Some people who supported the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) against the Royalist Army (Cavaliers) during the English Civil War, hoped that victory would result in a more equal society. This included John Lilburne, Elizabeth Lilburne, Richard Overton, Mary Overton, William Walwyn, Edward Sexby and John Wildman. These men and women became known as Levellers.
In September, 1647, Walwyn, the leader of this group in London, organised a petition demanding reform. Their political programme included: voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%. (1)
Laurence Clarkson, was a preacher in the Parliamentary Army who supported the Levellers. In October 1647, Clarkson published, A General Charge. In this pamphlet he defined the "oppressors" as the "nobility and gentry" and the oppressed as the "yeoman farmer" and the "tradesman". (2)
Abiezer Coppe, was another preacher attached to the army who advocated radical views. Coppe asserted that property was theft and pride worse than adultery: "I can kiss and hug ladies and love my neighbour's wife as myself without sin." (3) Coppe and Clarkson both advocated "free love". (4) Peter Ackroyd claimed that Coppe and Clarkson professed that "sin had its conception only in imagination" and told their followers that they "might swear, drink, smoke and have sex with impunity". (5)
According to Alfred Leslie Rowse, the author of Reflections on the Puritan Revolution (1986), Clarkson confessed that "a maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected and I affected to lie with her, so that night prevailed and satisfied my lust. Afterwards the maid was highly in love with me, and as gladly would I have been shut of her... not knowing I had a wife, she was in hopes to marry me so would have me lodge with her again." (6)
A. L. Morton, the author of The World of the Ranters: Religious Radicalism in the English Revolution (1979) has argued that the Ranters were on "the extreme left wing of the sects" that had "a strong appeal to many Englishmen of the lower orders". He claims that it was mainly an urban movement that drew its support from "wage earners and small producers". According to Morton, that there is "no evidence for any formal organisation or received body of doctrine". (7)
Clarkson later suggested that it was Coppe who was really the leader of this group that became known as the Ranters: "Abiezer Coppe was by himself with a company ranting and swearing, which I was seldom addicted to... Now I being as they said, Captain of the Rant, I had most of the principal women came to my lodging for knowledge... Now in the height of this ranting, I was made still careful for moneys for my wife, only my body was given to other women: so our company increasing, I wanted for nothing that heart could desire, but at last it became a trade so common, that all the froth and scum broke forth into the height of this wickedness, yea began to be a public reproach, that I broke up my quarters, and went into the country to my wife, where I had by the way disciples plenty." (8)
In January 1649, Coppe arrived in London. He made a tour of the poor areas of the city and later remembered how at Marshalsea Prison he sat, ate, and drank with gypsies, hugging and kissing them, putting his hand "in their bosoms, loving the she Gipsies dearly". (9) He also preached an inflammatory sermon in St Helen's Church, in Bishopsgate. Before a large assembled congregation he caused an uproar by blaspheming and cursing for an hour. Told he was in danger of being arrested he fled the city. (10)
It was claimed that Coppe used to preach "stark naked" and to sleep with women at night. His biographer, Ariel Hessayon, points out: "This association of nudity with sexual licence, though itself familiar from hostile accounts of adult baptism rituals." He also stated his support for the Levellers and that God himself was the "mighty Leveller" but disavowed what he described as "sword levelling". (11)
On Sunday 1st April, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley, William Everard, and a small group of about 30 or 40 men and women started digging and sowing vegetables on the wasteland of St George's Hill in the parish of Walton. They were mainly labouring men and their families, and they confidently hoped that five thousand others would join them. (12) The men sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans. They also stated that they "intended to plough up the ground and sow it with seed corn". (13)
Winstanley's supporters became known as Diggers. (14) Laurence Clarkson claimed that he had supported the ideas of Winstanley and had spent some time digging on the commons. Clarkson compared the ideas of Winstanley with those of John Lilburne and the Levellers and described the Diggers as the "True Levellers". (15) However, Winstanley strongly disapproved of Clarkson's sexual ideas and condemned the "Ranting crew" and he warned fellow Diggers to steer clear of "lust of the flesh" and "the practise of Ranting". (16)
