When the first civil war ended, the victorious side scarcely knew what to do, for it was deeply divided, especially over religious questions. The ferment of new ideas which arose when the organization of the old Church was destroyed (a Bill abolishing the bishops and permitting the sale of their properties had finally been passed in 1646) was extending from religion to politics. At Westminster an assembly of divines and learned laymen were sitting, trying to work out a new ecclesiastical constitution; at the same time hopes were not abandoned of coming to terms with the King, and proposals for what amounted to a confirmation of everything parliament had done since Charles I had left London were sent to him in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he was still a prisoner of the Scottish army. The King replied by asking permission to come to London and debate the matter. He knew enough about what was going on there to realize that, though beaten in the war, he might be able to play off one group of his enemies against another. But Scots did not wish to be involved and returned home after handing over their monarch to the English parliament.
The House of Commons now consisted mainly of convinced Puritans. After war was over a number of elections had been held to fill vacancies in the Commons to replace the Royalists who had been “disabled” for fighting for the King. The outcome of these elections made little difference to the complexion of the House. On religious questions the out-and-out Presbyterians were about equal in number to their opponents, who consisted of the Independents and their sympathizers led by Cromwell and Vane, and of the so-called “Erastians”, mainly lawyers who were anti-clerical in spirit and were resolved that on no account should the Presbyterian Church dominate the State, as it did as Scotland. Thus, while the Independents were able, with Erastian support, to demand a measure of religious toleration in the new settlement of the nation and were backed by their influence over the New Model Army, when it came to other carried no such weight in the House of Commons. Here they relied for the exertion of pressure entirely on the wishes and feelings of the soldiers who had won the war – volunteers for the most part, and not mercenaries, among whom radical opinions were rapidly gaining ground.
During the period 1644 – 5, Oliver Cromwell had been upon very friendly terms with John Lilburne, a keen Puritan fifteen years younger than himself, who prided himself on having been born the son of the gentleman, but who, as the London apprentice of Puritan principles, had recieved a rough handling by the government of King Charles I during his “eleven tears’ tyranny”. The two men had a good deal in common; both were visionaries, enthusiasts with an individualistic outlook upon life, and were capable of exercising something of a magnetic power over their fellows; both were adsorbed in politics, but had been brought into them chiefly by their religious feelings, particularly their disapproval of the Church hierarchy. Cromwell admired Lilburne for his courage, exemplified in the way in which he underwent martyrdom in his youth for his beliefs. Lilburne was grateful to Cromwell for his patronage and for defending him in the Commons. He respected him as a soldier, served under him as a lieutenant-colonel in the Earl of Manchester’s army, and was entirely in accord with Cromwell’s criticism of the earl for his dilatory conduct after the battle of Marston Moor. But, more consistently than Cromwell, he refused a commission in the New model Army because he would not accept the Covenant or the Scottish alliance, and he retired to London to devote himself to political pamphleteering. Out of the faith and grievances of this firebrand, what was known as the leveller movement was born.
Religion was the basis of this trend towards democracy, for Levelling was chiefly political and not economic in character. The Calvinist organization of the churches, with the congregations taking a big part in their government, helped to establish a pattern for democratic ideas. But there was a curious dualism about it. To be logical, if some were born elected to eternal salvation and others condemned to everlasting damnation, should it not have been the elect, the “chosen people” and not all of the people who were destined to rule upon the earth? This view was, in fact, held by one Puritan sect, that known as the Fifth Monarchy men, who believed that the time was near when Christ was coming back to earth and that His disciples should prepare the way for Him. But other Puritans took the view that there were two “orders” upon earth – the order of Nature, in which men were inevitably corrupt and the order of Grace or the Elect. The Elect, they thought, were only concerned with religious questions, with preparing themselves, free from political interference for the after-life; while politics belonged purely to the order of Nature. A millennium might be coming soon, but meanwhile in the order of Nature the defeat of the King in the civil war had opened the way for the formation of a new kind of government, the writing of a fresh constitution in which “the people”, who had been deprived of their natural rights and liberties since the French-Norman/Conquest-Crusade, should at last come into their own again.
