An archrival of Oliver Cromwell, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough was known as a cold, inflexible fanatic. As the military and political leader of the extreme leftist revolutionaries, Rainsborough had enemies both among the Royalists, who despised him for his military ruthlessness, and among the “Grandees,” the right wing of Parliament and the army who loathed his political activities.
Rainsborough served in the parliamentary fleet at the outbreak of the civil war, later entering land service and recapturing Crowland in December 1644. He commanded a regiment in the new model army. In 1646, Rainsborough became a member of the House of Commons.
In 1647 Rainsborough championed a document called Agreement of the People, which recommended a complete break with the traditional constitution. He favored a new elected government consisting of a single chamber to be voted on biennially and without any property qualification for voting.
Liberal property policies
Rainsborough maintained that “…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.” Cromwell supporters believed that Rainsborough’s liberal policies could result in the abolition of all property.
At Putney, where famous debates over the issues were held, Rainsborough said that the army felt all negotiations with the king should stop, and he secretly became involved in a plan to kidnap the king from Hampton Court. Hearing of the plot, King Charles I fled to the Isle of Wight.
Cromwell denounced Rainsborough’s proposal as “tending very much to anarchy.”
At a rendezvous of the army near Ware on November 15, 1647, Rainsborough presented the Agreement of the People to Thomas Fairfax, commander-in-chief of the parliamentary army, but Fairfax wanted no part of it.
Soldiers rights slogans
Cromwell ordered one of the rebellious ringleaders of Rainsborough’s regiment shot for refusing to remove a paper with “Soliders Rights!” slogans (from Rainsborough’s credo) from his hat.
From January to August 1648, Rainsborough served as vice admiral of the fleet and was at the siege of Colchester, emerging even more powerfully as Cromwell’s rival. On October 29, 1648, Rainsborough was murdered by a party of horsemen about 8 a.m. in his bedroom at Doncaster.
The cavaliers allegedly intended to kidnap him and try to exchange him for parliamentary prisoner Sir Marmaduke Langdale, but he was mortally wounded in a struggle. He was stabbed and his throat was cut. The men supposedly had posed as Roundheads, gaining admission to Doncaster by pretending to have dispatches to deliver from Cromwell, who may have ordered the kidnapping or assassination.
Apparently no attempt was made to punish the killers. According to one account, three of the men who murdered Rainsborough were Colonel Morris, Sir John Digby and Captain Thomas Paulden.