Thursday, 15 January 2015

Radicalism and regicide

Holdenby Hall, where Charles 
was imprisoned
until seized by the Army
In January 1647, the Scots delivered the king to parliamentary custody. He was imprisoned at Holdenby (Holmby) House in Northamptonshire.  The Scots then returned home.

With the king in prison and the Scots departed, divisions opened up between Parliament and the Army. Parliament was dominated by Presbyterians, who wanted to disband the Army and open up negotiations with the king, who had indicated that he was prepared to accept a Presbyterian settlement. However, the Army was dominated by Independents (Congregationalists), who believed that each congregation should be self-governing, and they were resolutely opposed to a settlement with the king. There was now considerable hostility in Parliament to the New Model Army, which was seen as a hotbed of religious sedition and subversively radical political beliefs. 

Early in March 1647 the Commons voted to give the remainder of the 22,000-strong New Model Army a straight choice between disbandment and enlistment to serve in Ireland. Those who chose the former were initially offered no guarantees of pay at a time when payment was 43 weeks in arrears for cavalry and 18 weeks for infantry. The rank and file of the New Model Army were enraged. Their pay was in arrears and they did not wish to be sent to Ireland. 

The London Levellers

John Lillburne (1614-57)
'Freeborn John', one of the
leaders of the Levellers
The Army was not the only nursery of radical ideas. In London, a body of men, soon to be known as the Levellers, were producing pamphlets with titles like London’s Liberty in Chains, An Arrow against all Tyrants and England’s Lamentable Slavery. Their leaders were John Lilburne (1614-57), William Walwyn (?1600-81), Maximilian Petty (?1617-?1661), and John Wildman (1622/3-93) (all of minor gentry stock) and Richard Overton (d.1663), who was probably of humbler origin. There were already links between some Levellers and the army. 

The Levellers were demanding that the representatives of the people should be free from the tyranny of the king and the peers, that no-one should be punished for preaching or publishing his religious opinion in a peaceable way, and that the law should be radically reformed. 

The king captured

On 25 May the Commons approved orders for the disbandment of the entire New Model infantry between 1 and 15 June, directing the regiments to widely scattered rendezvous so as to forestall any concerted resistance. This severely tested the loyalties of the army’s commanders.  But on 4 June the political situation was transformed when a junior officer in Fairfax’s life guard, Cornet  George Joyce, with a party of 500 horse, seized the king from Holdenby House and brought him to Newmarket where the army was holding a rendezvous.  By securing the king’s person, the army had suddenly gained the political initiative.

The Army and the Levellers

Although Fairfax was the commander of the New Model Army, he was no politician and much of the initiative passed to Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton. On 5 June the Army covenanted that they would not disband until they were given satisfaction for their grievances. 

From Newmarket the army set off on a slow advance towards London. On 14 June it published from St Albans a declaration in which it claimed to be speaking for the whole kingdom. It announced that it was 
'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'. 
In early August the army moved nearer to London and 15,000 men camped on Hounslow Heath. Between 6 and 8 August it occupied London in a very orderly fashion.

In early September Fairfax moved his headquarters to Putney.  The Army’s proximity to London laid it open to Leveller influence . Towards the end of September Leveller agitators appeared in the army.  On 18 October they presented to Fairfax 'The Case of the Army Truly Stated'.  It called for 

  1. an immediate purge of the present parliament
  2. a dissolution within nine months and thereafter biennial elections in which ‘all the freeborn’ should have their vote unless they had forfeited their freedom through ‘delinquency’ (royalism).
  3. guarantees for liberty of conscience and freedom from conscription
  4. reform of the law
  5. the army’s pay arrears to be settled. 

On 21 October Fairfax put the document before the weekly meeting of the General Council. It was resolved to call a meeting of the General Council of Officers, to which the authors of the Case were invited. This is the background to the Putney debates.

The Putney Debates

The surviving manuscript of the debates was rediscovered in the library of Worcester College Oxford. Selections were edited in the 1890s but the term ‘Putney Debates’ was first used in 1938.  They had been recorded in shorthand by William Clarke, the secretary to the General Council. Clarke produced the manuscript, transcribing his shorthand notes of October/November 1647 in the 1660s, destroying the originals as he went. He had difficulties transcribing from his own notes.  The debates have been given a teleological interpretation as a step on the way to democracy, though most historians are now more concerned to place the debates within their own context. 

You can read the full text of the debates and learn more about them  here and here.

