Occupy London and the English Civil War: a contemporary link

                    Tents outside the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney

This year is the 365th anniversary of a key event in English political history which has a curious link with the current Occupy London movement.

From 28 October – 11 November 1647 a series of debates took place between the radical elements in the New Model Army’ rank and file and their senior officers about the nature of society. The radicals wanted ‘one man, one vote’, authority in the country to be vested in the House of Commons rather than the King and the House of Lords. In addition they declared certain ‘native rights’ for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, speaking as a radical, memorably encapsulated the aspiration for universal suffrage when he said:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

We know what took place, at least for the first few days, as the debates were recorded verbatim until 2 November when all recording ceased.

Clearly the senior officers were alarmed by these proposals, particularly for universal suffrage, which they saw as a step towards anarchy. The King’s escape from capture overtook events and the debates were brought to an end, never published and the radicals in the Army persecuted.

What has this got to do with Occupy?

The events of 365 years ago were probably the first time that a genuine democratic debate involving ordinary people took place in this country, the first time that ordinary people looked at society and thought there might be a different way forward rather than the status quo.

The debates took place at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney (SW London). In 2007, on the 360th anniversary, the then rector opened a permanent exhibition to the debates at the Church and organised a series of commemorative events. The rector went on to become Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral before the events around the Occupy encampment forced him to resign in October 2011. His name? Rev Dr Giles Fraser.

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