The Levellers, falsely so called 2.0 part 1

Some weeks ago I gave a speech to Libertarian Home on a subject of great interest to me, the Leveller movement from the time of the English Civil Wars and Revolution. For those who attended and for those who watch the video, I hope I managed to impart something of value, although, having watched it myself, I am aware of the flaws. I always saw my main problem as akin to trying to put a quart into a pint pot, given the complexity of the general political narrative, the time limits for the speech and my own propensity to go off on tangents. Therefore, what follows, here and in subsequent posts, is an enlarged version of the speech, where certain gaps are plugged, and with the addition of links to various sources on the internet for those whose interest was perhaps kindled.

The Context: The Revolution, the Interregnum and the Civil War which preceded it

In January 1649 the king of England, Charles I, was put on trial in front of a special tribunal, accused of treason, found guilty and executed. The monarchy was then abolished, the House of Lords was abolished and a unicameral Parliament was set up with the remnants of the House of Commons, later christened “the Rump” by its enemies. England thereby ceased to be a monarchy and became a republic of sorts, “the Commonwealth of England”. This lasted about four years until Oliver Cromwell, one of the chief instigators of the revolution and the most powerful military leader, dissolved Parliament and became, until his death in 1658, a sort of Caesarean military dictator, with the title of Lord Protector. As is often the case with dictatorships, the problem was the succession. When Cromwell died there was a brief attempt to install his son, Richard Cromwell (nicknamed “Tumble down Dick”) as Lord Protector, but he had nothing like his father’s prestige or power, so swiftly abdicated, at which point the Rump Parliament Cromwell had dissolved crawled out of the woodwork and attempted to reanimate the republic, but there was another military coup under General George Monck, who invited the son of the executed king back from exile, to be crowned Charles II in 1660. This period of eleven years, from the execution of Charles I to the restoration of the monarchy is known as the Interregnum.

What had led to the revolution was a struggle for supremacy between the king and Parliament which broke out into civil war in 1642. By 1645 the king’s armies had been largely defeated, and in 1646 he surrendered to the Scots, who were at that time occupying northern England and allied to the English Parliament. In early 1647, in return for a sum of money, with which they paid off their troops and went home, the Scots handed over the king to the English Parliament. The question then for the victorious Parliament was, with the war won, how to settle the peace? The two main obstacles to this were; firstly getting the king to agree to anything, especially given the risk he would renege on the deal once the opportunity arose, and secondly the divisions in the Parliamentary side, wherein two main factions are usually identified; the Presbyterians and the Independents, with the former dominant in Parliament at this time, and the latter within the most effective military force of the war, the New Model Army.

It is within this period, from 1647 to 1649, that what has been called the Leveller movement rose to prominence.

What is/was a leveller?

The original meaning of the word leveller was one who levelled fences, specifically fences enclosing land for private use which had previously been open to common use. This was not usually, I believe, common land per se, but rather land owned by the local squire or lord of the manor, over which the common people had certain customary rights of usage, such as grazing cattle or collecting firewood. In its original meaning, therefore, leveller conjures up the idea of a revolting peasant.

Prior to and during the Civil War there was certainly an amount of such levelling going on, as country folk took advantage of the disorder of the war to seize back what they considered to be their own, but by the time the word gets applied to the political radicals with whom I am concerned, the meaning has shifted towards the idea of levelling men’s estates, the implication being that the radicals were seeking some form of egalitarian communism. The Implication and the name itself were rejected by these newly-christened “Levellers”, who saw it as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent their intentions and to blacken their reputation with the public. However the name has stuck in the historical record, to the extent that today it only really means these radicals. In the same way, nobody thinks much about Irish guerrillas any more when they hear the word “Tory”.

Of the many examples of the Levellers repudiating the term, I would cite a pamphlet which is usually listed as “The Levellers Vindicated”; full title; “The Levellers (falsely so called) Vindicated”, or Richard Overton’s “The Baiting of the Great Bull of Basham” which is addressed especially to “the citizens of London meeting in the Whalebone on Lothbury behind the Royal Exchange, commonly (though unjustly) styled levellers. John Lilburne, the most important of the Leveller leaders, put it thus:

“This Conceit of Levelling of property and Magistracy is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason, or ingenuity, can be imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would, if practiced destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man by another. For as industry and valour by which the societies of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take the pains for that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? or who will fight for that, wherein he hath no other interest, but such as must be subject to the will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low spirited fellow. that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant man in all his brave and noble achievement? The ancient encouragement to men that were to defend their Country was this: that they were to hazard their persons for that which was their own, to wit, their own wives, their own children, their own Estates. And this give me leave to say, and that in truth, that those men in England, that are most branded with the name of Levellers, are of all in that Nation, most free from any design of Levelling, in the sense we have spoken of.”

