Thomas Rainsborough: The Man Who Would Have Us All Level

“For 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; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”.

Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647

The United Kingdom is a country that is synonymous with its monarchy, for better or worse. This remains one of its most glaring of contradictions; that a society that prides itself on equality and social justice should have a head of state who occupies that position solely due to accident of birth. However one chooses to view the institution itself the British people and Parliament are almost unanimous in their support for the present monarch, Elizabeth II, who has approval ratings of more than 90% (any politician would kill for that). However, this was not always the case; in fact England was the first major European nation to throw out the monarchy in favour of becoming a republic (a period now rather sneeringly known as the “interregnum” by Royalists). In the 17th century the idea of a republic was revolutionary, untested, and created a wealth of ideologies. In the end it was decided that England needed a monarch in one guise or another and the office of King was merely replaced with that of Lord Protector, and eventually the King, Charles II, was invited back. The man most people in Britain associate with this period was the man who became Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. This article is about another important character among the Parliamentarians who rivalled Cromwell for much of the Civil War, Thomas Rainsborough.

Rainsborough, born 1610, was the son of William Rainsborough (an interesting character in his own right) who was Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy and Ambassador to Morocco (a post he had won having smashed the Barbary Corsairs). William Rainsborough had also played a pivotal role in the abolition of white slavery, for which he was offered a baronetcy (hereditary knighthood), this he declined suggesting that he shared similar ideologies to his son towards titles.

Thomas Rainsborough initially followed in his father’s footsteps and took up a life of naval warfare. His first adventure was to the Puritan colony of Providence Island, off the coast of Nicaragua, where he and his brother, William Rainsborowe  (who would accompany him throughout his life) pirated Spanish shipping lanes.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Rainsborough joined the fledgling Parliamentarian fleet and was made Captain of a 34-gun frigate called the swallow. Following a year of plundering Royalist supply ships Rainsborough was given the chance to make a name for himself. By 1643 Hull was under siege from the Royalist army who had cornered one of the key Parliamentarian generals there, Lord Fairfax. Rainsborough sailed to the rescue by leading a daring raid with a small force of sailors and musketeers, in which was able to capture several Royalist siege guns. This action forced the Royalist army to give up the siege and earned Rainsborough the rank of Colonel in the New Model Army, England’s first fully professional armed forces.

After the siege of Hull Rainsborough was constantly in the thick of the fighting. He distinguished himself once again at the decisive battle of Naseby where he proved himself an able commander by ensuring the Parliamentary centre stood fast in the face of a fierce Royalist advance. He would go on to fight more battles at Langport, Bridgwater, Sherbourne, and Bristol as well as commanding the sieges of Berkeley Castle, Corfe Castle and Worcester (the last of which he was made governor). After the Civil War he was elected as Member of Parliament for Droitwich by the Army, with whom he was the most popular leaders (more so than Cromwell).

England after the defeat of King Charles I was in a state of chaos with various ideologies and religious sects vying for control. In August 1647 a group of Presbyterian MPs attempted to launch a counter-revolutionary coup and succeeded in capturing the City of London. Rainsborough led the New Model Army in the liberation of London, taking the area of Southwark and London Bridge in order to pave the way for the main body of the army to take the city. Rainsborough, himself, joined a popular faction called the Levellers and became their most high-profile supporter. Levellers, so-called because they sought to bring all men down to “the common level” (abolish the monarchy and aristocracy), espoused many policies that are now taken for granted in the West; namely universal suffrage (albeit only for men), equality before the law, translation of said law from Latin into English, an end to imprisonment for debt, elections to be held every two years, and religious tolerance. Rainsborough added to their manifesto the idea of the “natural rights of man” (making him one of the first Human Rights activists) which he claimed were given by God in the Bible. These policies were outlined in a publication called the “Agreement of the People”.

Owing to the chaos of the time it was decided that a new constitution was needed for peace to return to England. A series of debates were held in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Putney from 28th October 1647 – 11th Novemeber, Rainsborough was chosen to be the main speaker for the Levellers. At the Putney Debates Rainsborough and Cromwell frequently clashed on issues ranging from how to negotiate with the King to suffrage. Rainsborough maintained that negotiations with Charles I should be broken off and a new constitution be forced through, Cromwell opposed this believing that the rights of Parliament had been vindicated in the Civil War and that the monarchy still had a part to play in the governing of the realm (he was later forced to take Rainsborough’s position by the King’s intransigence.). Rainsborough’s views on “one man – one vote” were also dismissed by Cromwell who claimed that the idea would be tantamount to anarchy.

In 1648 the negotiations with the King broke down and the second, bloodier, civil war commenced. This would end with the execution of the King, but Rainsborough would not live to see the new Republic. Rainsborough was sent north to besiege Pontefract Castle in order to keep him away from London. On October 30th 1648 four Royalists were able to gain admission to Rainsborough’s lodgings, and in a bungled kidnapping attempt, the great man was run through with a sword. Suspicion was immediately thrown onto the event due to the ease with which the Royalist soldiers had managed to enter the camp, most fingers pointed at Cromwell but no investigation was ever held (Sir Henry Chomley, Rainsborough’s second in command was also implicated at it was his troops on guard duty).

Rainsborough’s funeral became the occasion for a large Leveller demonstration but without their chief supporter in the Army the Levellers were marginalized and their power depleted. Many of the remaining Levellers fled to America, such as John Lilburn and Rainsborough’s brother, William. In the colonies their ideas would gain huge popularity and influence the American revolutionary war that threw off British rule. Many of the ideas that they espoused would be entered into the constitution of the newly formed United States of America.


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