Col. Thomas Rainborowe: ‘The poorest he that is in England hath a right to live as the greatest he’

Today’s In Our Time programme on Radio Four focuses on the Putney Debates 0f 1647. Dr Stephen Roberts sheds more light on one of the key figures, Col. Thomas Rainborowe (also Rainborough or Rainsborough)…

Surely the most enduring words to have been spoken at the Putney Debates (28-29 Oct. 1647) between the junior and senior officers of the new model army were those of Col. Thomas Rainborowe:

The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he … I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

Rainborowe was a colonel of a foot regiment and about to take a commission as a vice-admiral of Parliament’s navy. He went on to challenge his interlocutors, in particular Oliver Cromwell with whom he had clashed over other matters, to justify the restriction of the vote to those with property.

Rainborowe was the most senior, and the most eloquent, figure at Putney to call for universal male franchise. It is less well-known that he was Member of Parliament for Droitwich at the time, and his own election there illustrated the arbitrary workings of patronage and property interests that he deplored at Putney. Rainborowe had come to the royalist city of Worcester in 1646 first as a soldier with specialist experience of sieges, then as military governor when the town surrendered to Parliament. Droitwich, six miles away, was a salt-producing town where the franchise rested on the ownership of interests in the salt-pits. Having no property interests there himself (he was a Londoner), he owed his election in January 1647 entirely to the patronage of the Worcestershire county committee and the consent of the town’s dominant political figure, John Wylde, a judge and powerful Commons-man.

His parliamentary career was slight; one of the few things he did in the House was to oppose Oliver Cromwell in a division on dealing with the king. Rainborowe may have been radicalized by an encounter he had with Charles I in the summer, when as part of an army delegation he was told by the king: ‘You cannot be without me; you will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you’, an assertion holding so much potential danger for a renewal of civil war, and so repellent to Rainborowe personally, that it provoked him into leaving the meeting and rejoining his regiment.

As Parliament and army drifted further apart politically during 1647, Rainborowe’s actions and words made it plain that it was the army and not Parliament that engaged his energies and sympathies, and by the time the army officers met to air their differences at Putney he was preoccupied with keeping his colonelcy. He feared that he was the victim of a conspiracy led by Cromwell to neutralize him as a regimental commander, and during the debates made an explicit avowal that he would rather lose his parliamentary seat than his army command.

Rainborowe was an unhappy and conflicted figure at Putney, and his life afterwards was short. On 29 October 1648, exactly a year after his speeches at Putney, Rainborowe was assassinated at Pontefract in Yorkshire. His body was brought to London for a massive funeral said to have been attended by 3,000 mourners. His words in 1647 were so much of that particular moment in time; his own election to Parliament illustrated the quirks of patronage and owed nothing to democracy; he was a figure in transition, locked in conflict with senior army officer colleagues, and one is bound to ask to what extent his words at Putney were conditioned by his recent disappointments. Yet his words were, and have continued for generations afterwards to be, an inspiration to those who questioned the basis of political authority and worked towards an extension of democracy.


For more on the Levellers, see Philip Baker’s earlier blog on the Agreements of the People 

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