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Army Council (1647)

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Title: Army Council (1647)  
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Subject: New Model Army, Instrument of Government, Levellers, Constitution
Collection: New Model Army
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Army Council (1647)

The Army Council was a term first used in 1647 to describe an institution which coordinated the views of all levels of the New Model Army. During the Interregnum it metamorphosed into the (Army) Council of Officers.

General Council

Having won the First English Civil War, the soldiers of the New Model Army (Army) became very discontented with the Long Parliament, for several reasons. Firstly, they had not been paid regularly and on the end of hostilities, the conservative MPs in Parliament wanted to either disband the Army or send them to fight in Ireland without receiving their back pay. Secondly, since most Parliamentarians wanted to restore the King without major democratic reforms or religious freedom, many soldiers asked why they had risked their lives in the first place — a sentiment that was strongly expressed by their elected representatives.

Two representatives, called Agitators, were elected from each regiment. The Agitators with two Army Officers from each regiment and the Generals formed a new body called the Army Council which after a rendezvous (meeting) near Newmarket on Friday 4 June 1647 issued "A Solemne Engagement of the Army, under the Command of his Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax" to Parliament on 8 June making their concerns known and also the constitution of the Army Council so that Parliament would understand that the discontent was Army wide and had the support of officers and other ranks. This Engagement was read out to the Army at a general Army rendezvous on 5 June.

Having come under the influence of London radicals called the Levellers, the troops of the Army proposed a revolutionary new constitution named the Agreement of the People, which called for almost universal male suffrage, reform of electoral boundaries, power to rest with the Parliament which was to be elected every two years (not the King), religious freedom and an end to imprisonment for debt.

Increasingly concerned at the failure to pay their wages and by political maneuverings by King Charles I of England and by some in Parliament, the army marched slowly towards London over the next few months. In late October and early November at the Putney Debates the Army debated two different proposals. The first the Agreement of the People and the other "The Heads of the Proposals", put forward by Henry Ireton, (son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell) for the Army Council. It was a constitutional manifesto which included the preservation of property rights and maintaining the privileges of the gentry. At the Putney Debates it was agreed to hold three further rendezvous.

After the Putney Debates the Army commanders Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell were worried at the strength of support which the Levellers had in the Army. So they decided to impose The Heads of the Proposals as the army's manifesto instead of the Levellers the Agreement of the People

To do this they demanded that every soldier sign a declaration of loyalty, to Fairfax the commander-in-chief and the Army Council, which signified that they accepted The Heads of the Proposals as the Army's manifesto. Many of the men were willing to sign, even if they had Leveller sympathies, because Cromwell and Fairfax promised that Parliament would pay them the back pay which they were owed. But if they did not sign, it was suggested, then the army could not present a united front to Parliament and payment could be delayed and that some regiments might be disbanded with no back pay at all. The declaration was a politically astute move because the soldiers were now bound to the Army Council and not the King or Parliament.

At the first rendezvous was the Corkbush Field rendezvous, the senior officers in the army known as the Grandees gained the agreement of most regiments to accept the Army Council's The Heads of the Proposals instead of the Agreement of the People as the Army's manifesto. A mutiny by a minority of regiments was suppressed by Cromwell who had Private Richard Arnold, tried for mutiny and shot on the spot as an example. At the two other rendezvous at Ruislip Heath and Kingston the other regiments were ordered to show support for Fairfax which they all agreed to do.

Council of Officers

Over the following years the Army Council changed in constituency. The elected agitators were removed and the Council became an (Army) Council of Officers, remaining an important institution in the ruling establishment of the English Commonwealth and the Protectorate during the Interregnum. For example in at the start of the Protectorate, ten days after the dissolution of the Rump Parliament on April 20, 1653, Cromwell told the Council of State that it no longer existed and together with the Council of Officers, instituted a new Council of State.


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