Friday, 29 October 2010

Death of a radical action hero.

Ironically just a few days after the anniversary of the Putney Debates in 1647, comes the anniversary of the assassination in 1648 of one of its most prominent radical protagonists - Colonel Thomas Rainsborough.

His life was that of a  swash-buckling hero and a political visionary. Every movement needs its heroes and Rainsborough more than fits the bill:

Born into a naval family from Wapping, Ranisborough was a ship's master in the heavily puritan-influenced navy. With the outbreak of civil war the 'Royal' Navy came out solidly in support of the parliamentary cause and Rainsborough commanded the frigate Swallow in a number of actions against Royalist privateers. He was also involved in raiding parties on land and played a part in the lifting of the seige at Hull. By 1645 he had transferred to the army and commanded a regiment of infantry in the New Model Army, which he led at Naesby, Langport, Worcester and Bristol. 

Rainsborough had been heavily influenced by the radical ideas  of the Levellers and in addition to his military duties he also became the MP for Droitwich. Whilst he was at Westminister away from his regiment, it mutinied at the threat that it would be disbanded by parliament - dominated at the time by Presbyterian faction who were looking to negotiate a compromise settlement with the king and so wanted to weaken the radicalised army. 

In what was a pivotal moment Rainsborough returned to his regiment to support his troops. He led a number of regiments to march on London to prevent the prospect of a Presbyerian counter-revolution which in the troops eyes threatened to throw away the gains they had made  - and in parliament  he proposed the 'Vote Of No Address' which pledged no more negotiations with the king. 

However in doing so Rainsborough not only drew a line in the sand between himself and the Prebyterians he also made an enemy of Cromwell and the army grandees of the Independent faction. Although more resolute than the Presbyterians in their opposition to the king, they still were far from the democratic position of the army rank and file. At the Putney debates, Rainsborough emerged as the highest-ranking and most influential Leveller spokesman - arguing for a position of republican government and universal male suffrage.

This probably sealed his fate, and from then it was clear that Cromwell wanted him out of the way. Rainsborough returned to the navy - whic by then were dominated by the Presbyterians - and he was ignominiously put ashore by his crew who refused to serve under him.  Returning to the army he successfully commanded a new regiment in the Second Civil War, defeating the Royalists at Colchetser, but he was then sent to take command of the armies in the North, as far away from the centre of events in London as possible.

Whilst on his way, he was assassinated by Royalist agents who managed to smuggle themselves into his lodgings in Donacaster. Conspiracy theories abound and it is widely believed that Cromwell  connived in his killing - it was certainly a most convenient death  - and in many ways marked the high water mark of the Leveller movement.

And as an epilogue: He was given a Leveller funeral and  the streets of London  were lined with mourners wearing green - the colour of English radicalism until it was replaced by the symbol of red imported by European socialist exiles.  This may be the origin - rather than the Irish nationalist connection - of the English folk-song 'all around my hat I will wear the green ribbon'. 

• Picture of Rainsborough from the BBC's costume drama 'The Devils Whore' which appropriately mixed a bit of bodice-ripping romance with a bit of history and a sprinkling of radicalism.

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