In 1649 Coppe published A Second Fiery Flying Roule: to All the Inhabitants of the Earth; Specially to the Rich Ones. It has been argued that whereas John Lilburne and Gerrard Winstanley were concerned with social humanitarianism, Coppe shared the views of William Walwyn who urged "extreme solicitousness towards the poor" and whose writings are "charged with violence and menace." (17)
The following year came A Fiery Flying Roll: A Word from the Lord to all the great ones of the Earth. In this pamphlet he claimed that "the Levellers (men-levellers) which is and who indeed are but shadows of most terrible, yet great and glorious good things to come". People who did not own property would have "treasure in heaven". His main message was that God, the "mighty leveller" would return to earth and punish those who did not share their wealth. Coppe argued for freedom, equality, community and universal peace. He told the wealthy that they would be punished for their lack of charity towards the poor: "The rust of your silver, I say, shall eat your flesh as it were fire... have... Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you." (18) The historian, Alfred Leslie Rowse, claims that Coppe's "egalitarian Communism" was "300 years" before its time. (19)
Another preacher, George Foster, published The Sounding of the Last Trumpet in January, 1650. He described a vision of a figure on a whit horse "cutting down all men and women that he met with that were higher than the middle sort, and raised up those that were lower than the middle sort, and made them all equal; and cried out, Equality, Equality, Equality. I will make the low and poor equal with the rich." (20)
Barry Coward, the author of The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) argues that the activities of the Ranters created a "moral panic" because their activities were "often violent and anti-social" and frightened conservative opinion into reaction. They formed a "hippy-like counter culture of the 1650s which flew in the face of law and morality and which was considered with horror by respectable society." (21)
Coppe was arrested on 8th January 1650 and orders were given to seize his "mad and blasphemous" pamphlets. On 1st February, the House of Commons ordered that all copies were to "be burnt by the Hand of the Hangman, at the New Palace Yard, at Westminster; the Exchange, in Cheapside; and at the Market Place, in Southwark". In March he was transferred to Newgate Prison on suspicion of blasphemy and treason against the state. (22)
Oliver Cromwell and his supporters in Parliament attempted to deal with preachers such as Coppe. It passed the Adultery Act (May 1650) that imposed the death penalty for adultery and fornication. This was followed by the Blasphemy Act (August 1650). Coppe claimed he had been informed that the acts against adultery and blasphemy "were put out because of me; thereby secretly intimating that I was guilty of the breach of them". (23) Christopher Hill, the author of The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1991), agrees that this legislation was an attempt to deal with the development of religious groups such as the Ranters. (24)
In September 1650, Abiezer Coppe and Laurence Clarkson, were brought before a parliamentary committee. Clarkson admitting knowing Coppe but claimed "that is all, for I have not seen him above two or three times" (25) It was said that when Coppe appeared he refused to remove his hat in deference. It is claimed he "feigned madness before the investigators" by talking to himself. (26) At other times he flung apples, pears, and nutshells about the room. The committee sent him back to Newgate and decided that there was to be no public trial. (27)
Abiezer Coppe was released from prison in July, 1651. On 23rd September he stopped from giving a sermon at Burford Church. This was probably a gesture of support for the Leveller inspired mutiny that broke out at Salisbury in May 1649. Led by Captain William Thompson, they were defeated by a large army at Burford. Thompson escaped only to be killed a few days later near the Diggers community at Wellingborough. After being imprisoned in Burford Church with the other mutineers, three other leaders, "Private Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornett Thompson", were executed by Cromwell's forces in the churchyard. (28)
Coppe appeared to be an active preacher and George Fox commented in his journal that he saw him in "a great company of ranters", at a tavern in Charing Cross in 1555. Fox, who disapproved of Coppe's sexual ideas, described him as ordering drink and tobacco. He also claimed that he was in the company of William Packer, an army officer and preacher. As Packer was serving in the government at that time and was described by Fox as one of Cromwell's most severe Major-Generals, it seems he had ceased to be a Ranter. (29)
Laurence Clarkson also abandoned his radical beliefs. In 1660 he published The Lost Sheep Found where he attempted to distance himself from Ranting. In doing so, Clarkson was the "most revealing" and the" most autobiographical and ingenuously candid" of the Ranters. (30) "As all along in this my travel I was subject to that sin, and yet as saint like, as though sin were a burden to me... concluded there was none could live without sin in this world; for notwithstanding I had great knowledge in the things of God, yet I found my heart was not right to what I pretended, but full of lust and vainglory of this world." (31)
