were a political movement
during the English Civil War
(1642–1651) 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.
Illustration from the 1649 title page of The Declaration and Standard of the Levellers of England
The Levellers were not a political party in the modern sense of the term.[how?]
They were organised at the national level, with offices in a number of London inns and taverns such as The Rosemary Branch in Islington, which got its name from the sprigs of rosemary that Levellers wore in their hats as a sign of identification.
From July 1648 to September 1649, they published a newspaper, The Moderate
and were pioneers in the use of petitions and pamphleteering to political ends.
They identified themselves by sea-green ribbons worn on their clothing.
After Pride's Purge
and the execution of Charles I
, power lay in the hands of the Grandees
in the Army (and to a lesser extent with the Rump Parliament
). The Levellers, along with all other opposition groups, were marginalised by those in power and their influence waned. By 1650, they were no longer a serious threat to the established order.
Origin of name
The term "leveller" had been used in 17th-century England as a term of abuse for rural rebels. In the Midland Revolt
of 1607, the name was used to refer to those who levelled hedges in enclosure riots
As a political movement, the term first referred to a faction of New Model Army Agitators
and their London supporters who were allegedly plotting to assassinate Charles I of England
. But the term was gradually attached to John Lilburne
, Richard Overton
, and William Walwyn
and their "faction". Books published in 1647–1648 often reflect this terminological uncertainty. The public "identification" was largely due to the aspersions by Marchamont Needham
, the author of the newspaper Mercurius Pragmaticus
. Lilburne, John Wildman
and Richard Baxter
later thought that Oliver Cromwell
and Henry Ireton
had applied the term to Lilburne's group during the Putney Debates
of late 1647.
Lilburne considered the term pejorative and called his supporters "Levellers so-called" and preferred "Agitators".
The term suggested that the "Levellers" aimed to bring all down to the lowest common level. The leaders vehemently denied the charge of "levelling", but adopted the name because it was how they were known to the majority of people. After their arrest and imprisonment in 1649, four of the "Leveller" leaders – Walwyn, Overton, Lilburne and Thomas Prince
– signed a manifesto in which they called themselves Levellers.
The Oxford English Dictionary
dates the first written use of the term for a political movement to 1644,
in Marchamont Needham
's pamphlet The Case for the Commonwealth of England Stated
which however dates from 1650.
The OED notes the term was also used in a letter of 1 November 1647.
The 19th-century historian S. R. Gardiner
suggested that it existed as a nickname
before this date. Blair Worden
, the most recent historian to publish on the subject, concluded that the 1 November letter was the first recorded use of the term.
The letter referred to extremists among the Army agitators: "They have given themselves a new name, viz. Levellers, for they intend to sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom".
Worden shows that the term first appeared in print in a book by Charles I
called His Majesties Most Gracious Declaration
. This tract was a printing of a letter that had been read in the House of Lords on 11 November 1647. Although George Thomason
did not date this tract, the last date internal to the document was Saturday 13 November 1647, suggesting a publication date of 15 November 1647.
The Levellers' agenda developed in tandem with growing dissent within the New Model Army
in the wake of the First Civil War. Early drafts of the Agreement of the People
emanated from army circles and appeared before the Putney Debates
of October and November 1647, and a final version, appended and issued in the names of prominent Levellers Lt. Col. Lilburne, Walwyn, Overton and Prince appeared in May 1649. It called for an extension of suffrage to include almost all the adult male population (but excluding wage-earners, for reasons mentioned below), electoral reform, biennial elections, religious freedom, and an end to imprisonment for debt. They were committed broadly to the abolition of corruption
within the parliamentary and judicial process, toleration of religious differences, the translation of law into the common tongue and, arguably, something that could be considered democracy in its modern form – arguably the first time contemporary democratic ideas had been formally framed and adopted by a political movement. The Levellers have been seen as having undemocratic tendencies by some as they excluded household servants and those dependent upon charitable handouts from suffrage as Levellers feared that poor, dependent men would simply vote as their masters wished. It would also have excluded women; most adult women were married and, as wives, were legally and financially dependent on their husbands.
