Friday, February 3, 2012

The Levellers

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Exploring the environment of 17th century Britain is never an easy task. With different countries, religions and individuals vying for power, it is a more complex situation than any political arena we are usually familiar with. Although my topic relates to the Levellers party and its subsequent demise, it is impossible to understand their rise without explaining the circumstances which helped to create them. Firstly I must give a brief outline as to how the British kingdom found itself in such an unstable condition. I also need to give a description of the hierarchical nature of its society so as to show where the attitudes of the Levellers came from. Only then can I speak of the party itself, its aims and beliefs, what took place and why I believe they failed to implement their ideas.

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Before the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Britain had enjoyed a period of relative political stability. Yet over the course of less than half a century, it would find itself in the thralls of civil war. In March of 1645 Charles I, a man who as a monarch has been described as “woefully inadequate” came to power. After a sneaky double cross to extract money from Parliament to fight a war against France, Charles dissolved Parliament and so began what the Whigs called “the eleven year tyranny”. During these years, between 1635-1640 Charles attempted a policy of absolute rule, the end result of which was a budget forever in the red. In an attempt to gain revenue, Charles implemented a number of laws designed to fine the gentry which caused a great deal of anger and resentment and which after ten years, led to people refusing to pay their taxes. He then set about trying to increase taxes in Scotland but thanks to inflation, the Scots really did not have much to tax. He also tried to reform the Scottish Church to align it with the English model, which led to an open revolt. In 1628 Scotland raised an army and in 1629 it invaded England. Charles sent his own army to meet the Scots but no fighting ensued. He then called Parliament and when they would not do his bidding, dissolved it again. Meanwhile the Scots sat at Newcastle demanding payment for their time. Finally Parliament was called again and this time passed an act which stated that it could only dissolve itself which led to both the beginning of the long Parliament (1640-1645) and the Scottish army receiving its compensation. The elections for the new parliament were keenly contested with the end result of the House of Commons dominated by Conservatives who opposed Charles’s rule. No direct move could be made against the King himself so Parliament pushed to rid itself of his advisers which led to the executions of Thomas Wentworth and Archbishop Laud. Also, many of the King’s actions were declared illegal by Parliament which led to the dismantling of the King’s apparatus of personal rule (absolution of feudal revenues, abolition of Court of High Commission, etc.) and the establishment of the supremacy of Common Law in England. The victory that the Scots had achieved was also seen by the Irish with mixed emotions. Firstly the Irish who had always been viewed as semi Neanderthal by the English and had long been victims of exploitation, saw that their oppressors were in a weak military position. Also with the strength of Scotland and their Presbyterian church a serious threat seemed to be in the air for the Irish Catholics. In 1641 an uprising occurred in Ireland which led to stories of atrocities against Presbyterians and fear of an Irish invasion. Parliament who was fearful of the King as the commander and chief of the army decided to create its own force and in 1645 the New Model Army emerged, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. This army would come to form one corner of a political triangle which would soon contribute to the unease felt by the country.

Now that I have given a brief account of the lead up to the time of the Levellers emergence I will quickly discuss the structure of British society and then tackle the party and the events themselves.

Before discussing the emergence of the Levellers, their goals, movements and subsequent failure, I will present a brief overview of the English society they held in contempt. Life under the Tudors and Stuarts was, as Keith Wrighton said “An all pervasive system of social inequality.”. The social hierarchy of the time was so overwhelming that it dictated what colours you were allowed to wear, what you were allowed to eat and how you were supposed to speak. The entire system was based on the ownership of land which gave people status as well as wealth. However with over one third of the population living below the poverty line and the upper classes dwarfed in numbers by the lower classes, the wealthy few lived in fear of uprising and revolution by the majority. If this were to happen the system which allowed them to live their exclusive lives would be threatened. Roughly divided into four social levels, the gentlemen, the citizens and bourgeoisie, yeomen and the lower classes which included day labourers, poor husbandmen and the like, everything depended on status. An extremely important aspect of this was that there existed a certain amount of social mobility which allowed people to progress or regress in rank. Therefore often people, especially those in the upper or middle groups were interested in working within the system so as to maintain their status and lifestyle or better it. However thanks to a number of social tools such as the Church, the political system and the law, the upper classes managed to suppress the less well off and control the country to their benefit. For example, all members of the population were expected to attend Church (although not all did) every Sunday, where parish ministers held a captive audience and through entwining religion and politics, could aid in keeping dissent at a minimum. Also it was accepted that the King had a divine right to rule and therefore any act against him was also an act against God Himself. The King initially had unrestricted power in regard to taxation. One of the ways in which tax was collected was through tithes, a tax which was collected in the name of the Church and of which no one was free.