In the above quote one can see an early iteration of what is usually referred to as the “incentive problem” in socialism, i.e. if everyone gets an equal share no matter how hard they work, why would anyone bother to exert themselves? (Or, as Murray N. Rothbard would put it; “Who will take out the garbage?”). One further effect of the use of the name was to introduce into the Leveller political programme a specific disavowal and legal prohibition against levelling men’s estates. Thus clause XXX in the final version of their proposed constitutional settlement, the Agreement of the People, (May 1649) reads:

“We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative, in any wise, to render up, or give, or take away any part of this Agreement, nor level mens Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common.”

The leaders of the movement

The Leveller movement grew up and coalesced around one man above all others; John Lilburne. Alongside him were two other men, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. Together these three produced the most important literary works defining what the Levellers stood for. It would, however, be a mistake to think of John Lilburne primarily as a writer, rather than a political leader. He certainly wrote copiously, but most of this was in prison. Had he not spent so much of his adult life behind bars, he may not have written so much. This is less true in the case of Overton and Walwyn, of whose lives we know much less, and who were less prominent public figures.

Differences of opinion can be found between Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, such as in their religious beliefs, and their attitude to the law (particularly as to the extent to which the written law from Magna Charta onwards provided a shield from tyranny), but taken together one gets the impression of a great team, each with his own strengths. As to their different religious perspectives, given their firm adherence to the principle of freedom of conscience, any differences we may infer do not seem to have caused any disunity between them.

As writers, each has his individual style, which is fortunate, given the number of pamphlets published anonymously, pseudonymously or signed by more than one writer. Historians of the period are thus provided with a sport, to attribute such works to the pen of one or more of them. Lilburne tends to write at greater length than his colleagues, beating his readers into submission, with page after page and example after example, and quotes from the Bible and the law abounding. His writing usually contains a great deal of autobiographical detail. Indeed, Lilburne’s personal struggles are often portrayed by himself and others as exemplifying the tyranny under which the nation suffers – he is the canary in the coalmine, and whatever they can do to him, they can do to anyone else. Hence, a Petition of Women from 1649, whilst Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and fellow leader Thomas Prince languished in the Tower of London, states:

“Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families? Are not our husbands, our selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they?”

One of his better and more succinct works is “The Second Part of England’s New Chains”, which is, incidentally, what provoked the Rump government to take the action noted above in the petition.

Overton tends to be the most satirical of the writers, often humorous, sharing with Lilburne the fiery rhetoric, but doing so with more clarity and brevity. His portrait of Cromwell and co., taken from “The Hunting of the Foxes” captures a great deal with few words:

“Was there ever a generation of men so Apostate so false and so perjur’d as these? Did ever men pretend an higher degree of Holinesse, Religion, and Zeal to God and their Country than these? These preach, these fast, these pray, these have nothing more frequent then the sentences of sacred Scripture, the Name of God and of Christ in their mouthes: You shall scarce speak to Crumwell about any thing, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.”

A good example of his work, quoted in the speech, is “An Arrow Against All Tyrants”.

William Walwyn is much more the quiet voice of reason. He very much believed that through rational discourse, people of good will could be persuaded. His habit of engaging in Socratic debate did however lead him to be accused of holding many opinions which he did not in fact hold, simply because he would often require his accusers to justify rationally why they themselves opposed such opinions, or why they held others, even those which he most likely shared with them. He was additionally, by all accounts, an effective political organiser behind the scenes, leaving the speech-giving to Lilburne and others. A good example of his style and his more pacific attitude is found in the pamphlet “The Bloody Project” in which he condemns all the warring parties in the Second Civil War of 1648, thus:

“To be short, all the quarrel we have at this day in the Kingdom, is no other than a quarrel of Interests, and Parties, a pulling down of one Tyrant, to set up another, and instead of Liberty, heaping upon ourselves a greater slavery than that we fought against…”

“The King, Parliament, great men in the City and Army, have made you but the stairs by which they have mounted to Honor, Wealth and Power. The only Quarrel that has been, and at present is but this, namely, whose slaves the people shall be”.

