Thomas Prince, the son of John Prince, was born in West Garforth in about 1615. Prince was apprenticed in the London Clothworkers' Company in February 1630 and by 1640 he became a householder in London and was married with two children (only one survived infancy). Prince was a cheesemonger by trade. From the early 1640s he secured a number of wholesale contracts with parliament, supplying its troops with both cheese and butter. On the outbreak of the the English Civil War he joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads). However, he was seriously wounded in 1643 at the battle of Newbury. (1)
In about 1646 Prince became a Leveller. Other members of this group included John Lilburne, Elizabeth Lilburne, Richard Overton, Mary Overton, John Wildman and William Walwyn. 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%. (2)
The Levellers gained considerable influence in the New Model Army. In October, 1647, the Levellers published An Agreement of the People. As Barbara Bradford Taft has pointed out: "Under 1000 words overall, the substance of the Agreement was common to all Leveller penmen but the lucid phrasing of four concise articles and the eloquence of the preamble and conclusion leave little doubt that the final draft was Walwyn's work. Inflammatory demands were avoided and the first three articles concerned the redistribution of parliamentary seats, dissolution of the present parliament, and biennial elections. The heart of the Leveller programme was the final article, which enumerated five rights beyond the power of parliament: freedom of religion; freedom from conscription; freedom from questions about conduct during the war unless excepted by parliament; equality before the law; just laws, not destructive to the people's well-being." (3)
The document advocated the granting of votes to all adult males except for those receiving wages. The wage-earning class, although perhaps numbering nearly half the population, were regarded as "servants" of the rich and would be under their influence and would vote for their employer's candidates. "Their exclusion from the franchise was thus regarded as necessary to prevent the employers from having undue influence, and there is reason to think that this judgement was correct." (4)
In November 1647, Thomas Prince and four other men were arrested for presenting a petition to Parliament supporting the An Agreement of the People. He was released a few weeks later but in December, 1647, he was arrested again for continuing his campaign. Prince, a successful businessman, was appointed as one of the Levellers' treasurers and in December, 1648, was among those who petitioned General Thomas Fairfax, the head of the Parliamentary Army. (5)
In February, 1649, John Lilburne published England's New Chains Discovered. "He appealed to the army and the provinces as well as Londoners to join him in rejecting the rule of the military junta, the council of state, and their ‘puppet’ parliament. Leveller agitation, inspired by his example, revived. He was soon in the Tower again for the suspected authorship of a book which parliament had declared treasonable". (6)
In another pamphlet Lilburne described Cromwell as the "new King." On 24th March, Lilburne read his latest pamphlet, out loud to a crowd outside Winchester House, where he was living at the time, and then presented it to the House of Commons later that same day. It was condemned as "false, scandalous, and reproachful" as well as "highly seditious" and on 28th March he was arrested at his home. (7)
Thomas Prince, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, were also taken into custody and all were brought before the Council of State in the afternoon. Lilburne later claimed that while he was being held prisoner in an adjacent room, he heard Cromwell thumping his fist upon the Council table and shouting that the only "way to deal with these men is to break them in pieces … if you do not break them, they will break you!" (8)
His biographer points out: "During his interrogation by the council of state, he followed his fellow Levellers in refusing to acknowledge the authority of his accusers, arguing that to do so would be a betrayal of his own and the people's liberties". As a result, Prince, Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn were committed to the Tower of London on suspicion of high treason. Nevertheless, Prince and the other Levellers managed to publish pamphlets. This included Prince's account of his arrest and examination. (9)
In March, 1649, Prince joined forces with Lilburne and Overton to publish, England's New Chains Discovered. They attacked the government of Oliver Cromwell pointed out that: "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.. 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?" (10)
The supporters of the Leveller movement called for the release of Lilburne. This included Britain's first ever all-women petition, that was supported by over 10,000 signatures. This group, led by John's wife, Elizabeth Lilburne, and Katherine Chidley, presented the petition to the House of Commons on 25th April, 1649. (11) MPs reacted intolerantly, telling the women that "it was not for women to petition; they might stay home and wash their dishes... you are desired to go home, and look after your own business, and meddle with your housewifery". One woman replied: "Sir, we have scarce any dishes left us to wash, and those we have not sure to keep." When another MP said it was strange for women to petition Parliament one replied: "It was strange that you cut off the King's head, yet I suppose you will justify it." (12)
On 24th October, 1649, Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne was charged with high treason. The trial began the following day. The prosecution read out extracts from Lilburne's pamphlets but the jury was not convinced and he was found not guilty. There were great celebrations outside the court and his acquittal was marked with bonfires. A medal was struck in his honour, inscribed with the words: "John Lilburne saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury who are judge of law as well of fact". On 8th November, Prince, Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, were released. (13)
Nothing is heard of Prince until Jone Lilburne attempted to return to England. Lilburne named Prince among those who would provide grounds of security and confidence for his return in June, 1653. Despite this, he was arrested and later that year Prince appeared as a prominent and outspoken supporter of Lilburne during his trial at the Old Bailey. It is not known when Thomas Prince died. (14)
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.