The Levellers 1640-1649

The word “Leveller” was first heard in 1606 when a band of men roamed the Warwickshire countryside, uprooting or levelling fences and hedges enclosing the once-common lands. These detested barriers had been going up all over England for eighty years.

Enclosing the “waste-land” that from time immemorial had been common property brought increasing misery to the poor and greater .wealth to the rich. Large areas were turned into sheep walks to satisfy the growing demand abroad for superior English wool. In Thomas More’s Utopia we read, “The sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters now as I heare say be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves”. Fresh ideas on farming and improved methods of stock-breeding made squires land-greedy. Enclosing was the polite name for stealing; people were driven from their homes to give pasture to sheep. Their only hope of survival lay in the towns, where they were fleeced even more closely than their woolly competitors.

Inventions and the necessity for larger ships meant bigger outlay and brought a demand for more money in the form of capital. A rich, powerful merchant class came into being. The first bank—the Bank of England, 1694—came with it.

The land lost much of its aristocratic value; the traditional obligations to tenant and labourer tended to disappear. The old tyrant with titles was often superseded by a new tyrant with money. Farmworkers were tricked out of rights of tenure. Though freed from the old bondage they were enslaved in a new and often terrifying system.

Throughout these tremendous changes Charles I remained obstinately feudal in outlook. Something was bound to happen. By 1628 the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. This gave its members confidence to resist the king’s demands for money. So in 1629 he closed Parliament for eleven years, hoping to show his recalcitrant M.Ps. that he alone held power. But in 1639 a rebellion broke out in Scotland, and by 1640 he had been forced to recall Parliament to vote the necessary money to quell the rising. Here was the opportunity the Members had dreamed of. They knew that archaic notions of kingship must give way to a governmental system favourable to the merchants.

As a warm-up for their startling policy they executed the king’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, who had been raising an army in Ireland to crush Parliament. At the same time John Lilburne, leader of a “left-wing” group—the Levellers—was released from prison, where he had resided two years for issuing anti-State Church pamphlets. Now free, he got an Army command.

With this widespread opposition came a taste for democratic expression. The popularity of Cromwell’s rising faction gave the Levellers a chance to speak out. How and where did they fit into the political ferment?

Parliament was divided. On the right were the Anglican Royalists, conservative and pro-Charles. On the left were the Independents, radical but not united. They were divided into a right-wing called Gentlemen Independents headed by Cromwell, Ireton, and Fairfax, and a left-wing known as the Levellers. The latter reflected the aspirations of small farmers, humbler-tradtsmen, work people and soldiers. They advocated greater political equality than the Independents and had a widespread popular support.

In addition to political demands the civilian arm of the movement (the Diggers) urged greater economic equality; and in recognising that all political organisations and freedoms spring from or are crushed by the particular mode of land-ownership, they earned for themselves the undying hatred of Cromwell.

At this stage the Levellers were welcomed by the Radicals. All through the struggle the Levellers did best in the army, perhaps because there they were better organised than the Diggers. Both issued a considerable mass of literature, the Levellers maintaining that economic freedom followed from political freedom, and the Diggers seeing it rather the other way.

Common-ownership of the land was the bed-rock of their philosophy. Stripped of its Biblical overtones it stated a view that is still a staggering novelty to millions today. “. . . the time will be when all men shall willingly come in and give up their lands and estates and submit to the community.” They added, “and of that for money there was no need of it” (if men led communal lives). In the letter to Lord Halifax, Winstanley asked, “I demand whether all wars, bloodshed and misery came not upon creation when one man endeavoured to be a lord over another.”

In an article in the Leveller paper, The Moderate in 1649, after some men were executed for cattle-stealing, a writer suggested private property was the cause of a great deal of crime committed by the poor, “We find,” he wrote, “some of these felons to be very civil men, and say, that if. they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise they should never have taken such necessitous courses for the support of their wives and families.” The paper was suppressed after September, 1649, by “democratic” Cromwell.

