Latest Posts

Putney debates linocut by Clare Melinsky

Grandees and Levellers

It is a curious fact that the most important debate in English political history took place not in the House of Commons but in the fifteenth-century parish church of St Mary in Putney. There, on 28 October 1647, and for the next two weeks, a group of about forty men met in informal conclave, and proceeded to invent modern politics.

(A History of the English People – Paul Johnson)

The meeting of the General Council of the New Model Army that began on 28 October 1647 took place the year after the Royalist armies had been routed in the field and four months after Charles I had been arrested and imprisoned. This army, established by Parliament, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, was the new power in the land, a political as well as a military force.

The Army’s senior staff, known as the Grandees, were still hoping and groping for a settlement with Charles I that would protect the privileges of Parliament and the liberties of the landowners. In the summer of 1647, the Grandees had produced a document known as the Heads of Proposals, which set out their negotiating position. The document proposed that the king would be restored, though with circumscribed powers, parliamentary constituencies would be reorganized, the power of the bishops would be reduced, and that Parliament would control the appointment of state officials. The franchise would remain as it was, limited to property owners, that’s to say, landowners.

But Parliament, by creating a new kind of military force — politically motivated, politically aware — had not reckoned that the rank-and-file might have their own ideas about the new England that was to be created. A group of army radicals, later dubbed Levellers, produced their own document, The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, which called for the abolition of the Monarchy and the House of Lords, with sovereignty invested wholly in the House of Commons. The document also proposed that the franchise be extended to men who did not hold property and for certain natural rights, such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law, to be enshrined in the new constitution. These proposals were too extreme for the Grandees, for the existing House of Commons, and even for many in the army. But together, the Heads of Proposals and The Case of the Armie Truly Stated set the framework for the meeting at Putney.

St Marys church Putney

Putney at that time was a small village by the Thames, a few miles outside London, and the place where the New Model Army was headquartered. Though the General Council meeting began at St Mary’s, it soon moved to the lodgings of Thomas Grosvenor, the Army’s Quartermaster General of Foot. That house, wherever it stood, has long since vanished and so St Mary’s is now remembered, somewhat inaccurately, as the venue of the Putney debates.

I say, ‘now remembered’, but the Putney debates remain little-known, given their significance. Even at the time, few knew of them outside of the participants and their allies within the army. Newspaper reports of the time were brief and heavily censored. This very English battle of ideas was soon forgotten, drowned out by the great dramas of the Civil War centred on the actual battle field, the court room, and the scaffold. Forgotten until 1890, when a transcript of the council meeting, made by William Clarke, secretary to the General Council, was found in a cupboard at Worcester College, Oxford. How it got there, no-one knows, but it was a record of the debates, albeit a very incomplete one, and modern historians began to realize the significance of that fortnight.

The leading representatives of the Grandees at Putney were Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell and Commissary-General Henry Ireton. Prominent figures on the radical side included Colonel Thomas Rainborowe and Colonel Edward Sexby. It was Rainborowe who made what is now best-known speech from the debates, arguing for universal male suffrage:

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has 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; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.

But Rainborowe was in a minority, even on his own side. The consensus among the radicals was to extend the franchise to every free adult man in the country but thereby exclude apprentices, servants, and alms-takes. This was still too much for the Grandees. A matter of great concern to all the participants was the question of what God’s wishes on the matter might be. Though each day began with a prayer meeting, participants remained divided on the matter. Some believed that the success of the New Model Army made it clear that God was against Charles I in particular and the monarchy in general. Others still regarded the king as divinely appointed, though in severe error, and thought that a compromise could be reached with him to safeguard English liberties. Cromwell, notably, was undecided as to the Divine will in relation to the king. Ireton was adamant that an extension of the franchise to those outside the class of property owners would result in anarchy. The property-less, in his view, had no genuine stake in the nation, could up sticks whenever they pleased — ‘heere to day and gone to morrow’ — and might even vote for laws that could lead to the confiscation of property.

Putney debates plaque

When the General Council meeting broke up on 8 November, no conclusions had been reached. It was Ireton who decided it was time end the debates and send the soldiers back to their regiments, concerned at the divisions within the General Council and their implications for Army discipline. Three days later, the king escaped from detention at Hampton Court and fled to Southampton, effectively ending the Grandees’ hopes of a compromise with him. Cromwell moved against the radicals in the Army by organizing three mass meetings of the regiments at which each soldier was ordered to sign a declaration of loyalty to Sir Thomas Fairfax, the commander-in-chief. A mutiny by the radicals at one of these meetings, at Corkbush Field in Hertfordshire, was put down and the three ringleaders executed on the spot. The Grandees were back in charge and the New Model Army was ready for the next phase of the civil war.

