Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known As The Quakers (Bristol radical Pamphleteers) Pamphlet – 2011-by Jim McNeill

"..yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing,"

Gerrards Winstanley

Where is the good old cause now?...and what is become of it? In whose hands does it lie?

Edward Burrough, To the Whole English Army(1659)

Friends, Meddle Not with the Powers of the Earth,
George Fox

Despite being only sixteen pages long, The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known as the Quakers poses a number of questions, who were the Quakers? Why were they persecuted? Why did they stop being radical? How did some of Bristol's Quakers become so rich?

Jim McNeill's excellent pamphlet give partial answers to the above questions and encourages the reader to read around the subject. Even a cursory look at the early history of the Quakers tell us that they were a mass of contradictions. During the English Revolution, the Quakers were closely aligned with other radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers.

As Alan Cole explains "for nearly thirty years after the defeat of the Levellers at Burford, no political party emerged which could claim the effective support of the English radicals. Throughout this period the main centres of resistance were the Puritan sects and the history of the radical movement of the time, therefore, is closely bound up with the history of religious dissent. It is this fact which lends peculiar interest to the history of the early Quakers. For the rise of the Quakers spans the period from the breach between Cromwell and the radical movement to the emergence of the new Country Party at the end of the 1670's; and conversely, the decline of Quakerism in England may be traced back to the final defeat of the popular movement and the political compromise of 1688. Moreover, the first Quakers had had close connections with the earlier radical movement. Like the Levellers, most of them came from the class of petty traders and handicraftsmen, although it is worth noting that the movement made more headway among the peasantry than the Levellers had done. Over half the early Quaker leaders were directly connected with the land, and throughout the century the movement remained strong in the rural districts of the north and west"[1].

McNeil is one of only a handful of left-wing historians who have examined the Quakers in the context of their role in the English revolution. Christopher Hill’s output on the Quakers was reduced amounted to a lecture at Friends House in London in 1993 and his book The World Turned Upside Down he devoted one chapter which included the Ranters alongside the Quakers. This is not down to a lack of resources. Hill’s limited work on the Quakers contained very little original research.

In many ways, the Quakers are the forgotten radicals of the English revolution. As Jean Hatton[2] points out in her excellent biography, the Quaker leader George Fox is hardly known outside the Quaker movement. If ever a person needed rescuing from the condescension of history, Fox is it.

Mcneill poses an interesting question in his pamphlet? How did an early movement that expressed egalitarian strivings of the more poorer sections of society end up playing such a crucial role in the early development of capitalism? As McNeill points, it was Quakers that founded most of the big banks that now operate like a colossus over the world.

One answer not really explored by McNeill lies in the class nature of the Quakers. While containing some plebian elements, this was essentially a movement in modern terms of what would be the lower middle class. If truth be told, it was mainly the plebian elements that gave the movement its radical edge.

As McNeill points out the early Quaker movement exploded during the English revolution alongside side other radical groups, Seekers, Ranters, Antinomians, Seventh Day Baptists, Soul sleepers, Adamites, Diggers, Levellers, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Behmenists, Muggletonians to name but a few.

In Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down[3] he explains the reasoning behind this explosion of radicalism and a world that was turned upside down, Hill writes: “From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends”.

It is interesting that Hill’s in the book puts the Quakers with the Ranters in his only stand-alone chapter in the book. As Hill points out that Ranters were often confused with Ranters. George Fox leader of the Quakers would spend a large amount of his time trying to distance his movement away from the Ranters.

In 1652 Quakerism was at the height of its power, but from then onwards its radicalism started to wane very badly. As Hill explains the ebbing of the Quaker movement "In time of defeat when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietist, pacifist. This voice only was recognized by others as God's. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler's entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. The radicals were so effectively silenced that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley. But what looked in the Ranter heyday as though it might become a counter-culture became a corner of the bourgeois culture whose occupants asked only to be left alone."

It is no coincidence that its move away from its early radicalism coincided with the rise of capitalism which it played an extremely important part. During the early part of the 18th century and 9th century, Quakers went on to be an indispensable tool in the development of capitalism. They were especially important in the field of technological innovations.  Industrial capitalism would rely heavily on Quaker's inventions. 

As Steven Davison points out "They build many of the key industries, establish many of the most important companies, build its financial infrastructure, develop new modes of organization, and pioneer humane treatment of workers. At the same time that they are engaging the world of business, industry and commerce with incredible energy and invention, they are withdrawing from engagement with the world in virtually every other area of life. Friends maintain this double culture for two hundred years. In England, they become fabulously wealthy; in America, they do pretty well[4].

[1] The Quakers and the English Revolution: Alan Cole -Past & Present, No. 10 (Nov. 1956), pp. 39-54
[2] George Fox: A Biography of the Founder of the Quakers Paperback – 1 Sep 2007-by Jean Hatton
[3] The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin History) Paperback – 12 Dec 1991
[4] Quakers & Capitalism: A Brief Recap-

Monday, 19 January 2015

John Gurney and the English Revolution

‘Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing ‘– Gerrard Winstanley

There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford on some occasions.

Gurney was not a Marxist historian but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought provoking. It is certainly one the best analysis of left wing historiography of the English Revolution.

Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote “John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise”[1].

Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He had a capability to explain complicated historical issues in a way that any one could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time “grubbing in the archives”.

To deep mine, an archive may to a lay person seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.

If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood’s claim that Winstanley’s place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was as dangerous revolutionary.

Historians Craft

Gurney’s attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.

Gurney’s work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of expertise. But his work did show an honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.

Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney’s approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013.

The book is a meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an “extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy’s acclaimed The Voices of Morebath.

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: “Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements”. He believed that Winstanley “has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor”.

Gurney’s book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley’s radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of civil war.

In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger’s achieved a level of local support in Cobham “Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom” [3].

Who Were The Diggers

Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.

The Diggers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the right ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, this stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007

Gurney’s study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.
Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. 

It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as “a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger”.
Gerrard Winstanley and the Left

Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical ground work for a further examination of the left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not in always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney’s whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated.  However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.

As he wrote in the essay “The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery.  It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky’s Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus. 

Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein’s baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The left’s responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the main stream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley’s writings in the 1890s”[4].


Where does Gurney’s work fit in with today’s in today’s historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney’s work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.

As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes”.

The historian Mark Kishlansky’ has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney’s book saying “this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.”

Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney’s book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”.

Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley’s religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism[5]”.


Gurney’s work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is ground breaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography.
Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers.  It is hoped that Gurney’s work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.

[1]  Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
[3] Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
[4] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
[5] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958

Monday, 5 January 2015

Thomas Munzer and the Peasants Revolt in Germany 1525

While the date for the Peasants revolt was 1525 it could be said that for well over a hundred years the German peasantry had been in a state of rebellion. Many of the earlier revolts were caused according to Elton attempts “by various landlords to re-impose feudal rights that had fallen into disuse”. In the aftermath of the Black Death, with a substantially lessened population, some peasants and serfs were enjoying both higher wages and better conditions but for the majority it was a time of growing misery.

On a broader point changes in the economy which had resulted from the move from a natural or feudal to money economy had a more profound effect from 1476 it brought about a series of local uprisings and peasant riots across Germany and all over Europe. These were however soon suppressed.

The rise in world trade created a new class of merchants i.e. the development of a new middle class, which amassed vast fortunes, travelled widely and opened new markets. In other words the arrival of capitalism in early form. With the development of money everything became a commodity including people. This change became the driving force for revolutionary changes in the 14th 15th and 16th century.

This was the transition period between feudalism and capitalism. Much of industry was still in the towns; many guild people had never left the confines of their village or town. The opposition between buyer and seller soon became opposition between nations. The merchants opposed the universality of the medieval church. Traders brought together the loosely knit medieval states into smaller entities. Christianity was divided into sharply distinct nations.
It was only when the reformation came into being which had reached large parts of the Germany did the Peasants Revolt take place all over the empire. Revolt was feared and hated not only by the German princes and knights but also the leaders of the reformation itself. The movement of peasants was an entirely progressive nature. The twelve articles of Memmingen issued by the peasants were of a democratic character although were couched in the language of religion.

It should be bore in mind that Germany at the time was at the beginning of the transformation from a feudal economy to a capitalist economy and that many of the more profound revolts and rebellions would take place within an “ecclesiastical shell of which inside the more profound growing political and class differences amongst the different sections of the Ruling elites were to be fought out”.

The 12 articles conformed to most of the ideas being put forward by the new rising class of the day the bourgeoisie. What the German peasants wanted in 1525 was achieved by the French in 1789.

Their demands were for “electing and recall of the clergy by the congregation, the abolition of serfdom and noble hunting and fishing rights, the limitation of excessive labor services and taxes, the restitution of the woods and pastures taken from individuals or communities, and the removal of arbitrary justice and administration”.
At first the peasants were able to keep their revolt mainly low key and peaceful and while it remained so it won support from the leaders of the Reformation. When the peasants did rise up it caused considerable surprise amongst the princes. On April 16th Luther put forward that there should be a settlement based on the 12 articles. He said ‘Not the peasants, but God himself was in revolt against the bloodthirsty tyranny of the princes’.


It has been said by some historians like James M Stayer that “In general the movement of 1525 used the language of the reformation”. While the Reformation allowed the conditions for the rebellion to take place it would wrong to assume as Stayer does that the revolution was inspired by the religious politics of the reformation. If it was the case that “Luther’s overwhelming personality made the reformation” then his involvement would have undoubtedly changed the course of the revolt and more favourable outcome may have been achieved.
The princess once they saw what was happening moved to cruelly drown the revolt in blood. They were spurred on by Luther himself who gave them his blessing in the form of his pamphlet published on May 6 entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of peasants, In it Luther calls on the princess “Therefore dear lords, here is a place where you can release, rescue, help, have mercy on these poor people (whom the peasants have compelled to join them). Stab, smite, and slay, whomever you can. If you die in doing it, wellf or you, a more blessed death can never be yours”. However the princes both catholic and Protestant needed no encouragement.

The Power of the clergy began to be severely undermined by the development of the printing press and the translation of the bible into German. Based on medieval feudal ideology the development of commerce and the rising of a new capitalist class threatened its position not only in terms of education. Intellectual positions were taken from it, mostly becoming lazy and ignorant. There was an intimate relationship between the higher clergy and the princes in some cases it became virtually indistinguishable?

