Thomas Rainsborough And The Putney Debates

Thomas Rainsborough (1610 – 1648) is one of England’s greatest unsung heroes.

He was the highest ranking Leveller in the New Model Army and, as such, was a very influential figure who was later also a Fifth Monarchist. The Levellers sought complete social and economic equality; a universal levelling of privilege and wealth.

Putney Debates 

Rainsborough attended the Putney Debates of 1647, which were a series of discussions among the increasingly dominant New Model Army. A number of the participants were Levellers – concerned about the makeup of a new constitution for Britain. The debates focused on how the the army could persuade Parliament to adopt the Agreement of the People manifesto.  

At the debates, Rainsborough argued for the soldiers’ freeborn rights in both property and law:

If it be a property, it is a property by a law; neither do I think that there is very little property in this thing by the law of the land, because I think that the law of the land in that thing is the most tyrannous law under heaven, and I would fain know what we have fought for, and this is the old law of England, and that which enslaves the people of England, that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all. The thing that I am unsatisfied in is how it comes about that there is such a property in some freeborn Englishmen, and not in others.

Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If it be laid down for a rule, and if you will say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold-men. When these Gentlemen fall out among themselves they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill each other for them.

Thomas Rainsborough

Among other things the Levellers called for an end to Parliamentary and Judicial corruption; toleration of religious differences; the translation of law into the common tongue; and an elected judiciary. The Levellers were fighting to empower the people – and neither the Crown nor Cromwell could cope with that.

In 1648, Cromwell had Rainsborough sent to put an end to the siege of Pontefract Castle, but Rainsborough would never get as far as Pontefract. Whilst Rainsborough was staying at an inn in Doncaster market place four Royalists burst into his quarters and attempted to kidnap him; but in the heat of the moment Rainsborough was murdered by the would-be kidnappers.

Many Levellers believed that Cromwell himself was behind the kidnap attempt and so blamed him for Rainsborough’s death.

Rainsborough’s funeral was attended by thousands of people wearing sea-green ribbons and bunches of rosemary in their hats for remembrance. Recently there have been calls to commemorate Rainsborough at an annual ‘Rainsborough Day’ in Doncaster market place and to erect a plaque at the place where he was killed.

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