Radicalism in Early Modern England: The Putney Debates


The Protestant Reformations in 16th and 17th-century Europe represented a profound and radical break with the long-established hierarchical power structures of the Church and State. In particular, the translation of the bible from Latin into local languages that could be understood outside of the priesthood, in conjunction with greater literacy and wider enlightenment ideas, paved the way for an explosion of radical thought and belief on how society should be restructured based on biblical and philosophical interpretations (Glover, 1999). The Wars of the Three Kingdoms between 1639 and 1653 represented a series of complex civil wars in England, Scotland, and Ireland. These wars were fought over competing political and theological ideas of the Church, the State and who should hold the levers of power, and this period represented the pinnacle of radical thought in Early Modern England (Gleissner, 1980).


After the victory in the First English Civil War in 1646 by the Parliamentary forces of the New Model Army, there occurred a period of fervent discussion on how the English Constitution should be reformed (Kishlansky, 1979). This culminated in a 1647 series of debates held in St. Mary´s Church in Putney between representatives of the army putting forward differing ideas on how to shape the future of England. This article will first provide a background to such discussions, before investigating the ideas put forth during the debates themselves, in particular using the arguments about the extension of the voting franchise to highlight contemporary philosophical and religious justifications. It will conclude by analysing the legacy of the debates.


Figure 1: Melinsky, C. (1983). The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, Surrey. The Isles project.

Background of Civil War and Radicalism in England

The English Protestant Reformation in the Sixteenth Century saw the Church of England established, with the English Monarch as Head of the Church. Nevertheless, despite the break with the Roman Papal authority, there emerged a growing number of dissenters who believed the Church of England was still too close to Catholic doctrine and had not gone far enough in its reformation in accordance with Protestant theology (Harris, 2015). Those seeking reform towards purer Protestant theology in the State Church became known as Puritans. Several Puritans, and particularly Presbytarians, believed in the abolition of the Church hierarchy, including the Bishopry, and that the Monarch should be answerable to the Church. This provided a fundamental challenge to the Divine Right of Kings, which deemed the Monarch to be ordained by God and thus answerable to God only - an assumption adopted by Absolute Monarchs in Europe to justify their taking of unilateral decisions without the need of human political consent (Ibid.).


Charles I, crowned King of England in 1625, had stoked suspicions that he sought to overturn the Protestant Reformation entirely by his marriage to a Catholic, his conservatism towards the Protestant Reform within the Church of England, and fears that he would ally with Catholic Spain (Ibid.). These suspicions were brought to a boiling point as the English Parliament, which was dominated by many Presbyterians, was increasingly sidelined by the King using his Royal Prerogative to take unilateral decisions without consultation (Ibid.). These disruptions to the balance of power and religion within the state ultimately led to the First English Civil War beginning in 1642, in which forces loyal to the Parliament engaged in a conflict against forces loyal to the King (Ibid.).


Figure 2: Dyck, A. v. (1636). Portrait from the studio of Anthony van Dyck. Royal Collection Windsor Castle.

The New Model Army emerged from this war in 1645 as a professional standing army fighting on the side of the Parliamentarians. It was made up of Puritan veteran soldiers of the overseas European Wars of Religion, combined with conscripts bringing common religious and political beliefs from a wider societal background: such composition created a rank-and-file with many dissenting and radical opinions (Glover, 1999). At the same time, its upper officer corps was largely more conservative politically, albeit sharing committed Puritan views (Ibid.). The military efficiency of this army ultimately led to the Parliamentarian victory in the First English Civil War in 1646, with Charles I captured by the New Model Army in 1647 (Kishlansky, 1979). The Parliament, fearing the growing power of the New Model Army, wished to disband or disperse many regiments, and threatened to withhold their pay unless they accepted (Ibid.). This coincided with the growing influence in 1646 and 1647 of a group of civilian political radicals who came to be known as the Levellers, some of whose political ideas began to be adopted by the rank-and-file and lower officers of the New Model Army (Ibid.).


The capture of the King, the growing political power and radicalness of the rank-and-file New Model Army, and its dispute with the Parliament provided the opportunity for a complete reform of the British Constitutional settlement (Ibid.). Meanwhile, the Army´s senior commanders were concerned with this growing radicalness and continued to seek a more conservative political system. To stem dissent and potential mutiny, the Council of Generals called in October 1647 for a series of debates on England´s constitutional settlement, which was chaired by army general Oliver Cromwell and incorporated representatives of the two main emerging factions of the Army (Ibid.)


