Leveller leader celebrated in Wapping
A two-volley salute commemorated the life of Thomas Rainsborough, in a modest but moving ceremony in London's Wapping at the weekend.
Photos and report by Peter Arkell
Musketeers in full uniform, from the Rainsborough Regiment of the Sealed Knot, fired the salute to mark the occasion. Tony Benn MP joined Tower Hamlets councillor Rania Khan, John Rees of the Levellers Association and Jeremy Corbyn MP to unveil a plaque in St John's churchyard where Rainsborough was buried in 1648.
He was the most senior officer in the New Model Army to support the Levellers movement in the English Civil War and their leading spokesman at the Putney Debates, held at St. Mary's church, Putney the previous winter.
The discussions centred on a new constitutional settlement (which they called Agreement of the People) based on manhood suffrage, for two-year parliaments and a re-organisation of constituencies.
The House of Commons was to be the main authority, rather than the king and the lords. Certain “native rights” including freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment to the armed forces, and equality before the law were to be guaranteed to all Englishmen. These kind of demands, popular amongst the ordinary soldiers, were too much for the army grandees, Generals Cromwell, Ireton and Fairfax, who argued that these measures would result in anarchy and that the vote should be restricted to holders of property.
Rainsborough's argument is contained in his famous quote:
“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...”.
As a soldier, Rainsborough fought at the decisive batle of Naseby, where his regiment was one of two that held firm in the centre of the line when the Royalists attacked.
He was one of the delegation of officers who presented the Heads of the Proposals to King Charles in 1647 in the attempt to find a compromise settlement with the king. He turned implacably against the king when he contemptuously dismissed the proposals of the army.
He took the surrender of the Royalists at Colchester, and was then sent by General Fairfax to Yorkshire, to the siege of Pontefract Castle, which kept him well away from the centre of power in London. The Parliamentary commander in the region, Sir Henry Cholmley, bitterly objected to Rainsborough`s appointment and refused to accept his authority.
When Royalists from Pontefract gained access to the castle and attempted to take him prisoner, Rainsborough resisted and was run through with a sword. Many believed that Cholmley and even Cromwell were implicated in his death.
13 May 2013