The Army, the People and the Scots

Putney, the Engagement and the Vote of No Addresses

Defeat of the Presbyterian mobilization in 1647 seemed dangerously like a defeat for Parliament. Two extra-parliamentary forces had dominated the politics of the victorious coalition – the Presbyterian alliance of City, Covenanters and London divines on one hand, and a developing alliance between City radicals and the New Model on the other. They had fought for control of the political complexion of Parliament and as the conflict reached crisis point the army had shifted decisively from a body petitioning for redress to a political body seeking a particular form of settlement. A key moment in this transformation was the signing of the Solemn Engagement in early June, which had also established a new consultative body, the General Council of the Army. When the army published its Declaration on 14 June a dangerous political transformation was under way. Within the army there was now a mechanism for political mobilization and the army as a whole was lining up behind the idea that Parliament was no longer the true representative of the people. During the ensuing stand-off, as the army hovered outside London, it had presented a settlement to the King apparently on its own authority: the Heads of Proposals.

By the time of the occupation of London in August there was no escaping the fact that this was a political body, but these developments were not necessarily comfortable for the officers. The role of the agitators was a potential threat to the normal chain of military command – hence, for example, Fairfax’s discomfiture when Charles pitched up at Newmarket in June. Moreover, as the army began openly to pursue a settlement, acting independently, it offered possibilities to Independent activists, who might make it a vehicle for their view of settlement. In particular, the call for a free parliament intersected with a gathering campaign by Lilburne, Walwyn and Overton: a spectrum of opinion from Charles I to John Lilburne and army agitators could now agree that the body sitting in Westminster was not a true parliament. The precise connections between the New Model agitators and these City radicals is unclear; so too that between Walwyn, Lilburne and Overton. These three did not become ‘the Levellers’ until labelled as such by royalists (and perhaps army officers) in November. Before that date five regiments had appointed ‘new agents’, alongside the agitators, who met daily in London in late September and early October. Their status is also unclear, and their connections with the London radicals are largely suppositious, but their purpose was plain: to galvanize the army into the pursuit of more-ambitious political ends.1

This complicated conjunction between the ‘Lilburnists’ and elements within the army reflected the potential of the army as an independent political actor. But what would the army do with this role? The parliamentary cause had been sustained, in part, by the myth of loyal rebellion: to fight the King was in some circumstances to protect him. Implausible as this may seem to modern eyes, it did at least have the virtue of expressing what was happening in terms which were respectable to contemporaries. There was no such easy resort for the army. Created as a servant of Parliament, in its service of the King, the army was now turning on its master and claiming a say in the settlement. What could possibly justify its posture in repudiating the authority of its master and creator? One seductive strategy, adopted during the summer of 1647, was to adopt the royalist line on Parliament – that it did not represent the people any more – to argue that the army was intervening to restore the people’s liberty. This line of argument potentially led in very radical directions.

The affluent London suburb of Putney is not now associated with the clash of great ideas, but in October 1647 it was the scene of some of the most remarkable exchanges in English history. These large questions about the army’s political role, and hence about the sources of political legitimacy, were addressed at meetings of the General Council of the Army held in Putney church each Thursday from 9 September onwards. These meetings have attracted their fair share of attention and controversy. With the rediscovery of the Levellers in the 1950s came an emphasis on their influence in the army so that the exchanges at Putney came almost to be viewed as meetings of the Leveller party. In fact, the origins of the meetings lie in the army’s campaign for arrears and indemnity in March, and the politicization of that campaign in June and July. The meetings at Putney were not inspired or led by the Levellers, but were instead attempts to reconcile established army demands with the aspirations of more-radical spirits.2

Of course, a meeting of the army General Council in Putney church to discuss England’s constitution is scarcely less startling than a meeting of Levellers. At the time of the first meeting the constitutional questions were framed by the Heads of Proposals, which were, at least formally, still being considered by Charles. On the eve of the march on London in late July, Ireton had ridden from Reading to Woburn, hoping to get the King to accept the Heads of Proposals. As we have seen, these were in some crucial respects the best terms he had been offered so far; but they were also the most radical in implication, since they rested on the power of the army, not the authority of Parliament. This may have been Charles’s best chance – agreement to settle on the basis of the proposals might have allowed the army to march into London to restore both Parliament and the King. But it was not to be. A three-hour discussion ensued, at which the King secured further concessions, but in the end no agreement was reached and he did not issue a formal response until 9 September.3

