Thomas Rainborowe – Dangerous Radical by Stanley Slaughter-CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (19 May 2015)

 “I desire that those that had engaged in it should speak, 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, in so much that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things.”

Thomas Rainborowe

Stanley Slaughter’s book Thomas Rainborowe -Dangerous Radical is one of the many forgotten books which litter the study of the English bourgeois revolution. Which is a shame because it is not a bad book. Unlike many historians, I do not believe its subject matter Thomas Rainsborough is a forgotten hero of the 17th century English revolution.

It must be said that Slaughter’s job was not made easy by the scarcity of archival sources. NothingRainsborowe wrote has survived, and if it were not for his intervention in the discussion at Putney 1647, which elevated him to one of the foremost radical voices of the English revolution, he would have remained just another excellent military figure.

The English revolution produced many fine and brave individuals. Thomas Rainsborough was one of the best. He was an extraordinarily gifted soldier, and his expertise was as a siege master. Like many of his generation, he showed reckless courage in battle. Only Oliver Cromwell stood above him in military skill.

But as Slaughter’s well-written and interesting biography states, he was best known for his radical politics. His radical politics were the main reason the Royalists assassinated him with the collaboration of presbyterian parliamentarians. As Ian Gentles writes : “Rainborowe continued to be a thorn in the side of the military grandees. In October and November he played a leading part in the army general council’s debates at Putney on the Leveller Agreement of the People. He poured scorn on Cromwell and others who said of the projected constitution, ‘Itt’s a huge alteration, itt’s a bringing in of New Lawes’, commenting, ‘if writinges bee true there hath bin many scufflinges betweene the honest men of England and those that have tyranniz’d over them’ (Clarke Papers, 1.246). When the grandees sought to prolong the discussion of the army’s engagements, Rainborowe insisted that they move on to address the Agreement of the People. When Ireton attacked the principle of universal manhood suffrage, Rainborowe took up the challenge in words that still ring in our ears after more than three-and-a-half centuries.”[1]

The exact circumstances of his murder are still a bit murky, and many wild conspiracy theories still abound, such as Oliver Cromwell organising the murder. What is known is that the perpetrators of this murder were given free rein to carry out their deadly deed. Slaughter draws attention to the relative ease the royalist assassins were able to assassinate a leading player in the English revolution and escape unscathed without as much as a scratch back to Pontefract, passing through the lines of the parliamentary forces who were more hostile to the radical Ransborowe than they were to the Royalist they were supposed to be fighting.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Rainsborowe was a controversial figure hated by Royalists and Presbyterians. It was his misfortune to serve in a parliamentary Navy that was, on the whole, Royalist in its political persuasion.

Not only were they hostile to Ransborowe’s appointment, they were still politically loyal to the king and were opposed to Parliament’s treatment of Charles Ist. They sided with the Presbyterians in Parliament in calling for the disbandment of the New Model Army :

THE DECLARATION Of the Navie, being THE True Copie of a Letter from the Officers of the Navie, to the Commissioners: With their Resolutions upon turning out Colonell RAINSBROUGH from being their Commander.

28th.May, 1648.

Worshipfull;

THese are to certifie you that wee the Commanders, and Officers of the Ship Constant Reformation, with the rest of the Fleet, have secured the Ships for the service of King and Parliament, and have refused to be under the Command of Colonell Rainsbrough, by reason wee conceive him to be a man not wel-affected to the King, Parliament and Kingdome, and we doe hereby declare unto you, that we have unanimously joyned with the Kentish Gentlemen, in their just Petition to the Parliament, to this purpose following, videlicet.

First, that the Kings Majesty with all expedition be admitted in Safety and Honour, to treat with his two Houses of Parliament.

Secondly, that the army now under the Command of the Lord Fairfax, to be forthwith disbanded, their Arrears being paid them.

Thirdly, That the known Laws of the Kingdome may be Established and continued, whereby we ought to be Governed and Iudged.

Fourthly, That the Priviledges of Parliament and the Liberty of the Sub∣jects may be preserved.

And to this purpose we have sent our loving Friend Captaine Penrose, with a Letter to the Earle of Warwick, and we are resolved to take in no Commander whatsoever, but such as shall agree and correspond with us in this Petition, and shall resolve to live and dye with us, in the behalfe of King and Parliament, which is the Positive Result of us.[2]

As Ian Gentles correctly points out, not only was Rainsborowe one of the “most vivid actors of the English revolution” he was also one of the most important. It bewilders me that so few biographies exist, the most recent being Adrian Tinniswood 2013 book.[3] It is hoped that this will change soon.


[1] Rainborowe [Rainborow], Thomas (d. 1648) Ian J. Gentles-https://doi-org.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23020

[2] https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A82191.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[3] The Rainborowes Hardcover – 5 Sept. 2013- Jonathan Cape

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