The real leader of this revolt was Thomas Munzer who was the embodiment of all that was courageous in the uprising. He was a secular priest who called for social equality and called for the killing of all those who opposed change.

In Mulhausen, which was free town he set up a commune, which lasted two months. He and his army of peasants were defeated in a battle with well-armed soldiers with large volumes of Guns.

This would be the story all over the empire, it has been said that the revolt failed because the demands put forward by the peasants were out of date, on the contrary, I believe they were far ahead of their time, it was because the national conditions upon which they rested were missing at the time, i.e. a German nation.

The revolt had support from a few towns, and some workers such as miners gave support to the rebellion, but the urban centers were still too far underdeveloped to lend the support needed to defeat the knights and princes.

Also in general the movement was beset by its own internal disputes and problems. In general battles remained local and provincial in their character, many peasants refused to come to the aid of their brothers fighting in other parts of the districts. Most of the peasants were killed in individual battles which militarily suited the prince’s down to a tee.

The princes utilized trickery and outright deception against the peasantry, which through years of serfdom had grown accustomed to trusting their masters. On many occasions the rulers made promises to the and when the peasants laid down their arms they were slaughtered by the princess armies. It has been said upwards of 100,000 peasants were killed.

When the rebellion was over it would be fair to say that apart from escaping with their lives much had not changed. Although they lost some of their self-government in many respects they had been so poor at the start of the war that after it their position had not actually been made worse. Many richer middling sort peasants had been ruined. For the Princes the war was a bonanza, it had allowed them to seize vast tracks of the clergy’s land and they levied huge fines on the towns which had supported the uprising.

This persecution did not just stop at the general peasantry, the Anabaptists which took their name from the fact that they opposed the baptism the church carried out on new born children were treated no less harshly and were virtually exterminated as a movement, the Anabaptists although sharing Thomas Munzer “ communistic views” were nonviolent and pacifists in outlook.
While the Anabaptists were considered a religious oddity and have been examined by the Princes to be a dangerous enemy and in some quarters were considered revolutionaries. They were driven out of most parts of Germany and were finally pushed to Holland. To survive the movement took up arms. In the old town of Munster the flow albeit for a short while had done what the peasants revolt had failed to do in setting up and controlling a whole city. It had however taken the whole of the German Empire to drown it in blood.

While the peasants revolt took place at the time of the Reformation its political inspiration was more of a democratic and in an embryonic form communistic in nature rather than religious inspiration, “nevertheless the war had a profound social consequence, an essential characteristic of late medieval Germany disappeared overnight when the rural commons and urban poor suddenly ceased to have any further power to influence.

In the merchant-dominated areas had the beginning of the nation-state. National language began to replace Latin of the churches. The power of gold and money began to change economic relations, even agriculture produce became commodities. The Knights and general aristocracy felt threatened by these developments.

The church was deeply affected by these changes and had to adapt. Agricultural lands were developed to make profits. To increase its wealth it seized common lands and attacks the peasants. Peasantry began to hate the church. The new mode of economic developments had no need for the clergy as it began to develop its own science and education. Monasteries increasingly became obsolete and served no function. Priests became more lazy and baseness and vice became commonplace.

Churches power to raise money came under threat. The steady lust for money led to indulgences such as the remission of sins became increasingly harmless. Churches were becoming nothing more than ruthless money making machines. Pope became remote and church authority was being steadily undermined.

Much of the current historiography sees the Reformation, which sought a complete break with Rome in spiritual terms, form a new rising class of a more secular outlook, trying to create new ways of art, language even religion to reflect its new thought and new society.
In Germany, all classes had suffered under papal exploitation, growing frustration that the church was exporting germane wealth to Rome. While German towns were already great centers of trade and German miners were

Amongst the most productive, Germany was still vastly underdeveloped. A modern monarchy could not develop in the country ruled by different princes and knights. When a new development of production began to emerge, it highlighted the decay of feudal relations under the Knights.
Germany was nation whereby all classes were at each other throats. The peasantry had much the worse position, immense hardship and poverty. When Luther nailed his thesis against indulgences to the castle church on October 31 1517 signalled the outbreak of a revolt that had been simmering for decades. Luther’s argument was in reality quite tame compared to the letters composed by the Humanists whose tracts were often sharp and could not be understood by the masses, Luther did.

While in normal times Luther’s criticisms would have been largely ignored at this time they were like a lighted match thrown into a tinder box.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Review: Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836

“And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.—King James Bible 2 Samuel 16:7, 8. [1]

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33. [2]

The above two quotes are not to be found in Mark Kishlanksy’s new biography of Charles I. Kishlansky does not believe that Charles was a “man of blood” on the contrary he believes that history and its historians have much maligned this monarch.

Kishlansky believes “Even his virtues were misinterpreted and scandalously reviled. His gentleness was miscalled defect of wisdom; his firmness, obstinacy; his regular devotion, popery; his decent worship, superstition; his opposing of schism, hatred of the power of godliness.”[1]

Kishlanksy’s book is an aggressive defense of both Charles and monarchy in general. As Charles said "Princes are not bound to give an account of their actions, but to God alone" Kishlansky seems to take the quote and turns it into a historical perspective.