Charles was quick to adjust to the changed conditions following the army’s occupation of London. Early in August he reopened contacts, praising the Heads and denouncing the Presbyterian demonstrations in London. In the meantime he had been moved to Hampton Court, where he was necessarily less closely watched and quite comfortable. By that point, the King had hopes of a Scottish alliance and there had been very public support in London for his suggestion of a personal treaty. With the army at loggerheads with Parliament, hopes of a Covenanter army and evidence of a desire to settle on something like his terms, his calculation was that he did not need to do this deal. Rather against the advice of Sir John Berkeley, he told Ireton, ‘You cannot be without me, you will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you’.4 As the negotiations dragged on, the Independent-dominated parliament was persuaded to represent the Newcastle Propositions: facing a choice between the two he might come to see the advantages of the Heads of Proposals. The King’s response on 9 September was that the propositions were largely the same as the ones to which he had repeatedly said that he could not, in conscience, agree. The proposals of the army, on the other hand, ‘much more conduce to the satisfaction of all interests, and may be a fitter foundation for a lasting peace, than the Propositions which at this time are tendered to him’. He commended them to Parliament as the basis of a personal treaty, to which commissioners from the army might also be admitted.5

But the moment had passed: when this was reported to the Commons on 21 September it was perceived as a rebuff, and there was some talk of imprisoning the King. In July, Ireton and others in the army had washed their hands of negotiation with the King and now Henry Marten proposed a vote that no further addresses should be made to Charles. It was defeated 84-34, with Cromwell acting as a teller against. Cromwell was trying to act as a mediator between the King and Parliament, without losing the support of the army, but Charles did not help him. Another sign of the mood in Parliament is that on the following day the Lord Mayor and five aldermen were impeached for raising forces in the City to oppose the army.6

Through September the army was also keen to get its message out. On 24 September the Heads were republished, with annotations by the army’s General Council, clearly an appeal to public opinion. By 27 September a Book of Declarations had been prepared, collating (and editing slightly) the remonstrances and declarations of the New Model since March.7 It was a move reminiscent of Husbands in 1643, defining the cause which was now being pursued. Attacks in the press had led, on 20 September, to suggestions for stronger gagging measures, proposals made by Fairfax but representing the general feeling on the army’s General Council. On 28 September, Parliament imposed new press restrictions. The concern, as usual, was as much with civility as what was being said: it was not just ‘seditious’ but ‘false and scandalous’ publications which attracted attention, which served ‘to the great abuse and prejudice of the people, and insufferable reproach of the proceedings of the Parliament and their army’.8 Thomason’s collection for the previous week or so contained a large number of verse satires, and some virulent prose pamphlets.

Just as Parliament’s Book of Declarations was an attempt to clarify and fix the cause of a divided body, subject to external influence, so too was the army’s Book. Given this wider context, of tense negotiation and public appeal, it is no surprise that as soon as the General Council began regular meetings at the beginning of September its proceedings were canvassed to a wider public. The woodcut on the front, however, showing Fairfax in council with his officers, is reminiscent of contemporary representations of Parliament, similarly artificially insulated from the outside world.9


Sir Thomas Fairfax presiding over the General Council of the army

At the first meeting of the General Council, on 9 September, Major White, an agitator from Fairfax’s own regiment of foot, argued that there was now no power in the land but the sword – the way stood open for a new and just settlement based on first principles rather than custom, tradition and established interests. This was pretty clearly meant as a repudiation of the Heads of Proposals as a basis for settlement, and in particular of a discussion of the rights of the King and his heirs. The debate immediately became a public one: White was expelled from the General Council and a declaration was published announcing this, and the unequivocal support of the army for the fundamental laws and government of the kingdom. White responded by publishing an open letter to Fairfax, prompting speculation in the royalist press that the agitators were contesting Fairfax’s right of veto. But Fairfax won – the next meeting considered more directly the Heads of Proposals and, through to the middle of October, discussion followed this less radical line. The redress of grievances was to be pursued alongside settlement framed on the assumption of monarchical rule – the question before the General Council was not whether Charles should be reinstated but on what terms. White, in December, made his submission to the General Council and was readmitted.10

What precipitated the famous debates of late October, however, was not so much the failure of the Heads of Proposals as the production of The Case of the Armie Truly Stated signed by the new agents. It seems to have been a composite and the product of more than one hand, but most experts agree that John Wildman and Edward Sexby were involved in the drafting.11 Wildman was a civilian, a London radical, unlike Sexby, who was an army agitator. Disagreement about the extent of their influence therefore follows a contemporary question about the extent to which the army was acting independently, and pursuing its own grievances, and how far it was being successfully infiltrated and manipulated by City radicals. What is clear, and perhaps most significant about this, is that the General Council, no less than any other public institution during the 1640s, was the focus for mobilization – its proceedings were not hermetically sealed, and its agenda was not entirely its own. Networks of personal and religious connection, reinforced by the resort to print to appeal to wider publics, exerted a pressure on the army’s definition of its cause and purposes. The call for new agents, for example, had been made by Lilburne from the Tower, at a time of tense relations with Cromwell, and it is not even clear how many of them were actually present at the debates at Putney.12 But the agenda was not set by the officers, whatever the woodcut at the front of the army’s official publication seemed to suggest.

