In some respects, they were a radical liberal political party whose Agreement of the People nearly became the English Constitution. In others, they were merely soldiers after a fair wage deal. And in yet others, they were a group of pamphleteers centred around a single man, John Lilburne. Their political power lasted less than two years, and many of their writings are almost impenetrable by today's standards; yet their influence extends to modern democracies and was a formative influence on the American Constitution.
In 1646, the ominously-named First English1 Civil War came to an end, with the surrender of the Royalist forces to Fairfax's Puritan-dominated Parliamentarians. Charles I was effectively held prisoner by the Scots, while the Parliamentarian forces continued to skirmish and besiege the disjointed and scattered Royalist uprisings.
Although it is easy to view this as being the run-up to regicide, at this stage there was no clear consensus on what should be done with the King. Many - perhaps most - within Parliament envisaged some form of parliamentary monarchy, with the King still ruling but constrained by Parliament. Likewise, although Cromwell was a prominent Parliamentarian, he was at this stage only second-in-command of the New Model Army to Sir Thomas Fairfax. His time as Lord Protector and King in all but name was yet to come.
What was clear to all was that radical change to English and Welsh society was on the way. The King's claim to rule by divine right was in tatters (after all, how could someone with God's backing possibly lose?), and Parliament was set to allow free practice of religions other than Anglicanism. But the Parliamentarian alliance, although all agreed on the need for change, were deeply divided over what that change should be. The majority favoured the reinstatement of the King, with some restrictions on his powers of taxation. But there were other, more radical factions who saw a chance for a wholesale restructuring of English society.
The Rise of the Levellers
In many ways ahead of their time, the Levellers were the first organised political movement to arise in Britain, and could be seen as ancestral to socialist or libertarian groups today. They arose from the disorder and demanded that Parliament should represent 'the people', possibly the first time in English history that such a claim had been made. The name itself was derogatory, as it was originally applied to an earlier group that opposed private property and levelled land by tearing down the hedgerows that divided fields. To confuse the issue, this was genuinely the policy of some other groups at the time. In fact, the Levellers never had a formal name (those within the New Model Army sometimes referred to themselves as Agitators, although this was also the name of a position within the Army), and it can be quite difficult to pin down exactly who they were and what they stood for. Despite this, at their peak they had a highly organised party structure.
Since it is difficult to define what a Leveller was, their story is best told through the events that shaped them. They initially formed around the New Model Army's claims for back-pay after the First Civil War; their political views were almost an afterthought. Once their structure was established, however, it became clear that they were a new power bloc that could make demands of their superiors, and they became strongly associated with the radical politics of 'Freeborn John' Lilburne.
John Lilburne (c. 1614 - 1657)
Lilburne was a Geordie2, and the brother of Robert Lilburne, who would become a prominent Parliamentarian officer during the First Civil War.
In 1638, long before the Civil War, he began importing religious writings from overseas - a serious offence in those days, since it challenged the authority of the Church of England. At the time, all printed materials had to be licensed by the Stationers' Company, rather in the way that films are rated today. Unlicensed material was regarded as seditious or even treasonous.
Lilburne was tried by the notorious Star Chamber, the secretive high court. He repeatedly refused to enter a plea until he had been told what the charges against him were. He further demanded that the charges should be presented in English, rather than legal Latin. He was imprisoned, whipped and pilloried (literally - placed in wooden stocks to be abused in public) for his troubles.
The unfairness of Lilburne's treatment earned him much public support and the nickname 'Freeborn John'. It was partly due to his case that the Star Chamber was abolished in 1641. His troubles came to a temporary end during the First Civil War, as he enlisted as a Captain in the Parliamentarian army and was captured, threatened with execution, and then exchanged. Lilburne appears to have fought with some distinction, being a senior commander at a number of key victories and on one occasion disobeying a direct order in order to capture a stronghold. After reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he resigned his commission in 1645 in protest at the Solemn League and Covenant, an agreement signed two years previously between England and Scotland, which Lilburne regarded as giving authority to Presbyterianism over other religions.
He was promptly imprisoned after he criticised Members of Parliament for living in luxury while soldiers fought on their behalf. It was the campaign to have him freed that led to the formation of the Levellers.
Agitators in the New Model Army
In the meantime, Parliament was having difficulty paying for the expense both of the First Civil War and the ongoing Royalist uprisings and rebellions that would be grouped together under the name of the Second Civil War. It became clear that they intended not to pay soldiers for much of their service during the First Civil War. Naturally, many of the soldiers objected to this, and Agitators were appointed to take their case to their superiors.
It should be remembered that the New Model Army was the first attempt at a standing, professional army, as opposed to the militias raised as required by previous regimes. As such, it was very different from modern armies. The right of soldiers to petition their leaders was legally recognised, and the role of Agitator was an official position.
The network of Agitators was a highly organised structure, allowing both control at a 'grass roots' level and access to a governing council. In many ways, it was similar to local government today. When it became associated with Lilburne's politics, the Leveller movement proper was born.
Other Leveller Leaders
Although Lilburne was the spiritual leader of the movement, he was far from being the only prominent Leveller. Their core supporters were always civilian Londoners and New Model Army soldiers. The Whalebone Tavern in London was the meeting-house of the unofficial Leveller leadership, which included:
Richard Overton (1631 - 1664). Overton seems to have met with Lilburne in prison. He published numerous pamphlets throughout his life on many and varied causes, including religious and political freedom. A Cambridge graduate, he may have been the most radical of the Leveller leadership, although little is known of him for certain. He appears to have withdrawn from public view after 1649.
