—which is based on the shorthand notes of William Clarke, secretary to the general council, and a team of stenographers—provides only a partial account of the proceedings, which took place between 28 October and 11 November. There are lengthy, if incomplete, transcripts of the debates on 28 and 29 October and 1 November, and a much briefer record of the discussions on 8 and 11 November. A total of thirty-six different speakers is recorded across these five days, and it is these men who are most readily identified as the Putney debaters. Given the size of the general council, however, the total number of men who attended the debates could conceivably have been as many as 100, and other individuals are known to have been present at Putney at the time. For example, a further six men are listed as attending a committee on 30 October, and during a committee meeting on 2 November Major John Cobbett revealed his support for Leveller principles in voting against a proposal that the House of Lords should have the right to arrest and imprison commoners under certain circumstances. Another thirty-eight men were either appointed to committees or put their names to a letter from the general council between 28 October and 11 November (Clarke Papers, 1.279, 363, 407, 409, 413, 415–16). However, these forty-five individuals are not recorded as speaking during the debates.

As a group the debaters range from Sir Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, and Colonel Sir Hardress Waller to an unnamed agitator and an agent simply referred to as ‘Bedfordshire Man’, presumably on account of his distinctive regional accent. The two latter men are among the six common soldiers with recorded speeches, the others being Allen, Sexby, Trooper Nicholas Lockyer (fl. 1647–1660), and the agent originally identified and styled according to his ‘Buffe-Coate’, who was later named as Trooper Robert Everard. In addition to these six Peter, Petty, and Wildman are the only other recorded speakers who were not army officers. Of the latter group, as many as twelve were officer-agitators: majors William Rainborowe and Francis White; captains Francis Allen (fl. 1647–1659), Lewis Audley (fl. 1647–1659), George Bishop, John Carter (fl. 1647–1649), John Clarke (fl. 1645–1660), Richard Deane (1647–1661), John Merriman (fl. 1647–1659), and Rolph; Commissary Nicholas Cowling (fl. 1647–1648); and Lieutenant Chillenden. Thus if the clerks did not give preference to rank in their recording of the speeches, officer- rather than soldier-agitators were the more assertive in expressing their views. Nevertheless, the allegiances of the debaters did not simply divide along lines of rank, and the grandees and the Levellers both received support from officers and common soldiers. The remaining fifteen debaters were all general officers, which then meant those with staff duties: Fairfax, Cromwell, and Cromwell's son-in-law, Commissary-General Henry Ireton; colonels Richard Deane (bap. 1610, d. 1653), Thomas Harrison, Hewson, Thomas Rainborowe, Nathaniel Rich, Tichborne, and Waller; lieutenant-colonels Goffe, John Jubbes, Henry Lilburne (bap. 1618, d. 1648), and Thomas Reade (d. 1662); and Captain-Lieutenant William Bray (fl. 1647–1660). According to the manuscript fifteen of the debaters made a single speech and the vast majority of the rest only a handful of interventions. Indeed, the three days with the most complete transcripts are dominated by the words of just four men: Cromwell (who held the chair on 28 October and 1 November), Ireton, Wildman, and Thomas Rainborowe.

The agents sent four delegates to the meeting of the general council on 28 October: two agents, Everard and ‘Bedfordshire Man’, and two civilian Levellers, Petty and Wildman. Quite when Petty and Wildman made their common cause with the agents is not known, but they probably did so some time before 27 October, when Wildman attended a meeting with the agents at which he in all likelihood drew up the Agreement of the People. This draft written constitution invoked the sovereignty of the people, made no reference at all to the monarchy or the House of Lords, and listed a series of 'reserved powers' that the people were to retain to themselves. Moreover, and in contrast with The Heads of the Proposals, it did not seek to gain its legitimacy through a parliamentary vote but through a literal agreement of all the population. Presented to the general council on 28 October the Agreement subsequently became the focus of intense debate over the following two weeks.

Although Cromwell and in particular Ireton offered initial, qualified support for the Agreement, thereafter they directed the first day's debate towards the question of whether the New Model was free to adopt it in the light of the army's existing engagements. The agents and their advisers received support from Thomas Rainborowe in arguing that those engagements were no longer binding if the general council found the Agreement to be just, a view that was hotly disputed by Ireton. The question of what the army was free to entertain was eventually referred to a committee, a well-established procedure within the New Model for reaching a consensual position. Goffe also suggested that the question was one on which they should seek out the mind of the Lord, an equally familiar practice within the army. Indeed, for a number of the debaters, the search for God's guidance on issues relating to the settlement of the nation was at the very heart of the debates.