According to him “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and people who were the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Kishlansky concludes in this brief book that its protagonist has been misjudged.

Even though the English revolution was the most devastating regarding people killed and politically attractive given that a reigning monarch has executed a republic declared and the House of Lords abolished you get little of an idea of this in this short book. I know Kishlansky did not have much space, but surely only one mention of Oliver Cromwell is a little mean.

Given that the English revolution was primarily a political and religious dispute Kishlanksy’s heavy emphasis on the individual mistakes, misjudgments and general bad luck of the monarch is typical of his historical methodology. In many senses, this biography is part political rehabilitation, part polemical essay rather than a history book

The book has only been released recently, so it is a little premature to make an overall assessment of its reception in the media or amongst academic journals, but some comments can be done.

Generally, the book has been well received. Given the conservative nature of its author, this is not surprising. For instance on Amazon “In Mark Kishlanksy’s brilliant account it is never in doubt that Charles created his own catastrophe, but he was nonetheless opposed by men with far fewer scruples and less consistency who for often quite different reasons conspired to destroy him. This is a remarkable portrait of one of the most talented, thoughtful, loyal, moral, artistically alert and yet, somehow, disastrous of all this country's rulers”.

Of course, it is Amazon’s right to promote the book anyway it sees fit but as the above quote suggests this has gone beyond standard promotion. Hopefully whoever wrote the media blurb was not a historian for it reduces history to the level of a Janet and John book.

Firstly it must be said that the men who opposed Charles both inside parliament and out were men of principle and fought for those principles through to the end.

Kishlanksy’s adoption of the wrong man or men theory of history does not enlighten us about Charles or the men who fought him. In many ways, Kishlanksy’s theory of history owes more to Hegel than it does to Marx. As we can see later, Kishlansky is no friend of a Marxist understanding of history.

Kishlansky believes of Charles that “Beneath the reviled and excoriated King of historical reputation is a flesh-and-blood man trapped by circumstances he could not control and events he could not shape.” Kishlanksy’s belief that individuals are prisoners of external forces also does not get us very far.

As Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."[2]

Kishlanksy’s aim in this book is to overturn centuries of this type of historiography produced in general to better our understanding of the civil war. He believes that the long-held view of Charles and his reign has been distorted and the centuries-long the historical narratives opposing this view is merely “Parliamentarian propaganda.”

A major review of the book is to be found on the Guardian website. It is widely sympathetic to Kishlanksy’s’ view. Without examining in any detail what major historians have printed on the subject matter, it produces quotes that back up Kishlansky hypothesis  “ GM Trevelyan thought him “selfish and stupid,” while the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell leaps off the fence to inform six-year-olds that “King Charles was a very stupid man.” It then quotes Kishlansky uncritically saying “What began as propaganda has been transmuted into seeming fact.”

The Guardian continues Kishlanksy’s theme that Charles was battling against bad luck all through his life “Whichever side you take, it’s hard to deny that Charles was plagued from early on by almost comical levels of bad luck. As a young man, his daring incognito voyage to Spain to woo the Infanta turned into a fiasco. Two decades later, not only would his armies suffer crippling losses at the battle of Naseby, but Charles’s own personal correspondence would be captured: the public revelation of his efforts to secure Catholic support against the forces of Parliament would be a devastating blow to the king’s reputation. A botched attempt to attack and plunder Spanish shipping in the first year of his reign set the tone for later military ventures: ‘the winds, as always for Charles, were contrary’.[3]

Kishlanksy’s defense of Charles I is absolute and virtually unconditional. He rejects the standard view that Charles was intransigent. He believes that the king bent over backwards to conciliate and to compromise with parliament. Kishlansky is perfectly in his right as an established historian to counter prevailing historiography. It is a little surprising that he chooses to do so in such a limited space is astonishing. I am not a professional historian but even I know that to overturn three centuries of historiography is going to take longer than 144 pages. As one writer puts it the “small amounts of evidence are made to bear an enormous argumentative burden”.

Even the sympathetic Guardian reviewer was forced to admit that Kishlanksy’s hoop jumping was in danger of turning his reconsideration of Charles into “whitewash.”

It is not within the scope of this review to go over Kishlanksy’s previous written work, but it is evident from this new book that his place as a pioneer of a transatlantic revisionist interpretation of early Stuart history is secured.

Kishlansky joins a growing number of major historians such Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell and John Morrill. Who in one form or another rejected both the Whig and Marxist historians who had seen the Civil Wars of the 1640s as stemming from the growth of ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchs over the previous half-century.

The revisionist school seek to challenge the “ideological consensus” or as Kishlansky puts it the “fallacy of social determinism’ that has existed since1920s. These historians reject any severe economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

In any review, I try to be as generous as I can, and on the whole, I would recommend this short narrative on the life of Charles I as a competent introduction to the subject. If that were all it was, then I would have no trouble but as this is more a polemic than a history book it needs to be answered in the future in a more detailed manner.


[1] A Sermon produced thirty years after Charles’s death

[3] Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky –

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Oliver Cromwell, the Levellers and the Putney Debates.

This article will seek examine the impact of the Putney Debates of 1647 on the thinking and actions of Oliver Cromwell. How did Cromwell defeat his Presbyterian enemies before Putney and Leveller opponents after Putney? 