J. C. Davis, the author of Fear, Myth and History (1986) has pointed out that it is impossible to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who are called Ranters. "There was no recognised leader or theoretician and little, if any organisation. The views of the principal figures were inconsistent with each other".Although the Ranters were a small group with a brief existence, "their theological focus is clear, startling and enormously significant." (32)
And now (my dear ones!) every one under the Sun, I will only point at the gate; through which I was led into that new City, new Jerusalem, and to the spirits of just men, made perfect, and to God the Judge of all. First, all my strength, my forces were utterly routed, my house I dwelt in fired; my father and mother forsook me, the wife of my bosom loathed me; mine old name was rotted, perished; and I was utterly plagued, consumed, damned, rammed, and sunk into nothing, into the bowels of the still eternity (my mother's womb) out of which I came naked, and where hereto I returned again naked. And lying a while there, rapt up in silence, at length (the body or outward form being awake all this while) I heard with my outward ear (to my apprehension) a most terrible thunderclap, and after that a second. And upon the second thunderclap, which was exceeding terrible, I saw a great body of light, like the light of the Sun, and red as fire, in the form of a drum (as it were) whereupon with exceeding trembling and amazement on the flesh, and with joy unspeakable in the spirit, I clapped my hands, and cried out, Amen, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Amen. And so lay trembling, sweating, and smoking (for the space of half an hour) at length with a loud voice (I inwardly) cried out, Lord, what wilt thou do with me? My most excellent majesty and eternal glory (in me) answered & said, Fear Not, I will take thee up into mine everlasting Kingdom. But thou shalt (first) drink a bitter cup, a bitter cup, a bitter cup. Whereupon (being filled with exceeding amazement) I was thrown into the belly of hell (and take what you can of it in these expressions, though the matter is beyond expression) I was among all the devils in hell, even in their most hideous hue.
And under all this terror, and amazement, there was a little spark of transcendent, transplendent, unspeakable glory, which survived, and sustained itself, triumphing, exulting, and exalting it self above all the fiends. And, confounding all the blackness of darkness (you must take it in these terms, for it is infinitely beyond expression.) Upon this the life was taken out of the body (for a season) and it was thus resembled, as if a man with a great brush dipped in whiting, should with one stroke wipe out, or sweep off a picture upon a wall, &c. After a while, breath and life was returned into the form again. Whereupon I saw various streams of light (in the night) which appeared to the outward eye, and immediately I saw three hearts (or three appearances) in the form of hearts, of exceeding brightness; and immediately an innumerable company of hearts, filling each corner of the room where I was. And methoughts there was variety and distinction, as if there had been several hearts, and yet most strangely unexpressably complicated or folded up in unity. I clearly saw distinction, diversity, variety, and as clearly saw all swallowed up into unity. And it hath been my song many times since, within and without, unity, universality, universality, unity, Eternal Majesty, &c. And at this vision, a most strong, glorious voice uttered these words: The spirits of just men made perfect. The spirits, &c. with whom I had as absolute, clear, full communion, and in a twofold more familiar way, than ever I had outwardly with my dearest friends and nearest relations. The visions and revelations of God and the strong hand of eternal invisible almightiness was stretched out upon me, within me, for the space of four days and nights without intermission...
But afore I proceed any further, be it known unto you, that although that excellent majesty which dwells in the writer of this Roll hath reconciled all things to himself, yet this hand which now writes never drew sword or shed one drop of any man's blood. I am free from the blood of all men, though (I say) all things are reconciled to me, the eternal God (in Him) yet sword-levelling or digging-levelling are neither of them his principle.
Both are as far from his principle as the East is from the West or the Heavens from the Earth (though, I say, reconciled to both as to all things else). And though he hath more justice, righteousness, truth and sincerity shining in those low dung holes (as they are esteemed) than in the Sun, Moon and all the stars.
3. I come not forth (in him) either with material sword or mattock, but now (in this my day) I make him my sword bearer, to brandish the sword of the Spirit, as he hath done several days and nights together through the streets of the great City.