The Case of the Armie was drawn up at Guildford on 9 October and presented to Fairfax nine days later. It is a sprawling document but the main thrust is plain: it opened with a complaint at the failure to do anything ‘effectually, either for the Army or the poor oppressed people of this nation’. The fault, it argued, lay not only in Parliament but in the attitude of the officers, who had put obstacles in the way of the agitators. Throughout, it made careful reference to public declarations and engagements, holding the officers to account for failing to live up to the stated aspirations of the army. It also called for the dissolution of Parliament within nine or ten months to allow for settlement and then free elections. Here the argument reached fundamentals: ‘all power is originally and essentially in the whole body of the people of this Nation, and… their free choice or consent by their representatives is the only original or foundation of all just government’. The Commons is the supreme authority, and the will of the people is the guarantee of freedom and the only proper restraint on tyranny. At the moment the army was the safeguard of these rights: ‘In case the union of the Army should be broken (which the enemy wait for) ruin and destruction will break in upon us like a roaring sea’. It was an exhortation to the army to take up this task: ‘we expect that the same impulsion of judgement and conscience that we have all professed, did command us forth at first for the people’s freedom, will be again so effectual, that all will unanimously concur with us, so that a demand of the people’s and Army’s rights shall be made by the whole Army as one man’. Appended was a letter to Fairfax from Hemel Hempstead, written on 15 October, justifying both their argument and their action on the basis of the interest of the people: ‘the safety of the people is above all forms, customs, & c., and the equity of popular safety is the thing which justifies all forms, or the change of forms for the accomplishment thereof; and no forms are lawful longer than they preserve or accomplish the same’. With the failure of the relatively moderate course represented by the negotiations over the Heads of Proposals, more radical counsels were doubly empowered: the alternative had failed, and they had predicted this some time ago. Throughout, however, these fundamental claims are mixed in with more immediate concerns – about financial burdens, the costs and corruptions of financial administration, indemnity for the soldiers and so on.13

Poorly structured it may have been, but the political challenge presented by this tract was immediately apparent. Following its presentation to Fairfax on 18 October and a debate on 21 October, a committee of the General Council was established to consider a response. Working while it was sold from London bookstalls, the committee produced a list of objections. This was sent to the signatories of The Case of the Armie, along with a polite invitation to debate the issues at the next meeting of the council on 28 October. The signatories arrived instead with a new document, agreed the previous day, called The Agreement of the People. Like The Case of the Armie this was published over the names of the agents of the five regiments. The respective titles suggest, as does close analysis of the texts, that the Agreement was not simply a cleaned-up version of The Case of the Armie, but a new and more radical programme, addressing more clearly the settlement of the kingdom, not the cause of the army. On one reading, therefore, the ensuing debate revolved around the The Case of the Armie as the basis for consensus within the army in the face of this pressure to adopt a broader and more radical cause.14

Certainly, the radicalism of the Agreement was bracing.

Having by our late labours and hazards made it appear to the world at how high rate we value our just freedom, and God having so far owned our cause as to deliver the enemies thereof into our hands, we do now hold ourselves bound in mutual duty to each other to take the best care we can… to avoid both the danger of returning into a slavish condition and the chargeable remedy of another war.

Four demands followed – for parliamentary representation on an equal basis; dissolution of the current parliament on 30 September 1648; biennial parliaments thereafter; and that the power of the representatives of the people should be considered ‘inferior only to those who choose them’. This last clause implied limitations on the legislation – for example, religious regulation could not interfere with conscience (although the parliament might establish a public form of religious instruction) and the people could not be liable to impressment by their representatives.15 It presumed a clean slate in which the claims of law and tradition had been dissolved and a settlement could be established on the basis of principles of freedom and justice, and made little reference (beyond the abolition of impressments) to the immediate grievances of the army. Pamphleteers had been edging towards arguments about popular sovereignty since 1642. Now, however, they were proposed not to the court of public opinion but as suggestions for adoption by the most powerful actor in English politics. The Agreement was in print by 3 November at the latest, although it may not have taken its final form until 27 October.16

Debate about the Agreement opened on 28 October with some sharp exchanges. Cromwell and other officers were accused of having lost honour by dealing with the King and a degenerate Parliament. A settlement should instead be grounded in rational principles, reflecting the good of the people and the judgement of God. Revolution, in other words, was in the air. The response of the army leadership was not confrontational, however. Cromwell had indeed been seeking ways to negotiate a settlement, and had acted as a teller against a Vote of No Addresses, for example. On 20 October he delivered a three-hour speech in defence of the monarchy, disavowing any connection between him, Fairfax or any of the chief officers and the Agreement, and claiming that his intention throughout the war had been to strengthen, not weaken, it.17 Of course, the fact that he had to say it was in itself a source of unease.