Some Levellers like Lilburne argued that the English Common law, particularly the Magna Carta
, was the foundation of English rights and liberties, but others, like William Walwyn, compared the Magna Carta to a "mess of potage
". Lilburne also harked back in his writing to the notion of a Norman yoke
that has been imposed on the English people and to some extent argued that the English were simply seeking to reclaim those rights they had enjoyed before the Conquest.
Levellers tended to hold fast to a notion of "natural rights
" that had been violated by the King's side in the Civil Wars (1642–1651). At the Putney Debates in 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough
defended natural rights as coming from the law of God expressed in the Bible
. Richard Overton considered that liberty was an innate property of every person. Michael Mendle
has demonstrated the development of Leveller ideas from elements of early parliamentarian thought as expressed by men such as Henry Parker
In July 1645, John Lilburne was imprisoned for denouncing Members of Parliament
who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for the Parliamentary
cause. His offence was slandering William Lenthall
, the Speaker of the House of Commons
, whom he accused of corresponding with Royalists
. He was freed in October 1645 after a petition requesting his release, signed by over 2,000 leading London citizens, was presented to the House of Commons.
In July 1646, Lilburne was imprisoned again, this time in the Tower of London
, for denouncing his former army commander, the Earl of Manchester
, as a Royalist
sympathiser because he had protected an officer who had been charged with treason
. It was the campaigns to free Lilburne from prison that spawned the movement known as the Levellers. Richard Overton was arrested in August 1646 for publishing a pamphlet
attacking the House of Lords
. During his imprisonment, he wrote an influential Leveller manifesto, "An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny".
The soldiers in the New Model Army
elected "Agitators" from each regiment to represent them. These Agitators were recognised by the Army's commanders and had a seat on the General Council. However, by September 1647, at least five regiments of cavalry had elected new unofficial agitators and produced a pamphlet called "The Case of the Army truly stated". This was presented to the commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax, on 18 October 1647. In this, they demanded a dissolution of Parliament within a year and substantial changes to the constitution of future Parliaments that were to be regulated by an unalterable "law paramount".
The senior officers in the Army (nicknamed "Grandees") were angered by the "Case of the Army" and ordered the unofficial Agitators to give an account of their principles before the General Council of the Army. These debates, known as the Putney Debates
, were held in St. Mary's Church, Putney
, in the county of Surrey
between 28 October and 11 November 1647. The Agitators were assisted by some civilians, notably John Wildman
and Maximillian Petty
, who had been connected to the Army as civilian advisers since July 1647. On 28 October, the Agitator Robert Everard
presented a document entitled "An Agreement of the People
, which was inherently republican and democratic, appeared to conflict with the terms of settlement that had already been endorsed by the General Council in July entitled "The Heads of the Proposals
The "Heads of the Proposals" contained many demands that looked towards social justice but relied upon the King to agree to them and bring them into law through acts of Parliament. The new Agitators, who distrusted the King, demanded that England be settled from "the bottom up" rather than the "top down" by giving the vote to most adult males. The debates help to throw light on the areas on which supporters of the Parliamentarian side agreed and those on which they differed. For example, Ireton asked whether the phrase in the Agreement "according to the number of the inhabitants" gave a foreigner just arrived in England and resident in a property the right to vote. He argued that a person must have a "permanent interest of this kingdom" to be entitled to vote, and that "permanent interest" means owning property, which is where he and the Levellers disagreed. To modern eyes, the debates seem to draw heavily on the Bible to lay out certain basic principles. This is to be expected in an age still racked by religious upheavals in the aftermath of the reformation
and particularly in an army where soldiers were, in part, selected for their religious zeal. It is notable that John Wildman
resisted religious language, arguing that the Bible produced no model for civil government and that reason should be the basis of any future settlement.
The Corkbush Field rendezvous
on 17 November 1647, was the first of three meetings to take place as agreed in the Putney Debates. The Army commanders Thomas Fairfax
and Cromwell were worried by the strength of support for Levellers in the Army, so they decided to impose "The Heads of the Proposals" as the army's manifesto instead of the Levellers' "Agreement of the People". When some refused to accept this (because they wanted the army to adopt the Levellers' document), they were arrested and one of the ringleaders, Private Richard Arnold
, was executed. At the other two meetings, the troops who were summoned agreed to the manifesto without further protest.
