Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter V
Parliament and the National Army. Presbyterians, Independents, and Other Sects

ABOUT this time the antagonism, hitherto latent, between Presbyterians and Independents in the Parliamentary Army, as in Parliament itself, came to a head. The generals, who were adherents of the Presbyterians, wavered in their conduct of the war, holding steadily in view the possibility of a compromise with the King. Manchester neglected to follow up the advantage gained in the second battle of Newbury on October 27, 1644, so palpably that the angry Cromwell, who was coming into increasing military prominence, rode to London and accused him in Parliament of treachery, relying largely upon the evidence of Lilburne. Cromwell contented himself with driving Manchester out of the Army. With the assistance of his friends, he procured the passing of the so-called Self-Denying Ordinance, which enacted that any member of either House of Parliament who held a commission in the Army should resign. Thereupon Essex, Manchester, and others were constrained to resign from the Army, whilst Cromwell, after a short interval, was by general request appointed lieutenant-general of the reorganized “New Model” Army for an indefinite period. His services were indispensable in view of the King’s preparations for a fresh attack. The chief command had been assigned to the brave, but politically unimportant, Fairfax.

From the New Model Army all unreliable elements were excluded. For the moment those soldiers whose views were more advanced than the views of their chiefs were not regarded as dangerous. The officers were obliged to sign the Covenant which Parliament, sorely pressed by the King, had in the autumn of 1643 made with the Scotch, who had thereupon despatched an army of 21,000 men. In this Covenant Episcopalianism was abjured, but the reference to Presbyterianism, which the Scotch desired to see introduced in England, was so ambiguous that the Covenant was signed by many people who objected to a rigidly centralized Church government. Only one man declined to salve his conscience by putting a convenient interpretation upon the wording in question, and he was Lilburne. All Cromwell’s persuasive powers were vainly expended upon this fanatic for straight dealing. He sturdily refused to enter upon crooked courses, and returned to civil life in order to defend with his pen the cause of freedom of conscience.

In common with most of the advanced politicians, he had meanwhile transferred his allegiance from the Presbyterians to the Independents. Most Presbyterians were strangers to religious toleration, which they regarded as the “foremost means of the devil”. The Scotch in particular regarded religious freedom as “the murder of souls”.

Among Cromwell’s letters there is one dated March 10, 1643, addressed to Major-General Crawford, a Scotsman already serving in the English Army. In this letter Cromwell writes very earnestly on behalf of an officer who had been suspended by Crawford. He says, among other things:

Ay, but the man “is an Anabaptist”. Are you sure of that? Admit he be, shall that render him incapable to serve the public? Sir, the State, in choosing men to serve it, takes no notice of their opinions; if they be willing faithfully to serve it – that satisfies.

The sentiment expressed in this letter was so novel that Lord Manchester used the letter against Cromwell in Parliament when accusing him of being a leader of sectarians. All sects were represented in Cromwell’s Army, from bibliolaters to atheists. They formed the backbone of the Army. They were its bravest, most sacrificing, most democratic members, and for that reason gave the dictator Cromwell the most trouble at a later date, but for the time being Cromwell supported them.

Parliament was prepared to settle the matter, but it lacked the necessary power, and the exhortations addressed to the English Parliament from Scotland, to stamp out these abominations in the Army, remained without any practical effect. [1] Cromwell, in his letters from the battlefield, always defended the sectaries among his soldiers. “Sir, they are trusty, I beseech you, in the name of God, not to discourage them”, he writes to the Speaker of the House of Commons after the battle of Naseby. And again, after the storming of Bristol: “Presbyterians, Independents, all have here the same spirit of faith and prayer, the same presence and answer; they agree here, have no names of difference: pity it is it should be otherwise anywhere!” [2]

Although the Presbyterians in London were unable to pass from the rôle of persecuted to that of persecutor, as their religion dictated, they were untiring in pulpit and pamphlet denunciations of the sectaries. A “Great Assembly of Divines” had been meeting in Westminster ever since 1643, deliberating upon a common united Church of Scotland and England. In this Assembly the Presbyterians had a great preponderance, and it re-echoed to impassioned thunderings against the “monstrous damnable doctrine of liberty of the conscience”. John Lilburne, in his pamphlets, derided this body as the “Assembly of Dry-Vines”. The Presbyterians, on their side, constructed out of the letters of Lilburne’s name the anagram, “O I burn in hel(l)”. And John Milton coined the phrase, “New Presbyter is nothing but old Priest writ large”.

