In the archives of Worcester College, Oxford there lies one of the most remarkable and affecting documentary legacies of the English past. The papers of William Clarke, a secretary in the Cromwellian Army, contain his transcript of the meetings at Army headquarters in late October and early November 1647 which posterity knows as the Putney Debates. The officers, soldiers and Levellers who debated the Parliamentary franchise and the post-war settlement of the kingdom bequeathed an unrivalled glimpse of 17th-century political articulacy below the level of political privilege. It was at Putney that Thomas Rainborough spoke for 'the poorest he that lives in England', and that he heard, in the pleas of Cromwell's son-in-law Henry Ireton for the rights of property, 'nothing at all that can convince me, why any man that is born in England ought not to have his voice in election of burgesses.' It was there that Ireton quarrelled with the Levellers, in terms close to those of Hobbes's Leviathan four years later, about the obligation of men to perform their political covenants. And it was there that the Levellers John Wildman and Maximilian Petty mounted the fundamental challenge to the constitution that would be rewarded by the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords two years later. Even the sophisticated qualifications of modern scholarship, which have dwelled on the distance that separates the language and presuppositions of the soldiers from our own, have not dimmed the wonder both of the survival and of the content of Clarke's record.
LRB 23 July 1987 | PDF Download