John Lilburne, like many other self-educated men of his generation, was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Sir Edward Coke. He was convinced that King Charles I had merely followed in the footsteps of his predecessors along paths charted by French-Norman kings in robbing his subjects of their historic birth-rights, by ignoring the “laws of nature” and violating his coronation oath. Whether now in 1647 men should return to the golden age of the past and the “fundamental laws” of the kingdom or march forward to a state of perfection in the future brandishing a freshly minted declaration of rights amounted to much the same thing. The Levellers at any rate wanted a clean sweep of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England, a reconstituted House of Commons meeting annually, a democratization of the electorate, and finally a constitutional guarantee of the liberties of the individual. Lilburne and his friends did not come to them pretty quickly in the course of the political transformations that followed the first civil war. They were embodied in various documents ranging from the Levellers’ “Large Petition” of March 1647 to the “Agreement of the People” presented to the Council of the Army in October of the same year.
The Levellers’ teachings appealed to a fairly extensive following. The Puritans, encouraged to read their Bibles for themselves, to despise priestly intervention with God, and to spurn the discipline of the bishops, kad learned to believe in the virtues of religious equality; and because they required freedom from rule either of magistrate or priest when they practised their worship they set store also upon religious liberty. The step from religious equality and religious liberty to civic equality and civic liberty was neither long nor difficult. The Levellers also attracted the soldiers for more practical reasons: by claiming that the parliament must not only submit itself to being frequently called and elected and that there were certain rights of man that no parliament might alter, the Levellers were showing the soldiers that even parliament could be and should be subject to a higher law and to the control of the people at large. And had not they, the volunteers of the New Model Army, who had ground the monarchy to defeat, already acted in the name of “the people”? Indeed, were they not the true representatives of the people, at any rate of the “honest people” of the realm? If parliament, which had used their services when it needed them, now tried to disband them upon miserable terms – as it did – and to formulate a new constitution without their consent, had they not the right to express their opinions, even to insist upon their criticisms and their point of view being taken into the fullest account?
Unquestionably during these years 1646 and 1647 a democratic movement unique in the history of England was making swift headway. It centred upon London; here an effort was exerted to end the oligarchic form of government and to transform several of the city guilds. “If an arbitrary government be so destructive in the Commonwealth,” wrote a Leveller pamphleteer in 1645, “surely it is equally dangerous to suffer it in the City.” Apprentices claimed that as they had risked their lives in the civil war they, too, had a right to be heard in presenting their case against monopolists of economic power. Lilburne said that “a cruel city” where a group of rich men had usurped the privileges of th freeholders might be worse tyrant than any. In 1646 and 1647 petitions were presented to the City government, seeking a democratic revision of the existing constitution and asserting that the City Fathers, like Charles I, had broken their trust.
While Lilburne and his followers were reaching these radical opinions, the Independents were also coming to have a distinct political outlook of hteir own. Up to the end of the civil war they had been largely content to remind the Presbyterians that in any constitutional settlement either of State or Church that might be reached, respect for liberty of conscience for all sorts of Christians was essential. But when they discovered that once the war was won the Presbyterians both in parliament and in the City were planning to disband the army, to suppress the sects, and come to an understanding with the King for an exclusive State Church, they grew restive and angry, and demanded a settlement in which both the King and parliament should be compelled to recognize their claims for liberty as Christians and their rights as men. Thus, during 1647 there was a growing conflict among the Presbyterians, Independents, Eratians, and Levellers, with the Royalists watching and secretly rejoicing at the disputes among their enemies.