The debates, which began on 28 October, were a series of encounters between the army ‘grandees’ led by Cromwell and Ireton and the Levellers, both military and civilian. They were held, not in Putney church, but in the lodgings of the quartermaster general. There, the Levellers presented without warning a new document, 'The Agreement of the People', a wide-ranging political document advocating a radically new constitution that would overthrow the ‘Norman yoke’  and restore the liberties of ‘freeborn Englishmen’. This affirmed the sovereignty of the people, freedom of religion, immunity from conscription, and total equality before the law. However the Agreement said nothing about the franchise nor did it specifically mention the king or the Lords.

Because Fairfax was unwell, Cromwell presided over the debates, seconded by Ireton. Very soon the fundamental differences of purpose between the army commanders and the Leveller groups were revealed. 

On the second day of the debates - Friday 29 October - the Leveller spokesmen clashed with Cromwell and Ireton over the very foundations of a free commonwealth. Ireton raised the question of whether the Levellers believed that every male inhabitant had a right to vote. Maximilian Petty argued that 
‘all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in elections’. 
This raises the question of what he meant by the ‘birthright’ and how it was possible to lose it. Petty’s ‘democracy’ was one of smallholders and craftsmen. Anyone in paid employment was exempt. A much more radical view was put forward by Colonel Thomas Rainborowe
'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he’.  
But in his support for manhood suffrage, Rainborowe was going further than most of the Leveller leaders, who never saw themselves as representing the mass of the poor. This has led to the conjecture that Ireton had cleverly exposed differences in the Leveller ranks. 

In spite of their disagreements the Levellers were united on one matter: the war had not been fought to allow others to lay down the subsequent form of laws and government. Ireton was adamant that that was exactly what the soldiers had fought for: there could be no upsetting of the social hierarchy. But it is a mistake to divorce the Levellers’ idea of liberty from its seventeenth-century context: liberty meant freedom to submit to the will of God.  Neither side acknowledged women’s right to liberty.

The return of the king

The debates continued during the following days but made little progress. On 11 November Charles escaped from Hampton Court
The gateway of
Carisbrooke Castle
and fled to Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight.  Two days after his arrival he re-opened negotiations with Parliament on the basis of a three-year trial period for Presbyterianism.

In the face of a renewed threat by the king, the army closed ranks. Discussions of religious and constitutional issues were suspended, and on 15 November a Leveller-inspired mutiny in two regiments near Ware was easily crushed. 

The Second Civil War

After his arrival on the Isle of Wight, Charles’s strategy was to ally with the Scots in preference to continuing negotiations with parliament. On 26 December, he concluded a secret ‘Engagement’ promising to establish Scottish Presbyterianism in England for three years; in return the Scots recognized the king’s right to control the militia, veto legislation, appoint officers of state and promised to invade England and restore him to the throne. These were far better terms than those offered by parliament.  Inevitably it meant war. 

News of the agreement soon leaked out. On 3 January 1648 parliamentary radicals pushed through a vote (majority 50) that they would no longer negotiate with the king.  During the debates Cromwell ominously warned the Commons not to break its trust to ‘the honest party of the kingdom’ or else ‘the godly’, especially in the army ‘might take such courses as nature dictates to them’.  The meaning of these words would become clearer later in the year.  

At first the king benefited from a Royalist backlash. In April, May, and June 1648 this desire for a return to traditional forms of government exploded into rebellion in south Wales, Essex, and Kent, a series of uncoordinated risings that hardly deserves to be called a war.

The most brutal events in the war took focused on the eleven week siege of Colchester, from June to August and even involved the dismembering of corpses.  The town surrendered after the last dog and cat had been eaten. 

On 17-18 August an invading Scots army was easily defeated by Cromwell with a much smaller force at Preston.  As with Naseby, Cromwell regarded this victory as ‘nothing more than the hand of God’. By October the war was over.

Consequences of the Second Civil War

The risings and the Scottish invasion transformed the Army’s view of the king. In April the army had withdrawn from London and its officers assembled for a prayer meeting at Windsor Castle. In an atmosphere of high emotion the officers resolved 
‘to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for the blood he had shed and mischief he had done to his utmost against the Lord’s cause and people’.  
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this resolution and of the ‘man of blood’ language that was henceforth used to describe Charles.  Such language could be used against Charles because in restarting the Civil War he had rebelled against the providence that had granted parliament the victory. He had allied with a foreign power, and he had plunged the country into renewed war and could never be trusted. 

