The Levellers

During the Civil War some radicals such as John Lilburne began writing and distributing pamphlets on soldiers' rights. He pointed out that even though soldiers were fighting for Parliament, very few of them were allowed to vote for it. Lilburne argued that all adult males should have the vote and that these elections should take place every year. Lilburne, who believed that people were corrupted by power, argued that no members of the House of Commons should be allowed to serve for more than one year at a time.

In 1645 John Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn formed a new political party called the Levellers. 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%.

The Levellers started publishing their own newspaper, The Moderate. They also organised meetings where they persuaded people to sign a Petition supporting their policies.

In 1646 Leveller supporters were elected from each regiment of the army to participate in the Putney Debates. The debate was based on An Agreement of the People, a constitutional proposal drafted by the Levellers. Senior officers in the New Model Army such as Henry Ireton argued against the idea of universal suffrage.

Others such as Thomas Rainsborough, a member of the House of Commons supported the demands of the Levellers. In the debate he argued: "that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent be put himself under that government." A compromise was eventually agreed that the vote would be granted to all men except alms-takers and servants.

When these reforms were opposed by officers in the New Model Army, the Levellers called for the soldiers to revolt. In March 1649, John Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn were arrested and charged with advocating communism. After being brought before the Council of State they were sent to the Tower of London. Lilburne was tried first and after a jury refused to convict him the other Levellers were released on 8th November.

Oliver Cromwell agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. However, he refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections. Lilburne now began writing pamphlets attacking Cromwell's government. Cromwell responded by having John Lilburne arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Over 10,000 people signed a petition calling for Lilburne's release but Cromwell refused to let him go.

Former members of the Levellers grew disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of Cromwell and in 1655 Edward Sexby, John Wildman and Richard Overton were involved in developing a plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy was discovered and the men were forced to flee to the Netherlands.

In May 1657 Edward Sexby published, under the pseudonym William Allen, Killing No Murder, a pamphlet that attempted to justify the assassination of Cromwell. The following month he arrived in England to carry out the deed, however, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Primary Sources

(1) Richard Overton, A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (July, 1646)

We are well assured, yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing you to be Parliament men, was to deliver us from all kind of Bondage, and to preserve the Commonwealth in Peace and Happiness: For effecting whereof, we possessed you with the same power that was in ourselves, to have done the same; For we might justly have done it ourselves without you, if we had thought it convenient; choosing you [as persons whom we thought qualified, and faithful) for avoiding some inconveniences.

But you are to remember, this was only of us but a power of trust, (which is ever revocable, and cannot be otherwise) and to be employed to no other end, then our own well-being: Nor did we choose you to continue our trust's longer, then the known established constitution of this Commonwealth will justly permit, and that could be but for one year at the most: for by our law, a Parliament is to be called once every year, and oftener (if need be,) as you well know. We are your principals, and you our agents; it is a truth which you cannot but acknowledge: For if you or any other shall assume, or exercise any power, that is not derived from our trust and choice thereunto, that power is no less then usurpation and an oppression, from which wee expect to be freed, in whom so ever we find it; it being altogether inconsistent with the nature of just freedom, which you also very well understand.

(2) Richard Overton, An Arrow Against All Tyrants (October, 1646)

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's. I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man's right - to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety - as it were writ in the table of every man's heart, never to be obliterated - even so are we to live, everyone equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege; even all whereof God by nature has made him free.

And this by nature everyone's desire aims at and requires; for no man naturally would be be fooled of his liberty by his neighbour's craft or enslaved by his neighbour's might. For it is nature's instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious; and this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just: not to be rooted out of the kind, even of equal duration with the creature. And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original — not immediately from God (as kings usually plead their prerogative) but immediately by the hand of nature, as from the represented to the representers. For originally God has implanted them in the creature, and from the creature those powers immediately proceed and no further. And no more may be communicated than stands for the better being, weal, or safety thereof. And this is man's prerogative and no further; so much and no more may be given or received thereof: even so much as is conducent to a better being, more safety and freedom, and no more. He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind - every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose natural right and freedom it is.

(3) John Lilburne, Leveller pamphlet (March, 1647)

No man should be punished or persecuted... for preaching or publishing his opinion on religion.

(4) John Lilburne, The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647)

All and every particular and individual man and woman, that ever breathed in the world, are by nature all equal and alike in their power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power one over or above another.

(5) John Lilburne, Rash Oaths (May, 1647)

Every free man of England, poor as well as rich, should have a vote in choosing those that are to make the law.

(6) Major John Wildman was a soldier who took part in the Putney Debates (October, 1647)

Our laws were made by our Norman conquerors... therefore there is no credit to be given to any of them... Every person in England hath as clear a right to elect his own representative as the greatest person in England.

(7) Letter sent by John Lilburne to supporters of the Leveller movement in Kent (1648)

This is the method we have used in London. We have appointed several men in every ward to form a committee... they arrange for the Petition (list of policies supported by the Levellers) to be read at meetings and to take subscriptions.

(8) The Moderate reported in May 1649 on the execution of mutineers at Burford.

This day James Thompson was brought into the churchyard. Death was a great terror to him, as unto most. Some say he had hopes of a pardon, and therefore delivered something reflecting upon the legality of his engagement, and the just hand of God upon him; but if he had, they failed him. Corporal Perkins was the next; the place of death, and sight of his executioners, was so far from altering his countenance, or daunting his spirit, that he seemed to smile upon both, and account it a great mercy that he was to die for this quarrel, and casting his eyes up to His Father and afterwards to his fellow prisoners (who stood upon the church leads to see the execution) set his back against the wall, and bid the executioners shoot; and so died as gallantly, as he lived religiously. After him Master John Church was brought to the stake, he was as much supported by God, in this great agony, as the latter; for after he had pulled off his doublet, he stretched out his arms, and bid the soldiers do their duties, looking them in the face, till they gave fire upon him, without the least kind of fear or terror. Thus was death, the end of his present joy, and beginning of his future eternal felicity. Henry Denne was brought to the place of execution, he said, he was more worthy of death than life and showed himself somewhat penitent, for being an occasion of this engagement; but though he said this to save his life, yet the two last executed, would not have said it, though they were sure thereby to gain their pardon.

