Richard Overton was born in about 1614. It is believed he attended Queens' College and left Cambridge University in 1631. He developed radical political views and his first signed pamphlet, Articles of High Treason Exhibited Against Cheap-Side Cross appeared in January 1642. (1)
It is believed that he married Mary Johnson, at around this time. 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, 1646, 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)
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 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) Overton also called for enclosed commons to be "laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor." (8)
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." (9)
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." (10)
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." (11)
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. (12)
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. (13)
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. (14)
A petition of well over 8,000 signatures, calling for Lilburne to be released, was presented to the House of Commons. Sir John Maynard, the MP for Totnes, led the campaign to have Lilburne set free. Maynard was a great supporter of religious freedom and Lilburne described him as a "true friend and faithful and courageous fellow-sufferer" for his beliefs. Maynard told fellow members about "what this brave invincible Spirit hath suffered and done for you." As a result of the debate in August, 1648, the House of Lords cancelled Lilburne's sentence. (15)
Soldiers continued to protest against the government. The most serious rebellion took place in London. Troops commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley were ordered from the capital to Essex. A group of soldiers led by Robert Lockyer, refused to go and barricaded themselves in The Bull Inn near Bishopsgate, a radical meeting place. A large number of troops were sent to the scene and the men were forced to surrender. The commander-in-chief, General Thomas Fairfax, ordered Lockyer to be executed.
Lockyer's funeral on Sunday 29th April, 1649, proved to be a dramatic reminder of the strength of the Leveller organization in London. "Starting from Smithfield in the afternoon, the procession wound slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the interment in New Churchyard. Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons - black for mourning and sea-green to publicize their Leveller allegiance. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainsborough the previous autumn." (16)
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." (17)
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." (18)
David Petegorsky, the author of Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) has pointed out: "The Levellers clearly saw, that equality must replace privilege as the dominant theme of social relationships; for a State that is divided into rich and poor, or a system that excludes certain classes from privileges it confers on others, violates that equality to which every individual has a natural claim." (19)
Although he agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, Cromwell refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections. The Levellers attacked Cromwell's suppression of Roman Catholics in Ireland and Parliament's persecution of Royalists in England.
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". (20)
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. (21)
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!" (22)
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." (23)
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. (24)
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. (25)
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". (26)
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." (27)
In May, 1649, Overton and Lilburne published a joint protest against the execution of a parliamentarian soldier, Robert Lockyer. A group of soldiers led by Lockyer, barricaded themselves in The Bull Inn near Bishopsgate, a radical meeting place. A large number of troops were sent to the scene and the men were forced to surrender. The commander-in-chief, General Thomas Fairfax, ordered Lockyer to be executed. (28)
Lockyer's funeral on Sunday 29th April, 1649, proved to be a dramatic reminder of the strength of the Leveller organization in London. "Starting from Smithfield in the afternoon, the procession wound slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the interment in New Churchyard. Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons - black for mourning and sea-green to publicize their Leveller allegiance. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainsborough the previous autumn." (29)
In May 1649 another Leveller-inspired mutiny broke out at Salisbury. 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 were executed "Private Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornett Thompson - who were shot in the churchyard there in 1649 by Oliver Cromwell's forces". (30) One of the leaders of the mutiny was Henry Denne, who had been associated with Overton over many years. (31)
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. (32) Records show that Overton was receiving payments from Cromwell's secretary of state, John Thurloe. (33)
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.
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.
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.
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.
O Cromwell, O Ireton, how hath a little time and success changed the honest shape of so many officers! Who then would have thought the army council would have moved for an act to put men to death for petitioning? Who would have thought to have seen soldiers (by their order) to ride with their faces towards their horse tails, to have their swords broken over their heads, and to be cashiered, and that for petitioning, and claiming their just right and title to the same?
Was there ever a generation of men so apostate so false and so perjured as these? Did ever men pretend an higher degree of holiness, religion, and zeal to God and their country than these? These preach, these fast, these pray, these have nothing more frequent than the sentences of sacred scripture, the name of God and of Christ in their mouths: you shall scarce speak to Cromwell about anything, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.
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.