However parliament did not share this apocalyptic attitude and still wished to negotiate with the king. But the Army regarded these negotiations and even the king’s major concessions as a betrayal of all that it had fought for. On 2 December the Army entered London and occupied Westminster. 

On 25 November Cromwell had written to his cousin Thomas Hammond, who was guarding the king, describing him as 
‘this man against whom the Lord hath witnessed’.  
The letter was ambiguously worded but the overall meaning was clear: God had pronounced sentence on the king, the Army (not Parliament) must find the means to execute it.  On 1 December Charles was moved to Hurst Castle on the mainland.  

Pride’s Purge

However on 5 December the Commons voted 129/83 to continue negotiations with the king.  On 6 December troops led by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Pride (d. 1658) purged parliament of the army’s opponents.  The soldiers arrested 45 MPs and excluded 186 others (all Presbyterians); a further 86 withdrew in protest. Nearly half the MPs were now barred from attending. What remained was a ‘Rump’ of about 150 members. 

In London Independent ministers preached inflammatory sermons. Before the end of the year parliament received a spate of petitions and declarations from radical puritans praising the army and urging the members to complete the work of reformation - and in many cases bring stern justice upon the king. 

The regicide

On 23 December the king was brought to Windsor from Hurst Castle. By the end of the month Cromwell was converted to the view that negotiations with the king could not succeed and he vowed to ‘cut off his head with the Crown upon it’.  From then on his execution was inevitable. 

On 1 January the Commons voted that Charles had committed treason by levying war ‘against the parliament and commons of England’. On 4 January the Rump Parliament passed a motion, greatly influenced by Leveller ideas, claiming that 
‘The people are, under God, the original of all just power ... That the Commons of England being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation ... whatever is enacted or declared for law, by the Commons ... hath the force of law ...although the consent and concurrence of King, or House of Peers, be not had thereunto.’  
The Lords did not vote on this - they were excluded from the proceedings as an irrelevance and their consent was not needed for the king’s execution. The Commons declaration was printed and distributed within the next few days.

On 6 January the Commons voted to establish a high court of some 135 named judges to hear the case against Charles Stuart. Whereas previous monarchs had been murdered, and Elizabeth I had disclaimed responsibility for the execution of Mary Stuart, the future regicides were proud of their action. They chose Westminster Hall,  for the trial. At his own treason trial in 1661 the regicide Thomas Harrison said, 
‘It was not a thing done in a corner.’ 
On 8 January only 53 of the nominated commissioners turned up for the court’s first session. Two prosecutors were appointed. The barrister John Bradshaw (1602-59), the chief justice of Cheshire, a man with known republican sympathies, was elected Lord President of the court. He and the principal prosecutor John Cook  had made their reputations by prosecuting royalists and for taking a hard line over the sequestration of the goods of convicted royalists.
The trial of Charles I
On Friday 19 January Charles was brought to St James’s Palace. On 20 January the trial began in Westminster Hall.  On excellent legal grounds, Charles refused to recognize the court. But defendants who refused to enter a plea were judged guilty. He was accused of  
‘a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power according to his will and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people’ 
and levying war against Parliament and being an enemy to ‘the Commonwealth of England’. Charles laughed aloud when he heard the phrase ‘tyrant, traitor, and murderer’ and (his speech impediment deserting him) argued that the court had no authority to try him and did not represent the will of the kingdom and that he (not they) was the true defender of the liberties of the people. He repeated this argument on the second day of his trial: 
‘I do plead for the liberties of the people of England more than you do.’  
This argument wrong-footed his opponents but it did not prevent them from condemning him to death. If he had recognized the court’s jurisdiction and agreed to abdicate probably in favour of his son the duke of Gloucester, he could have saved his life. 

On Saturday 27 January the judges (fewer than half of them turned up) voted that he was guilty and should be executed.  Charles was indignant when he was denied the right to speak after sentence. 
The death warrant, with Cromwell's signature third

On 29 January his death warrant was signed by only 59 of the 153 members of the High Court, including Bradshaw, Cromwell, and Ireton; some of those who signed had not been present throughout the trial.  The majority signed quite willingly

A contemporary German depiction of
Charles's execution
On 30 January Charles stepped out of the window of the Banqueting House to his death.  In his speech he declared himself the martyr of the people. Many bought this argument.
The Eikon Basilike (King's Book)
the beginning of the cult of
King Charles the Martyr
The generally accepted view is that the so-called English Revolution was carried out against the wishes of the vast majority of the country.   

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