Why were the revolutionaries in the Leveller Movement not a sufficient enough political force to challenge Cromwell for power and therefore change the course of the revolution? It will also examine some revisionist attitudes to Putney. Originally published in draft form in 2010


The Putney debates started on 28 October 1647. A Meeting of the army’s General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss the state of the revolution and more specifically The Levellers document The Agreement of the People and the more conservative document The Heads of Proposals.

According to Wikipedia the agreement was produced by “civilian Levellers or agitators and called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law”.

A Counter document the Heads of Proposals was issued by the Grandees. A much more moderate document. "Heads of Proposals" was the document to be adopted later on by the Cromwell’s government. It recommended a written constitution and led to Cromwell being given powers that bordered on a dictatorship.

Oliver Cromwell came to the Putney debates in 1647 from a position of considerable political and military strength. Although the fact that he still needed to invite radical elements within the army to the Putney Debates meant that he and his general’s position of power had been far from consolidated.

Cromwell was well aware that the invitation of civilian Levellers meant that the discussion held at Putney would have a resonance far beyond the walls of Putney church. How much Cromwell was aware of the growing radicalisation of his army is open to conjecture. To what extent Cromwell read the volumes of letters sent to him from the various radical groups is again hard to fathom.

But even this conservative of men would have least noted with alarm the growing influence of radical groups such as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. After all one of his top general’s Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist supporter and shared similar religious and political positions. Cromwell also up until Putney had a reasonably close social and political relationship with one of the Leaders of the Leveller’s John Lilburne.

In the months leading up to Putney Cromwell and his generals faced a growing threat to their leadership. They faced a two pronged attack from the Presbyterians and the radical groups.

One of the most important radical tracts printed by 29 October was called A Call to all soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of Parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an ‘exact council’ and to act with the ‘truest lovers of the people you could find’. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the “hypocrisy” and “deceit” of Cromwell and Ireton.

It must have been with extreme reluctance that Cromwell invited the agitators to Putney. In doing so his aim was to defeat these forces politically at Putney and then militarily later on.
Politically Cromwell was to the right of the English bourgeois revolution. In many ways his actions at Putney were largely opportunistic, he promised the Levellers to look into their demands but in reality he had no intention of adopting the Agreement.

He read very little outside of the bible and had only a superficial understanding of the radical tracts produced during the early period of the revolution. An interesting PhD dissertation topic would be to examine what was in his library at the time of his death.

It is clear that Cromwell at Putney completely underestimated his political opponents in the army. The documents presented by Leveller supporters in the army clearly shocked and dismayed this conservative of gentleman.

The debates brought to the surface deep seated ideas regarding property, democracy and the future course of the revolution. Political divisions were becoming sharper in the run up to the Putney Debates. Even deeper divisions among historians have meant that there is no agreement as to how radical the army was or when it started. This radicalisation for me did not fall from the sky. The ideas that came to fore at Putney were not only exacerbated by war , may have started as grievances over pay and condition, the fact of the matter is that these developed into broader political demands is because they were the product of a longer gestation.

As I said earlier there is little of no agreement among historians as to whether the radicalisation if it happened at all took place before or after 1647. A leading revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky classified has the period as marked by its “vaunted peace and harmony,”

The radicalisation brought about heated attacks on the army. Provoking one writer to say “it is objected to us, that we would have a toleration of all sectaries, schismatiques, heretiques, blasphemies, errours, licentiousnesse, and wickednesses.”[1]

This hostility to the radicalisation of the soldiers was given further political expression by the Presbyterian faction in parliament when it published its ‘Declaration of Dislike’ in the House of Commons. The document provocatively called the soldiers “enemies to the State and disturbers of the public peace”

The document represented a declaration of war against both independent and radicals alike. It was an expression growing class differences contained within and outside of parliament. As Austin Woolrych commented, “seldom can ten words have done more mischief than Holles’s ‘enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace.’”[2]

There existed a growing nerviness inside the Presbyterian party within parliament that was caused by the growing calls inside the army for more democracy, protests against social inequality and an end to property. The statement that  “We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the People's just Rights and Liberties.[3] Would have sent shockwaves through the Presbyterian Party.

After all the Presbyterian alongside the Independents had a lot to lose if Lilburne and his revolutionaries had their way. A large number of MP’s had grown rich out of the civil war and intended to keep their new found wealth come what may.

Many in Parliament had grown rich from the change of relations of land ownership, although the enclosure and the sequestration church holdings had begun before the civil war it was continued with during the first revolution with fresh impetus. The Long Parliament had got rid of the Episcopate and to administer its interests it organised a committee for the sale of church lands.

Often the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army were given permission to buy land cheap. Sometimes exchange for their unpaid salary and at half price. Fifth Monarchist’s like Lieutenant colonel Thomas Harrison became very rich out this process.

