The Putney Debates of 1647

At St Mary’s Church, Putney (from whose website the following information is taken), by Putney Bridge, a permanent exhibition stands on the site where the Putney Debates were held in 1647. It serves as a monument to celebrate one of the most important events in English constitutional history.

From the 28th October to 9th November 1647, soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, including civilian representation, held discussions on the constitution and future of England. 

Should they continue to negotiate a settlement with the defeated King Charles I?  Should there even be a King or Lords?  Should suffrage (a civil right to vote, known as the franchise) be limited to property-holders?  Would democratic changes lead to anarchy? 

This historic event saw ordinary soldiers take on their generals to argue for greater democracy and provided a platform for ‘common people’ to make their voices heard. These debates, forced by the Levellers, paved the way for many of the civil liberties we value today. 

Last year, the Oxford Foundation for Law, Justice and Society revisited (for the third time) the historic Putney Debates, to ask: What role do we want for our judges in the 21st Century? The 2019 Putney Debates were chaired by the renowned legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg and the founder of the New Putney Debates, Professor Denis Galligan.

Martin Kettle wrote in The Guardian on 31st October, 2007:

“The Putney Debates were extraordinary. Thanks to William Clarke’s notes, they constitute one of the great inheritances of English freedom and democracy. The recognition now being given to the debates in St Mary’s church in Putney itself is wonderful and overdue. But we need to be very careful not to romanticise what happened at Putney. The debates took place in 1647 not 2007. The participants were not modern democrats – whatever that means precisely. They were men of the 17th century who had overthrown and defeated the King in a long and violent struggle. They lived in a revolutionary situation whose outcome, when the debates took place, was utterly uncertain. Less than two weeks after the first meeting at Putney, Charles I escaped from captivity, completely transforming the already volatile political atmosphere of autumn 1647 yet again. We should think of those who gathered at Putney as our ancestors. But they were not Guardian readers.”.

After the Putney Debates, on 18th November 1647, Cromwell’s Army camped on Ham Common.

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