Roundheads versus Cavaliers, Parliament versus Royalty. In the popular mind the English Civil War is a simple conflict of two clearly opposing factions, which will end with the beheading of one king — and unfold a decade later with the return of his son to the throne. But the series of battles that would play out during the First and Second English Civil Wars in the
1640s were anything but clear cut. And while the Parliamentarians were bitterly opposed to the high-handed rule Charles I they were almost equally divided among themselves. The bitter factional disputes would play out with the killing of Thomas Rainsborough on October 30, 1648. The sword that slew the Leveller leader was in the hand of a Cavalier soldier — but was it Oliver Cromwell himself who directed the blade?
The unveiling of a plaque by Tony Benn in St John’s Churchyard a week or two back is an attempt to bring Rainsborough back into the public consciousness. Benn, a hero of the left, and a thorn in the side of his own leaders (though it might be pushing it rather to equate Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan with Cromwell) could certainly identify with the satisfyingly awkward Rainsborough. He would certainly applaud the Levellers (who elected ‘agitators’ from among their ranks) and their attacks on the House of Lords and inherited power, as well as their demand for their ‘natural, God-given rights’.
Rainsborough had been born in 1610, the son of a prominent, though not an aristocratic family. He was the son of William Rainsborough, a Vice-Admiral in command of his own vessel in the Royal Navy, as well as a Member of Parliament and the King’s Ambassador to Morocco. For William’s exploits in battling white slavery in Morocco, he was offered an hereditary knighthood by Charles I in 1642, but turned it down (accepting a life peerage instead). It was a combination of the military with politics his sons (William Rainsborowe and Thomas) would follow.
Thomas proved himself to be a talented and flexible military man. He was already in the navy before the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and during the conflict, as Parliament turned against the King, he was put in command of the Swallow and other English warships. By May 1645, he had transferred to the New Model Army, fighting at the Battle of Naseby (a devastating defeat for the Cavaliers), at Bristol, Berkeley Castle and the Siege of Droitwich.
In January 1647 became the MP for Droitwich. He was a voice for the Roundheads, but also a dissenter in their midst. Leaders of the Parliamentary side, Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton wanted freedom from Royal tyranny but they certainly didn’t want communism, and Rainsborough’s espousal of the ideas of the Ranters and Levellers were altogether too revolutionary. The Ranters were a religious sect believing that God was in every creature: rejecting centralised organisation, they were seen as a threat not just to the established Church but to the fabric of society. The Levellers meanwhile argued that the king (or whoever should replace him) must be elected by all the people (well, men at least). Universal suffrage and the dismantling of the structures of society and government weren’t in Cromwell’s plan — in the latter years of the Commonwealth (1649-1660), he would became a king in all but name.
So Rainsborough’s addresses at the Levellers’ Putney Debates were concerning to his leaders such as Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax — especially when the soldier attempted to serve a copy of the Leveller tract Agreement of the People on his general, at the Corkbush Field rendezvous of 1647. Fairfax brushed him aside and arranged a transfer well away from the cockpit of London politics. The first plan was to put him back in the Navy as a Vice-Admiral, but his Leveller beliefs elicited a mutiny among his men. So Rainsborough was sent to assist the Roundhead cause at the Siege of Pontefract Castle. Again he found opposition, with the Parliamentary commander in Yorkshire, Sir Henry Cholmley, refusing to accept his authority. While the arguments continued, Thomas and his men were billeted in Doncaster, and it was there he met his death. Not on the field or at sea: four royalists had managed to get into the fortified billet and kidnap him. In the struggle, one ran through Rainsborough with his sword.
How had they got to him? The bitter suspicion was that Cromwell et al had arranged the killing. Certainly, without
Rainsborough, the Levellers’ influence waned during the Second Civil War. 3000 mourners paraded through London wearing the green ribbons and rosemary branches of the movement, but the impetus for a truly revolutionary England had gone. King Cromwell would soon ascend the throne. The whole story, if slightly buffed and beautified for modern eyes, can be seen in ‘The Devil’s Whore’, a movie released a few years back, starring Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough and Dominic West as Cromwell. Peter Capaldi plays Charles I, though without ‘Thick of It’ profanities.
Rainsborough’s remains lie somewhere in St John’s Churchyard — though until the unveiling of the plaque on May 12, you wouldn’t have found a clearly marked spot. The site, though lovely, is slightly surreal: a graveyard without stones, accompanying a tower without a church. The graveyard is neatly turfed over, while what remains of the old tombstones are serried along the walls of the plot. St John’s itself was lost to enemy bombing during World War 2: the husk was demolished and new apartments were built around the tower.