According to Evgeny Pashukanis “The Civil War between Parliament and the Crown thus had as a result the mass transfer of property (which was partly annulled upon the Restoration). Not less than half of all the movable property and half of the lands, rents and incomes of the noblemen who fought on the side of the Crown fell under sequestration. In order to raise the sequestration it was necessary to pay a composition in the amount of approximately one-fifth of the total value. Such an operation was conducted in 1644 on not less than 3,000 “gentlemen”. The direct profit from this measure was received by the Presbyterian party which then held sway in Parliament, a party whose members became rich buying land cheaply, squeezing out the Royalists who had fallen under sequestration, with money at usurious interest, and finally, releasing sequestration for a bribe. The corruption which developed gave one of the major trump cards to the Independents and their struggle against the parliamentary majority. In the interest of justice it should be noted that after this, when Cromwell’s army triumphed over Parliament, the Independent majority of the “Rump” began to engage in the same dirty business. [4]

Events Leading to Putney

It is extremely difficult to find in Cromwell’s early life an understanding of his actions at Putney. The Oliver Cromwell who was to occupy centre stage at Putney it can be said was not the same man who in early life would have followed under different circumstance a very pedestrian life.
He was born in Huntingdon, near Cambridge on April 25th 1599, four years before the end of Queen Elizabeth 1st reign. He was one of ten children only seven survived childhood and he was the only one to survive into adulthood. His mother Elizabeth had been widowed before she married Oliver’s father. She came from a respectable Norfolk family and had a small inheritance from her first marriage. Her family farmed lands near Ely cathedral.

Cromwell’s father, Robert was the second son of a knight and occupied a ‘median position in society’. In Cromwell’s own words ‘I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity’. [5]Little is known about his early life although one suspect tale had him bloodying the nose of Charles Stuart Later to become King Charles 1. It would be feasible to argue that when he attended grammar school he would have come under the influence of the master Dr. Thomas Beard, who was a Cambridge graduate and a clergyman.
Beard had written on the question of the English church. He preached a puritan faith which put forward that mans rewards were to be found not solely in heaven but on earth as well. Beard wrote of kings and rulers that they were not only’ more hardened and bold to sin’ but were also want to ‘ boldly exempt themselves from all corrections and punishments due unto them’. Much of Beards strongly Calvinist and anti Catholic teachings would impact on Cromwell in later life.

From 1617-20 Cromwell studied law in London (this is hotly contested by some historians) where he may well of made acquaintances with many of the people who would later play an important role in the civil war. Of all the MPs between 1640-42 over 300 had been to one of the Inns of Court, one being Sir Thomas Fairfax who was a leading military figure. In 1621 he went back to Huntingdon where he concentrated on farming the family lands. At the age of 29 he became MP when he was elected as one of the two burgesses of Huntingdon. When Cromwell took his seat parliament was already in a state of flux over the question of the king’s prerogative and of parliament’s role in society. Previously six of Cromwell’s relatives had been imprisoned for refusing to pay the enforced loan demanded by Charles 1.

Antonia Fraser writes of this time quite perceptively ‘For him there were already in practice two divergent points of view-one basically royal and one critical of it- which may for convenience sake be termed parliamentary’. In 1640 he became MP for Cambridge and entered the short parliament, which was followed, by the Long parliament in the same year. He quickly became an important figure within parliament. He sat on 18 committees and moved the second reading of a bill calling for annual parliaments. Cromwell’s reading at this time was limited to the bible; the only other book he told people to read was Raleigh’s History of the World. [6]

It is not disputed that Oliver Cromwell was a powerful figure in 17th Century England. History imparted Cromwell with an extraordinary power and authority. He carried with him the hopes and aspirations of a new social class. Many historians have sought to obscure the inner social struggle that underpinned the ‘great drama of the seventeenth Century’. The 1640s began with a parliament that although saw itself as the main representing vehicle of the people it was based on a very narrow franchise. Its Lower House was three times as rich as the House of Lords. Yet it was still under the control of the King who could call it and close it as he choose.

Parliament began increasingly to need a defence against the king and began to create its own army. This army was at the beginning never seen as a threat or replacement to parliament. But it soon took on a life of its own and began to recruit into it the most courageous and resolute members of society. It is this reason that it was to become the most resolute prosecutor of the war against Charles 1.

It is not the fashion in today’s historiography to write about a religious outlook alongside a class one but it is high time this method was restored. Charles and his court were representatives of the Episcopal or Anglican religious order, alongside the Nobility and higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the high middle class today, while the Independents were the party of the lower middle class. In a simple sense the Presbyterian stood for a limited monarchy, the Independents stood for a republic. “The contradictory position of the Presbyterians was a mirror of the contradictory position of the middle class in the fact that it oscillated between the nobility and the plebeians”.

Much of the time even overtly political and economic events were shrouded in religious language. Both sides believed they were acting legitimately and according to Gods will.

The French historian Guizot perceptively writes ” “Then commenced between the Parliament and the King, a conflict previously unexampled in Europe ... Negotiations were still continued, but neither party expected any result from them, or even had any intention to treat. It was no longer to one another that they addressed their declarations and messages; both appealed to the whole nation, to public opinion; to this new power both seemed to look for strength and success. The origin and extent of the royal authority, the privileges of the Houses of Parliament, the limits of the obligations due from subjects, the militia, the petitions for the redress of grievances, and the distribution of public employments, became the subjects of an official controversy, in which the general principles of social order, the various nature of governments, the primitive rights of liberty, history, laws, and customs of England, were alternately quoted, explained and commented upon.

