Article by Marie Stirling. Edited by Claire Stratton. Additional Research by Faye Hunter.
‘The old world… is running up like parchment in the fire’: Gerrard Winstanley
By the end of the 1653 the world would have held little familiarity for England’s inhabitants. The country had been torn apart by two civil wars, splitting families and condemning thousands to death upon muddy battlefields. Indeed, living to see the end of the decade was an achievement in itself. As watchers of QI will know, England lost ten per cent of its male population, more then in any other modern conflict. Society had also been shaken by the removal of the monarchy, the cornerstone of the English institution. Charles’ belief in the divine rule of monarchs had not saved him from public execution in January 1649, on a charge of ‘waging war against Parliament’. England had become, for the first and last time, a Republic, under the guidance of Cromwell as Lord Protector. It would be fair to say that even the English Reformation, which had occurred barely a century ago, had not achieved this amount of destruction and alteration. But this story is well known, which is why this article will focus on a different aspect of those years, namely the rise of radical thought.
The civil war years saw the development of both radical secular and spiritual ideas on a large scale, which were accessible to vast amounts of the population; a situation which had never occurred before. This article will focus on several of the groups which appeared at this time and on the nature of the views that they held. It will also speculate on why these views occurred, or indeed how they were allowed to occur. Finally the issue of the Putney Debates will be touched upon, namely whether it deserves its place in the history of English liberty which modern thinkers have granted it.
Arguably, the most famous of the radical groups which were formed were the Levellers. Their talisman was John Lilburne, popularly known as ‘freeborn John’, who had campaigned even before the civil war for religious and political freedoms. The Levellers produced a range of documents in the late 1640s calling for government by consent, an extension of the franchise and the end of monarchy. They managed to denounce both the King and Parliament in their quest for a more liberal England. They also gained considerable influence over the army, which had not disbanded at the end of the civil war and so remained a powerful force in English politics. Their views were constantly relayed to the general populace, both in their magazine The Moderate and also through their various publications and petitions, such as A remonstrance of many thousand citizens published in July 1646 and The Large Petition, published in March 1647.
Other groups included the Ranters, perhaps best remembered for their views on predestination: since they were already destined for heaven they could ‘indulge’ on earth, mainly in the areas of drink, sex and swearing. Their example was widely used later as part of the scare tactics by those attempting to establish order. One could also mention the Diggers, or ‘the true levellers’, who, with their views on equality have been compared to twentieth century socialists. Lastly there was the Fifth Monarchists, who gained notoriety through their willingness to use violence to ‘prepare’ England for God’s reign. They could also be singled out as one of the more successful group as they briefly established a Godly Parliament, often referred to as the Barebones Parliament in 1653. These groups used the same tactics of publication to gain publicity and support, or in the case of the Diggers through popular demonstration; they commandeered St George’s Hill in Surrey in April 1649 to showcase their ideals on common ownership.
There is certainly no lack of reasons to explain for why radicalism on such a large scale occurred. The lack of censorship which occurred during the civil war allowed for radical ideas to not only become published but also to enjoy a wide circulation, reaching and influencing many. Further one should note that with the collapse of political authority, organisers increasingly turned to ‘the mob’, as the general populace were deridingly referred to, for support. This in turn encouraged the development of new and often radical ideas to gain the mob’s allegiance. Alternatively it could be argued that the atrocities which occurred during the civil war needed to be justified. This justification was believed by many to be achievable only through the establishment of a ‘new order’, though as this article has demonstrated the principles and policies of the potential ‘new order’ was open to individual interpretation and debate.
The Putney Debates have also been used to show the intellectual creativity of that age. These debates were held in a church in Putney in late October 1647 between the army officers, the common soldiers and their political representatives, commonly called the agitators, who were believed to have been influenced by the Levellers. If one examines Putney purely for its radical ideas, there certainly were many thrown about that church. They ranged from the extension of the franchise to all men to drastic reform of Parliament. In particular, Thomas Rainborough’s speech regarding the rights of the common man has become immortalised and is where the title of this article originates. There was even a suggestion to do away with that ‘man of blood’, foreshadowing King Charles’ future encounter with a block and an axe. However the significance of the Putney Debates has caused controversy. Writers such as Geoffrey Robertson have presented Putney as the ‘triumph of democracy’ and an essential part of the journey on Britain’s road to liberty due to the ideas which were expressed there. However, as historians such as Mark Kishlansky has pointed out, it would be unwise to see Putney as that influential. The army quickly dropped its forward thinking after Putney and real advances to the franchise would have to wait nearly two hundred years. It would therefore be better merely to use Putney as another example of the radicalism of those years.
The rise of radical thought in the 1640s should not be underestimated. Political events threw everything into flux and the new world order was there to be moulded. The freedom which the press enjoyed allowed small groups with their radical spiritual and secular ideas to take the centre stage of political discussion and threaten established institutions. While certainly not everyone was affected by the heightened debates, there was more popular interest in these ideas then had arguably ever happened before. Further, even though little was achieved in the long term, despite modern interpretations of the Putney Debates, this should not make the intellectual leaps made in this time any less impressive. The 1640s to the early 1650s were a dangerous and brutal time but they were also an exciting and intellectually charged period, which is how they should be remembered.