Mary Overton

Mary Johnson was born in about 1620. She married Richard Overton in about 1640. He held radical political views and his first signed pamphlet, Articles of High Treason Exhibited Against Cheap-Side Cross appeared in January 1642. (1)

Over the next few years she gave birth to four children. He did not appear to do much writing during this period. However, in July, 1946, Overton, launched an attack on Parliament: "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." (2)

Overton criticised the House of Lords in his pamphlet, An Alarum to the House of Lords against their Insolent Usurpation of the Common Liberties and Rights of this Nation. As a result of this pamphlet he was arrested in August, 1646 and sent to Newgate Prison. While in prison he published An Arrow Shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords. (3)

Mary Overton - Leveller

In January, 1647, Mary Overton was arrested, together with her brother Thomas Johnson, when they were discovered producing seditious pamphlets written by her husband. She was taken to the House of Lords, but she refused to answer any questions. Mary was now committed to prison. She later complained that she was dragged there "headlong upon the stones through all the dirt and mire of the streets" with her six-months-old baby in her arms. She was also pregnant with another child while in prison she had a miscarriage. (4)

Mary stated that she was abused by officers of the law who called her "scandalous, infamous names of wicked whore, strumpet, etc." In her petition to the House of Commons in March she begged for a speedy sentence. "If wrong had been done, then she was prepared to face execution; if not she should be granted her freedom; but arbitary imprisonment at the orders of the House of Lords was utterly intolerable." Mary was released in July and Richard in September, 1647. (5)

By 1647 people like Mary Overton, Richard Overton, John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Edward Sexby, Robert Lockyer and John Wildman were described as Levellers. In demonstrations they wore sea-green scarves or ribbons. (6) 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%. (7) Richard Overton also called for enclosed commons to be "laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor." (8)

Oliver Cromwell made it very clear that he very much opposed to the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes: "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." (9)

In July, 1648, the Levellers published their own newspaper, The Moderate. Edited by Richard Overton it included articles by John Lilburne, John Wildman and William Walwyn. The articles written by Overton were more radical than contemporary writings by other Leveller leaders. Whereas radicals like Lilburne opposed the trial and execution of the Charles I, for example, Overton supported it as necessary for securing English liberties. (10)

Mary Overton
Women Will Have Their Will (1648)

The newspaper controversially encouraged soldiers in the New Model Army to revolt. In March 1649, Lilburne, Wildman, Overton and Walwyn were arrested and charged with advocating communism. After being brought before the Council of State they were sent to the Tower of London. (11)

Riots and protests broke out in London where the Levellers had a strong following. Ten thousand signatures were collected in a few days to a petition demanding the release of John Lilburne. This was soon followed by a second petition signed and presented entirely by women. There were also disturbances in the army and it was decided to send the most disgruntled regiments to Ireland. (12)

Richard Overton continued to campaign against the rule of Oliver Cromwell. According to a Royalist newspaper at the time: "He (Cromwell) and the Levellers can as soon combine as fire and water... The Levellers aim being at pure democracy.... and the design of Cromwell and his grandees for an oligarchy in the hands of himself." (13)

Lilburne argued that Cromwell's government was mounting a propaganda campaign against the Levellers and to prevent them from replying their writings were censored: "To prevent the opportunity to lay open their treacheries and hypocrisies... the stop the press... They blast us with all the scandals and false reports their wit or malice could invent against us... By these arts are they now fastened in their powers." (14)

In February, 1649, John Lilburne published England's New Chains Discovered. "He (Lilburne) 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". (15)

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. (16)

Women's Petition

Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince, 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!" (17)

Mary Overton described the traumatic moment of the arrest (she was ill in bed, having recently given birth) when the officers of the law broke open and ransacked their house. It was reported that they searched "her trunks, chests, etc. to rob, steal, plunder and bear away her goods, which were her then present liveihood for her imprisoned husband, her self, and three small children, her brother and sister." (18)

The prisoners were taken before the council of state and, after refusing to answer any questions, dispatched to the Tower. All four Leveller prisoners subscribed a Manifestation on 14th April, 1649, calling for a third and final An Agreement of the People. (19)

The supporters of the Leveller movement called for the release of the four Levellers. This included Britain's first ever all-women petition, that was supported by over 10,000 signatures. This group was led by Mary Overton, Elizabeth Lilburne, and Katherine Chidley, presented the petition to the House of Commons on 25th April, 1649. (20)

Overton described her husband's incarceration in Newgate Prison as "the high violation of the fundamental Laws of the Land, the utter subversion of the Common Liberties of the people and of your Petitioner's husband's native Right and Inheritance in particular". (21)

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." (22)

Richard Overton and the other Leveller leaders were released from the Tower on 8th November 1649, following Lilburne's acquittal on charges of treason. Overton gradually grew disillusioned with the dictatorial policies of Oliver Cromwell and in 1655 joined John Wildman and Edward Sexby in developing a plot to overthrow the government. The conspiracy was discovered and Overton fled to Flanders. It was later argued that Overton was by this time acting as a double agent and had informed the authorities of the plot. (23) Records show that Overton was receiving payments from Cromwell's secretary of state, John Thurloe. (24)

Richard Overton returned to England but was once more in prison in 1663 for publishing a pamphlet criticizing King Charles II. He died in 1664. It is not known when Mary Overton died.

Primary Sources

(1) B. J. Gibbons, Mary Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Nothing is known of her background or parentage and she was first mentioned by her husband in 1646. There is no evidence to support the identification of Overton and his wife with the Richard and Mary who were married at St George the Martyr, Southwark, in March 1643, but the fact that the couple had three young children and a six-month-old baby in 1647 would suggest a marriage some time in the early 1640s. A pamphlet of 1643 protesting against imprisonment for debt has been attributed to Overton; the evidence for Overton's authorship is not compelling, but if this attribution is sound he himself was in prison for debt at this time.

Student Activities

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(1) B. J. Gibbons, Mary Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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

(3) B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 398

(5) Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (1984) page 235

(6) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) page 290

(7) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 198

(8) John Gurney, Gerrard Winstanley (2013) page 37

(9) Oliver Cromwell, letter (4th September, 1654) quoted by Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: Volume II (1886) page 90

(10) B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (2008) page 215

(13) Mercurius Pragmaticus (19th December, 1648)

(14) John Lilburne, The Second Part of England's New Chains Discovered (March, 1949)

(15) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Peter Richards, John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian (2008)

(17) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 270

(18) Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (1984) page 235

(19) B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(20) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 508

(21) Mercurius Militaris (22nd April 1649)

(22) B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(23) Alan Marshall, Edward Sexby : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(24) B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)