(I should note that not every historian agrees over the authorship of all the works mentioned above.)

Separate from Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, mention should be made of other important figures who did not leave behind a body of work, but certainly played a key role in the struggle, most notably Thomas Rainsborough, the highest ranking radical in the army, and Edward Sexby, one of the common soldiers’ representatives in the General Council of the Army. Both of these feature in the famous army debates held in Putney (discussed later), and were instrumental in pushing the army towards a peace settlement based on the Leveller programme. The death of Rainsborough in 1648 (under somewhat murky circumstances) robbed the Levellers of possibly the one man who could have resisted Cromwell’s derailment of the army’s radical agenda.

John Lilburne’s first struggle

John Lilburne first comes to public attention back before the Civil War, in 1637 (during the period in which King Charles ruled without calling a Parliament, from 1629 to 1640), when he is arrested in possession of a number of illegal books attacking the established church, which he has had printed and imported from Holland. He is taken in front of the Court of Star Chamber. This was not an ordinary court of law, but rather an instrument of the Privy Council, in which the usual procedures of the common law did not apply. He is required to take an oath and answer any questions that are posed to him. He refuses to take the oath and he refuses to answer any questions, on the grounds that he has a right under the law not to be forced to bear witness against himself. He demands that, if he has broken any known law, he should be charged and brought into an ordinary court to be tried by a jury of his peers.

This does not go down very well with the Star Chamber judges. He is sentenced to a large fine, and to be tied to the back of a cart and whipped from the Fleet prison (at the far end of modern Fleet Street) to Whitehall and put in the pillory. He bears his punishment with courage. With every lash of the whip he cries out to Jehovah for strength and fortitude, and when put in the pillory he sermonizes to the crowd, denouncing the bishops and challenging them to debate him. Somehow he manages to throw copies of the banned book into the crowd. The order comes down to shut him up, which he will not do, so they bind his mouth, but even then he stamps his feet and makes what noise he can. He will not be silenced. Such a stout performance endears him to the people, and from this point onwards, John Lilburne’s reputation as a man who will stand up for justice against the high and mighty is established. He languishes in jail for the next two years, until Parliament, finally called after eleven years, orders his release and abolishes the Star Chamber.

From this earliest stage in Lilburne’s “career” we can see the core elements of what will later become the Leveller programme. Firstly; freedom of religion. Secondly; freedom of the press. Thirdly; freedom of trade. Not only is a very rigid censorship in place, but publishing is engrossed under a monopoly, and anyone wanting to publish a book is required to pay dues to the Stationer’s Company. The forth element, which is central to so much of Lilburne’s struggle is the matter of law, and the liberties he claims, with reference to Magna Charta, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes and sundry statutes, as a “freeborn Englishman”.

One important aside to make at this point relates to a very well-known ruling of the United States Supreme Court in the case Miranda versus the State of Arizona, affirming the necessity of informing a prisoner of his right to remain silent and to legal counsel, in the absence of which any information given by the prisoner is to be disregarded. Mr Chief Justice Warren, delivering the opinion of the Court, stated:

“We sometimes forget how long it has taken to establish the privilege against self-incrimination, the sources from which it came and the fervor with which it was defended. Its roots go back into ancient times. Perhaps the critical historical event shedding light on its origins and evolution was the trial of one John Lilburn, a vocal anti-Stuart Leveller, who was made to take the Star Chamber Oath in 1637. The oath would have bound him to answer to all questions posed to him on any subject. He resisted the oath and declaimed the proceedings, stating: “   no man’s conscience ought to be racked by oaths imposed, to answer to questions concerning himself in matters criminal, or pretended to be so.” … The lofty principles to which Lilburn had appealed during his trial gained popular acceptance in England. These sentiments worked their way over to the Colonies and were implanted after great struggle into the Bill of Rights. Those who framed our Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ever aware of subtle encroachments on individual liberty. They knew that “illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing . . . by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.”

What is the law?

