At the end of the First English Civil War in 1647 the men who had fought against the king found themselves in disagreement. One group of politicians wanted to reach a settlement with the king other groups wanted more radical reforms. It is safe to say that none of them trusted one another much by the end of 1647. The Putney Debates, held at St Mary’s Church Putney in the autumn of 1647 presented the views of different factions within the army.
On one side of the argument were the so called Grandees. These were officers who came from the landed gentry. Unsurprisingly they did not share the Levellers’ desire for a redistribution of land. Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and Thomas Fairfax were the most influential of the Grandees as well as being respected military commanders. These men were initially prepared to negotiate terms with Charles I as the war drew to an end.
On the other side of the argument were men such as Colonel Rainsborough who after four years of war had been radicalised. The men who represented the radical groups and rank and file had been first appointed as agitators or “new agents” elected to take the grievances of the soldiery to the Grandees when the news of Parliament’s desire to disband the New Model Army had first been aired in 1647. Initially men wanted to know when they would receive their back pay, receive indemnity from actions carried out during the war and dispute the way in which they were being drafted to Ireland.
In October 1647 five particularly radical regiments selected new agitators and issued a manifesto contacting their viewpoint. This was endorsed by civilian levellers as well as radicals within the army. They wanted universal male suffrage, two-yearly parliaments, reorganisation of constituencies, equality of law and freedom from being pressed into military service – all of which seems very reasonable to modern eyes but were the cause of concern to the Grandees who saw a world turned upside down in the Levellers’ Agreement.
The debates began on the 28th October 1647 and were initially recorded. Essentially the Levellers argued they had rights as Englishmen to a say in how the country was run. The Grandees thought that it would result in chaos. A compromise was arrived at with the Grandees saying that soldiers who fought in the civil war should be entitled to a vote and the Levellers conceding that if a man was in receipt of alms or a beggar that he should not have the franchise.
However on the 8th November Cromwell ordered the agitators back to their regiments. The opportunity to present the manifesto to the Army Council and from there to Parliament would be denied to the Levellers. Another manifesto was drawn up by army officers and this was the one presented to the Army Council. The men of the New Model Army would not have a large meeting and a vote. Instead they would be offered three smaller reviews. Knowing that they were being cheated of their manifesto there was nearly a mutiny at Corkbush Field on the 15th November 1647 ending with the execution of Private Richard Arnold, one of three ringleaders who had been forced to draw lots.
The beginning of the Second English Civil War in 1648 and divisions with the Scots saw the army close its ranks for the time being. The Grandees disgusted with the perfidy of Charles I were no longer prepared to negotiate whilst the Levellers found themselves mutinying in 1649. Anger over the failure of Parliament to pay back wages not to mention the way in which men were selected for service in Ireland led to a number of regiments refusing to obey their officers.