Despite the porousness of the army organization, and the fact that its cause was pursued in print, the ensuing debates were barely noted in the newsbooks. However, evidence that they were recognized to be of momentous significance lies in the careful record made of them by William Clarke.18 Despite the radicalism of the ideas being touted, though, the exchanges reflect some more familiar habits of thought. In particular it seems clear that the meetings were run with the intent of securing consensus – debate was intended to persuade, not to conquer. At Putney, it seems, the army tried to live by the standards that it wished on public debate.

On 28 October debate centred around the status of the Agreement – Cromwell argued that it might have reason in it, but had not been subscribed by all the people, and so might not be more reasonable than a document produced by another group of people.19 He also raised the objection that it might not be consistent with previous declarations and engagements of the army. Many historians have been tempted to see that as merely expedient, but Cromwell had been accused of betraying the army by dealing with the King and the degenerate Parliament. Honour was important to army figures and they had just published a compendium of their public statements; and The Case of the Armie had made great play of the fact that the officers had failed to live up to them. Moreover, Charles was (and is) consistently criticized for not following his declared intentions – trust and credibility depended on matching deeds with words, a principle Bruno Ryves had been anxious to establish in his anti-parliamentarian writings. Sympathy with the cause of the Agreement should not blind us to the sincerity of those who opposed it. And the arguments of those who wanted simply to break former agreements in order to establish a new order did have a problem to answer. As Ireton was quick to point out: this argument suggests that ‘if he that makes an engagement (be it what it will be) have further light that this engagement was not good or honest, then he is free from it’.

Such a view eroded all authority: ‘men of this principle would think themselves as little as may be obliged by any law if in their apprehensions it be not a good law’.20 This question, of whether the Agreement should be discussed at all, particularly in the light of the army’s previous statements about itself, took up the first day of debate. The outcome was a committee established to sift all the army declarations published since June.

The following morning was given over to prayer as the participants in the debate sought guidance. This was no doubt sincere, but it also allowed those who spoke later to clear themselves of charges of insincerity – Cromwell and others felt with some justice that they were the victims of hostile briefing and leaks. In his third intervention he said:

I hope that there is not such an evil amongst us as that we could or would exercise our wits, or our cunning, to veil over any doubleness of heart that may possibly be in us. I hope, having been in such a presence as we have been in this day, we do not admit such a thought as this into our hearts.21

Common prayer had both the spiritual and practical effect of establishing trust among men of differing judgements.

Radicals arrived at the prayer meeting in the afternoon and, seeing that a large number of the participants were present, demanded an immediate debate. Cromwell, who was chairing the council, was reluctant to concede this, but lost. Discussion turned at once to the issue of representation – Ireton asked whether an equal distribution of representation implied an equal voice for all inhabitants. It was in the ensuing discussion that the famous exchange between principles of democracy and property took place. There followed some confused moments, in which a number of people spoke over one another, but Maximilian Petty made himself heard: ‘We judge that all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in elections’. It is Thomas Rainborough’s interjection which has resonated more loudly, however: ‘really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, 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’. Ireton’s response is equally famous: ‘I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here - no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom’. In other words, those in whose hands lay the land and trade of the nation were those who had an interest in the government.22

These few minutes of discussion have been central to much controversy about the political theory of the civil war and revolution. It seems that the subsequent debate concluded that only foreigners and those too dependent to make a free choice – beggars and servants – should be excluded from the vote. The significance of these exchanges is not diminished by an appreciation of the context they were uttered in – here was a confrontation over fundamentals of political society, a debate cut loose from the moorings of the controversies of 1642. Who were the people and how were they to be represented? Did this discussion affect women? Issues lurking at the edges, or below the surface, of the paper war in 1642 were here being discussed in the governing council of one of the most important power brokers of the post-war settlement.23

Concentration on this issue took attention away from potentially shared ground, and may have reflected the fact that the debate was sprung on Cromwell and Ireton – had they had more leisure they might have started discussion at another point. Meanwhile, in a manner now familiar, partisans launched into print as Leveller sympathizers published denunciations of the leadership. A Call to All the Soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England, almost certainly the work of Wildman, was circulating among the regiments on 29 October. It called on the army to act to establish a free parliament and to throw out the usurpers.24 This may well have captured the mood of the army more completely than the more moderate line of the officers.

