Another in the series on historic sites on the “Thames Path” walk …
Putney was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Putelei (sic), and later, in 1279, as Puttenhuthe, taking its name from the Old English putta, meaning hawk, and hyth, landing place (Putta was also a personal name). However, archaeological evidence points to the existence of an isolated settlement here both in Roman times and indeed in prehistory.
For most of its long history, Putney was a quiet, predominantly pastoral agricultural and fishing village on the south bank of the Thames a few miles upriver from the City. In the Middle Ages, ferries connected it to Fulham on the north bank and to Westminster downriver. At this time, Putney constituted part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Manor of Wimbledon, alongside Mortlake and Roehampton. In the post-Medieval period, the manor passed into private hands, and a scattering of aristocratic houses were built here at this time, including John Lacy’s Putney Palace, where Elizabeth I and James I were royally entertained.
Thomas Cromwell, who went on to become Henry VIII’s Chief Minister, was born in Putney in 1485, although not into the nobility – famously, he was the son of a blacksmith, brewer and innkeeper, and fuller and cloth merchant.
Putney began to be more intensively built up after a bridge linking it to Fulham was built in 1729, and even more so after the arrival of the overground railway in 1846 and the “underground” in 1880 (the bridge was rebuilt in 1884-6). In the eighteenth century, it was something of a fashionable outer suburb, and the haunt of the Duchess of Marlborough and the Earls Spencer. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though, the relentless spread of London made it a decidedly inner suburb, albeit an at least locally leafy and affluent one.
Church of St Mary the Virgin
The church of St Mary the Virgin was originally built at least as long ago as the thirteenth century, the first record of it being from 1291, and Archbishop Winchelsea held an ordination there in 1302. The church was subsequently extended in the fifteenth century, in 1440, and rebuilt, to the design of Edward Lapidge, in the nineteenth, in 1836. It was then damaged by fire in 1973 and repaired and reopened in 1982. The tower survives from the fifteenth century.
The Putney Debates
The so-called “Putney Debates” were held in the church in 1647, in the midst of the Civil War. The debates, chaired by Cromwell and attended by officers and men of his New Model Army, many of whom were “Levellers”, addressed nothing of less import than the post-Civil War future and constitution of England.
Among the issues discussed were not only whether power should be vested in the King and House of Lords or in the Commons, but also whether there should be universal – male – suffrage (“one man, one vote”). Colonel Thomas Rainsborough (*), personifying the radical contingent, famously argued that: “ … [T]he poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee … ”.
Among the outcomes was a declaration of “native rights” for all Englishmen, including freedom of conscience, and equality before the law.
(*) Rainsborough went on to be killed during the siege of Pontefract, and to be buried in the church of St John in Wapping on November 14th 1648. For a fuller account of his extraordinary life, the reader is referred to “The Rainborowes” by Adrian Tinniswood.