The Levellers' largest petition
, titled "To The Right Honourable The Commons Of England", was presented to Parliament
on 11 September 1648 after amassing signatories including about a third of all Londoners.
On 30 October 1648, Thomas Rainsborough
was killed. He was a Member of Parliament
and a Leveller leader who had spoken at the Putney Debates. 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.
On 20 January 1649, a version of the "Agreement of the People" that had been drawn up in October 1647 for the Army Council
and subsequently modified was presented to the House of Commons.
At the end of January 1649, Charles I of England
was tried and executed for treason against the people. In February, the Grandees banned petitions to Parliament by soldiers. In March, eight Leveller troopers went to the commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, Thomas Fairfax, and demanded the restoration of the right to petition
. Five of them were cashiered
out of the army.
In April, 300 infantrymen of Colonel John Hewson
's regiment, who declared that they would not serve in Ireland
until the Levellers' programme had been realised, were cashiered without arrears
of pay. This was the threat that had been used to quell the mutiny
at the Corkbush Field rendezvous. Later that month, in the Bishopsgate mutiny
, soldiers of the regiment of Colonel Edward Whalley
stationed in Bishopsgate
London made demands similar to those of Hewson's regiment; they were ordered out of London. When they refused to go, 15 soldiers were arrested and court martialed
. Six of their number were sentenced to death. Of these, five were later pardoned, while Robert Lockyer
(or Lockier), a former Levellers agitator, was hanged on 27 April 1649. "At his burial a thousand men, in files, preceded the corpse, which was adorned with bunches of rosemary dipped in blood; on each side rode three trumpeters
, and behind was led the trooper’s horse, covered with mourning; some thousands of men and women followed with black and green ribbons on their heads and breasts, and were received at the grave by a numerous crowd of the inhabitants of London and Westminster
Shortly afterwards, Cromwell attacked the "Banbury mutineers
", 400 troopers who supported the Levellers and who were commanded by Captain William Thompson
Several mutineers were killed in the skirmish. Captain Thompson escaped only to be killed a few days later in another skirmish near the Diggers
community at Wellingborough
. The three other leaders – William Thompson's brother, Corporal Perkins, and John Church – were shot on 17 May 1649. This destroyed the Levellers' support base in the New Model Army, which by then was the major power in the land. Although Walwyn and Overton were released from the Tower, and Lilburne tried and acquitted, the Leveller cause had effectively been crushed.
"The Moderate: Impartially communicating Martial Affaires to the Kingdome of England"
was a newspaper
published by the Levellers from July 1648 to September 1649.
In a 1724 rising against enclosures
, a number of men who took part in it were called "Levellers" or "Dykebreakers
They were confronted by six troops of dragoons
, after which nocturnal attacks continued for six months, making it the most serious rural disturbance in 18th-century Scotland.
The word was also used in Ireland
during the 18th century to describe a secret revolutionary society similar to the Whiteboys
- ^ Rachel Foxley (2013). The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution. Oxford UP. p. 207. ISBN 9780719089367.
- ^ Howell & Brewster, Reconsidering the Levellers: The Evidence of the Moderate Past & Present No. 46, September 1970 pp. 68–86
- ^ "Levelers". Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. 2001–2007. Archived from the original on 24 June 2008. Retrieved 2 July 2008.
- ^ Plant, David (14 December 2005). "The Levellers". British Civil Wars and Commonwealth website. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 2 July 2008.
- ^ Perez Zagorin (1982). Rebels and Rulers, 1500–1660. Volume II Provincial rebellion. Revolutionary civil wars, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-28712-X. p. 164
- ^ Whitney Richard David Jones (2000). The Tree of Commonwealth, 1450–1793, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, ISBN 0-8386-3837-6. pp. 133 Archived 23 July 2017 at the Wayback Machine,164
- ^ Mendle (2001), Chapter by Blair Worden, "The Levellers in History and Memory c. 1660–1960" p. 282
- ^ "leveller, n.". OED Online. June 2017. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/107665?redirectedFrom=levellers+ (accessed October 19, 2017). s.v. "Leveller": "1644 NEEDHAM Case Commw. 77 Our Levellers now exclaim against the Parliament".