The Levellers just as clearly saw that religion with its mirage of a happy future life was the carrot that encouraged the poor donkey of a labourer to stagger on. Winstanley wrote, “. . . to know God beyond the creation or to know what he will do to a man after the man is dead, in any other wise than to scatter him into his essences of fire, water, earth and air of which he is compounded (a belief handed down by the ancient Greeks) is a knowledge beyond the line or capacity of man to attain to while he lives in his compounded body.” Richard Overton, too, wrote in Man’s Mortality that the idea of the soul was ridiculous.

The New Model Army (Roundheads) was Parliament’s striking force, its job to overthrow the king. But because its ranks were filled with many pro-Leveller men the Levellers saw in it a means of getting better conditions for the poor. On May 20th, 1647, “a great petition” was sent to the Commons demanding political reforms and the re-organisation of the Constitution. When the re-imprisoned Lilburne (he was in and out of gaol between 1646-1648 for various attacks on authority) heard that the common hangman had been instructed to burn it, he looked to the army for support. He declared the power of the land vested in the army, and at this point Cromwell agreed. Next, a manifesto, The Case of the Army Truly Stated, was presented to General Fairfax on October 15th, 1647, and later An Agreement of the People, which dealt more with civil matters.

Fearing the support gained by the Levellers, the Presbyterians compromised with Charles. Enraged, the Independents with the Levellers marched to London, entered the House and passed a measure to thwart any attempt to corrupt the army; the Presbyterians were crushed. Though Cromwell had been aided by the Levellers, he refused to free Lilburne. When we see what the Levellers were after, we can understand why! The Case of the Army Truly Stated listed thirteen points:

1. New election for new parliament.
2. House of Commons to be cleared of royalist sympathisers.
3. Army’s supremacy to be made known officially.
4. Excise tax to be lifted from the poor, Better tax-laws.
5. Trials to be speeded up and improved conditions for prisoners.
6. Greater religious tolerance.
7. Abolition of tithes.
8. Oath of Supremacy to be abolished.
9. No oaths from those with conscience scruples. 10. Law reform to enable laymen to understand legal matters.
11. Removal of privileges. All to be subject to same laws.
12. Enclosed land to be returned to common use.
13. Pensions for disabled soldiers, widows and children.

The stir that these programmes made, forced Fairfax, Cromwell and the others Grandees (as they were somewhat derisively called) to allow their discussion in a series of debates held in Putney. Cromwell reasoned that if these fiery demands could be proved too extreme or impractical. Leveller influence would diminish and the threat to his supremacy would disappear. The main point was that the vote was the birthright of all men, and to this Ireton replied, “. . . voting was a property right. Only those who owned a house worth 40s a year in rent or who had a freehold interest in land should vote. The protection of private property was of the utmost importance, now that freedom had been won. Everyone was free to make money, and to own property, and the law was there to protect them while they did it.” Rainborough for the Levellers retorted that what was required in voting was reason not property. And Sexby added, “. . . as things are today unless a man has fixed property, he has no rights in England at all.”

Cromwell had the Case of the Army condemned in Parliament. Next, he set out to quell his army and persuade the least influenced to sign a pledge of loyalty at Corkbush Field, Ware, in Hertfordshire. There the Agreement of the People was presented to Fairfax. He accepted it, but told the men to go on signing and they did. But then up rode two dissenting regiments singing and wearing the Leveller colours. Immediately Cromwell drew his sword and rode angrily among them, tearing away their colours. His sudden action quietened them. The ringleaders were arrested; three were found guilty and one of these was shot.

It was a serious defeat for the Levellers. They tried resistance again, but were imprisoned and Lilburne remained in the Tower. At Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, Charles in 1648 launched another attack (the Second Civil War). All the contesting elements of Parliament sank their differences again in preparation for the fray. The artful Presbyterians released Lilburne, hoping he would stir the army to mutiny. But he supported Cromwell, presumably regarding him as the lesser of two evils.

After the royalist defeat more discussion on the Agreement of the People followed and it actually reached Parliament, but lay in abeyance while the king’s fate was decided. On January 30th, 1649, Charles, king by the grace of God, died by the grace of the merchants.

(to be concluded)


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