As noted above, the record of the Putney Debates that has survived is incomplete and many days of the discussions are unknown. But what does survive is impressive and oddly humbling. The overriding impression is one of serious politics played out in a serious time, conducted by serious men, gravely aware of their responsibilities. What a contrast with the posturing, emoting party hacks who comprise most of our current political class. It strikes me too, not for the time, how small a space the English Civil War (and more broadly, the War of the Three Kingdoms) occupies in our national imagination, compared to say, the Tudors or World War Two. Given the extraordinary events, the personalities, the stakes, that puzzles me greatly.

[Image credit: The linocut illustration of the Putney debates is by Clare Melinsky © Clare Melinsky.]

Peter the Wild Boy grave

The Thing in human Shape

The World has, for some Time, been entertained, or amused rather, with a strange Appearance of a Thing in human Shape ; but, for ought that yet appears, very little else, and in some Sense, as it were, without a Soul .

(Mere Nature Delineated – Daniel Defoe)

Visit the church of St Mary’s in Northchurch, Hertfordshire and you will see, on a raised section of the churchyard opposite the south porch, a plain weathered gravestone carved with the inscription, ‘PETER the Wild Boy 1785’. When Daniel Defoe referred in his pamphlet of 1726, quoted above, to ‘a Thing in human Shape’, it was Peter he had in mind. Defoe’s publication is subtitled ‘A body without a soul. Being observations upon the young forester lately brought to town from Germany. With suitable applications. Also, a brief dissertation upon the usefulness and necessity of fools, whether political or natural’. How did this ‘young forester’ from Germany end up in a Hertfordshire churchyard?

Peter was found in the woods near Hamelin (yes, the same Hamelin where the Pied Piper lured the town’s children away) in 1725. According to contemporary descriptions, he was ‘ naked, brownish, blackhaired creature’, ‘walking on his hands and feet, climbing trees like a squirrel, and feeding on grass and moss’. The boy, estimated to be around thirteen years of age, had no language and no apparent notions of higher human behaviour. He was given the name of Peter and taken into the charge of the local authorities. Hamelin at that time was part of the Electorate of Hanover, ruled by a Prince-Elector who also happened to be the King of Great Britain. This was George I and when a few weeks later the king came to Hanover on a visit, Peter the Wild Boy was presented to him. Whether the king regarded him as a subject for scientific study or simply a curiosity is unclear, but on his return to England, the Wild Boy came with him.

Peter the Wild Boy

Peter was put into the care of the physician John Arbuthnot. Several attempts were made to teach him English and to educate him in the manners of the civilized realm, both without much success, though he did learn to bow and kiss the hands of ladies. Caroline, Princess of Wales, was particularly taken with him. Peter was moved into her London home, where he was kept there as a kind of pet, always dressed in a tailor-made suit of red and green.

Peter’s presence in London caused huge interest among the eighteenth century chattering classes. Where did the boy originally come from? Had he been raised by animals? Was he actually an animal himself, without a soul? Given that Peter was baptized as soon as he got to England, there seems little doubt that the king and his court regarded the boy as a human being, albeit a most primitive one.

Defoe, having met and observed Peter, concurred. Citing particularly the boy’s ability to think and to laugh, he concluded:

This, I think then, is the Sum of what we may say of this Creature, viz. That he has a Soul, though we see very little of the ordinary Powers of a Soul acting in him, any more than are to be discerned in the more sagacious Brutes…

He has a Body, in its Shape Human, the Organick Parts Anatomically, we believe, the same as Human ; he acts the Powers and Motions of sensitive Life, and of rational Life, alike, as if they were confused and huddled together undistinguished, and just as Nature directs in other Creatures ; but he is a Ship without a Rudder, not steer’d or managed, or directed by any Pilot.

Defoe left open the question as to whether Peter could be educated sufficiently to enable him ‘the Use of his Reason’.

Peter the Old Man

As it became apparent that he would never learn a language and fully join human society, Peter’s novelty value wore off. In 1728, he was sent to live on a farm at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, his bed and board paid for by the Crown. He settled into life as a farmhand, able to execute simple manual duties, enjoying a glass of gin and a dance in his leisure time. He would occasionally wander off, turning up as far afield as Norwich in 1751. After this last escapade he was fitted with a collar inscribed, ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’. The collar is preserved in the library of Berkhamsted School.