Matters were brought to a head when in March the Commons voted that the army must either disband or accept service in Ireland under Presbyterian generals, and the New Model Army retorted by petitioning parliament for its arrears of pay and much more generous terms on demobilization. Parliament voted that soldiers who refused to obey them were “public enemies”. In May the regiments retorted by electing agents or “agitators” to represent their point of view in the councils of the army. Fearing that they had gone too far, the majority in the Commons then invited Oliver Cromwell and other M.P.s who had influence with the soldiers to try to come to an agreement with the army. This failed. Cromwell, who for many months had hesitated as to his course of action, now threw in his lot with the army against parliament.
Oliver Cromwell’s mind always worked slowly and deliberately. His detractors have argued that he interpreted what he himself wanted to do as the Lord’s will, claiming, in common with other but less powerful Puritans of his generation, that he had a private line to Heaven. It seems fairer to say that here was a conscientious man who was always reluctant to change his course of conduct until experience and reflection had convinced him – and convinced him completely -that such a change was imperative. He was suspicious of “fleshy reasonings”, by which he meant the temptation to allow his own passions and desires to rule him. Up to 1647 he regarded himself simply as a good soldier serving the community and a member of parliament ready to obey the wishes of the majority. He had expected that the complaints of the soldiers would be fairly met but gradually he lost his confidence in the leaders at Westminster because they were treating ungenerously the men who had won the war for them. He had told Fairfax: “There want not in all places men who have so much malice against the army as besots them.” Like other Independents, he was perturbed by the menace to religious liberty from an all-embracing Presbyterianism; he was aware that what he called “the honest party” in the Commons was in a minority. Finally he realized the vast influence that he commanded among the soldiers for good or ill, and that he might surrender it to extremists if he sided with the parliament against the army. Thus for the sake of order as well as religious liberty, he crossed the Rubicon.
In May 1647, after his patient efforts at conciliation had failed, Cromwell took one of the dispatch of a certain Cornet George Joyce into the Midlands to see that the arsenal and artillery at Oxford were properly secured, and that there was no danger of the King getting into the hands of the Presbyterian leaders. After he had been surrendered by the Scots, Charles I had been placed in honourable captivity at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire. When Joyce reached there on 2nd June, he decided that there was a real danger of a plot to take the King away to London. Therefore, having gathered a force of five hundred soldiers together, he compelled the King to come away with him, trusting to the revolutionary movement in the army to give him the necessary backing, and to Cromwell to uphold his action. Meanwhile, Cromwell himself left London and joined the army at Newmarket. When Fairfax, who had promptly superseded Joyce had taken the initiative in removing the King into the army’s power. But he does not appear to have condemned Joyce for what he did. He thereby committed himself to the army as against parliament.
Cromwell’s change of front united the army and frightened parliament. Solemn engagements were concluded, a general council was formed in which both the officers and the common soldiers were represented, and the army then began to march towards London in search of a settlement that would provide for “the peace of the kingdom” and the “liberties of the subject”. But these high-sounding phrases were not ones on which the army itself has as yet agreed a meaning.
For Cromwell and the leaders of the army were under very heavy fire from their discontented rank-and-file. Even after the eleven principal Presbyterian members of the House of Commons had voluntarily withdrawn in order to facilitate negotiations between parliament and the army, the Agitators – representing the private soldiers – were urging General Fairfax, their commander-in-chief, Cromwell, and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, that they should enter London, disarm the city militia, and compel the release of the political prisoners there, including the Leveller chief, Lilburne. Cromwell and Ireton, discussing these demands at Reading on 16th July, thought that they had already gone far enough. Though they had sided with the army against parliament. (Ireton was also an M.P.), they were still eager for a reconciliation. “We act as if we did intend only to get the power into our own hands,” protested Ireton, “to give the kingdom satisfaction is the thing that we desire.” Cromwell wanted them to negotiate a general settlement with parliament on the basis of a document known as “The Heads of the Proposals”, which Ireton was preparing and embodied the constitutional and political programme of the army leadership. Ireton insisted that “the honest party” in the Commons was gaining strength and should be encouraged, while Cromwell reminded the Agitators that “what we and they gain in a free way, it is better than twice so much in a forced and will be more truly ours and our posterity’s”. however, events got out of hand. The Presbyterians in London, under pressure from a mob, forced out the Independents, collected a defence force, and defied the New Model Army. Cromwell’s plea for reason at Reading was then perforce ignored, while Fairfax had no alternative but to move his army into London to restore order. The Presbyterian leaders again withdrew from Westminster, and Cromwell and Ireton then tried once more to plan a pacification which would embrace the King, the parliament, and all sections of the army, including both the Agitators and the Levellers.
