“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…”.
Thomas Rainsborough, Putney Debates, 1647
When I first started writing the Uncivil Wars books I had a fairly clear picture of the martyred Leveller colonel Thomas Rainsborough, in my head.
The known facts of his early life are fairly scant. He was born in Wapping in 1610 – son of Vice-Admiral William Rainsborough, a captain in the Royal Navy and Ambassador to Morocco. Vice-Admiral Rainsborough was offered a baronetcy for his efforts to end white slavery – an honour which he then declined. Republicanism, then, we can infer, was in the Rainsborough genetic make-up.
Thomas, then, began his career before the civil war in the family business; he and his brother William were involved in an early naval expedition to the Puritan Providence Island colony, off the coast of Nicaragua – and, it may be suggested, a degree of mild pirating of those antipathetic towards England’s interests.
However, after an early command of the Swallow and the Lion in the embryonic Parliamentarian navy (Hull, 1643 – where he first meets Hollie Babbitt in “Command the Raven) he then transferred to the Eastern Association – Oliver Cromwell’s haunt, although bearing in mind that Old Noll was no more than a plain Colonel of Horse himself at this point – where he was himself commissioned an infantry Colonel by the Earl of Manchester. In May 1645, he became a colonel in the newly-formed New Model Army. He fought and distinguished himself at Naseby. He went with Fairfax into the West Country and distinguished himself again at the battle of Langport.
And then at the siege of Bristol, after fierce fighting as the town surrendered, Rainsborough’s troops massacred the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Allegedly.
It says so on Bristol local history sites. It says so in assorted fictional accounts. What it doesn’t say is where primary source evidence on this massacre might have been found. None of the accounts I have discovered (bearing in mind I don’t live in Bristol, so my hands are somewhat tied regarding physical archives…damn it all) annotate this.
However. So. Maybe that upright seagoing Republican with the staunch Puritan friends who came back from New England to fight for Parliament alongside him, maybe he did give the orders to massacre the defenders of Prior’s Hill Fort. Also note that every account I’ve discovered uses the word “massacre”. Now that’s either very definite…or they’re all using the same source material. Interesting.
Now. Rainsborough was then elected recruiter MP for Droitwich in Worcestershire in January 1647, but was allowed to continue with his military duties. Probably just as well, because in his absence in May 1647 his troops mutinied at Portsmouth in protest at Parliament’s plans to disband the New Model without addressing the soldiers’ grievances. Petty grievances, of course, set against the weightier matters of national governance – matters like not being paid for eight weeks, or being sent to fight abroad (in the case of Rainsborough’s troop, in Jersey) without seeing any of their back pay, or the unsettled matter of punishment for “war crimes” such as stealing horses under martial direction for use in cavalry regiments. That particular war crime had ended in the hanging of several soldiers after the first Civil War. I imagine there were any number of uncomfortable troopers around with that particular sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. (There – and you thought Eliot and Ward were made up, didn’t you? Nope…that pair of light-fingered buggers are very much based on historical persons.)
Rainsborough’s troops were preparing to march on Oxford and seize the artillery based there, until the man himself came back and met with them at Abingdon and talked them out of it.
That’s twice that Rainsborough is recorded as being charismatic, and personally involved, enough to influence people who have pretty good reasons not to do what he ends up getting them to do: the officers from New England had the reasonable excuse of several thousand miles of implacable Atlantic between themselves and the troubles back home, and Rainsborough’s own troops wouldn’t have been the first to disregard their commander – look at Waller’s disobedient London-raised troops, who were reluctant to fight outside their home turf regardless of his orders.
So, then, we see Rainsborough as clearly a very charismatic, very engaging, very hands-on man, fully engaged with his own men on a direct and personal level. Evidently a very popular leader and seen as both influential and reliable – he was one of the officers that presented the Heads of the Proposals to King Charles in July 1647. Turned down flat, in the most high-handed manner imaginable, by the King. 1647 really marked the beginning of Rainsborough’s overt involvement in the Army’s political activities, and his role as a leading Leveller light. He led the advance guard of three regiments of foot and one of horse when the Army marched to occupy London, successfully seizing Southwark – where, it must be noted, he had previously inherited property, and was presumably well-known to the locals, being a Wapping boy himself, so unlikely to be seen as some kind of brutal interloper.
During October and November 1647 he was lively at the Putney Debates, siding with the Leveller radicals in calling for negotiations with the King to be broken off immediately and for a new constitution of their own terms to be implemented. (That rebuttal of the Heads of Proposals must have still rankled.) He was also arguing for manhood suffrage, which didn’t go down well with Cromwell and Ireton either. And then in November 1647, he attempted to present a copy of the Levellers’ manifesto, and was ignored by General Fairfax.
January 1648 saw a return to naval service, given command of a squadron guarding the Isle of Wight where the King was held prisoner.
But. What we have been seeing before is a humanitarian man, vociferous in his support for the common soldier…who was so absolutely unpopular with the Navy that a number of Parliamentarian warships declared for the King in the spring of 1648 rather than carry on serving with him, and Rainsborough was put ashore from his own flagship by his crew. Parliament had to re-instate the Earl of Warwick in his place to restore the loyalty of the seamen. It destroyed Rainsborough’s authority within in the navy, and he transferred back to the Army and took command of a newly-raised London regiment at the siege of Colchester.
And this is where I really begin to struggle with Rainsborough. Because the siege of Colchester was a filthy, vicious, uncharacteristically cruel assault, wholly out of character for both Thomas Fairfax and what we have seen of Thomas Rainsborough. The siege began in June 1648 and lasted for 11 weeks – a siege in which townspeople consistently loyal to Parliament, were barricaded in with an occupying force who were not precisely sympathetic.
Again, anecdotal evidence for Fairfax’s atrocities includes the torture of a messenger boy, the desecration of Sir Charles Lucas’s family vaults during manoeuvres; the inhabitants were certainly starving, reduced to eating cats, dogs, candles and soap – civilian and military alike. Fairfax is alleged to have agreed that his troops could cut off the hands of Royalist soldiers to take rings as booty. It is certain that a starving deputation of women and children was sent to Fairfax to ask for mercy, and were refused. It is again anecdotal that a second deputation of starving townswomen presented themselves to Rainsborough and were stripped, for the amusement of his troops.
Edited: at the end of the siege, Colchester was fined the MASSIVE sum of £14,000 – reduced to £12,000. Previous to the siege the town had been one of the biggest ports in Essex. Afterwards – a rural backwater. Fairfax broke the town utterly.
So. As Hollie Babbitt might put it, not much bloody further on, are we, after all that?
On the one hand, we have Rainsborough the compassionate republican, demanding fair and equal treatment for the poorest he that is in England. On the other we have a war criminal, even by the standards of the 17th century.
But. (I like big buts, and I cannot lie.)
I like a mystery, and I likes both Fairfax and Rainsborough, and it may take me a while, but I’ll get to the bottom of this one. The Lord has smiled upon my endeavours…. Him Indoors is an Essex boy!