(an introduction by Tony Gosling)
The English Civil War we see in our schools is from the point of view of the seventeenth century gentry. Ordinary people, who had given up home and livelihood to fight, had strong ideas about what they were fighting for which are missing from ‘official’ accounts.
But with a bit of research we begin to uncover evidence of a groundswell of public opinion at the end of hostilities, and great dissatisfaction with the outcome. This period from 1647-1649 coincided with Cromwell’s dictatorship and the brutal suppression of the Leveller cause.
The Civil War had begun when Parliament tried to take control of taxation and the militia from Charles I. The King had been taxing heavily to finance his wars on the continent.
Allegiance of the English aristocracy was divided between the old feudal noblemen, who supported the King, and the new merchant class, represented by parliament, who had begun to acquire wealth and property through trade. Many commentators see the parliament’s eventual victory as the beginning of what we now call Capitalism.
The rest of the population were pawns in this struggle. Education was almost non-existent for them and communications were slow and unreliable, even between neighbouring towns. The presses were strictly controlled by print guilds who followed the lead of their feudal ‘betters’.
There were however some, notably John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, who were disgusted that the future foundation of our nation would be based on a bun-fight between two equally selfish alliances. They questioned the morality of all the killing and bloodshed without anything substantial to offer to the English people at the end of it.
Parliamentary soldiers formed the bedrock of the Leveller party. The majority had given up home and livelihood to fight the King and Lt. Col. Lilburne was the best-known of the four leaders. He had risen up the ranks through his courage and shrewdness in battle to command his own regiment. He was intimate with and initially much respected by Cromwell, they even slept in the same bed on occasions. But Cromwell turned on his friend when he started putting detail on his desire for constitutional reform.
John Lilburne put it to him like this, “We were ruled by a King, Lords and Commons; now by a General, Court Martial and Commons, and we pray you what is the difference?” Parliament offered Cromwell the crown and he declined. Towards the end of his life he deeply regretted the outcome. As ‘Lord Protector’ he was called to the House of Commons but spoke ruefully of how he “…did not ask or wish to be here…” The Civil War failed to rejuvenate the nation and within a few years of ‘interregnum’ the king was re-installed.
Documents in this Archive
(You can download a a rich text format (*.rtf) version of this archive for printing, level.zip, contained in a zip file.)
* The Great Leveller Petition of 11 September 1648
In this petition are the levellers’ grievances at this point in the civil war and their programme for reform as signed up to by ordinary people. Parliament, Lords and Commons ignored them.
* The Levellers Vindicated, or the Case of the Twelve troops …
In 1649 Colonel Scroops’ regiment were given an ultimatum: either disband now and go home without pay or stay on in the army to go and fight the Irish with the chance of getting your arrears paid. Instead the troops decided to sack their officers, elect new ones and march off to fight for the leveller cause. The popular press at the time called their action a mutiny but, from their point of view such extreme actions were entirely justified.
* The Agreement Of The People
This manifesto for constitutional reform in Britain paved the way for many of the Civil Liberties we cherish today. Universal vote, the right to silence in the dock, equal parliamentary constituencies, everyone being equal under the law, the right not to be conscripted into the army etc.. This particular version was smuggled out of the Tower of London, where Lilburne and the others were being held captive. All Leveller soldiers, and they were the majority in many regiments, carried this agreement proudly tucked into their hat-band.
* The Solemn Engagement of the Army
Cromwell’s plans were thwarted in 1647. Parliament, while he had been away, had started covert negotiations with the King. He massed the New Model Army outside London and threatened to take Parliament by force unless they broke off talks.
This might have looked like arbitrary dictatorship, therefore it was necessary for Cromwell to be seen to have popular support for this act of aggression against the ‘lofty institution’, the greatness of which all the bloodshed had been about.
The proposal was for two ordinary soldiers or adjutators from each regiment to accompany their officers to all subsequent meetings of the General Counsel of the Army. With a vote equal to that of the officers in any decision about where the army should go, what it should declare, and what it should do. This attempt to democratise the army brought about the most intriguing representative body in Britain’s history. Was it at last a people’s army? The presence of the agitators led to the original versions of the Agreement of the People and to the Putney debates where the future of the nation was thrashed out by ordinary soldiers and grandees alike.
The ‘solemn’ declaration was reneged on as soon as Cromwell had got his way. The Leveller soldiers never forgot it though, and read it aloud to other troops