The Bonfire Night Coup: power politics at the Putney debates

In March we hosted the final Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar before lockdown forced the temporary closure of the Institute of Historical Research. Today Dr Sean Kelsey, senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham, looks back at his paper discussing the Putney Bonfire Night Coup of 1647.

This paper revisits the circumstances surrounding the adjournment, and effective dissolution of the General Council, the representative assembly of the main parliamentarian field army, and forum for the famous debates, held at St Mary’s church in Putney, in the autumn of 1647. In line with a previous paper given to the seminar, it draws a connection between the shuttering of the General Council on 8 November and a power struggle between proponents of two conflicting programmes for constitutional settlement of post-civil war England. And it identifies the crisis point of that struggle in the exposure, on 5 November 1647, of the lies of Commissary General Henry Ireton, and his effective expulsion from the General Council, by an increasingly powerful body of support for revolutionary constitutional and electoral change centred on Colonel Thomas Rainborowe.

Henry Ireton, [attributed to] Robert Walker. National Portrait Gallery, London via ArtUk.

The autumn of 1647 was in some ways the highwater mark for a revolution that would have subjected prerogative power in England to the sovereignty of the people, and the authority of their representatives assembled in Parliament, side-lining Charles I completely in the process. Amongst the most determined opponents of such a revolution were the so-called ‘grandees’: members of the coalition of civilian ‘Independent’ politicians in both Houses at Westminster and their partners and allies within the military high command – one of whom, Henry Ireton, insisted in September 1647, in flat contradiction of the facts, that the army was united in its desire to see a deal done with the king. The grandees were the promoters of what John Wildman would later characterise as a ‘prerogative design’ to uphold as much as possible of the existing constitutional order, subject only to some adjustment of the balance of power amongst its constituent elements.

The Putney debates were the product of a failure by the supporters of the prerogative design to contain the threat posed by supporters of a programme for implementation of ideas about popular sovereignty. That threat had been born of the increasingly violent and angry grievances of soldiers who both channelled and probably exaggerated fears of betrayal and abandonment by their own commanders, and exposure to the dangers of imprisonment and even capital punishment, for their part in defeating Charles I. In late October 1647, control within the General Council was more or less comprehensively won by those advocating – as a solution to those perceived dangers – abolition of regal and noble vetoes over the legislative will of the sovereign people’s representatives, and transformation of the parliamentary franchise.

Behind the closed doors of a committee, and seemingly in the absence of key ‘democrat’ appointees, the successes secured in the General Council were comprehensively unpicked by Henry Ireton, who sought to hijack the soldiers’ radical agenda for change, and exploit the platform provided by the soldiers’ assembly to obtrude once more, into the politics of settlement at Westminster, the grandees’ own failed programme, The Heads of the Proposals. This prompted the climactic confrontation on 5 November, when in the name of parliamentary privilege, and in retaliation for the deceit and deception by which they had been robbed of the political initiative at Putney, the democrat majority within the General Council wrote to the Commons exposing Ireton as a liar.

This humiliation was borne personally – in the face of their brother officers – not only by the Commissary General, but also, in all likelihood, as the paper posits for the first time, by his father-in-law Oliver Cromwell. What is more, the two men who had done more than most to wind military politics to its dangerously explosive pitch by the time of Bonfire Night 1647, appear to have been hung out to dry by their own commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had returned to the chair of the General Council on 5 November for the first time since the Putney debates had begun. Shutting down the General Council was the battered grandees’ last remaining option.

In summary, the paper proposes a reversal of a conventional narrative which argues (albeit in a variety of ways) that the Putney debates witnessed, or at least concluded with the reassertion amongst the soldiers of a hard-won ‘unity’ – over the complaints of proto-Leveller ‘outsiders’ – that was then enforced with the crushing of all remnants of opposition, at the mutiny on Corkbush Field in Hertfordshire a week later. In truth, Cromwell and Ireton had acted precipitately to destroy the near-unanimity amongst the delegates to the General Council at Putney in the autumn of 1647, for fear of where it might lead. The assertion of a military ‘consensus’ from mid-November was really just a form of conflict by other means. The violence with which the grandees were subsequently forced to reassert their authority would have an immensely destructive bearing on the course of subsequent events.

Sean Kelsey

Read about other papers given at previous IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminars here.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, most of our upcoming seminars have been postponed. However, follow the History of Parliament on twitter for updates on future virtual events and discussions.

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