Perhaps surprisingly, Peter lived a long and seemingly contented life. He died at Mr Fenn’s Farm in 1785 and was buried in nearby Northchurch. It had been a remarkable journey from a forest in Germany to a churchyard in England.

[The image of young Peter is from a court painting by William Kent , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of old Peter is a mezzotint by Valentine Green, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.]

Mary Rose men

Human remains

[Society] is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

(Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke)

If Edmund Burke was right that the dead are as much a part of Society as the living, then it can be no surprise they are so frequently drawn into the political disputes of our time. There can be no rest for the dead when they must be enlisted or press-ganged to fight the battles of the living.

The BBC website reported in May that a study led by researchers from Cardiff University suggested ’the crew of King Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose was more ethnically diverse than previously thought’. Multi-isotope analysis of the teeth of eight crew members indicated that three of them were non-British in origin. According to the report, the analysis ‘suggests at least three of them may have come from southern European coasts, Iberia and North Africa’.

Now this an interesting finding, and an amazing use of cutting-edge scientific techniques. But the researchers felt obliged put a contemporary political spin on it. One of the authors of the paper, Jessica Scorrer, was quoted: ‘Our findings point to the important contributions that individuals of diverse backgrounds and origins made to the English navy during this period. This adds to the ever-growing body of evidence for diversity in geographic origins, ancestry and lived experiences in Tudor England.’

The phrase ‘lived experience’ is a bit of a giveaway here, a linguistic marker of progressive academia. Now I’ve read a fair bit of Tudor history and not once have I ever read a claim that there were’t people of different nationalities and different origins living in England at the time. I sense that Ms Scorrer’s concern when she spoke to the media was not to rectify a historical misconception but to show whose banner she carries in the so-called culture wars.

There were 415 men aboard the Mary Rose when she sank back in 1545. Since the wreck was raised in 1982, the remains of 179 distinct individuals have been identified by archaeologists. The Cardiff study analysed just eight of these and concluded that three of them ‘may have’ come from outside Britain. Leaving aside the question of whether or not such a small sample size can be used to draw any conclusions about the English navy of the time, the identification of a couple of southern Europeans and a north African among the crew doesn’t seem so staggering. This was a time when the religiopolitical entity known as Christendom still existed, when borders were more porous than they are now, and when, so far as I know, the Tudors didn’t operate a zero-immigration policy.

Back in 2006, some other researchers who’d been rummaging around the Mary Rose’s human remains published a paper which claimed to have solved the mystery of how and why the Mary Rose sank. Using ‘stable isotope ration analysis’ of eighteen crew members, they claimed ‘these data suggest the presence of 33–60% of non-natives’. The authors wrote, ‘our results lend weight to the suggestion that poor communication may well have contributed the observed fatal navigational manoeuvre which led to her sinking’.

I wonder if such a claim would even be made in quite the same way today. While the notion of a diverse crew would be welcomed, the theory that this might have caused the sinking of a ship with the loss of almost all of its 415 hands would not. Diversity is our strength, after all. In any case, the study was soon shot down. A paper published the following year disputed the findings, stating, ‘we have re-evaluated the data of Bell et al. and conclude that only one of the 18 sailors demonstrably spent his childhood outside the British Isles’.

Cheddar Man skeleton

While I was reading about the Mary Rose crew I remembered the Channel programme First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, screened in 2018. The film documented scientists carrying out a genetic analysis of the early human known as Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain, who lived some 11,000 years ago. This genetic data was then used to reconstruct his head, including the colour of his skin, hair, and eyes. The programme opened with a portentous voice-over: ’There’s a been a lot of talk about Britain lately, about who belongs and who doesn’t. Now science is about to reveal the truth about where we come from and who we really are…’ Even the dimmest viewer would have guessed where this was going. From the misleading title — Cheddar Man was in no sense the ‘First Brit’ — to the endings’s big reveal — Cheddar Man was…gasp… dark-skinned — this was science in the service of progressive politics. Take that, you little Englander bigots!

Not long after its broadcast, the film’s conclusion was questioned. New Scientist reported, ‘one of the geneticists who performed the research says the conclusion is less certain, and according to others we are not even close to knowing the skin colour of any ancient human’. Brenda Henn of Stony Brook University, New York, told the magazine, ‘The idea that there are really only about 15 genes underlying skin pigmentation isn’t correct. It now seems likely that many other genes affect skin colour. We don’t know how. If we are still learning about the link between genes and skin pigmentation in living populations, we can’t yet predict the skin colour of prehistoric people’. Naturally, these reservations and caveats got far less publicity than the original claim.