Figure 3: Collingwood, C. (2018). The Battle of Cropredy Bridge, 29th June 1644, English Civil War. Fine Art America.

The Putney Debates

The debates started on the 28th of October 1647, and relied on two competing constitutional written proposals (Glover, 1999). The first document was called the Agreement of the People and was put forward to represent the radical faction of the New Model Army, known as Agitators, which drew on and influenced relevant ideas of the Levellers (Kishlansky, 1979). To argue in favour of this side there were two spokesmen, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough of the army, and the civilian political advisor John Wildman (Baker & Vernon, 2010). The second document was the Heads of Proposals, whose spokesmen were Generals Henry Ireton (Cromwell´s son-in-law) and John Lambert, to represent the Grandees faction of the New Model Army drawn primarily from the more conservative upper ranks (Glover, 1999).


The Agreement of the People supported the dissolution of the then current Parliament, alongside the complete abolition of the Monarchy and of the House of Lords (Baker & Vernon, 2010). Instead, there would stand a reformed House of Commons as a unicameral chamber, to be re-elected every two years to prevent tyranny and corruption, with constituency boundaries redrawn so that each Member of Parliament would represent a more equal number of people (Ibid.). Alongside such arrangement, there were a host of individual rights including equality of every man before the law, freedom of conscience in matters of religion, and freedom from military impressment (Glover, 1999). The document also contained a reference to what had been one of the Levellers' most crucial and radical demands: a universal voting franchise for all freeborn men over twenty-one years of age (Gleissner, 1980).



Figure 4: Cooper, S. (1656). Oliver Cromwell. World History Encyclopedia.

The Heads of Proposals argued to retain the Commons, Lords, and Monarchy, albeit with the Monarch´s powers severely reduced (Glover, 1999). Instead, for at least ten years the power would be concentrated in an executive Council of State to be appointed by Parliament, to ensure there could be no further attempts to retain monarchical power (Ibid.). The willingness of the Grandees to negotiate with Charles I was a key sticking point for the Agitators, who had spent four years in the war against him in the belief that he was a political and religious tyrant (Kishlansky, 1979). Furthermore, the “Heads of Proposals” suggested an only slightly expanded voting franchise, entailing only property-owning freeholders whose land was valued at 40 shillings (Glover, 1999).


This framework set up the key terms of debate, with both sides appealing to religious justifications, but even more so to secular natural law ideals and the ancient rights of freeborn Englishmen (Gleissner, 1980). For the Agitators this harked back to an imagined historical ideal that was disrupted by the Norman Conquest and subsequent 600 years of imposed feudal serfdom: hence, the Agreement for them was not revolutionary but a reversion back to the ideals of a more Godly and just time (Ibid.). However, it was the extension of the voting franchise that became the crux of the debate, with this proposal being the earliest recorded demand for universal male suffrage in a system of representative government (Glover, 1999).


Figure 5: Gow, A. C. (1886). Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Tate Gallery.

For the Grandees, Ireton argued the purpose of the contract between the people and the government was for the latter to safeguard peace and prosperity, and only those with property represented permanent physical stakeholders who could be trusted with the franchise (Gleissner, 1980). Accordingly, a universal franchise would inevitably cause those without property to seek the confiscation of all land and assets, fundamentally breaking this contract and leading to the complete breakdown of order into anarchy (Glover, 1999). This reflected fears that the Levellers' ideas were merely a reflection of lower-class resentment, driven primarily by ill or revengeful intentions, mirroring Calvinist beliefs that the innate depravity of man meant they would never seek good from their natural and ungodly instincts (Gleissner, 1980).


Yet, the Agitators retorted that Godly law would dictate the common people to defend the rights of property through the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not steal” (Glover, 1999). Agitators proceeded to argue that the legitimacy of the government depended on the consent of the people, and so to deny the franchise was to infringe on the population's natural rights of consent: they thus made a clear moral and philosophical case for representative democracy (Gleissner, 1980). The New Model Army´s mainly propertyless rank-and-file still considered themselves to be citizens with an intrinsic stake in a just society with good governance (Glover, 1999).