Following Goffe's proposal the proceedings on 29 October—the most famous day of the debates—began with a prayer meeting that probably lasted several hours, but the debaters eventually turned their attention to the subject of the franchise. The Agreement stated that the people of England in electing their representatives to parliament 'ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of the Inhabitants' (Agreement, 2). Ireton's response to this apparent call for universal male suffrage was a passionate and prolonged defence of the existing property-based franchise, in which he predicted a descent into anarchy if the vote was given to those without a fixed interest in the kingdom. His arguments received support from Cromwell and Rich, but seven of the debaters—Wildman, Sexby, and five officers—spoke broadly in favour of the right of all free men to have the vote. The most impassioned and persistent defender of this position was Thomas Rainborowe, who declared in what became his (and the debates') most celebrated speech:

for really I thinke that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I thinke itt's cleare, that every man that is to live under a Governement ought first by his owne consent to putt himself under that Governement.

Clarke Papers, 1.300–01

However, the majority of the day's speakers clearly became exasperated at the verbal duel between Rainborowe and Ireton, and a compromise position was suggested whereby all but apprentices, servants, and alms-takers would receive the vote. In spite of the earlier pronouncements of his allies Petty was willing to accept this proposal, a clear indication that the supporters of the Agreement had no agreed position on the franchise.

The proceedings on 1 November revealed further divisions among the debaters in relation to their interpretations of the mind of God. A small number of officers and soldiers believed that the Lord had declared against the king and even the monarchy, and Captain Bishop ominously referred to Charles I as a man of blood. Cromwell was among those who were as yet uncertain of the Lord's wishes, while William Allen believed that the king might still be restored on terms that were not prejudicial to the liberties of the kingdom. Differences were also evident during a debate over the powers, relative to the Commons, that the monarch and the Lords might retain under a future settlement, with Ireton's proposal that they be given a veto over legislation that affected them personally vehemently opposed by Wildman. Over the following days a committee continued to review the army's engagements and the Agreement in order to deliver new terms of settlement, but on 8 November Fairfax suddenly ordered the agitators to return to their regiments. Alarmed at the apparent rifts within the general council at a time of increasing unrest in a number of army regiments, he thus terminated the Putney debates with their work unfinished.

Aftermath and legacy

There was no apparent opposition to Fairfax's order from the agitators, and the Putney debates came to an end with a final meeting of a committee of the general council on 11 November. On the same day the king escaped from the army's custody at Hampton Court, bringing a renewal of armed conflict ever closer. On 15 November the grandees mercilessly crushed an attempt by the Levellers and some of their allies among the debaters to turn an army rendezvous at Ware in Hertfordshire into a mass demonstration in favour of the Agreement. The unity of the New Model was thereby preserved, and the grandees subsequently turned against the agents and the Levellers. However, in late 1648 the fear that parliament would settle with the king saw many of the Putney debaters, including the Levellers, temporarily reunite and participate in a new series of debates at Whitehall concerning a new Agreement of the People.

With newspaper reports brief and heavily censored, contemporaries knew relatively little of the Putney debates and their participants. Modern historians were similarly ignorant until the discovery of William Clarke's manuscript in a cupboard in the library of Worcester College, Oxford, about 1890. Yet in the space of little over a century the discussions between the generals of the New Model Army, common soldiers, and Levellers have achieved a prominent place in the national historical consciousness. Academic historians beginning with the first editor of the transcripts, Sir Charles Firth, were quick to realize the debates' importance to the history of the New Model Army, and the 1960s and 1970s witnessed an intense scholarly dispute over the extent of the Levellers' commitment to the expansion of the franchise. That some of the participants argued that it was the natural right of all men to have the vote has caused the debates to be celebrated as a key moment in the development of British parliamentary democracy, and it is in this way that they have also entered the popular historical memory. The words of the debaters have been broadcast on radio and television and dramatized in live performances, and, following a competition in a national newspaper in 2006, the Putney debates were voted the event most deserving of a monument in British radical history. As a result there is now a permanent exhibition celebrating those who participated in the most famous debates in British history at St Mary's Church, Putney.


  • A. S. P. Woodhouse, ed., Puritanism and liberty: being the army debates (1647–49) from the Clarke manuscripts, 3rd edn (1986)
  • A. Woolrych, Soldiers and statesmen: the general council of the army and its debates, 1647–1648 (1987)
  • M. Mendle, ed., The Putney debates of 1647: the army, the Levellers and the English state (2001)
  • P. Baker, ‘“A despicable contemptible generation of men”? Cromwell and the Levellers’, Oliver Cromwell: new perspectives, ed. P. Little (2009)
  • J. Morrill, Living with revolution
  • M. A. Kishlansky, ‘Consensus politics and the structure of debate at Putney’, Journal of British Studies (1981), 50–69
  • C. H. Firth and G. Davies, The regimental history of Cromwell's army, 2 vols. (1940)
  • I. Gentles, The New Model Army in England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1645–1653 (1992)
  • An agreement of the people (1647)
  • P. H. Hardacre, ‘William Allen’, Greaves & Zaller, BDBR, 1.11
  • J. D. Neville, ‘John Clarke’, Greaves & Zaller, BDBR, 1.147–8
  • B. Taft, ‘William Bray’, Greaves & Zaller, BDBR, 1.90–91


  • Worcester College, Oxford, Clarke papers
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R. L. Greaves & R. Zaller, eds., , 3 vols. (1982–4)