With the battle continuing between the supporters of the Monarchy and Parliament and with no agreement between the two immediately foreseeable, the time was right for both religious and political extremists to sow their seeds among the population. One such group which emerged in the 1640’s were known as the Levellers, led primarily by the charismatic John Lilburne but also including Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman. The Levellers are often viewed as “the first democratic political movement in modern history.” (The Emergence of a Nation State, P.50). Influenced by both the Protestant doctrine of the spiritual equality of all believers (The Levellers and Franchise, P.60) which informed their beliefs in collective decision making and “the collapse of the old political order under the pressure of civil wars” (The Levellers and Franchise, P.60), many of their doctrines were based upon Natural Law which dealt with rights that all men should be entitled to. Their demands and proclamations included their belief that all men were created equal and thus should be treated so, that the collective people were the sovereign power of the nation, not the Monarchy and therefore the only way to create a legitimate state was by electing members to a parliament to collectively rule. The State’s main function was simply to protect its citizens. However the question of who would be entitled to vote (the franchise) was never totally agreed upon within the Leveller organization itself (e.g. many within the party believed wage earners had forfeited their right to vote). They also believed in an early doctrine concerning the separation of powers between Church and State. Their view of what the Church’s role within society should be was remarkably different to its present position. They viewed Christianity not as a road to salvation, but rather as a practical guide in ethics and values to aid in conducting one’s life. To this they also proposed the abolition of tithes tax which supported the parish ministers, the election and voluntary financial support of local ministers as well as religious tolerance from the government. They also wanted the abolition of monopolies which had been granted to the great merchant families in London and a revision of the legal system which would make all men equal under the law, would no longer allow men to be imprisoned over debts and that all court proceedings take place in plain English rather than in Latin or Norman French so as to allow all men an understanding of what was happening and to make professional lawyers redundant. All of these demands were combined to form a proto constitution known as “The Agreement of the People”, which was drafted on three separate occasions between October, 1647 and May, 1648.

In the extremely hierarchical society of 15th century Britain, almost of these ideas if implemented would damage the lifestyles of the gentry and if all were to come into practice, the world which they knew would be utterly destroyed. Firstly if the Monarchy were replaced by a democratically elected Parliament who represented the wishes of the entire population, regardless of socio economic position and with the bulk of the nation’s inhabitants comprising of the lower orders, the focus of the government would shift towards appeasing the will of the less fortunate instead of maintaining the status quo. Also, the separation of Church and State suggested by the Levellers would remove the divine element of the King’s position as well as much of the Church’s political power. This was because at present the King was recognized as the Head of the Church and with his ability to influence its ideology to suit his own needs, religion, specifically the road to salvation was a very effective tool for propaganda and suppression of the masses. By removing this angle and changing Christianity into a more practical element as an ethical guide for life, the Church’s position of power could no longer be used as such a political force. If the community also appointed its own ministers and paid them through voluntary financial donations, it would be in each church leader’s best interests to conduct services in the most suitable way possible for the community for fear of personal economic hardship. The abolition of the royally granted monopolies to the great merchant families in London would also help to remove some of the economic hardship which the poor city dwellers endured. By allowing individuals or small businesses to compete openly with the great merchants, the quality of production would increase, the prices of goods would fall and the profits being made would be more evenly spread. This would lead to financial independence for the workers and another tool of the ruling class would be smashed. Finally, the revision of the legal system would have a great effect in that firstly by making the language of the law accessible to all, the number of lawyers who had spread like a plague and who constituted a portion of the gentry, in London specifically, would be out of work.