On 30 October a committee met to discuss the June proposals and the Agreement. What emerged owed much to the Heads of Proposals. After a day of prayer the council met again on 1 November, in the last meeting recorded by Clarke. Cromwell, again in the chair, asked those present what answers God had vouchsafed to them in their prayers. Some of the answers were disturbing, or exhilarating. Goffe, for example, claimed that the voice of heaven had spoken against ‘tampering’ with God’s enemies. Captain Bishop, ‘after many enquiries in’ his ‘spirit’, concluded that the root of their sufferings was ‘a compliance to preserve that man of blood, and those principles of tyranny which God from heaven, by His many successes, hath manifestly declared against’. This was dangerous language – that the blood on the King’s hands made him as culpable as any other man. It implied that justice should be sought against a man of blood if further judgements from God were to be avoided. This Old Testament view had been expressed in the aftermath of Edgehill amidst fears of a peace no better than capitulation, but gathered force through the war. One preacher was later remembered to have argued during 1645 that ‘the King was a man of blood, and that it was a vain thing to hope for the blessing of God upon any peace to be made with him, till satisfaction should be made for the blood that had been shed’.25

In the face of these inflammatory arguments Cromwell and others questioned whether divine purposes for the detail of political life could be accurately interpreted in this way. Cromwell himself, however, was conciliatory, acknowledging that God might want these things but professing uncertainty that the army was His instrument in this matter. He was more comfortable with the argument that they owed their life to Parliament so either it was a parliament and they should obey it or it was not a parliament, in which case the army had no legitimate existence either. A long and unhelpful wrangle developed which did not clarify what proposals to back, but it was agreed to continue to meet each day until all proposals had been considered.

In the face of these divisions Cromwell and Fairfax seem to have been concerned above all to preserve army unity. In this they were ultimately successful. There were five more meetings of the General Council before 8 November, in which there was an increasingly obvious hostility to Charles and to monarchy. There were signs of similar impatience, at least with the man Charles Stuart, in Parliament and on 6 November it was declared that he should assent to measures propounded by Parliament: in other words he should accept the settlement offered, not seek to negotiate.26 But there were also signs of hostility to the officers, including a threat of impeachment against Cromwell, which Rainborough and Marten claimed would be supported by 20,000 citizens. There were increasing concerns too that Charles was close to an agreement with Scottish commissioners and that he intended to bolt from Hampton Court (which he did indeed do, on 11 November). Control of the General Council debates was increasingly tenuous, although on 8 November a letter was sent to the Speaker that the army had no intention of vetoing further approaches to Charles.

Control was ultimately asserted by the officers in a more straightforward way. Early in the debates Rainborough had called for a general rendezvous at which the position of the army could be cleared before all the soldiers. In the event the army was assembled in three separate rendezvous where Fairfax asserted his own authority, and successfully promoted a new declaration. At Ware on 15 November, the first of the rendezvous, the opposition seemed less impressive than the desire for unity. Some regiments attended without orders to do so, and some were wearing the Agreement in their hats: radicals hoped to get the Agreement adopted by acclamation in place of a new Remonstrance being promoted by Fairfax. At one point armed confrontation threatened, and in the end nine ringleaders were court-martialled. Three were sentenced to death and drew lots for their lives. This assertion of army discipline seems to have worked – there were no difficulties at the subsequent rendezvous at Ruislip Heath and Kingston.27

Not only was army discipline restored, but a new platform was adopted and the attempt by outside forces to manipulate army counsels was denounced. The Remonstrance denounced the role of the new agents, ‘who… have… taken upon them to act as a divided Party from the… Council and Army’. Their claims about the betrayals of the officers were scandalous, and so were their methods. The problems in the army arose from ‘divers private persons that are not of the Army, [who] have endeavoured, by various falsehoods and scandals, raised and divulged in print, and otherwise, against the General, the General Officers and Council, to possess the Army and the Kingdom with jealousies of them’. Wildman, the civilian who had spoken more than most at Putney, and who had briefed against the officers in the press, was obviously one such. The demands returned to more moderate realms: redress of the army’s professional grievances over pay, impressment, freedom for apprentices who had served in the war, and indemnity. Appended to these was a call for a date to be named for an end to the present parliament, for free and equal elections to the next one, to render the ‘House of Commons (as near as may be) an equal representative of the people that are to elect’.28 There was no formal equality, and no statement about the franchise; but this did nonetheless give ground to the radicals while at the same time asserting the organic unity of the army against their malign influences. The vision of the army’s Book of Declarations had been reaffirmed.

Scottish commissioners – the earls of Lanark, Loudoun and Lauderdale – had been holding out the possibility of military support for the King since June. It was not clear that they would actually be able to deliver it, but, by late October, Charles was certainly interested. On 22 October the Scottish commissioners had been with the King at Hampton Court and encouraged him to escape with them. In fact, fifty armed men arrived to escort him, but Charles refused, saying that he had given his word not to. Unfortunately, news of the plan leaked out even as he refused to go along with it – the worst of both worlds. As a result, on 31 October, the guard on him was strengthened and the following day his attendants were removed. In the first week of November, Ashburnham and the Scottish commissioners were clearly encouraging him to consider flight. By 9 November he was being convinced that his life was in danger and it may indeed have been: Cromwell ordered extra guards because an assassination would look bad.29

