After the First English Civil War, everyone thought that Parliament would wield power in England and not the throne. Well, they were half right. In the mid 1640s, parliamentarian control was being established throughout England, but the army had the power. The New Model Army had been socially transformed as officers were drawn from a much lower and broader section of society than before. These men were poorly paid, hungry and angry. The Leveller movement grew from this contingent. At first the term “leveller” referred to a faction of the New Model Army which intended to assassinate King Charles. The group did not like the term as they felt it was pejorative and refuted the claim they intended to bring all society down to the lowest level. They preferred the term “agitators”. However, in the Agreement of the People, manifestos published between 1647 and 1649, the term leveller was adopted because of its familiarity to the public.
In 1647, the New Model Army began discussions on what a new constitution would look like for England. These Putney Debates had arguments inspired by John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. Their proposals advocated the return of “free-born” national rights, which had been held by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman conquest. These proposals included voting rights for all male householders over the age of 21 following the “one man, one vote” principle. They also advocated term limits for members of parliament as well as a ban on consecutive terms. Tithing and excise taxes would be abolished. The law would be simplified and made accessible to the common people. This step towards representative democracy was nothing short of radical in the 17th century. There was not total agreement in the leveller camp. Lilburne cited the Magna Carta as restoring the rights denied Englishmen by the Normans but took it further saying the rights given to the barons should extend down to all men. Other Levellers, such as William Walwyn called the Magna Carta a “mess of potage”. What all of them did refer to were the “natural rights” of men, which had been denied by King Charles and the royalists. Sound familiar?
The Levellers believed the men fighting should be given rights as they had spilled their blood. Lilburne had already been sent to prison once for protesting the state of the army fighting for Parliament while Parliament members were living in luxury. Although they were quick to say they did not want any social egalitarianism and believed in rank. However, they did want to bring attention to the complaints of the poor, which were not as those in charge believed lazy beggars who could be whipped and put in a corner. Most poor people were skilled people who had been displaced by the war, and needed a hand up. The Elizabethan poor laws were notoriously harsh, and they felt those who fought and suffered for the Parliamentary forces should be given relief so they could be productive members of society again. Thomas Rainsborough said at the debates, “For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” And why would anyone put themselves under the control of a government who thought they were lazy and were happy to put them in a corner because of the misfortunes of war?
The opposing party in the debates were the Grandees, led by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. They were horrified by the proposals. Suffrage should be retained only by landed men, in their opinion, and anything less would be tantamount to anarchy. Ireton argued, “no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” Parliament was full of lawyers, who did not want to democratize the law. The tricker the law was gave them job security. All of them depended heavily on the privilege of rank, for all the talk of getting rid of the royals. Unsurprisingly, the result of the Putney Debates produced a document that reflected more of the positions of the Grandees than the Levellers.
But Lilburne and crew were not done yet. They continued producing manifestoes and voice their views in their newspaper The Moderate. Their aims were clear- a kingless, bishopless Britain. The hated the new regime accusing Cromwell and the grandees of switching one king for another. Lilburne gave a scathing rebuke to the House of Lords, which he was trying to get abolished, “All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, that so you might get up and ride in their stead.” They published a pamphlet called England’s New Chains, and questioned any obedience to a regime they condemned as illegitimate. That went over about as well as you can imagine.
Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Thomas Prince were dragged in front of the Council of State and treated to a fist pounding temper tantrum from Oliver Cromwell. When they refused to acknowledge the Council, they were dragged to the Tower. They thought they had silenced the movement, but something amazing happened. The message was took up by Leveller women. Lilburne had already gone against the traditional Puritan teaching saying women “were by nature all equall and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty” to men. His wife, Elizabeth, rose to the challenge and galvanized a petition for her husband’s release. Elizabeth Lilburne and Katherine Chidley were at the head of a demonstration of women bringing the petition for their husband’s release to the Tower. Not surprisingly, they were told to go home and not worry their pretty little heads. Wrong answer, boys. These women made sure the Manifestation, the latest work of their husbands published from the Tower, was distributed throughout London.
The army took notice and a mutiny over pay turned into a mass demonstration. By mid-may 1649, rebellion was sweeping through the countryside. Cromwell turned to face it and travelling fifty miles in one day with a pursuit force, put down the mutiny. Lilburne was put on trial for treason in October, and brilliantly insisted the jury alone was empowered to issue a verdict. He called the judges “cyphers of the people’s will”. He got acquitted, but it was too late. After several leaders in the New Model Army were shot, their base in the army was effectively undermined. The influence of the Levellers was broken, although their ideas had influence on the future. Many of these ideas found their way into important documents, especially a little thing called the Declaration of Independence.
Sources available on request