But the Levellers were unwilling to compromise: the fervour of revolution gripped them, the star lighting up a new Jerusalem dazzled their eyes. They wanted to be done with the old monarchy, to dissolve the existing House of Commons, to elect a new one upon a really democratic and, and to ensure, as they phrased it in their “Agreement of the People”, that the power of the new representatives of the nation should be “inferior only to theirs who choose them”; they envisaged a land where religion was free from all secular interference, where men could not be conscripted into the army, where there were no restraints upon trade, and where all the laws were equal and good. Conscious of the need to keep the army together, a General Council met at Putney, whence the army had withdrawn from London, to try to reconcile the “Agreement of the People” with Ireton’s “Heads of the Proposals”, which had been modified to make them palatable to King Charles I.
During the late summer of 1647 Cromwell had devoted all his energies to trying to reconcile parliament, the King, the Independents, Presbyterians, Levellers, and army agitators. Consequently his motives were misinterpreted on every side. The Royalists thought that he was frightened lest the King should punish him in the event of a restoration; the Levellers accused him of intriguiug with the King against the army and trying by underhand means to overthrow its democratic spokesman, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough. Cromwell, unperturbed, worked in harmony not only with Ireton but with his old civilian friends, Vane and St. John. Knowing the virulence of rumour, he wrote to a fellow officer in Ireland: “Though it may be for the present a cloud may lie over our actions, to them who are not acquainted with the grounds of our transactions, yet we doubt not but God will clear our integrity and innocency from any other ends we may aim at but His glory and the public good.”
The day before he wrote that letter (September 13th) he had been to see John Lilburne in the Tower of London. Lilburne had tried to persuade him that parliament was worse than the King, but Cromwell had retorted: “The King’s reign was a habit of oppression and tryranny” and denied that the “great men” of the army and parliament were obstructing peace. He offered to obtain Lilburne’s release if he would promise, but nevertheless Cromwell said he would try to procure his liberty and to ease the hardship of prisoners in the Tower. Lilburne’s case was at once referred to a parliamentary committee, and later Cromwell again approached him to exert his influence to soothe the fears of the rank-and-file of the army. Even though Lilburne uttered wild threats against Cromwell, he was in fact allowed a substantial measure of liberty during the autumn and winter. Cromwell’s remarkable and uncharacteristic patience, when provoked by extremists like Lilburne and Rainsborough, was well exemplified at Putney.
Cromwell took the chair at the Putney meetings on October 1647, and there the “Gentlemen Independents” led by Ireton, on one side, and the Agitators and Levellers, whose spokesman was a friend of Lilburne named John Wildman, on the other, argued out their cases in a spirit of acrimony, tempered by texts. The Levellers claimed that they were now entitled to write a new constitution upon a clean slate, and blamed Cromwell and Ireton for having any dealings at all with the captive monarch. The reply was given that the engagements of the army must be honoured, and that it was legitimate to explore all methods of coming to a settlement. Ireton argued against democracy on the ground that if men without property received a vote the result would be anarchy. The Levellers replied by appealing to the “law of nature”, asserting in effect, like the French revolutionaries a century and a half later, that men are born free and equal and should now throw off the chains that had bound them since the days of the French-Norman kings. Cromwell himself, a conservative by instinct but a radical by force of events, pleaded hard and reasonably for a compromise. But the left-wing in the camp was inflexible.