Charles therefore had two main options: a deal with the army on toleration; or a deal with the Covenanters on Presbyterianism. These were clearly incompatible. Growing certainty in the army and at Parliament that he was not negotiating with any serious intent was used by his friends to urge him to settle quickly, but also to take flight for Scotland. He could not do both: flight would confirm the suspicions that he did not intend a settlement; settlement on the army’s terms would cost him Scottish support. Although the Heads of Proposals were the best offer yet, the army was not a body with which he was likely to want to deal. If, however, he chose to escape, it was not exactly clear where he would go unless, that is, he was sincere in his commitment to Scotland. The Covenanters now saw that Parliament and the City did not offer much security for their cherished Britannic Presbyterianism, and there was a danger that their king might be assassinated or deposed by an English army. But they continued to demand that Charles take the Solemn League and Covenant.30 That Charles was in negotiation with the Covenanters and that they were willing to help him escape was well-known. It was also feared that this might lead to a renewal of hostilities. Once he had escaped there was apparently talk in the army of bringing Charles to trial in order to prove that he, not the army, was responsible for a renewal of fighting.31

On 11 November, Charles chose to escape, and rode off with Berkeley and Ashburnham into the night, heading south rather than north, apparently because he did not trust the Covenanters. He ended up on the Isle of Wight, having searched in vain for a ship to take him to France. This was something of an embarrassment to the island’s new governor, Colonel Robert Hammond, who took his commission from Parliament seriously, and was less than delighted to have this new guest. The King seems to have become keen on going straight to France, but the expected boat never arrived and he was escorted to Carisbrooke Castle on 14 November.32

Having escaped, and seen the restoration of army discipline, Charles seems to have decided to deal with the army. But having flirted with the Covenanters, and escaped from Hampton Court, he had a real credibility problem. On 16 November he sent a letter to the House of Lords, following up a message that he had left for them at Hampton Court on the day of his escape, which seemed to offer a compromise between his own position and the Heads of Proposals. He declared his conscientious objection to the abolition of bishops and the alienation of church lands, but also his willingness to see the Presbyterian church currently established persist for three years, in order to avoid further disorder. But that church was to have no power to coerce men of his mind, or any others. Here was potentially shared ground on the issue of toleration – some royalists had been making a case against coercion in matters of conscience, notably Jeremy Taylor.33 Papists, and public professions of atheism or blasphemy, were excluded from this toleration. This was a strange alliance, however: toleration being urged as a way of safeguarding episcopacy. Charles again proposed a conference in the Westminster Assembly, with divines of his choosing added to the body. He also offered to give up the militia during his lifetime, to put down disturbances of the peace and resist invasion. Thereafter, control would revert to the crown. He also gave commitments about arrears of pay, disposing of the great offices of state during his lifetime, an Act of Oblivion to prevent reopening of these conflicts, and offers on Ireland and the status of measures taken by rival authorities during the war. Settling all these things, he declared, would be a prelude to reforming parliaments in the way suggested by the Heads of Proposals.34

All this was, of course, unacceptable to the Covenanters, to whom Charles cheerfully explained that it was only a lure to start negotiations – he had no intention of entering into a final agreement along these lines. To those trying to deal with the King this approach was maddening, and it is hard to believe that it did not occur to the Scots that he was toying with their affections too. But there was for Charles a stable core of principle here – in order to preserve essentials it might be necessary to concede ground tactically, and while he would not break an explicit promise (such as not to escape), offering something as an inducement to negotiate with no intention of actually conceding it was not dishonest, merely politic.35

The offer he had made was in itself skilfully judged, offering to forge a royalist-Independent coalition against strict Presbyterianism, and to answer the demands of the army in relation to Parliament. On the other hand, it also established Presbyterianism, and so made a large concession to that lobby too. But it was too late in the day to seem sincere or serious and it was answered with an ultimatum. After letting it lie for nine days the Houses came up with four counter-propositions, which were converted into bills for the royal assent on 14 December. They would grant Parliament control of the militia for twenty years and concede the need for parliamentary consent before the militia could be exercised; revoke declarations against the Houses; revoke peerages created since 1642 (which affected the composition of the Lords, of course); and give the existing Houses the right to adjourn to any location where they felt safe. Other pieces of legislation were offered as propositions and a number of qualifications were added. The deal was that once they had received royal assent then Charles could be admitted to a personal treaty.36 In one sense this was a return to more normal politics – the use of Acts rather than ordinances would at least signal a return to legislative normality. But they were really a test of honesty rather than a gesture of loyalty, and they turned negotiating points into preconditions. Even so, it seems that some people in the army and in Parliament had given up on him completely.37

