In the autumn of 1647 the small, Thames-side village of Putney witnessed the most famous and dramatic debates of the English Civil Wars. The headquarters of the parliamentarian New Model Army was situated there and for a few days the officers and soldiers argued passionately over the nature of a new constitutional settlement for postwar England. Their ideas seem, in some cases, strikingly modern; one officer, Colonel Thomas Rainborowe, went so far as to call for universal manhood suffrage, to the outrage of more senior commanders. Historians have long been dazzled by Rainborowe’s rhetoric, seeing in his concern for ‘the poorest hee’ the first glimmerings of modern democracy. But there was more at stake in these debates than simply the extent of the franchise. The soldiers and officers were divided in their visions of the kind of settlement they wanted for the kingdom and their exchanges at Putney reveal, perhaps more than any other contemporary source, the fundamental tensions at the heart of the parliamentarian cause.
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