Although the term “Levellers”” did not come into use until late 1647, the public birth of the party is seen as being when a number of pamphlets were printed beginning with “A Remonstration of Many Thousands of Citizens”. This pamphlet written by Overton and Walwyn, built upon Lilburne’s revolutionary ideas on tolerance, egalitarianism and democratic government. A second pamphlet, “London’s Liberty in Chains Disclosed” written by Lilburne, dealt with the plight of the small craftsmen and the economic hardship imposed upon them by way of the monopolies controlled by the few. Another pamphlet “Regal Tyranny Discovered” appeared in January, 1647. Lilburne used this pamphlet to discredit the King, claiming his reign held no validity as the Norman Conquest had robbed the people of a once “free, egalitarian Anglo Saxon society” who had “governed themselves through representative assemblies.” (Shaw, P.47). These pamphlets were designed to appeal to the small traders in London as well as the other lower classes, yet only the city dwellers were listening as wide spread communication was not readily available in the 16th century. Although they did receive support from this group, collecting 10,000 signatures on a petition in London, their numbers were simply too small to effect any real change. However in March, 1647, a new window of opportunity appeared with signs of mutiny within the army. The Presbyterians dominated, Parliament had voted to disband the New Model Army with only the promise of six weeks arrears of pay, a fraction of what the army was owed and no provisions for those maimed or the families of those men killed in battle. Thanks in part to the Leveller ideas, regiments within the New Model Army began to elect representatives known as agitators, to speak on their behalf. The New Model Army became a political force itself, looking towards London to ensure that its interests were not ignored. Now that the Levellers had support from the New Model Army and the small craftsmen in London as well as the independent ministers in Parliament, they believed they had sufficient political clout for their cause and set about attacking the Presbyterian element who had decided to support the King in exchange for a new Presbyterian church administration. Yet the Levellers time in the sun was short lived. In 1648 the New Model Army led by Colonel Thomas Pride, purged the Parliament of many of the Presbyterian ministers leaving a rump of independents who vetoed any agreements with the King. The King was subsequently executed on January 10th, 1649. Also Oliver Cromwell who was a member of Parliament as well as a senior officer in the New Model Army arranged for the soldiers’ arrears to be paid. The combination of these two events virtually destroyed the Levellers power base and elbowed them out of the political arena.


The political star of the Levellers party shone briefly for two years, yet in the end their ability to bring their doctrine into a working form had the cards stacked against them for many reasons. Although it often appeared that they held a large amount of political clout, much of this was simply a reflection of the times. They existed in a time of economic hardship and political instability which allowed their ideas a certain amount of air. Yet the road they chose to travel simply was not intertwineable with the soceity in 17th century England. The people their ideas appealed to, namely the small merchants in London, were too low a group in numbers to weld any real power. They isolated many of the rural community by excluding wage earners from the Franchise whose numbers may have helped them. Also the groups they chose to pick their fights with were very strong. The political changes they wished to implement were often above the comprehension of the majority and once the New Model Army’s arrears had been met, the political aspect was really all they had left. Also, communication was a difficult task to overcome and due to this the Levellers simply could not mobilize the lower class to do their bidding. Finally, the majority of Britain was still very conservative and I believe much of the Levellers’ ideas were simply too radical to ever be accepted at the time.


Hughes, A The Course of the English Civil War

Macmillan Press

Pease, T.C. The Levellers Movement

Peter Smith

Shaw, H The Levellers

Longmans, Green & Co Ltd.

Smith, A.G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State, nd Edition

Longman Group Limited

From Reader

Thomas, K. The Levellers & the Franchise

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