It was not until 24 December that a delegation arrived at Carisbrooke to present the Four Bills to Charles formally. The Scottish commissioners followed after the delegation, ostensibly to express their opposition to the bills, but really to present an alternative: the Engagement. The Four Bills gave no guarantees about the Solemn League and Covenant: either on religion or on the closer political union of the two kingdoms, and the prospects for this seemed to be diminishing. Henry Marten had published a pamphlet expressing English hostility to these ‘extra-national’ demands of the Covenanters, and the mood seems to have been a more general one. Fearing this development, the Covenanters became a soft touch for Charles. In the gap between the arrival of the Four Bills and the Scottish commissioners Charles successfully gave the impression that he was interested in a deal with Parliament, and this probably helped him to secure more concessions from the Scottish commissioners when they did arrive.38

On 26 December, probably in consummation of his plans for the last eighteen months or more, Charles signed an agreement that allowed him to resume the fighting: the Engagement.39 Under its terms he offered to confirm the Solemn League and Covenant by Act of Parliament, provided that no-one (including him) was forced to take it. He would establish Presbyterian church government and the Directory of Worship for three years (although exempting himself and his household), to be followed by a free debate at the Westminster Assembly. There would also be legislation against schism and heresy. In return for this, the Scots would provide an army:

for preservation and establishment of religion, for defence of His Majesty’s person and authority, and restoring him to his government, to the just rights of the Crown and his full revenues, for defence of the privileges of Parliament and liberties of the subject, for making a firm union between the kingdoms, under His Majesty and his posterity, and settling a lasting peace.40

Duly signed, it was wrapped in lead and buried in the garden of the castle until the opportunity arose to take it off the island.41

Two days later Charles rejected the Four Bills. Proposals which had already been denounced by the Scottish commissioners could clearly not be the basis for peace, he argued, and the form of the approach foreclosed negotiation – not least because he would have to assent to actions taken under a Great Seal created without his authority. He had asked for a personal treaty and they ‘in manner propose the very subject matter of the most essential parts thereof to be first granted, a thing which will be hardly credible to posterity’.42 This was not an unreasonable position, at least if it had been taken up by someone who had not just entered an agreement to start another war.

Although the Engagement was not public knowledge until February 1648, when it was discussed in the Edinburgh parliament, Charles’s preference for Scottish military intervention as an alternative to settlement with Parliament was widely suspected. The Four Bills had been an ultimatum which had in the end met a brisk and wounding rejection. The result was the Vote of No Addresses. The Houses declared they would make no more approaches, and declared that no-one should make an application without their approval on pain of prosecution for treason. They would also receive no further approaches from the King, and no-one else was to either. A similar measure had been floated three months previously, and the Four Bills had been a means to forestall a similar measure as rumours about Charles and the Scots spread.43

It is not clear how this particular deadlock could be broken, although it does seem to have been a measure attractive to those thinking about solutions which did not include Charles – abdication in favour of a more suitable monarch, for example. Cromwell appears to have experienced a conversion to this view, arguing in favour of the measure, referring to the King as a dissembler and quoting scripture: ‘thou shalt not suffer a hypocrite to reign’. But for that very reason it was not immediately acceptable even to an Independent-dominated House of Lords (the impeached Presbyterian Lords still being absent): it was reasonable to fear that those casual of the authority of monarchy in these terms were unlikely to be more friendly towards the authority of the Lords. The General Council of the Army approved a statement ending with the promise to stand by Parliament ‘in what shall be further necessary for prosecution [of the Four Bills], and for settling and securing of the parliament and kingdom, without the King and against him, or any other that shall partake with him’.44

The Lords did not pass the Vote of No Addresses until 17 January, under pressure from the army, which was brought into London following disorders. In the meantime measures of defence had been taken and the powers previously vested in the Committee of Both Kingdoms were now to be exercised by an all-English Committee of Safety (soon to become known as the Derby House Committee). The Scottish commissioners left London on 24 January having completed arrangements for risings to coincide with an invasion. Their general intentions were no secret, even if the details were as yet not public. Parliament reduced the King’s household at Carisbrooke and set about preparing a declaration in defence of the Vote of No Addresses.45

Both the Engagement and the Declaration explaining the Vote of No Addresses justified their positions on the basis of histories. The Engagement passed over the moment at which the Covenanters had sold their monarch, and instead took up the story with the King’s involuntary departure from Holmby in the hands of the army. Forced to flee to the Isle of Wight, he had been pressed by the Scottish commissioners to go to London to enter into a personal treaty but this too had been thwarted by the army. They had driven members out of the House and occupied London. Moreover, using their influence they had made propositions to the King without consulting the Scots, in contravention of the Solemn League and Covenant. Not only was this in breach of the treaty, but it was dangerous to religion. It was this – the malign influence of the army – which justified the military intervention now being planned.46

The Declaration, drawn up between 5 and 11 February, was published for the service of Parliament and members of the Commons were ordered to disseminate the pamphlet. It ran to thirty-seven pages: a long denunciation of Charles’s negotiating tactics was followed by a history of Charles’s untrustworthiness. Despite opposition in the Commons, it raked up an old canard that Charles had colluded with his friend Buckingham in his father’s murder and went on from there: it was a case that had been made not only in the Grand Remonstrance but also following the capture of the King’s letters at Naseby. But the now-familiar view of Charles was here used to clinch a more or less final view of him: there could be no more addresses since the King could not be trusted, and so no agreement with him was possible. It was passed 80–50.47

Most modern historians have been more persuaded by the Declaration than the Engagement. In early 1647 Charles had been the natural rallying point of those opposed to war; by the end of the year it was dangerously easy to present him as a warmonger, bringing further bloodshed on his suffering people. A (more or less) uninvited Scottish occupation in 1640 had been followed by one in 1643 at the instigation of Parliament. Now it was the King’s turn.

