Crucible of revolution: Parliament, Putney, and the politics of settlement in the Autumn of 1647

Ahead of tonight’s special edition of our IHR Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar in aid of UK Parliament Week (‘One person, multiple votes: university constituencies and the electoral system, 1868-1950’) we hear from Dr Sean Kelsey of the University of Buckingham who summarises his paper from our last meeting, which discussed the interplay between Parliament and the General Council of the army in 1647…

Whether by design or by default, events unfolding during the autumn of 1647 in the English Parliament at Westminster, and a few miles up-river, in the General Council of the army sitting at Putney, have generally been studied in more or less splendid isolation from one another. The aim of this paper is to trace key aspects of the interrelationship between them, and to posit some new ways of understanding the politics of the period.

The paper argues that The Heads of the Proposals were far more divisive of opinion amongst the soldiers of the parliamentarian army, far sooner than is usually recognised, creating a rapidly deepening conflict within the General Council over the post-war settlement of the kingdom of England – a conflict that then spilled over into Parliament. These developments reinforce the case for seeing the quest for a post-war settlement in England as a constitutional crisis in its own right, and a struggle, ultimately, over sovereignty.

The defining feature of this struggle, or at least what made this phase of it reasonably novel, from an English parliamentarian perspective, seems to me to be the forthright expression of an agenda for constitutional change characterised, in a word, by kinglessness, or an acting, at any rate, ‘as if there were no such thing in the world’ as the king of England, as MPs were urged, in September 1647, to do.

By then, a number of Englishmen, many of them soldiers, had embarked, or at least had understood themselves to be embarked upon a bid to separate key elements of the kingdom’s constitutional arrangements (principally, those concerning legislative sovereignty) from the institution of personal monarchy – in a process that one feels almost impelled to call ‘Rexit’. By November 1647, it had become possible to articulate this agenda in terms of ‘justice’. Whatever else it achieved  (or however little, perhaps), the principles underpinning the first Agreement of the People had at least opened a door marked ‘jurisdiction’ to the re-establishment of English sovereignty, in a form consistent with justice, by means of a trial of Charles I – as urged by Colonel Thomas Harrison and others at the close of the Putney debates. It appears that, for many, what this would entail was a prosecution that – in the terms expressed by one of its advocates,  Commissary Nicholas Cowling at the very close of the Putney debates – would destroy the constitutional standing of the king, but leave his person alone.

In all of this, there’s something very striking – and I think potentially very illuminating – about just how many of the things that happened, fifteen or so months after the events described in this paper, were things that had not happened, that had been urged for the first time, but rejected, refused or deliberately obstructed, fifteen or so months earlier: a military purge of Parliament, imprisonment or exclusion of its delinquent members, imposition of a loyalty test on the remainder, a constitutional revolution in the name of the sovereign people of England, conclusion of an Agreement of the People, and a prosecution of Charles I, intended first and foremost as a means to effect the forcible relocation of legitimate authority, in subjugation of the office of king, and its demotion to the status of a chief magistrate. It seems eminently arguable that, in seeking to understand what happened in the winter of 1648-9, there may be quite a lot to be said for remembering exactly what had not happened, in the Autumn of 1647, and working out why.


See the full programme for our IHR seminar here. 

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