- ^ Nedham, Marchamont, Knache, Philip A (1969). The Case of the Commonwealth of England, Stated, Associated University Press, ISBN 0-8139-0277-0, ISBN 978-0-8139-0277-7. p. ix
- ^ Gardiner, Great Civil War, iii. 380.
- ^ Mendle (2001), Chapter by Blair Worden, "The Levellers in History and Memory c. 1660–1960" pp. 280–82
- ^ a b One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Levellers". Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 506.
- ^ British Library Thomason Collection E413(15)
- ^ "J.P. Sommerville, "Free-born John" The English Rev, 1647–1649". Archived from the original on 31 May 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
- ^ George Sabine (1937) A History of Political Theory, p. 489, Holt, Rinehart and Winston
- ^ "An arrow against all tyrants Richard Overton, 12 October 1646". Archived from the original on 23 December 2005. Retrieved 20 September 2005.
- ^ The Agreement of the People Archived 11 October 2004 at the Wayback Machine as presented to the Council of the Army October 1647
- ^ "The Heads of the Proposals offered by the Army". Archived from the original on 11 October 2004. Retrieved 18 October 2004.
- ^ "To The Right Honovrable The Commons Of England in Parliament assembled. The humble Petition of Thousands wel-affected persons inhabiting the City of London, Westminster, the Borough of Southwark Hamblets, and places adjacent". Archived from the original on 2 February 2007. Retrieved 29 January 2007.
- ^ Agreement of the People and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety Archived 11 October 2004 at the Wayback Machine, as presented to Parliament in January 1649
- ^ The History of England: Chapter IV: The Commonwealth Archived 11 December 2004 at the Wayback Machine by John Lingard
- ^ Agreement of the Free People Archived 11 October 2004 at the Wayback Machine, extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649
- ^ "The testimony of the Burford Levellers". Archived from the original on 11 October 2004. Retrieved 18 October 2004.
- ^ "THE Levellers (Falsely so called) Vindicated, OR THE CASE Of the twelve Troops (which by Treachery in a Treaty) was lately surprised, and defeated at Burford". Archived from the original on 9 June 2007. Retrieved 29 January 2007.
- ^ OCLC 642444396
- ^ Howell & Brewster, "Reconsidering the Levellers: the evidence of The Moderate" Past & Present, No. 46, September 1970 pp. 68–86.
- ^ A. Lang, History of Scotland, vol. iv.
- ^ T. M. Devine: The Scottish Nation 1700–2007, Chapter 7
- HN Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution, edited and prepared for publication by Christopher Hill. (Cresset Books, 1961; Spokesman Books, 2nd Edition, 1983).
- Mendle, Michael (ed), The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers, and the English State. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-521-65015-1.
- Jürgen Diethe, Wir das freie Volk von England. Aufstieg und Fall der Levellers in der Englischen Revolution. Münster u.a., LIT Verlag, 2009 (Politica et Ars, 22), 280 S.
has original text related to this article:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Levellers
- Annis, Ben[dead link] Have Historians Exaggerated the Significance of Radical Movements in the English Revolution?
- Anderson, Angela; Cromwell and the Levellers interviewed as part of the preparation for Cromwell: New Model Englishman by Channel 4
- Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter (2008). "Levellers". In Hamowy, Ronald (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 290–92. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n176. ISBN 978-1412965804. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024.
- Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard (2000). Self-Ownership and Consent: The Contractarian Liberalism of Richard Overton. Journal of Libertarian Studies 15, 1 (Fall 2000): 43-96.
- Selected works of the Levellers
- Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
- John Lilburne and the Levellers
- BBC: Civil War & The Levellers (17th century)
- 1642–52: Levellers and Diggers in the English Revolution
- A Time-line for the Levellers
- The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn and Lilburne Note 1 in this link includes an explanation of the origins of the word Levellers.
- Hoile, David; The Levellers: Libertarian Radicalism and the English Civil War
- Feltham, Oliver, Anatomy of Failure – Philosophy and Political Action
Last edited on 12 June 2021, at 11:02
Content is available under CC BY-SA 3.0
unless otherwise noted.