“Whether any person can be justly bound by law who doth not give his consent that such persons will make laws for him” – John Wildman, 1647

(Gleissner, 1980, p.88.)


Figure 6: Melinksy, C. (2008) The Putney Debates [Illustration]

The debates ultimately fizzled out as the Grandees sought to avoid discussion on the immediate future of Charles I, with debates suspended on 8th November (Baker & Vernon, 2010). It was decided, however, that a modified “Agreement of the People” would be put to Parliament as the basis for a future constitution. On 11th November Charles I, fearing the growing power of radicalism, escaped captivity and fled to Scotland (Polizzotto, 2016). Thus ended the New Model Army´s internal debates with the renewed threat of war, and the Second English Civil War followed soon after (Taft, 1985).



Influence and Legacy of the Putney Debates

Ultimately the Second Civil War resulted in the defeat and recapture of King Charles I and the purging of the Parliament of his potential supporters in December 1648 (Polizzotto, 2016). One week later, the General Council of the Army began to draw up the “Second Agreement of the People” to act as England’s written constitutional settlement – incorporating mostly Grandee ideas, albeit retaining Agitators' principles on protection of individual liberties, and biennial elections (Taft, 1985). Nevertheless, the introduction of the Second Agreement was halted by the trial and execution of King Charles I for treason on 30th January 1649 (Polizzotto, 2016). Such execution established the first and to-date-only English Republic, albeit without a solid constitutional settlement that may have been provided for by the Second Agreement (Taft, 1985).


This lack of constitutionally delineated powers saw the Parliament make increasingly unpopular decisions on taxation in pursuit of personal economic interests, and the repression of more radical Puritan sects which were seen to infringe on the individual liberties discussed at Putney (Ibid.). Furthermore, this combined with the Parliament's refusal to dissolve after five years sitting, which seemed to confirm the Agitators' ideas that biennial elections were needed to prevent tyranny and corruption (Ibid.). The Parliament's failure to dissolve or agree on a working constitution led in 1653 to Oliver Cromwell seizing power with the Army Council of Generals and forming an unpopular military dictatorship, before Charles II was invited back to the throne in the 1660 Restoration – thus ending England´s republican experiment (Ibid.).


Figure 7: Unknown (about 1649). The Execution of King Charles I Of England Outside The Banqueting House At Whitehall Palace London 30 January 1649. Granger - Historical Picture Archives.

Regardless of the failures to implement the ideas of the Putney Debates, such discussions were representative of the political and religious radicalism in England at the time, and displayed their moral and philosophical justifications (Gleissner, 1980). That it would take hundreds of years more for many Levellers' ideas of republicanism, universal suffrage, and representative democracy to be realised in the Western world, illustrates just how radical the Putney Debates were for their time. Indeed, in the United Kingdom it was not until the 1918 Representation of the People Act that the franchise was extended to reflect Levellers' ideas of universal male suffrage for all those aged over twenty-one - some 271 years after the Putney Debates. Yet, while the Levellers were clearly radical, even the Grandees as the more conservative faction were arguing for a Constitutional Monarchical system permanently weakening the Crown in favour of parliamentary rule. Within the European context of Absolute Monarch´s ruling with complete authority, the conservative Grandees were thus pushing for a comparatively progressive system of government, reflecting just how far the Overton window had been pushed in England (Taft, 1985).


The Debates ultimately had few concrete outcomes with Conservative forces prevailing in the Restoration to ensure the institutional primacy of the Anglican Church and the balance of power of Monarch, Lords and Commons (Glover, 1999). Indeed the Restoration helped establish the idea of the United Kingdom as a stable, steady, conservative and slowly evolving political system far away from the radicalism of the Civil War period (Taft, 1985). Nevertheless, the Agitators' language of individual liberties justified through the ancient rights of freeborn Englishmen came to dominate the Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century British and American political discourse (Larkin, 2014). This was reflected in the 1688 English Bill of Rights, which asserted "Rights and Liberties of the Subject" (Bill of Rights 1688, Chapter 2 1 Will and Mar Sess 2) to guarantee freedom of conscience and equality before the law (Taft, 1985.) Such a step was in turn extremely influential among the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, who based their own constitution on the language and liberties guaranteed by the English Bill of Rights (Tyacke, 2015).



Figure 8: Trumbull, J. (1817). Declaration of independence. Universal Art Archive.

