Veterans For Peace (VFP) – a voluntary organisation of men and women, who collectively have served in every war that Britain has fought since WW2 – are organising to commemorate on Saturday 28 October 2017, the Putney Debates of 370 years ago.
The Putney Debates of 1647 occurred during the English Civil War and were essentially about democracy, both in the country and for its armed forces. They took place between the Senior Officers, or Grandees, of the New Model Army and the Agitators, who were the elected representatives of the rank-and-file soldiers.
The debates took place at St Mary’s Church in the midst of two great upheavals. The Reformation had seen the long hold of the Catholic Church being supplanted by Protestantism. And Feudalism, the old ruling system, was breaking down and Parliament, aided by sections of the people, challenged the ‘divine right’ of the King, which led to the Civil War.
Yet, despite all this chaos, at Putney rank-and-file Agitators argued in support of many far-seeing democratic demands, some of which have still not been conceded today.
In medieval Europe the dominant social system was feudalism, in which the nobility held lands from the crown in exchange for military service. While the vast majority of the population, as serfs or peasants, were forced to live on their lord’s lands to labour for, and pay homage to, their rulers.
In many countries the Catholic Church had become a principal feudal force, forming a rich and corrupt part of the state apparatus. The ‘will of God,’ which governed many aspects of people’s lives, was passed down through popes, monarchs and an apparatus of church placemen. Very often their interpretation of God’s will was that the poor should ‘accept their lot’ and ‘obey their betters.’
From 1517 the Protestant Reformation had swept through Europe as feudalism was on the wane and bourgeois capitalism was emerging.
The idea, implicit in the new religion, that an individual could have a direct relationship with God and interpret the divine will for themselves, was a revolutionary one – which threatened for a time to ‘turn the world upside down.’
In England, a more modest Protestantism gradually became established after King Henry VIII, who had his own reasons for rejecting the Papacy, turned his back on Rome and in 1534 made himself head of the Church of England. But Henry, fearful of the radicalism the new religion had exhibited elsewhere, ensured that the new moderate Anglican Church became an integral arm of the Tudor state.
Mary Tudor threatened to reinstate the Catholic Church during her brief reign, but Protestantism was consolidated under Elizabeth I. As the new religion became dominant in England many ‘martyrs’ were created in bitter struggles for and against it. Patriotism was whipped up to combat ‘Popish plots’ and supporting Protestantism became synonymous with national security and the need for a strong state.
Contesting the Aristocracy
The centralised state that grew under the reign of the Tudors had helped English trade and expansionism to develop. With the merchant centre, London, as the capital, the entrepreneurs and financiers who stood behind this growing commerce gradually increased in power and influence. It was largely this new merchant class that forced Queen Elizabeth I to use her navy to help check Spain’s competing overseas enterprises.
While Elizabeth had been successful in balancing the various ruling interests and factions during her reign, differences continued to intensify as various sections of society gradually contested the dominance of the old feudal monarchy, aristocracy and church. And in 1640 a civil war started in England when the growing capitalist forces, allied with Parliament and some prominent Protestants, challenged the absolute power of Charles I and his nobles.
Oliver Cromwell, a minor landed gentleman, rose to prominence in the fight against the king by bringing organisation, discipline and training to the Parliamentary military forces. His victorious New Model Army was composed mainly of disciplined and determined Puritans, who would often sing psalms as they marched into battle.
A ‘Soldier’s Catechism’ was produced in 1644 for the New Model Army soldiers that fought against the king. It was ‘Written for the Encouragement and Instruction of all that have taken up Arms in this Cause of God and his People; especially the common Soldiers.’ Like most texts of the period it was couched mainly in strident theological terms, but it was written to inspire a citizen army – albeit one motivated by a Protestant religious zeal.
Levellers & Diggers
Cromwell and his backers needed to mobilise the maximum support to defeat the Royalists and the New Model Army contained within its ranks many soldiers from the lower orders, who pursued objectives that were a great deal more radical than those sought by Cromwell, or the other Grandees.
The Levellers, who believed in the free interpretation of the scriptures and who opposed establishment control of the church, were political – as well as religious – radicals. They opposed primogeniture and great estates and got their name from levelling fences and hedges, which enclosed former common land. They demanded that:
‘All grounds which anciently lay in common for the poor, [and are now enclosed], be laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor.’
The Levellers advocated free schools and hospitals for all as well as a more equal society:
‘Round about 1646, towards the end of the first Civil War, the Levellers emerged as an independent group. There had been peasant revolts in the past. The first claim of the Levellers to originality lay in this, that they organised as a modern party, run on democratic lines, a third force, drawn from the lower middle class, the skilled craftsmen and the small farmers. Their followers ranged from some well-to-do merchants to the weavers of Spitalfields and the lead-miners of Derbyshire…. The Levellers were the first political party that dared to make complete religious toleration a chief plank in their platform. By 1647 they had behind them most of the rank and file of the New Model Army and many of its junior officers.’ [From The Levellers and the English Revolution, by H. N. Brailsford, Spokesman Books 1976.]
The Diggers, or ‘True Levellers,’ who got their name from their attempts to dig-up and plant crops on enclosed land, considered Charles I to be the ‘Norman Successor’ and with his execution that the ‘Norman Yoke’ had at last been cast off.
Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of the Diggers, declared that:
‘In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury … but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’
Winstanley, an early environmentalist who also attempted to organise the rural poor, left these words for those who would come after:
‘When these clay bodies are in grave
and children stand in place,
This shows we stood for truth
and peace and freedom in our days.’