William Walwyn (1600 - 1680) published England's Lamentable Slavery in Oct 1645, protesting at Lilburne's imprisonment.
Major Sir John Wildman (1623 - 1693) was a leader of the Levellers and later radical political groups. He was present at the Putney Debates and was one of the very few Leveller leaders to remain active in politics after 1650.
The Putney Debates
Between October and November 1647, the Grandees of the New Model Army met with the Agitators in Putney. Initially, this was to resolve the pay dispute, but the discussion soon widened. The Grandees had been negotiating with the King, and had come to a compromise arrangement (The Heads of the Proposals) that many in the Army were not prepared to accept. In particular, the monarchy and House of Lords would be restored before any agreement was reached on the back pay of the soldiers in the New Model Army. Cromwell strongly defended the re-instatement of the King and opposed the idea of universal male suffrage, which he regarded as anarchy.
The outcome was a compromise: soldiers would be allowed to vote, but servants and beggars would not. (There was never any discussion of women voting - some ideas were too radical even for the Levellers.) Further debate on the fate of the King was curtailed by his brief escape from house arrest. At around this time, soldiers were forced to sign a document swearing loyalty to Fairfax personally and accepting The Heads of the Proposals. The Levellers put forward their Agreement of the People as an alternative and refused to accept the Heads of the Proposals, leading to a minor mutiny at Corkbush on 17 November, 1647. This was put down by a mixture of persuasion, threats to withhold pay and an example execution pour encourager les autres. The violence ensured that the Putney debates were abandoned and never concluded.
The Second Civil War
During 1648, the Second Civil War broke out in earnest, with sieges against Royalist strongholds in the north and south-west of England and in Wales. This was more a disjointed series of uprisings by Royalist supporters than an outright war, but it underlined the need for Parliament to keep control of the New Model Army. In response, Charles I was tried and executed by Parliament in January 1649.
Despite Leveller mutinies in April and May 1649, the Army's right to petition was removed. The news of the Army being sent to Ireland caused an armed insurgency by 400 of the most committed Levellers in the Army, who became known as the 'Banbury mutineers', under Captain William Thompson. Their rebellion was suppressed at Burford in Oxfordshire on 14th May, 1649. Despite Cromwell's assurances that no force would be used against the mutineers - and after partial back pay was granted - Cromwell launched a night attack. This ambush and the ensuing executions effectively destroyed the core of Leveller support within the New Model Army, and broke them as a political movement.
Those Crazy, Crazy Pamphlets
It will not have escaped the attentive reader that pamphlets and agreements formed an essential part of the debate on both sides, perhaps due to the comparatively recent introduction of the printing press. Most of the key documents are now available online.
Solemn League and Covenant (1643) - the agreement between Scotland and England that the Levellers opposed.
England's Lamentable Slaverie (1645) by William Walwyn; this was an early protest at Lilburne's imprisonment.
A Remonstrance of many Thousand Citizens (1646) by Richard Overton; calling for the release of Freeborn John. This was one of the documents that first sparked off the Leveller movement.
The Case of the Army Truly Stated (1647) - primarily demanding that owed back pay be paid, this document also included political demands similar to those later incorporated into the Agreement of the People. This was the other formational document for the Levellers.
The Heads of the Proposals (1647) - the agreement between the King and the Grandees, which the Levellers opposed.
The Agreement of the People
Since this was the central document for the Leveller movement, it's worth looking at it in a little more detail to see what all the fuss was about.
The Agreement of the People went through three main versions, from 1647 to 1649. Intended as an English Constitution, this was the Leveller manifesto, and a strong influence on the American Constitution, not least in its assertion that 'These things we declare to be our native rights'.
The 'classic' first-version-manifesto was intended as the basis for a written English constitution.
The second version added in a breakdown of how many parliamentary candidates each borough should have, and some rules and laws for fair elections. It was signed by something like a third of all Londoners.
Finally, the third version was much more heavily rewritten and signed by four men: John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton.
This key document set out the core political demands of the Levellers, for which they are now best remembered. These were:
Reform of parliament so that each MP represented roughly the same number of people.
The current Parliament should be dissolved.
Future Parliaments should serve for two years before being re-elected.
The Parliament should not be subject to any other body, such as the church or the monarchy.
A series of end notes placed restrictions on what Parliament could do; these included religious freedom and freedom from conscription, as well as practical points that granted immunity from prosecution to all participants in the recent war. Finally, no-one was to be above the law, and Parliament should rule for the benefit of all the people.
Later versions also included:
The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists), trials to be heard in English before 12 jurymen, the right to silence, abolition of the death penalty except in cases of murder, abolition of imprisonment for debt, abolition of tithing (where churchgoers were required to give ten percent of their income to the Church of England) and tax reforms.
It is remarkable to note that virtually every single one of the Levellers' demands has now been fulfilled, with the notable exceptions of the dissolution of the House of Lords and the restriction of MP's terms of service to a single year.
Lilburne was eventually acquitted of treason, only to be arrested by his former friend Oliver Cromwell, who viewed him as a threat. Lilburne's health was failing by this point, and he died shortly after his release. Other leaders, such as Overton, dropped out of the public view.
In 1651, Cromwell defeated Charles' son, the future Charles II, in battle. Charles Junior fled to France, ending the Third (and final) Civil War. In 1653, Cromwell declared himself Lord Protector of England, taking on many of the powers of a monarch. The rise of radical liberal politics in England was, for the moment, curtailed.