Thomas Rainsborough

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Thomas Rainsborough
Born(1610-07-06)6 July 1610
Wapping London, England
Died29 October 1648(1648-10-29) (aged 38)
Resting placeSt. John's Church, Wapping, London
OccupationParliamentarian, Soldier, Leveller, Politician
Known for Political radicalism Levellers
Spouse(s)Margaret Rainsborough
ChildrenWilliam Rainsborough

Vice-Admiral Thomas Rainsborough (6 July 1610 – 29 October 1648), or Rainborowe, was a prominent figure in the English Civil War and the leading spokesman for the Levellers in the Putney Debates.

English Civil War series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians and Royalists

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians ("Roundheads") and Royalists ("Cavaliers") over, principally, the manner of England's governance. The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

Levellers political movement during the English Civil War, committed to popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance

The Levellers was a political movement during the English Civil War (1642–1651). It was committed to popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. The hallmark of Leveller thought was its populism, as shown by its emphasis on equal natural rights, and their practice of reaching the public through pamphlets, petitions and vocal appeals to the crowd. Its ideas were presented in its manifesto "Agreement of the People". In contrast to the Diggers, the Levellers opposed common ownership, except in cases of mutual agreement of the property owners. The Levellers came to prominence at the end of the First English Civil War (1642–1646) and were most influential before the start of the Second Civil War (1648–1649). Leveller views and support were found in the populace of the City of London and in some regiments in the New Model Army.



He was the son of William Rainsborough, a captain and Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy, and ambassador to Morocco (for his services to end white slavery he was offered a baronetcy, which he declined). [1] Before the war, Thomas and his brother, William Rainsborowe, were both involved in an expedition to the Puritan Providence Island colony, off the coast of Nicaragua [2] and the Rainsborough family had previous marriage links to Massachusetts. Thomas Rainsborough was devout in his religious beliefs and was a Fifth Monarchist. [3]

Captain William Rainsborough was an English Captain and Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy, English ambassador to Morocco and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1640 to 1642.

Major William Rainsborowe, or Rainborowe, was an officer in the English Navy and New Model Army in England during the English Civil War and the Interregnum. He was a political and religious radical who prospered during the years of the Parliamentary ascendancy and was an early settler of New England in North America.

Providence Island colony Colony in England

The Providence Island colony was established in 1631 by English Puritans on what is now the Colombian Department of Isla de Providencia, about 200 kilometres (120 mi) east of the coast of Nicaragua. Although intended to be a model Puritan colony, it also functioned as a base for privateers operating against Spanish ships and settlements in the region. In 1641, the Spanish overran and destroyed the colony.

Military career

Rainsborough served in the Parliamentary forces during both the first and second English Civil Wars. Originally a naval officer he commanded the Swallow, the Lion and other English naval vessels during the first civil war. By May 1645, he was a Colonel in the New Model Army having raised an infantry regiment. Rainsborough took an active part in the battles at Naseby and Bristol. In 1645 he captured the symbolic stronghold of Berkeley Castle for Parliament before moving to the siege of Oxford, which surrendered the following June. Later in 1646, he helped conclude the Siege of Worcester and was made the city's governor.

First English Civil War Civil war in England 1642–1646

The First English Civil War (1642–1646) began the series of three wars known as the English Civil War. "The English Civil War" was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations that took place between Parliamentarians and Royalists from 1642 until 1651, and includes the Second English Civil War (1648–1649) and the Third English Civil War (1649–1651). The wars in England were part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, being fought contemporaneously with equivalents in Scotland and Ireland. Many castles and high-status homes such as Lathom House were slighted during or after the conflict.

New Model Army army (1645-1660) in the English Civil War

The New Model Army of England was formed in 1645 by the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, and was disbanded in 1660 after the Restoration. It differed from other armies in the series of civil wars referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in that it was intended as an army liable for service anywhere in the country, rather than being tied to a single area or garrison. Its soldiers became full-time professionals, rather than part-time militia. To establish a professional officer corps, the army's leaders were prohibited from having seats in either the House of Lords or House of Commons. This was to encourage their separation from the political or religious factions among the Parliamentarians.

Naseby village in the United Kingdom

Naseby is a village in the District of Daventry in Northamptonshire, England. The population of the civil parish at the 2011 Census was 687.

Rainsborough's Flagship Constant Reformation.jpg
Rainsborough's Flagship

In 1648 Rainsborough was moved from the army and given, by Parliament, command of the navy, holding the rank of Vice-Admiral. His appointment was unpopular with both officers and sailors, resulting in a mutiny (and declaration for the King) of six ships on 27 May 1648. [4] In the same year he briefly replaced the Royalist sympathiser William Batten as Captain of Deal Castle, but was dismissed when the castle also declared for the King. Despite his previous experience, Rainsborough was viewed by the navy as being too radical and having been imposed on them by the army. As a result of the mutiny the Earl of Warwick was appointed Lord High Admiral, with Rainsborough returning to the army. On his return to the army, Rainsborough led the siege and victory at Colchester. From Colchester he was tasked with taking Pontefract Castle and it was during this siege he was killed.