I have no skin in this particular game, though it would be very interesting to have an idea of what Cheddar Man looked like. In any case, about five thousand years after his death the Beaker people came in from central Europe and ‘replaced 90% of the British gene pool in a few hundred years’, according to another study published in 2018. Science is at the early stages of applying genetics to history and there is much that is still obscure and imprecise. Can we at least try to apply a disinterested eye to the past, rather than filter it through the cloudy lens of our political fads? One of the things I value most about these studies, regardless of their uses and abuses, is that they serve to strengthen our sense of that partnership between the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be born, the partnership that Burke called Society.

[Top image of the men of the Mary Rose © Mary Rose Trust. Image of the Cheddar Man skeleton © Tom Barnes/Channel 4.]

Wellclose Square 1920

Two gentlemen of Wellclose Square

Wellclose Square is nothing to look at today, dominated as it is by regulation-ugly blocks of council flats, but it was once the smartest address in the East End, the residence of silk traders and sea captains. The square was laid out in 1678 by Christopher Wren as part of his grand design for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire and positioned using Masonic measurements, according to Merlin Coverley’s book Occult London. Though it maintained its status for a couple of hundred years, by the end of the nineteenth century, the merchants and mariners had long decamped and Wellclose Square was turning into a slum. The Blitz imposed more severe damage, and while many of the grand old houses survived in some form, by the end of the1960s all had been condemned and demolished. The Wellclose Square that once was had been completely erased.

Rabbi Falk

The most intriguing episode in the history of Wellclose Square occurred in the 1760s when it was home to two remarkable men, Emanuel Swedenborg and Rabbi Falk. Falk had arrived in London in 1472, after fleeing Westphalia where he had been found guilty of sorcery and sentenced to death by burning. Falk was no ordinary rabbi but a Ba’al Shem (a master of the Kabbalah) and an alchemist. Falk applied himself to building a fortune through speculation, pawnbroking, and, presumably, his alchemical activities, and was soon wealthy enough to move into a house on the square, where he lived for more than thirty years.

Tales abounded about Rabbi Falk. It was said he was using his laboratory to create a Golem, though unlike Rabbi Loew in Prague, he was unsuccessful. Once, on a journey through Whitechapel, a wheel came off his coach. He told his coachman not to stop and the wheel followed them for the rest of the journey. When he needed coal for his fire, he would incant a Kabbalist formula and the coal lumps moved by themselves. He once prevented the Great Synagogue at Aldgate from burning down by inscribing four Hebrew letters on its door.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg was another European mystic who made a home in eighteenth-century London. He was a man of science and invention, the editor of Sweden’s first scientific journal and a mining engineer by profession. It wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he began to experience the dreams and visions that sent him along the mystic’s path. One of these visions came to him when he was dining alone one evening in a London inn. He was hungry and attacked his meal with gusto. But the room suddenly grew dark and he saw the floor ‘covered with the nastiest crawling animals, like snakes, frogs, and creatures of that kind’. Then a figure appeared and told him, ‘Don’t eat so much’. That might seem a ridiculously mundane communication from the spiritual plane, but the same figure reappeared a dream that night, revealed himself to be the Lord God, and gave Swedenborg a mission to explain the true meaning of the scriptures to mankind.

Swedenborg moved to Wellclose Square in 1766. Unlike Falk, he did not live in one of the grand houses but at an inn called the King’s Arms, whose landlord was a fellow Swede. Neighbours now, Falk and Swedenborg met regularly to discuss their occult pursuits. Ed Glinert, in his book East End Chronicles, writes that some of these discussions concerned ‘Kabbalist sexual techniques that could produce a prolonged erection and state of orgasmic trance’ and how ‘in the spirit world the soul hallucinates a spiritual body to enjoy more wonderful sensations than it experiences on earth’. There was nothing prudish about eighteenth-century mysticism.

Wellclose Square
Wellclose Square today

Emanuel Swedenborg, having foretold the time of his own death, departed for the spirit world in 1772 and was buried in the Swedish church in nearby Prince’s Square. Rabbi Falk died ten years later and was buried in the Jewish cemetery on Alderney Road. Swedenborg is commemorated in the name of the park on the east side of the present-day Wellclose Square, Swedenborg Gardens. Of Rabbi Falk, sadly, no trace remains.

[The top photograph of Wellclose Square was taken in 1920 © London Picture Archive. Portrait of Emanuel Swedenborg by Carl Frederik von Breda and Portrait of Rabbi Falk by John Singleton Copley, both courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]