Under feudalism, poor women were the serfs of serfs and had no rights, with their lives dependant on their husband’s goodwill. During the Civil War some women became active in the new religious sects and a few became preachers. Many women started to question the lack of education for females and discussed issues like polygamy and divorce.
It was also a time, however, when fear and superstition, which were constant factors under the feudal system, still abounded. And Matthew Hopkins was conducting his witch-hunts, which led to the brutal deaths of over 300 women. Despite this, the Civil War, which brought forward groups like the Levellers and Diggers also saw an upsurge in women seeking their rights, including equality in family life.
Leveller women organised many protests and petitions addressed to parliament, calling for peace, an end to high taxes and the debt laws – and demanded Leveller leaders be released. One of their petitions asked a simple question:
‘Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land?’
The women were often met by armed force, or trampled by horses – and some were locked away in brutal jails. They were lampooned as ‘oyster wenches’ and ‘fishwives’ – and Parliament told them to go home and ‘meddle’ with their ‘huswifery.’
Nevertheless, many women persevered, and one report claimed that ‘sometimes 5,000 women were swarming around Parliament.’ And an MP complained that:
‘A multitude of women … came to the very doore of the House and there cryed … “Peace, Peace,” and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House and threatened violence to those members who were enemies of peace.’
There had been no permanent army in England before the Civil War, because in the past the ruling King or Queen had raised armies to fight specific wars – after which these forces were then disbanded. The origins of the modern British Army of today can be traced back to the Civil War and Cromwell’s New Model Army, as a professional standing army, funded and controlled by Parliament, gradually emerged from this period.
In the New Model Army the Levellers sought to bring an element of democracy to the military and give lower ranking soldiers a voice. To this end they organised to elect soldier representatives, called Agitators, who put forward the rank and file’s point of view:
‘We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties. And so we took up arms in judgment and conscience to those ends.’ [From Representation, a Leveller document addressed to Parliament.]
Then ‘agitator’ meant ‘representative,’ the modern negative connotation of the word comes from the establishments fear and distaste for this early example of rank and file power. Two agitators were elected from each regiment and they, with two officers from the same unit, met and debated at Putney with the senior officers (Grandees) on the Army Council.
The arguments of both sides were often enunciated in fairly archaic biblical terms. It was clear, however, that while Cromwell and the other Grandees advocated the preservation of property rights and for the rich to retain their privileges and power, the Agitators stood not only for the rights of ordinary soldiers, but also, with the Levellers, for those of the common people.
The Agitators were citizen soldiers who had reluctantly fought against the King, because he would not concede an inch of democracy. They were part of a Leveller movement who stood for the separation of church from state and for toleration and liberty of conscience among the people – including soldiers in the army. When women spoke up for their rights the Levellers included in their aims greater equality between men and women – that was to be enacted in law.
Many of these demands were contained in the ‘An Agreement of the People’ document, which was drafted in 1647 after discussions between the Levellers and Agitators. They believed that some of the Grandees they’d fought under now wanted to consolidate a new power structure, which would also be undemocratic and retain much of the old status quo.
The ‘An Agreement of the People’ document started by saying it was for: ‘a firm and present peace upon the grounds of common right …’ It also stated that Parliament should be elected biennially and consist of a single elected house.
Later versions of the Levellers’ document called for:
- A drastic extension of the right to vote.
- Annual elections, with MPs serving one term only.
- Debarring officers and lawyers from being MPs [to avoid any conflict of interests].
- Equality of all before the law, with jury trials.
- Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes.
MPs were to be elected in proportion to the population of their constituencies. Parliament should not interfere with freedom of religion. It should not press men to serve in the armed forces. It should not exempt anyone from the ordinary course of the law and all laws passed must be for the common good.
In the end the Levellers, Diggers, militant women and the Agitators were gradually supressed. But executions, imprisonment and state repression could not kill their ideas of rights for all and a more democratic country and armed forces. Over later centuries these ideals were raised up again and again and – with their vision of ‘a firm and present peace upon the grounds of common right …’ – are still alive in our own day.
Dissent and Debate in the Armed Forces
Saturday 28 October 2017
St Mary’s Church
High Street Putney
This October Veterans For Peace UK will be hosting the first of a series of debates on the concept of democracy, debate and dissent in the Armed Forces and the impact on our society and history.
Keynote speakers include historians John Rees, author of the new biography on John Lilburne, and Julian Putowski, author of ‘Shot at Dawn’. The headline event will be a debate with modern day dissenters – former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, and former submariner Mike Lyons.
In each session audience feedback, questions, and debate will be encouraged.
At the end of the first English Civil War soldiers, civilians, and men of power came together to debate the future of England and their place in it. The debates started on 28th October 1647 at St Mary’s Church in Putney. Some of their ideas on democracy, representation, and land rights have still not been achieved, such as the abolition of the House of Lords. This was the beginning of the discussion about democracy and the rights of people in a modern society.
This is the first time in 370 years that veterans have come together to commemorate this event and discuss the big issues of the day.
For further information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Earlier this year five members of VFP attended the Levellers Day event in Burford on Saturday 20 May 2017.
Levellers Day commemorates three soldiers who were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire, on 17 May 1649. They had refused to fight in Ireland and belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance. A report and short film of this event can be seen at: http://vfpuk.org/2017/levellers-day-2017/