In spite of these sharp differences of outlook it is conceivable that a plan might have been finally agreed among all the spokesmen of the New Model Army and made acceptable to their friends, the “honest party” at Westminster, if more time had been allowed. It must be remembered that all these people used much the same language and looked upon life in much the same sort of way. They were agreed that a new constitution must be framed in which the House of Commons should take the central part; they wanted the monarchy to be reduced to formal functions, if not to be abolished altogether; they were anxious to have a written “Bill of Rights” whereby, as in the American constitution of later days, certain principles of liberty should be made untouchable and unalterable by any government or legislature; above all, they were resolved that the grievances of the armed forces should be met and fair compensation paid for their long service.
Lilburne and Cromwell were, in fact, as has well been said, “united in the strife that divided them”. But the strife remained. And it needed an outside stimulus to repair the breach in the army which had revealed itself during the debate in the General Council. The stimulus was provided by the behaviour of the King. In November 1647, breaking his parole, Charles I escaped from custody at Hampton Court Palace and fled to the Isle of Wight. his object was to obtain a freer hand with which to carry on intrigues that he had begun with the Scottish commissioners in England, who, disappointed with what they had gained from the English parliament after they had fought in England, thought they might purchase the King’s agreement to the supremacy of their Presbyterian Church in both his kingdoms by restoring him to the throne. The King managed to conclude such an agreement in December from his refuge in the Isle of Wight. he promised to establish Presbyterianism in England for three years, to suppress the Independents, and to grant certain privileges to his Scottish subjects, if the Scots would regain for him his rights as a crowned King. The Commissioners returned home with these proposals while the House of Commons voted that they would negotiate with the King no further (the “vote of no address”), and the army leaders, including Cromwell, broke off all discussions with him and ordered his closer imprisonment.
For a third time Cromwell had been obliged to change his mind. When he left London to join the army six months earlier he had still hoped to act as a conciliator between the parties and to frame a settlement in which a place would be found for the King. Now, shocked by the King’s breach of parole and his dealings with the Scots, which were an open secret, Cromwell resigned himself to setting aside King Charles I. But he had not yet abandoned his belief in monarchy. Indeed, except for a handful of “Commonwealthsmen” – not necessarily Levellers – all the men of importance on the Parliamentarian side at the beginning of 1648 were still monarchists. Cromwell told Colonel Ludlow, one of these early republicans, that he thought the introduction of a republic into England was theoretically possible but not practically feasible. his idea was to put one of the King’s sons upon the throne, provided he was willing to consent to the draft constitution being fashioned by Ireton.
At any rate, King Charles I’s last bid to regain his throne enabled his enemies to close their ranks. When in the spring the Royalists responded to the signal for a new rising and the Scottish Engagers prepared to invade the north of England, General Fairfax and Lieutenant-General Cromwell marched out to wage the second civil war in the fullest confidence that the bulk of their armies would follow them loyally until victory was won again. The volatile John Lilburne hastened north to offer Cromwell his moral support.
The year 1647 is crucial in Cromwell’s biography. His critics then and later accused him of perfidy, of fawning upon the King only to betray him; of making promises to the Levellers which he did not intend to keep; of using the army against parliament; of preparing the way for his own future personal aggrandizement. Few statesmen are so Machiavellian; and, since the reports of the army debates at Putney were recovered at the end of the nineteenth century, we have been able to see that Oliver Cromwell, in spite of his changes of front in that year, consistently acted as a conciliator, attempting first to reconcile the army with parliament and then the King with the army; after that he tried hard to appreciate the point of view of the Levellers and to dovetail their constitutional proposals with those of Ireton, while upon his astute but tactless son-in-law he exercised a restraining influence. Since Fairfax never exerted the authority that was his, Oliver Cromwell assumed the political leadership of the army and desperately laboured to reconcile the Puritan factions with each other until, having failed, the new was came.