John Lilburne’s concept of the law was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Edward Coke, whose views on the Common Law contained primarily in his Institutes, however historically accurate or not, had been given official sanction as good law. Leaning on Coke, Lilburne was able to justify his claims to certain protections, such as the right to a jury trial and the right to refuse to answer questions which may incriminate himself, with arguments that could convince the layman, if not the legal expert. The Leveller programme contained a number of reforms to the law, such as insisting that the English language must be used throughout (it was still largely written in Norman French and Latin, a tangible instance of the infamous “Norman Yoke”!), a more humane sentencing policy towards lesser offences, with the death penalty reserved only for the most heinous crimes, an end to imprisonment for debt, and a removal of all privileges by birth or grant, to make all people equal in the eyes of the law and subject to the same rules.

As with Lilburne, so with the king and Parliament, the issue was not so much what the law should be but what it actually was. The original dispute between king and Parliament centred on the relationship between his royal prerogative and the law. Did it float above the law, or was it contained within?.

Writing a century later Robert Molesworth, in his preface to the translation of Franco-Gallia, states:

“By the old and true Maxim, that the King can do no Wrong, nobody is so foolish as to conclude, that he has not Strength to murder, to offer Violence to Women, or Power enough to dispossess a Man wrongfully of his Estate, or that whatever he does (how wicked soever) is just: but the Meaning is, he has no lawful Power to do such Things; and our Constitution considers no Power as irresistible, but what is lawful.”

However, King Charles took a more literal view of the phrase, and, in the period during which he ruled without Parliament, with regard to the Ship Money case, the courts supported him. Furthermore, the king adhered, like his father to a belief in the divine right of kings, and considered himself answerable only to God.

The Parliament, seeking to constrain the king and aggrandise its own powers, were obliged to fall back from arguments based on precedent – they were seeking powers Parliaments had never possessed in the past – to making appeals to reason and general principle, such as “salus populi suprema lex”. However, framing the defence of their actions in the name of the people’s safety, begged the question as to the relationship between the Parliament and the people, and, by extension the relationship between sovereignty and the people. The king’s supporters were quick to spot how Parliament’s arguments led inexorably towards the concept of popular sovereignty, which was the last thing most of the Parliamentarians were calling for, seeing themselves not as the representatives of the people, but rather the embodiment of the people. Either way, as the cavalier propagandists noted, the vast majority of the people of England had no say in their election.

Notwithstanding the absence of support for popular sovereignty, in challenging the king’s prerogative and appealing to reason and the safety of the people, the Parliamentarians could not avoid opening the Pandora’s Box, out of which it climbed.

To be continued …

  3 comments for “The Levellers, falsely so called 2.0 part 1

  1. Jun 11, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Quite correct Richard – enclosure was about changing USE of land that ALREADY WAS under private “free hold” (the Feudal Common Law version of what Roman Law calls private ownership) – where the “free hold” actually was communal (vested in the local village or whatever) there was no question of enclosure (by the way without enclosure modern methods of farming could not be used – so the agricultural revolution and industrial revolutions would have been still born, England would have faced the horrors that Ireland eventually faced).

    Those who oppose enclosure (talking of “stealing land from the people”) normally do not know what they are talking about. Although things varied from county to county (it is incredibly complicated).


    The so called “Levellers” were not basically interested in the above at all – that is why you (and Richard Overton) are right to call them “The Levellers, falsely so called”. Although Richard O. really should have thought up a different name – and really PUSHED it, the word “Leveller” just had to much baggage attached to it (and there were real Levellers about – for example the “Diggers” eight miles from where I am sitting).

    The name “Leveller” was a smear attack by their enemies – to try and associate them with ignorant fence breakers and hedge burners.

    The real concerns of the Moderates (as they called themselves – but not enough) were just as you describe.

    As for the actual opinions of ordinary people ……..

    Who knows if they supported King or Parliament – or were just uninterested in politics.

    Certainly it has often been claimed that if really had been “put to the people” (with everyone having the vote) then as late as 1688 – most ordinary people would have voted for James II (no Revolution of 1688).

    • Jun 13, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      I cannot fully agree with you here, Paul. Even though much enclosed land was not previously held in common, the people often did have certain customary rights, which enclosure abrogated, so, depending on the status of such rights, some enclosures may have been contrary to the law. I’m sure that keeping the land use as it had been in feudal times would have prevented economic development, but it may well be the case that enclosure was often implemented unjustly, due to the precarious nature of the property rights of the common people.

      It is true that the so-called Levellers were not much concerned with the matter, their focus being elsewhere, and they most certainly did not subscribe to the kind of ideas put about by Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, who wished the land to be a ‘common treasury for all’.

Comments are closed.