From Academic Kids

See Levellers (disambiguation) for alternative meanings.

The Levellers were a mid 17th century English political party, who came to prominence during the English Civil Wars. Their manifesto involved a remodelling of the English political process along the lines of a more egalitarian, less class-driven regime. They had a large following within the ranks of the New Model Army.


Brief history

Origin of name

They were labelled 'Levellers' by their enemies, who claimed that they were intent on bringing all down to the lowest common level. This was a charge that they vehemently denied, but they adopted the name because it was how they were known to the majority of people.


The most vocal of the Leveller leaders was John Lilburne. Other leaders included William Walwyn, Thomas Prince, and Richard Overton. "Freeborn" John Lilburne regarded the term “Levellers” to be pejorative. Lilburne called his supporters "Levellers so-called" and preferred to refer to the Levellers as "Agitators".

English Civil Wars

The Levellers were one of the largest factions on the Parliamentarian side during the English Civil Wars. They were organised at the national level, with offices in a number of London inns and taverns. The Levellers published a newspaper (The Moderate), and they identified themselves by sea-green ribbons worn on their clothing. The Levellers were extremely well-supported from within the ranks of the New Model Army.

Political ambitions

The Levellers' political ambitions involved a remodelling of the English political process along the lines of a more egalitarian, less class-driven regime. They held (in the words of Richard Overton) that "by natural birth all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedom", and that government should be a contract between equal citizens. Their manifesto included: universal suffrage for all adult males, biannual or 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 six percent.

Secular foundation

The basis of Leveller politics was original in that it was not founded on religious doctrine. What the Levellers sought was a secular republic, without religious direction from the state. In common with later liberals they called for the abolition of tithes, the feudal fee charged to pay for the state church. They argued for complete religious tolerance, a position which was markedly radical for the time.

Their views were in stark contrast to those of groups such as the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, who called themselves True Levellers. They called for the total destruction of the existing order, and its replacement by a communistic and agrarian lifestyle based on a doctrine which they derived from the Book of Acts.

Time Line

In July 1645 John Lilburne was imprisoned for denouncing Members of Parliament who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for the Parliamentary cause. His offence was slandering William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House of Commons, whom he accused of corresponding with Royalists. He was freed in October after a petition requesting his release, and signed by over two thousand leading London citizens, was presented to the House of Commons.

In July 1646, Lilburne was imprisoned again, this time in the Tower of London, for denouncing his former army commander the Earl of Manchester as a Royalist sympathiser, because he had protected an officer who had been charged with treason. It was the campaigns to free Lilburne from prison which spawned the movement known as the Levellers.

The Levellers in the New Model Army elected Agitators from each regiment to represent them. It was agreed by the Agitators and senior officers in the Army, (nicknamed "Grandees") to hold some debates on the issues which divided them. These debates are known as the Putney Debates, and they were held in St Mary's Church, Putney, in the county of Surrey, between October 28 and November 11 1647. The Agitators were assisted by some civilians, and the Grandees were represented by Henry Ireton (son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell), Oliver Cromwell, and some others. Each party put forward a pamphlet to lay out their position. The Levellers' pamphlet, written by civilians, was entitled Agreement of the PeopleTemplate:Ref. The Grandees' pamphlet, endorsed by the General Council of the Army, was written by Henry Ireton, and entitled The Heads of the ProposalsTemplate:Ref. It put forward a constitutional manifesto which included the preservation of property rights and maintenance of the privileges of the gentry. The debates help to throw light on the areas on which supporters of the Parliamentarian side agreed and those on which they differed. For example, Ireton asked whether the Levellers' phrase "according to the number of the inhabitants" gave a foreigner just arrived in England and resident in a property the right to vote? He extends this argument to say that a person must have a "permanent interest of this kingdom" to be entitled to vote. He then argued that "permanent interest" means owing property, which is where he and the Levellers disagreed. To modern eyes the debates seem to draw heavily on the Bible to lay out certain basic principles, but this is to be expected in an age still racked by religious upheavals in the aftermath of the reformation, and particularly in an army where soldiers were, in part, selected for their religious zeal.