In the interval between the dispute of the two parties in parliament and their armed encounter on the field of battle, reason and learning interposed, as it were, for several months, to suspend the course of events, and to put forth their ablest efforts to obtain the free concurrence of the people, by stamping either cause with the impress of legitimacy. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved ... Now, however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated the ancient rights of the country, and had not abjured the maxims of tyranny; and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved, now however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated. The ancient rights of the country, and had no adjured the maxims of tyranny, and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown”[7]

It is clear that Cromwell built not merely an army but also an armed party. In 1644 Cromwell's “holy” squadrons was given the nickname of “Ironsides.” Which was playing an independent political and military role in the English revolution.

The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.” [8]

Cromwell, and his Grandees at Putney.

The General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from 28th October to 11 November1647. According to H N Brailsford ‘When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney the mood was sultry and tense’. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them “.[9]
It is clear from the Clark papers or transcripts that Cromwell was no great theoretician, He was ambitious and with his class outlook had a tendency to develop his thinking and conduct on the spur of the moment. Cromwell at Putney had a significant amount of prestige amongst his men. Through a combination of persuasion and promises Cromwell had led his men to crush Royalist forces and his Presbyterian enemies. In doing this he was able to enlist the help of the Levellers who “were the first among the people and the simple soldier agitators in the army to understand the necessity of energetic opposition for the counter-revolutionary elements of Parliament.”[10]

It is ironic that the very organisation created by Cromwell the Council of the Army, where the agitators sat next to the officers and the generals gave him the most political trouble.
It is unclear how much Cromwell acted in a fully conscious matter in the political sense of word but according Pashukanis “One can have doubts about the degree to which Cromwell and the other leaders of the Independents truly wished to remain loyal to the Presbyterian majority in Parliament. But there is no doubt that the soldiers’ organizations never entered into their calculations for the purpose of their struggle with Parliament. It is one thing to put pressure on Parliament by relying upon a disciplined armed force subordinate to oneself, but entirely another thing to create an illegal organization embracing the mass of soldiers and awakening their independent activity, an organization which immediately and inevitably had to bring forth socio-political demands extending far beyond the ideas of the moderate Independents”.

He continues “In the English revolutionary movement of the seventeenth century we observed the struggle of these two movements, a struggle the fiercer because of the high degree of consciousness and political activity among the soldiers of Cromwell’s army. To transform them into submissive weapons of his moderate gentry-bourgeois policy was not an easy task. It is necessary to add still another fact to this. The officer corps of Cromwell’s army included a certain number of democratic elements (Pride, a former horse-cab driver; Rainborough, barge captain; Colonel Joyce, a former tailor etc.); moreover, many of them were convinced supporters of the extreme left movements”.

As Pashkunis states before Putney Cromwell had no intention of taking on both the radicals within army and the Presbyterians. In fact there are significant indicators at the time that Cromwell in the spring of 1647 was thinking of leaving England to travel to the Europe to spread the protestant cause.

It was only when he realized that on May 25th and 27th both Houses adopted resolutions to stand down the army in Britain and send other parts of it to Ireland  that he sensed that the Presbyterian party was seeking to establish its control over both the army and parliament that Cromwell. He soon came to his senses.  It was only his decisive intervention with the support of the agitators and Levellers that the Presbyterians were defeated. Had it not been for this resistance the subsequent course of events would have been very different. And may well have changed the course of the English revolution.

After the Presbyterian party had been defeated That Cromwell turned to Putney and the appearance of two platforms – the conservative Heads of the Proposals, and the radical, expressed in two documents Case for Truly Standing Army and Agreement of the People.

It should be noted that the participation in the Council of the Army by “civilians”, i.e. of representatives of the London Levellers – Wildman and Petty could be seen as the first move towards the transformation of the army council into a revolutionary party and a party brisling with arms at that.

In order to prevent this Cromwell alongside Ireton and other Grandees decided to divide the army and limit the influence of the Levellers. He decided to call three separate meetings. He continually kept calling prayer meetings to dissipate the anger of the Radicals.
Cromwell’s’ maneuvering could only go so far. Why were the Levellers unable to defeat Cromwell at Putney? As Pashukanis points out “The Levellers found their support among the peasants, small rentiers, craftsmen and workers. It is enough to recall the influence which they enjoyed in the London suburbs, in particular in Southwark, which was populated by weavers. However, their main support was the army. Here we encounter a fact imposing a characteristic imprint on the whole course of the first English Revolution: it was not accompanied by any significant agrarian movement. Proceeding from the Levellers, the attempt to transform the political structure of England of that day into a consistent bourgeois democratic condition was never supported by a massive peasant uprising”.

The Levellers undoubtedly were a petit bourgeois party. While some historians protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such I believe that there was sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at   the 1640s to warrant such a claim. 
It is true that capitalist relations had not developed to a large extent into the English countryside, to such an extent demands could not enter into their programme for a general division of land, “an agrarian law”.

