Rethinking Democracy in the English Revolution – the podcast

A recording of my talk to Lancaster Student History Society here (opens as wma file.)

Thanks to the history society for the invite to talk and for their excellent hospitality.


‘”the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he” : What did Thomas Rainborough mean? Re-thinking democracy in the English Revolution.

…is the name of the talk that I am giving to the Lancaster University History Society next Thurs (19th) at 6.30pm.  A preview of pt. 2 of the book. Podcast – technology permitting – to follow.

Putney Debates as a word cloud

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Taking Liberties at the British Library, pt. 2.

As regular readers will recall, I posted a week or so ago about the publicity for this forthcoming (31st October) exhibition at the BL. The post got picked up not only by a few other bloggers, but also by Matthew Shaw, the curator of the exhibition. (Does the BL have some sort of web ‘rapid rebuttal unit’? When I wrote some ill-informed guff about their plans for digital theses, I also got a very swift response putting me straight.)

The BL very kindly invited me to have a sneak preview of some of the items in the exhibition. Matthew let me see the London Working Men’s Association minutebook, papers relating to Francis Place and Sir Francis Burdett, and the suffragette Olive Wharry’s prison scrapbook. If there’s anything likely to assuage a grumpy historian, it’s an opportunity to look at some old stuff.

The exhibition will feature items from outside of the BL’s own collections, including the original text of the Putney Debates (on loan from Worcester College) and the 18-foot long Great Reform Act, complete with stitched on amendments. Not only will it stretch chronologically from Magna Carta right up to the present day, but it will also tackle a variety of different themes, from the struggle for democratic rights to campaigns for freedom of the press, to the development of social and economic rights in the modern era.

Aside from the exhibition itself, there will also be a permanent website linked to it (not yet live), and a series of evening events debating key questions with guest speakers including Shami Chakrabati, Baroness Williams, Professor Conor Gearty and Polly Toynbee.

As somebody who likes watching the X-factor and also cares about threats to our civil liberties, I still don’t like the posters, but, hey, they’ve certainly provoked debate. Whatever my remaining reservations about the publicity, the range of documents on show, and the breadth of themes addressed, make this a very important and timely exhibition.

For more info, go here. Thanks very much to Matthew and his colleagues at the BL for letting me have a nose around and ask a few questions.

How we should remember the Levellers


Reproduced from my article in BBC History Magazine Oct 2007,

 The Levellers Legacy

The Putney debates are some of the most important political discussions in English history, but their significance is being distorted by recent attempts to commemorate them.


E.P. Thompson wrote his classic history of English working-class radicals to save them from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Now it seems historians must write to save radicalism from the condescension of the tourist industry.

The Putney Debates were voted the most overlooked radical moment in British history in a recent competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Tristram Hunt, who launched the competition, hopes that this revived interest in Britain’s democratic heritage will lead to the creation of a ‘freedom trail’ of radical history visitor attractions based on the American model. As a starting point, St. Mary’s Putney was awarded £1000 for winning the contest, which will help fund a week’s events commemorating the debates plus a permanent exhibition. The timely raising of awareness of these historic events is welcome. However, the broader project of commemorating the development of British democracy threatens to replace genuine history with a politically-motivated fiction.

The Putney debates began on 28 October 1647, as the General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss The Agreement of the People. This paper, produced by civilian Levellers, 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.

Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, MP for Droitwich, vice-admiral of the English Navy and an implacable opponent of Oliver Cromwell, expressed his belief that all men that signed the Agreement should be eligible to vote:

‘For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent put himself under that government’.

An irate Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, responded:

‘no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing or determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’.

The confrontation between Rainborowe and Ireton is often seen as the defining moment of the Putney Debates of 1647 between the army leadership, rank and file ‘Agitators’ and civilian Levellers: the radical advocate of the rights of all free-born Englishman versus the defender of the landed interest who ‘would have an eye to property’. The Putney Debates have been celebrated as a seminal moment in the history of British democracy by a host of twentieth-century historians and politicians.  Marxists scholars such as Christopher Hill saw the Levellers as representing the English petty bourgeoisie. American liberals like William Haller praised John Lilburne as an early advocate of ‘free enterprise’. The celebration of the Levellers’ contribution to the development of democracy has spread into the political arena. Since 1975, left-wingers have commemorated the suppression of the Leveller-inspired mutiny at Burford in 1649. The socialist icon Tony Benn used his speech at the second ‘Leveller Day’ to applaud them for their forward-looking ideals which ‘anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.’ Paraphrasing Benn, Tristram Hunt has described Rainborowe’s comments as expressing the ‘ethical ideal of socialism’ and suggested that the ‘language and ideas expressed in the US constitution were lifted straight from the Putney debates’.

It is doubtful that the words spoken at Putney influenced the Founding Fathers, given that the text of the debate was not published until 1891. In 1649, the imprisoned John Lilburne had defiantly predicted that ‘posterity … shall reap the benefit of our endeavours whatever shall become of us.’ Yet, for over two hundred years, references to the Putney debates and the Levellers were few and far between. Although a permanent record of the debates was kept by the general secretary of the army, William Clarke, all reporting of the debates in the press was banned. They were barely mentioned in contemporary newssheets and pamphlets.