The Corkbush Field rendezvous on November 17 1647, was the first of three rendezvous to take place as agreed in the Putney Debates. The Army commanders Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell were worried at the strength of support that the Levellers had in the Army, so they decided to impose The Heads of the Proposals as the army's manifesto instead of the Levellers' Agreement of the People. When some refused to accept this, because they wanted the army to adopt the Levellers' document, they were arrested, and one of the ringleaders, Private Richard Arnold, was executed. At the other two rendezvous, the troops who were summoned agreed to the manifesto without further protest.

The Levellers' largest petition, entitled To The Right Honovrable The Commons Of England,Template:Ref was presented to Parliament on September 11 1648 after amassing signatories including about a third of all Londoners.

On October 30 1648 Thomas Rainsborough was killed. He was a Member of Parliament and also a Leveller leader who had spoken at the Putney Debates. His funeral was the occasion for a large Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing the Levellers' ribbons of sea-green and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats.

In January 1649, Charles I of England was tried and executed for treason against the people. In February, the Grandees banned petitions to Parliament by soldiers. In March, eight Leveller troopers went to the Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, Thomas Fairfax, and demanded the restoration of the right to petition. Five of them were cashiered out of the army.

Three hundred infantrymen of Colonel John Hewson's regiment, who declared that they would not serve in Ireland until the Levellers' programme had been realised, were cashiered without arrears of pay, which was the threat that had been used to quell the mutiny at the Corkbush Field rendezvous.

In the Bishopsgate mutiny soldiers of the regiment of Colonel Edward Whalley stationed in Bishopsgate London made demands similar to those of Hewson's regiment; they were ordered out of London. When they refused to go, fifteen soldiers were arrested and court martialled, of whom six were sentenced to death. Of this six, five were subsequently pardoned while Robert Lockier (or Lockyer), a former Levellers agitator, was hanged April 27 1649. "At his burial a thousand men, in files, preceded the corpse, which was adorned with bunches of rosemary dipped in blood; on each side rode three trumpeters, and behind was led the trooper’s horse, covered with mourning; some thousands of men and women followed with black and green ribbons on their heads and breasts, and were received at the grave by a numerous crowd of the inhabitants of London and Westminster." Template:Ref

In 1649, Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince, and Richard Overton were imprisoned in the Tower of London by the Council of State (see above). It was while the leaders of the Levellers were being held in the Tower that they wrote an outline of the reforms the Levellers wanted, in a pamphlet entitled An Agreement Of The Free People Of EnglandTemplate:Ref (written on May 1 1649). It includes reforms that have since been made law in England such as the right to silence, and others, such as an elected judiciary, that have not.

Shortly afterwards Cromwell attacked the "Banbury mutineers", 400 troopers who supported the Levellers and who were commanded by Captain William ThompsonTemplate:Ref. Several mutineers were killed in the skirmish, but Captain Thompson escaped, only to be killed in another skirmish near the Digger community at Wellingborough. The three other leaders – William Thompson's brother, Corporal Perkins, and John Church – were hanged on May 17 1649. This destroyed the Leveller's support base in the New Model Army, which by this time was the major power in the land. Although Walwyn and Overton were released from the Tower, and Lilburne was tried and acquitted, the Leveller cause had effectively been crushed.

Other usage

In 1724 there was a rising against enclosures in Galloway, and a number of men who took part in it were called “Levellers” or “Dykebreakers” (A. Lang, History of Scotland, vol. iv). The word was also used in Ireland during the eighteenth century to describe a secret revolutionary society similar to the Whiteboys.

See also

External link


see Wikipedia:Footnote3
  1. Template:Note The Agreement of the People (http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur074.htm) as presented to the Council of the Army October 1647
  2. Template:NoteThe Heads of the Proposals offered by the Army (http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur071.htm)
  3. Template:NoteAgreement of the People (http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur081.htm), as presented to Parliament in January 1649
  4. Template:Note The History of England: Chapter IV: The Commonwealth (http://www.authorama.com/history-of-england-4.html) by By John Lingard
  5. Template:NoteAgreement of the Free People (http://www.constitution.org/eng/agreepeo.htm), extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649
  6. Template:NoteThe testimony of the Burford Levellers (http://www.bilderberg.org/land/case.htm)de:Levellers

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