As can be seen, the Protestant Reformation became intertwined with Enlightenment ideals to produce profound political and religious shocks in Early Modern England, with the context of civil war and the defeat of the king paving the way for radical debates on the future of the country´s constitution. The New Model Army emerged from these wars to provide a vehicle for radical political discussion combined with the politcal power to influence the constitutional settlement. This resulted in the Putney Debates bringing to the table the radical ideas of the Levellers and the more conservative constitutional monarchical ideas of the Grandees. The debates ultimately provided few concrete outcomes. Nevertheless, they reflected the highly charged political, moral, religious and philosophical discussions of the time, which went on to dominate the political discourse even after the conservative Restoration. For the Levellers, especially, it would take several hundreds of years before their highly progressive ideas came to be accepted as politically viable in much of the Western world. As such, it is possible to trace in the Putney Debates some of the early formations of modern Western liberal democracy.




Bibliographical References

Baker, P. & Vernon, E. (2010). What Was the First “Agreement of the People”?, The Historical Journal, 53:1, 39-59. Gleissner, R. (1980). The Levellers and Natural Law: The Putney Debates of 1647, Journal of British Studies, 20:1, 74-89. Glover, S. D. (1999). The Putney Debates: Popular versus Élitist Republicanism, Past & Present, 164, 47-80. Harris, T. (2015). Revisiting the Causes of the English Civil War, Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:4, 615-635. Kishlansky, M. (1979). The Army and the Levellers: The Roads to Putney, The Historical Journal, 22:4, 795-824. Larkin, H. (2014). The Making of Englishmen: Debates on National Identity 1550-1650, Brill. Polizzotto, C. (2016). Speaking Truth to Power: The Problem of Authority in the Whitehall Debates of 1648-9, The English Historical Review, 131:548, 31-63. Taft, B. (1985). The Council of Officers' Agreement of the People, 1648/9, The Historical Journal, 28:1, 169-185. Bill of Rights (1688). An Act declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, and settling the Succession, Parliamentary Archives, Retrieved from: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/WillandMarSess2/1/2/introduction Tyacke, N. (2015). Revolutionary Puritanism in Anglo-American Perspective, Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:4, 745-769.



Visual Sources

Cover Image: Unknown (about 1649). The Execution of Charles I [Painting]. National Galleries of Scotland. On loan from Lord Dalmeny since 1951. Retrieved from : https://www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/history-and-stories/the-execution-of-charles-i/ Figure 1: Melinsky, C. (1983). The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, Surrey. [Illustration]. The Isles Project. Retrieved from: https://islesproject.wordpress.com/2007/11/25/c17th-the-levellers-shaping-an-epoch-of-revolution/ Figure 2: Dyck, A. v. (1636). Portrait from the studio of Anthony van Dyck [Painting]. Royal Collection Windsor Castle. Windsor, UK. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_I_of_England#/media/File:King_Charles_I_after_original_by_van_Dyck.jpg Figure 3: Collingwood, C. (2018). The Battle of Cropredy Bridge, 29th June 1644, English Civil War [Illustration]. Fine Art America. Retrieved from: https://www.pinterest.es/pin/675680750324382649/ Figure 4: Cooper, S. (1656). Oliver Cromwell [Portrait]. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://www.worldhistory.org/trans/es/1-19697/oliver-cromwell/ Figure 5: Gow, A. C. (1886). Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar [Painting]. Tate Gallery. Retrieved from: https://www.worldhistory.org/New_Model_Army/ Figure 6: Melinksy, C. (2008). The Putney Debates [Illustration] Retrieved from: https://www.oxfordputneydebates.com/what-were-putney-debates Figure 7: Unknown (about 1649). The Execution of King Charles I Of England Outside The Banqueting House At Whitehall Palace London 30 January 1649 [Illustration]. Granger - Historical Picture Archives. Retrieved from: https://www.alamy.it/foto-immagine-esecuzione-di-charles-i-nil-esecuzione-del-re-carlo-i-di-inghilterra-a-whitehall-londra-30-gennaio-1649-olandese-contemporanea-incisione-su-rame-95412825.html Figure 8: Trumbull, J. (1817). Declaration of independence. [Painting]. Universal Art Archive. Retrieved from: https://billofrightsinstitute.org/e-lessons/bill-of-rights-of-the-united-states-of-america-1791




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