When Cromwell saw for the first time the Leveller tracts he knew what was at stake was not just a mere debate but who was to have power and what class would control it. He wasn’t the only one to recognise that Putney was a battle of contending social forces, Colonel Thomas Rainborowe in a little known passage from the Clarke Diary’s  cited ‘Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If you say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold men. When these gentlemen fall out among themselves, they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill one another for them’. Do these comments represent an individual or did his words echo a much wider yet unconscious expression that Putney represented not just the people that took part but had a broader significance in the army and within the country itself

While it took Cromwell a little while to understand what was going on at Putney when he saw the Levellers Pamphlet The Agreement of the People he reacted in this way on October 28th “These things that you have now offered, they are new to us: they are things that we have not at all (at least in this method and thus circumstantially) had any opportunity to consider of, because they came to us but thus, as you see; this is the first time we had a view of them. Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say, since it was a nation –I say, I think I may almost say so. And what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider. I say, if there were nothing else to be considered but the very weight and nature of the things contained in this paper. Therefore, although the pretensions in it, and the expressions in it, are very plausible, and if we could leap out of one condition into another that had so specious things in it as this hath, I suppose there would not be much dispute – though perhaps some of these things may be very well disputed. How do we know if, whilst we are disputing these things, another company of men shall not gather together, and put out papers plausible perhaps as this? I do not know why it might not be done by that time you have agreed upon this, or got hands to it if that be the way. And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And if so, what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another and one county against another to go on along with it, and whether those great difficulties that lie in our way are in a likelihood to be either overcome or removed”.?

What was Cromwell’s aim at Putney?  According to B Coward Putney began ‘as an attempt by Cromwell to defend the strategy for a settlement he had followed ever since the end of the war and to defuse the recent Leveller attack on it. His main aim at Putney was to maintain the unity of the army behind a settlement programme based on the Heads of Proposals and his speeches at Putney are peppered with pleas to this effect “I shall speak to nothing but that, as before the Lord, I am persuaded in my heart tends to uniting us”. Cromwell throughout Putney sought that the army was pledged to keep the “engagements” that had bound the army since June. He had hoped that by debating with the Levellers that a common ground could be made between the heads of proposals and the Leveller’s statement the agreement of the people’.

The Levellers had other ideas and their disagreement with Cromwell stemmed from their social position rather than in any tactical nuances. In that sense it is important to view the Levellers in the context of the period. It is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for radical if not revolutionary for the time.

The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.

Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell. They had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained ‘I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient’. Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it.
The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. Rainborowe stated that ‘The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government’.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘freeborn Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill argued that ‘The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were’.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine “that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here”. The vote was rightly restricted to those who “had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom”. Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation’s in whom all trading lies’

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody.  This argument completely confused Rainsborough and undermined his argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”


The view that Cromwell’s role at Putney could be understood better within the context of contending social forces as been attacked by a growing number of revisionist historians. As early as the 1970s. The main purpose of this group has been to attack any conception that historical events can be best understood within the context of a socio-economic or even Marxist viewpoint.

One such revisionist historian who has challenged the above premise is Conrad Russell who in his Origins of the English Civil War sought to explain the civil war from the standpoint of the Nobility not from any socio economic changes. Jim Holstun described Russell’s book as a “manifesto for historical revisionism”. Holstun went on to point out that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taking place in the English revolution. That historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people. Russell would often make the remark that he was not conversant with the terms feudalism and capitalism.
Woolrych says “we should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army”.  While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where ‘open incitements to mutiny, and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburn’s foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided. Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up’.

Mark Kishlansky writes ‘Much has been written about ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.

In conclusion hindsight is always a great general after the events. At Putney Cromwell moved decisively against his main enemy at the time the Levellers.  Cromwell’s individual qualities came to the fore in this time it is undoubtedly true.

The debates at Putney if nothing else gave us proof that the ideas that were discussed there highlighted the actions of different class forces each seeking to control the revolution. Clark gave us a documentary proof that contrary to the revisionists the main motor force in history is the struggle of contending class forces.

Or put another way “The suppression of the May uprising of 1649 rendered the final blow to the Leveller movement. In Cromwell’s army was concentrated the most active and politically conscious part of both the peasantry, urban craftsmen and workers. There the Levellers had the basic mass of their adherents. The destruction of the Levellers in the army, therefore, signified the destruction of radical elements in the entire country. After this the revolutionary energy of the democratic strata was not directed along the lines of mass political struggle. It found its outlet partly in attempts at terrorist struggle in which, among others, Edward Sexby, one of the first agitators, was beheaded; partly in the religious movement of the Quakers among whom the Levellers leader John Lilburne ended his life. But neither of these directions presented any danger for the rich and the powerful. (Evgeny Pashukanis revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)

[1] [1] Vox Militaris: Or an Apologetical Declaration Concerning the Officers and Souldiers of the Armie, under the Command of his Excellency Sr. Thomas Fairfax, (London: 11 August [Thomason]),
[2] Austin Woolrych, Soldiers and Statesmen), page 36-37.
[3] —From the Representation of the Army 1647
[4] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[5] On himself, speech to the First Parliament of the Protectorate, Sept, 1654. Antonia Fraser; Cromwell, Our Chief of Men.
[6] Cromwell, Our Chief of Men
[7] Leon Trotsky's Writings On Britain Chapter Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
[8] T.B. Macaulay History of England Chap. I, Before the Restoration
[9] The Levellers and the English revolution (1961)

[10] E. Bernstein, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1919), 3rd German edition, p.78. – See also E. Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1930), Allen and Unwin, London [eds.]