Two powerful images of Charles compete for attention during 1647. He had spent the year under more or less undignified restraint. ‘Sold’ by the Covenanters at Newcastle he was moved to Holmby, where he had been able to hunt and to entertain, and to attract crowds of subjects anxious to be healed. Removed from Holmby by a tailor with a dubious commission he was kept under guard in his house at Hampton Court. Escaping from there he took off for the Isle of Wight and Carisbrooke Castle, where he was placed under increasingly close guard. In late December an escape by sea from Carisbrooke was thwarted by the direction of the wind, leading to a doubling of his guard. But perhaps most emblematic of these indignities was his attempted escape from Carisbrooke in March the following year. He had planned to climb through his window and jump onto a lawn, where he would meet Sir Henry Firebrace. Firebrace would then hand over a rope which would allow him to drop down from the castle walls, to meet Richard Osborne and Henry Worsley, who would take him to a fishing boat anchored discreetly nearby. Advised to remove the bars from his window, Charles did not, and as a consequence nearly became stuck fast when he tried to climb out. The attempt was abandoned.48 There was an attempt on the part of royalists to turn this to advantage, by portraying the King as a martyr, suffering at the hands of his errant subjects. The image projected by the monarch during the 1630s was the austere and distant patriarch of the Van Dyke portraits. He was now becoming the sacred monarch whose persecution was testament to his faith: in June a parody of George Herbert’s poem ‘Sacrifice’ likened Charles’s sufferings to those of Christ in a style which was to become quite commonplace in royal propaganda.49 His public declarations made a similar case: a well-intentioned monarch, anxious to do good to all parties, was consistently thwarted by errant subjects.


Charles I in captivity at Carisbrooke Castle

Although Charles was in the end to suffer, and even embrace, martyrdom, he apparently still harboured hopes of a political triumph. And this is the second powerful image from 1647: these stories of indignity and suffering contrast sharply with Charles’s interest in theatrical displays of regality. In the early months of 1647 Charles had been enthusiastic in touching for the King’s Evil; and many of his people had responded equally enthusiastically. Over the following winter he turned his attention towards the construction of a spectacular royal palace at Whitehall. The plans he eventually approved incorporated the Banqueting House in the river frontage of a huge palace set back from the river and constructed on lines that at least echoed the best royal architecture in Europe. The Banqueting House now fronts onto Whitehall, but this would have become the internal face of a large courtyard in a palace with a long river frontage, 800 or 900 feet (around 250 metres), which stretched 1,100 feet (more than 330 metres) back across St James’s Park. It would have been twice the size of the Escorial, seat of the Spanish monarchy, the most powerful in Europe. It is possible, but not likely, that these drawings represented a rebirth for Inigo Jones. The mastermind of the austere royal masques of the 1630s had been at Basing House, symbol of both loyalty and popery, and had shared fully in the humiliations that followed its capture. In fact, it was almost certainly Jones’s pupil, John Webb, who made the design.50

At first glance these plans seem delusional, but the political prospects for the monarch might have appeared good. The dissolution of the parliamentary alliance was more or less complete, and the Covenanters now identified the King as the best hope for Presbyterianism, as did many English Presbyterians (although few were willing to fight for him in the following year). As the winter and spring were to demonstrate, tradition had as great a claim on the English people as did their self-proclaimed champions, the Levellers and the army. Armed intervention, the evident attachment of many English people to the idea of monarchy and the disarray of his former English opponents must all have encouraged Charles in the hope that he would soon be restored to his regality. The army, the people and the Scots all seemed less attractive sources of political authority than the crown. Of course, he could not have afforded a palace on this scale, and the importance of the plan was presumably psychological – an imagined future to warm the heart at this moment of indignity. Webb, and this style, were to prosper after the Restoration, but not before and not on this scale. While not perhaps a plan for the real world, then, this was not a mark of incipient madness. In the winter of 1647/8 it still seemed overwhelmingly more likely that a king restored to his regality would construct a sumptuous palace around the Banqueting House than that he would be publicly executed in front of it.


Plans for a new Whitehall Palace approved by Charles during his captivity at Carisbrooke Castle; they incorporate the Banqueting House into the middle of the right-hand side of the frontage as seen in this elevation

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