4. And now thus saith the Lord: Though you as little endure the word levelling as you could the late slain or dead Charles (your forerunner, who is gone before you - ) and had as lief hear the devil named as hear of the Levellers (men-levellers) which is and who indeed are but shadows of most terrible, yet great and glorious good things to come.
5. Behold, behold, behold, I the eternal God, the Lord of Hosts who am that mighty leveller and coming (yea, even at the doors) to level in good earnest, to level to some purpose, to level with a witness, to level the hills with the valleys and to lay the mountains low.
Now after I had continued half a year, more or less (as a preacher in Norfolk) the Ministers began to envy me for my doctrine, it being free grace, so contrary to theirs, and that the more as their people came from their own parish to hear me... I continued preaching the Gospel and very zealous I was for obedience to the commands of Christ Jesus; which doctrine of mine converted many of my former friends and others to be baptized, and so into a Church fellowship was gathered to officiate the order of the Apostles, so that really I thought if ever I was in a true happy condition...
I took my journey into the society of those people called Seekers, who worshipped God only by prayer and preaching... As all along in this my travel I was subject to that sin, and yet as saint like, as though sin were a burden to me . . . I concluded there was none could live without sin in this world; for notwithstanding I had great knowledge in the things of God, yet I found my heart was not right to what I pretended, but full of lust and vainglory of this world...
Now after this I returned to my wife in Suffolk, and wholly bent my mind to travel up and down the country, preaching for moneys.... There was few of the clergy able to reach me in doctrine or prayer; yet notwithstanding, not being a University man, I was very often turned out of employment, that truly I speak it, I think there was not any poor soul so tossed in judgement, and for a poor livelihood, as then I was...
I took my progress into the wilderness... with many more words I affirmed that there was no sin, but as man esteemed it sin, and therefore none can be free from sin, till in purity it can be acted as no sin, for I judged that pure to me, which to dark understandings was impure, for to the pure all things, yea all acts were pure...
Abiezer Coppe was by himself with a company ranting and swearing, which I was seldom addicted to, only provine by Scripture the truth of what I acted; and indeed Solomon's writings was the original of my filthy lust, supposing I might take the same liberty as he did, not then understanding his writings was no Scripture, that I was moved to write to the world what my principle was, so brought to public view a book called The Single Eye (October 1650)... men and women came from many parts to see my face, and hear my knowledge in these things, being restless till they were made free, as then we called it. Now I being as they said, Captain of the Rant, I had most of the principal women came to my lodging for knowledge... Now in the height of this ranting, I was made still careful for moneys for my wife, only my body was given to other women: so our company increasing, I wanted for nothing that heart could desire, but at last it became a trade so common, that all the froth and scum broke forth into the height of this wickedness, yea began to be a public reproach, that I broke up my quarters, and went into the country to my wife, where I had by the way disciples plenty...
The ground of this my judgement was, God had made all things good, so nothing evil but as man judged it; for I apprehended there was no such thing as theft, cheat, or a lie, but as man made it so: for if the creature had brought this world into no propriety, as Mine and Thine, there had been no such title as theft, cheat, or a lie; for the prevention hereof Everard and Gerrard Winstanley did dig up the commons, that so all might have to live of themselves, then there had been no need of defrauding, but unity one with another.
Ranters like the former Oxford undergraduate Abiezer Coppe bristled with bitterness and sarcasm as they flailed with the upper classes. Coppe's Fiery, Flying Roll, condemned by Parliament in 1650 and burned, demanded instant parity, equality, community, universal love, universal peace, and perfect freedom. He threatened those in possession of honor, nobility, gentility, property, superfluity...
Coppe's intemperate language and reports of his scandalous conduct led to his arrest, and won him the unwelcome attentions of a parliamentary committee. In the manner of some of his utopian predecessors, he feigned madness before the investigators, muttering to himself and throwing nutshells around the room. In the course of his subsequent imprisonment he recanted, at least overtly, and ended his life in Surrey practicing medicine under the alias "Dr Higham".
The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller... It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth. The Ranter Movement, which came into sudden prominence towards the end of 1649, reached its peak in the following year and thereafter seems to have survived only in fragments.