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.
In January the Scots handed King Charles I over to the English. He had surrendered to the Scots int he hope that they would treat him better than the English and as a strategy for sowing political disharmony amongst his enemies. The Scots sold him to the English for £40,000.
On the 15th March Harlech Castle surrendered after a ten month siege. The constable of the castle had been in post since 1644. His name was William Owen who originated from Shropshire. Harlech itself had always been in the possession of the king. Perhaps because it wasn’t readily accessible to artillery it remained unchallenged until the final months of the civil war. This was probably just as well as Owen’s garrison comprised just fifteen men. Owen took himself off to Scotland and after the Royalist defeat found himself in Nottingham Castle. He was required to pay a fine of £400 before being allowed home. However he wasn’t required to pay one tenth of his income in tax as many other Royalists were required to do.
All that remained was to negotiate a settlement with the King and set up a series of laws for the good governance of the three kingdoms – even though no one could accuse what was happening in Ireland of being peaceful. Generals Ireton and Lambert drafted something called the Heads of Proposals. Essentially England would become Presbyterian, Parliament would have control of the armed forces and Royalists would not be allowed to hold office for five years.
Many army officers and soldiers were unhappy about the fact that Parliament would even consider negotiating with the king. It was one of the causal factors that led to the Putney Debates. The so-called “Grandees” who had negotiated with the king were seen as having failed the Parliamentarian cause. By August five radical cavalry regiments had elected agitators to state their views. One of their demands was for universal male suffrage, i.e. a levelling. The Grandees, Cromwell amongst them, invited the radicals to debate their demands – resulting in the Putney Debates which started on the 28th October and lasted for three days.
Unfortunately Cromwell became alarmed at the extent of the radical ideas expressed so the debaters were ordered back to their regiments. A document was drawn up to replace the one which the Levellers had presented. This did not go down well in the radical regiments. On the 15th November there was almost a mutiny which had to be suppressed before matters got out of hand.
Meanwhile – in June Parliament decided that Christmas was a nasty superstitious sort of event. They also banned Easter and Whitsun. As a result when Christmas came around rather than conforming with the new rules there were riots in Kent which swiftly evolved into the Second English Civil War.
The king had decided that he didn’t like the turn of events, the Levellers’ plan didn’t leave much room for a king and he became convinced that he would be assassinated. So he decided to escape Parliament. There was also the small matter of a constitutional monarchy. On November 11th Charles escaped from Hampton Court in the direction of the New Forest – where he became lost. He had aimed to make for Jersey but ended up on the Isle of Wight where he was recaptured.