Sir William Batten was an English naval officer and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1661 to 1667. As Surveyor of the Navy, he was a colleague of Samuel Pepys, who disliked him and regularly disparaged him in his famous Diary.

Colchester town in Essex, United Kingdom

Colchester is a historic market town and the largest settlement within the borough of Colchester in the county of Essex. Colchester was the first Roman-founded city in Britain, and Colchester lays claim to be regarded as Britain's oldest recorded town. It was for a time the capital of Roman Britain, and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.

Pontefract Castle a castle in West Yorkshire, England

PontefractCastle is a castle ruin in the town of Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, England. King Richard II is thought to have died there. It was the site of a series of famous sieges during the 17th-century English Civil War.

MP for Droitwich

In January 1647, Rainsborough became a member of parliament for Droitwich, Worcestershire, England.

A member of parliament (MP) is the representative of the voters to a parliament. In many countries with bicameral parliaments, this category includes specifically members of the lower house, as upper houses often have a different title. Member of Congress is an equivalent term in other jurisdictions.

Droitwich was the name of a constituency of the House of Commons of England in 1295, and again from 1554, then of the House of Commons of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800 and of the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1918. It was a parliamentary borough in Worcestershire, represented by two Members of Parliament until 1832, and by one member from 1832 to 1885. The name was then transferred to a county constituency electing one MP from 1885 until 1918.

Worcestershire County of England

Worcestershire is a county in the West Midlands of England. Between 1974 and 1998, it was merged with the neighbouring county of Herefordshire as Hereford and Worcester.

Putney Debates

Rainsborough was the most senior member of the Army Council to support the Leveller proposals. During the Putney Debates his arguments for universal suffrage were called 'anarchy' by Henry Ireton, who spoke for the Army Grandees. [5] During the debates, Rainsborough famously said:

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.

Putney Debates

The Putney Debates were a series of discussions between members of the New Model Army – a number of the participants being Levellers – concerning the makeup of a new constitution for Britain.

Henry Ireton English politician

Henry Ireton was an English general in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War, the son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell.

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. [6]

Death and controversy

In October 1648, Rainsborough was sent by his commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to the siege at Pontefract Castle. Whilst he was in nearby Doncaster, he was killed by four Royalists during a bungled kidnap attempt. The site is still marked today by a plaque outside of the House of Fraser. As Rainsborough was under Cromwell's disfavour and there were tensions between Rainsborough and the commander he was displacing, Henry Cholmeley, who later defected to the Royalists, many at the time wondered whether there was some Parliamentary complicity in his death, as do historians today. [7] However Royalist Propaganda may also have played a part in all the rumours. The four Royalists involved in the bungled kidnap crossed the River Don at Mexborough and hid out at Conisborough Castle before their failed attempt.

His murder was the subject of a ballad, published in 1648 called "Colonell Rainsborowes ghost or, a true relation of the manner of his death, who was murthered in his bed-chamber at Doncaster, by three of Pontefract souldiers who pretended that they had letters from Lieutenant General Cromwell, to deliver unto him." [8]

Funeral 1648

His funeral was the occasion for a large Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing the Levellers' ribbons of sea-green and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats. He was buried in St John's Churchyard, Wapping. After his death, his brother, William Rainsborowe, continued in the Ranter cause.

Plaque installed in Wapping 12 May 2013 Thomas Rainsborough plaque Wapping.JPG
Plaque installed in Wapping 12 May 2013

In May 2013 a plaque was unveiled by Cllr Rania Khan, John Rees (writer) and Tony Benn (former MP) in memory of Rainsborough at St John's, Wapping. [9]

Rainsborough is portrayed by Michael Fassbender in the Channel 4 drama The Devil's Whore .

He plays a minor but crucial role in the historical novel Traitor's Field, by Robert Wilton, published in 2013.


  1. The Medallic History of England
  2. The Surnames of Scotland, Their Origin, Meaning, and History – by George Fraser Black, Ph.D. (1866–1948)
  3. H. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (Nottingham, 1961)
  4. Samuel Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, Vol IV (London, 1987)
  5. Geoffrey Robertson, The Levellers: The Putney Debates (London, 2007)
  6. Key, Newton; Bucholz, Robert; Bucholz, R. O. (2 February 2009), Sources and Debates in English History, 1485 - 1714, John Wiley & Sons, p.  189, ISBN   978-1-4051-6276-0
  7. Thomas Rainborowe (c. 1610–1648): Civil War Seaman, Siegemaster and Radical by Whitney R.D. Jones (Boydell Press, 2005)
  8. Catalogue of prints and drawings in the British Museum, v. 1, p. 398 . British Museum. Department of prints and drawings (London), 1870.
  9. YouTube 2017.

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Further reading