1649: the nearly revolution

I did promise much regicide related posted here a few weeks back. However, actual work and other things rather got in the way.

The other day, though, I revisited the BL’s Taking Liberties exhibition, this time with a group of my special subject students. They seemed to enjoy it and looking round it for the second time, I noticed things I’d missed during my first, quick, reconnoiter.

One of those things is Egerton. MS 1048 f. 91-92. This is an MS copy of the so-called ‘Officers’ Agreement’, the form of the Agreement of the People presented to the Rump Parliament by the Council of Officers in January 1649.

The Officers’ Agreement is often dismissed as a mere sop to radical opinion within the army, a document which the officers had no real commitment to and which was allowed to die a quite death at the hands of an uninterested Rump Parliament.

But the Egerton MS in the BL’s most recent exhibition ought to get us to think twice about this. It’s not only that is (as far as I know), as unique manuscript version of documents – the Agreements of the People – which existed predominately as printed artefacts.

The really important bit of this big document is a tiny little scribble in the left hand corner. It says
‘The forme of ye subscription for the Officers of ye Army’.

You can’t see it on this image, unfortunately, but I promise it’s there.

The key word here is ‘subscription’. One of Lilburne’s initial objections to the Officers’ Agreement was that it was tendered to Parliament for approval before being tendered to the people.

There are references, though, in other printed sources, which suggest that the Agreement was already being tendered for public subscription at around the same time as it was being presented Parliament. All of which seems to suggest that recent historians (including Glenn Burgess, David Farr and Clive Holmes) who have argued that some of the officers, Ireton especially, were a good deal more sincere about their commitment to this form of the Agreement are probably in the right.

In fact, with its detailed discussion of the distribution of seats, the Officers’ Agreement looks much more like a worked out transition mechanism to a new, more democratic representative than the two earlier ‘Leveller’ Agreements.

So why did it fail? Less because a Machiavellian Ireton never wanted it to succeed in the first place, and more because the political situation in England and the British Isles was so turbulent and fast moving that the project simply had to be abandon in favour of something much less ambitious. That would turn into the Engagement of Loyalty to the Commonwealth, a bare promise of obedience to the de facto power of the new republic, all that could be wrung out of a political nation broadly unsympathetic to the projects and ideals of radical Levellers.

(More of this in the new book and in my chapter in the forthcoming collection on the Agreements edited by Phil Baker and Eliot Vernon.)

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. this is quite genius: http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=sdoQ3MKODD0 on the regicide

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