(9) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, Englands New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

If our hearts were not over-charged with the sense of the present miseries and approaching dangers of the Nation, your small regard to our late serious apprehensions, would have kept us silent; but the misery, danger, and bondage threatened is so great, imminent, and apparent that whilst we have breath, and are not violently restrained, we cannot but speak, and even cry aloud, until you hear us, or God be pleased otherwise to relieve us.

Removing the King, the taking away the House of Lords, the overawing the House, and reducing it to that pass, that it is become but the Channel, through which is conveyed all the Decrees and Determinations of a private Council of some few Officers, the erecting of their Court of Justice, and their Council of State, The Voting of the People of Supreme Power, and this House the Supreme Authority: all these particulars, (though many of them in order to good ends, have been desired by well-affected people) are yet become, (as they have managed them) of sole conducement to their ends and intents, either by removing such as stood in the way between them and power, wealth or command of the Commonwealth; or by actually possessing and investing them in the same.

They may talk of freedom, but what freedom indeed is there so long as they stop the Press, which is indeed and hath been so accounted in all free Nations, the most essential part thereof, employing an Apostate Judas for executioner therein who hath been twice burnt in the hand a wretched fellow, that even the Bishops and Star Chamber would have shamed to own. What freedom is there left, when honest and worthy Soldiers are sentenced and enforced to ride the horse with their faces reverst, and their swords broken over their heads for but petitioning and presenting a letter in justification of their liberty therein? If this be not a new way of breaking the spirits of the English, which Strafford and Canterbury never dreamt of, we know no difference of things.

(10) William Walwyn, Just Defence (1649)

In the year 1646, whilst the army was victorious abroad, through the union and concurrence of conscientious people, of all judgments, and opinions in religion there brake forth here about London a spirit of persecution; whereby private meetings were molested, & divers pastors of congregations imprisoned, & all threatened; Mr. Edwards, and others, fell foul upon them, slander upon slander, to make them odious, and so to fit them for destruction, whether by pretence of law, or open violence he seemed not to regard; and amongst the rest, abused me, which drew from me a whisper in his ear, and some other discourses, tending to my own vindication, and the defence of all conscientious people: and for which I had then much respect from these very men, that now asperse me themselves, with the very same, and some other like aspirations, as he then did.

Persecution increased in all quarters of the land, sad stories coming daily from all parts, which at length were by divers of the Churches. Myself, and other friends, drawn into a large petition; which I profess was so lamentable, considering the time, that I could hardly read it with out tears: and though most of those that are called Anabaptists and Brownists congregations, were for the presenting of it; yet Master Good wins people, and some other of the Independent Churches being against the season, it was never delivered.

(11) Oliver Cromwell commenting on the activities of the Levellers and the Diggers (1649)

What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.

(12) Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)

That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defences of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families? Are not our husbands, our selves, our daughters and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they?

Nay, shall such valiant, religious men as Mr. Robert Lockyer be liable to court martial, and to be judged by his adversaries, and most inhumanly shot to death? Shall the blood of war be shed in time of peace? Doth not the word of God expressly condemn it? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affection, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?

(13) Bulstrode Whitelock, Memorials of English Affairs (c. 1660)

The Women Petitioners again attended at the door of the House for an answer to their Petition concerning Lilburne and the rest. The House sent them this answer by the Sergeant: 'That the Matter they petitioned about was of an higher concernment than they understood, that the House gave an answer to their husbands, and therefore desired them to go home, and look after their own business, and meddle with their housewifery.

(14) Lucy Hutchinson, The English Civil War (c. 1670)

These good-hearted people wanted justice for the poor as well as the mighty... for this they were nicknamed the Levellers... these men were just and honest.

(15) On 5 May 1649, a group of women sent a petition to the House of Commons.

Since we are created in the image of God... equal with men... we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so bad in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to be represented in the House of Commons.

(16) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, Preamble to the third draft of The Agreement of the People (1st May, 1649)

We, the free People of England, to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits - both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances. And accordingly do declare and publish to all the world, that we are agreed as followeth.

That the Supreme Authority of England and the Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and reside henceforth in a Representative of the people consisting of four hundred persons, but no more; in the choice of whom (according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants, or receiving alms, or having served the late King in Arms or voluntary Contributions), shall have their votes.

(17) Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers (1649)

In the beginning of time God made the earth... Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another... Landowners either got their land by murder or theft... And thereby man was brought into bondage, and became a greater slave than the beasts of the field were to him.

(18) Edward Sexby, Killing No Murder (1657)

To his Highness, Oliver Cromwell.

To your Highness justly belongs the Honour of dying for the people, and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. 'Tis then only (my Lord) the titles you now usurp, will be truly yours; you will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted and Parliaments have those privileges they have fought for. We shall then hope that other laws will have place besides those of the sword, and that justice shall be otherwise defined than the will and pleasure of the strongest; and we shall then hope men will keep oaths again, and not have the necessity of being false and perfidious to preserve themselves, and be like their rulers. All this we hope from your Highness's happy expiration, who are the true father of your country; for while you live we can call nothing ours, and it is from your death that we hope for our inheritances. Let this consideration arm and fortify your Highness's mind against the fears of death and the terrors of your evil conscience, that the good you will do by your death will something balance the evils of your life.