Agitators were representatives of the rank-and-file soldiers of the New Model Army. They were first elected in 1647 when Parliament planned to disband the New Model and to form a new army for the invasion of Ireland. MPs entirely ignored the grievances of the soldiers who, despite having won the First Civil War for Parliament, had not been paid for many months; the soldiers had no guarantee of indemnity against prosecution for actions carried out under orders during the war and there was no provision for war widows and orphans. In March 1647, a petition was circulated amongst the soldiers setting out their grievances. Many officers supported the petition but Parliament demanded its suppression. Those who continued to support it were condemned as "enemies of the state". In response, eight cavalry regiments elected two Agitators each to convey the soldiers' views to the senior officers, or "Grandees".
Parliament was unnerved at the scale of the unrest yet persisted in trying to disband the Army without settlement of the soldiers' grievances. Presbyterian MPs went so far as to attempt to mobilise the London militia against the Army. Under pressure from the Agitators, General Fairfax agreed to hold a rendezvous of the Army at Newmarket in June 1647. A few days before the rendezvous, Cornet Joyce, an Agitator from Fairfax's own regiment, rode with a picked body of horse to Oxford, where he secured the Army's train of artillery against any attempt by Parliament to convey it to London, then rode with 500 troopers to Holmby House in Northamptonshire to secure the person of the King. Although it was accepted as a fait accompli by Cromwell and other senior officers, the Army's seizure of the King was carried out on the initiative of the Agitators.
At the Newmarket rendezvous (4-5 June 1647), The Solemn Engagement of the Army was adopted. This manifesto proposed the establishment of the Council of the Army, to be composed of senior officers along with two commissioned officers and two private soldiers chosen by each regiment; furthermore the Army resolved not to divide or disband until its grievances had been settled. By this time, military Agitators were co-operating with civilian Levellers to further their political ends. The Representation of the Army, issued on 14 June, called for a new Parliament to be elected on a wider franchise and stated the Army's right to be involved in the settlement of the nation.
The New Model Army occupied London and drove the Presbyterian Eleven Members from Parliament in August 1647. However, a split developed between the Agitators and the Grandees over the continuing efforts of Cromwell and Ireton to negotiate with King Charles and over the Grandees' unwillingness to accept the Levellers' proposals for the settlement of the nation. In October 1647, five of the most radical cavalry regiments elected new Agitators. The "New Agents" issued The Case of the Armie Truly Stated, which urged political reforms that included biennial elections, manhood suffrage and a written constitution. Along with the Levellers' Agreement of the People, the Case of the Armie formed the basis for discussion at the Putney Debates during October and November 1647.
Political activity in the New Model Army was curbed by the Grandees at the Corkbush Field rendezvous in November 1647, and eliminated after the Second Civil War with the suppression of the Leveller Mutinies in 1649.
C.H. Firth, Cromwell's Army (London 1902)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iii (London 1889)
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)