This secrecy was unsurprising. The discussion of the franchise, the most celebrated element of the debate for recent historians and commentators, was neither the most significant nor the lengthiest portion of the discussions. The focus instead was on settling the kingdom: in particular, the King’s role in any future peace negotiations. During the debates, two soldiers referred to Charles I as a ‘man of blood’, a tyrant who had waged war against his people and must be brought to retributive, divinely-willed justice. Religious language suffused the talk at Putney. People attending the debates also gathered for prayer meetings charged with apocalyptic language. New historical research suggests that Putney saw a shift from the pursuit of a negotiated settlement with the King to the decision to bring Charles I to trial. In the chaotic political situation following the first civil war, few of the participants in the debate, Cromwell least of all, were prepared to leave hostages to fortune by letting the proceedings be reported in public.

Celebration of the Levellers, including the Guardian’s recent competition, has been driven by a desire to fit them into a tradition of British radicalism, as forerunners of democracy, liberalism and socialism. But if the Levellers are part of a ‘democratic tradition’, it is a tradition which has largely been invented by twentieth and twenty-first century historians, journalists and politicians, not one created by radical movements themselves. Until the late nineteenth century there was very little reference to the Levellers and there is, frankly, scant evidence that their works influenced any subsequent radicals either in Britain, America or France. Even once C. H. Firth’s transcriptions of the Putney debates had been published, they were mainly seen as being of interest to military historians. It was not until the publication in 1938 of A. S. P. Woodhouse’s  provocatively titled Puritanism and Liberty, that Putney was established as a milestone in British constitutional history. Woodhouse’s edition of the debates had an explicitly political aim: to provide ideological ammunition for the public in the battle against the forces of Fascism and, later, Soviet totalitarianism. It is his re-interpretation of Putney as a crucible of democratic thought which has proved most influential to the present day.

Historians have now begun to ask if the Levellers have been given disproportionate attention; and whether, indeed, we can talk of the ‘Levellers’ at all. Recent scholarship has argued that there was no coherent ‘Leveller’ programme before the autumn of 1647. The term ‘Leveller’ itself did not appear until after the Putney Debates and was a pejorative label attached to these London radicals by their opponents. The radicals’ critics claimed they wanted to ‘level’ all social distinctions and do away with private property. The leading ‘Leveller’ writers, William Walwyn, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were always keen to disassociate themselves from the term. In A Manifestation (1649) they complained that they ‘never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, it being the utmost of our aim … that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his propriety’. Perhaps, as some historians have suggested, we have been guilty of accepting the words of the Leveller’s critics too literally and have viewed them as a more radical, more modern and more coherent group than they really were.

The proposals for St Mary’s Church Putney to remember the 360th anniversary of these debates threaten to set the anachronistic interpretation of the Levellers as the first democrats/liberals/socialists in stone, institutionalising an invented tradition of British radicalism through museum displays, heritage centres, and public memorials. Hunt has argued that commemorations of this kind provide an antidote to a heritage industry fixated on the lives of our kings and queens but, in fact, this version of Putney really only offers its ‘radical’ equivalent: a romantic vision of great historical democrats (Lilburne, Walwyn) struggling against oppressive tyrannical ‘baddies’ (Cromwell, Ireton). Good melodrama perhaps, but bad history. E. P. Thompson, whom Hunt invokes to promote his project, would, I suspect, be horrified at the proposed ‘heritage- ization’ of British radicalism. Thompson believed that the role of radical history was to arm the people for the political struggles that they faced in the future. Yet the recent Guardian competition offered only an opportunity to ‘celebrate’, through a Whiggish narrative of ever-broadening British freedom, the rights we enjoy at present. The history of the Levellers themselves, crushed by the army leadership and largely forgotten for nearly a quarter millennia, should warn us against this smug complacency about the security of our civil liberties.

So should we bother to commemorate Putney at all? Yes – but in ways which will allow us to continue to benefit from the most recent historical research on the subject. The Levellers are important. They were the first western Europeans to develop the idea of an essentially secular written constitution (though they did so to preserve their own deeply held religious beliefs). Consequently, they were the first to approach a more modern understanding of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech as natural, human rights. Their analysis of the politics of the 1640s remains very relevant today. They saw that an over-mighty Parliament could be as dangerous (if not more so) than a tyrannical King and called both for greater accountability in government and the establishing of civil liberties which could not be undermined by either the monarch or his ministers (even under the pretence of ‘emergency’ or ‘necessity’).

This month sees the release of a new paperback edition of the debates, and a major new collection is forthcoming on the Agreements of the People. These publications and the celebrations of the 360th anniversary of these remarkable debates should be used to spark a discussion of the enduring importance of these English writers and politicians. Leveller writing has much to say about present threats to our rights and freedoms, if we read their own words and not the anachronistic bowdlerisations of their twentieth-century interpreters. Those who spoke, wrote and gave their lives for liberty deserve more than to have their ideas reduced to ignominious (and inaccurate) banalities on a blue plaque.

Published in: on November 6, 2007 at 10:02 am  Comments (8)  
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Putney projects

As I don’t read the Guardian (it brings me out in hives), I missed this piece by Tristram Hunt in last Friday’s edition, puffing the up-coming Putney jamboree:,,2199578,00.html

I’m glad that Tristram has learnt so much from our discussion in BBC History Magazine.

Published in: on November 1, 2007 at 12:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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360th Anniversary of Putney Debates

A week of events celebrating the 360th Anniversary of the Debates starts tomorrow (Sat 27th Oct) in St. Mary’s Putney.

As per previous posts, my misgivings in BBC History Magazine, last issue.

Published in: on October 26, 2007 at 4:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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