HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change.
‘[T]he only effectual meants to settle a just and lasting peace… is the making clear & secure the power that you betrust to your representatives in Parliament, that they may know their trust’
In August 1647, following Charles I’s defeat in the first English civil war, members of the parliamentarian New Model Army seized government of the City of London. The army had become increasingly politicised in the wake of civil war, refusing to disband until they were paid and ‘the rights and liberties of the nation were vindicated’. Setting up headquarters at Putney, army officers and radicals debated a series of proposals for the future government of England, including the first version of An Agreement of the People.
This short pamphlet was penned by radicals – including Levellers and Agitators – and advocated religious freedom, sweeping democratic reform, extensive male suffrage, and equality under the law. It was intended to be England’s first written constitution, forming a contract between the electorate and their representatives which defined and limited the powers of government.
Yet Parliament denounced the Agreement. Army ‘Grandees’, headed by Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax, instead attempted to impose an alternative, more conservative, manifesto on the army – The Heads of Proposals – and required all soldiers to sign a declaration of loyalty. When several regiments refused, wielding copies of the Agreement and pieces of paper in their hatbands with the legend ‘England’s Freedom, Soldiers’ Rights’, they were forcibly suppressed as mutinous. Further versions of the Agreement continued to be published and debated until 1649, when the Leveller movement was finally crushed by the new republic. To this day, Britain lacks a written constitution.
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Elly Robson is an Editorial Fellow at History Workshop Online and the Royal Historical Society Centenary Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. She is in the final stages of a thesis at the University of Cambridge, looking at social, environmental, and intellectual conflict in the seventeenth-century fens.