It would be a fundamental mistake to detect in these Presbyterian sentiments nothing more than the voice of narrow religious fanatics. They also express the feelings of prosperous citizens, the wealthy City merchants being for the most part Presbyterians. The most extreme social theories manifested themselves at that time in a religious form. Consequently the majority of comfortable citizens would be unconsciously biased in favour of that form of religion which was most acceptable to the existing order, and the religion that met this requirement was in those days Presbyterian Puritanism. In his History of the Great Civil War [3], Gardiner writes: “It is no matter for surprise that the City was tenaciously Presbyterian. The fear of ecclesiastical tyranny which was so strong on the benches of the House of Commons had no terrors for the merchants and tradesmen of the City. By filling the elderships those very merchants and tradesmen constituted the Church for purposes of jurisdiction. Whatever ecclesiastical tyranny there was would be exercised by themselves.” This divergency between the Parliamentary representatives of the middle classes and those classes themselves is a characteristic phenomenon that persists throughout modern history. Among members of Parliaments ideologies of all kinds work a modifying, and even a distorting, influence upon the class character of the representation, but they are generally effaced and lost among the masses that are represented. The change in the relations between the City and Cromwell forms one of the most instructive chapters of the English Revolution.

“Independent” was as yet an indeterminate concept. It connoted those persons who, on various grounds, were opposed to any form of religious absolutism or centralized religious authority, just as at a later stage of political development “Liberal” and “Radical” are collective names for persons whose sole bond of union is their opposition to certain institutions, and who are likely to part company when other issues arise. Thus in the next chapter we shall have to relate political splits among the Independents. The extent of the differences in religio-social views may be gathered from the number of sects designated as “independent”. There were the Anabaptists, with strong communistic tendencies; the Familists, dominated by Anabaptist ideas; the Fifth Monarchy Men, who aimed at the establishment of a monarchy of Christ, as foreshadowed in the book of Daniel, to succeed the four great world monarchies, in which there would be no earthly rulers; the Antinomians, who were even more anarchical in their opposition to all written religious and moral law, holding that the internal illumination by the spirit of the Gospel was a sufficient guide for all conduct and reaching very revolutionary conclusions; and the Ranters, among whom were extremists alleged to profess free love and kindred extravagances.

It does not come within our scope to describe in detail all the sects that appeared in that fermenting age. Those that play a part in our history will be considered as occasion demands. For the moment it is sufficient to note the popularity among the people of the Chiliastic sects, which expected the advent of a millennial, communistic kingdom of God on earth. [4]

The denunciations of the Presbyterians were aimed particularly at these sects. They were anathematized by the Presbyterian special London Council, Sion College, and a Presbyterian light of the Church, Th. Edwards, in 1646, published a work called Gangraena, full of fulminations against them. Many of the sects, as, for example, the Antinomians, held the same fundamental dogmas as the Presbyterians, but they differed as regards the practical application of these dogmas, and this was the question at issue.

The idea that the interests of property forbid any serious interference with the centralized State Church was at that time plainly expressed by a poet, Edmund Waller, famous for his elegant verses and almost more elegant apostasies. On May 27, 1641, the House of Commons proceeded to discuss a resolution to abolish the episcopate, when Waller, a nephew of John Hampden and still a partisan of Parliament, said it would be a good thing to clip the bishops’ horns and claws. They might, perhaps, go even a little farther, but to abolish the episcopacy altogether would entail very serious risks. That the masses were against episcopacy seemed to Waller, as he avowed, an argument in its favour, “for I look upon episcopacy as a counterscarp, or outwork; which, if it be taken by this assault of the people, and, withal, this mystery once revealed, `that we must deny them nothing when they ask it thus in troops’, we may, in the next place, have as hard a task to defend our property, as we have lately had to recover it from the Prerogative. If, by multiplying hands and petitions, they prevail for an equality in things ecclesiastical, the next demand perhaps may be Lex Agraria, the like equality in things temporal.”

Waller proceeds to refer to the history of ancient Rome, in which the decline of the Republic coincided with the assumption of power by the masses. The power to demand a law (legem rogare) quickly became the power to make a law (legem ferre), and once the legions discovered that they could make anyone they pleased dictator, they refused to allow the Senate to have any more voice in the matter. If it should be objected that the episcopacy was not that which had been laid down in the Holy Scriptures, Waller was not prepared to dispute this, “but I am confident that, whenever an equal division of lands and goods shall be desired, there will be as many places in Scripture found out, which seem to favour that, as there are now alleged against the prelacy or preferment of the Church. And, as for abuses, when you are now in the remonstrance told what this and that poor man hath suffered by the bishops, you may be presented with a thousand instances of poor men that have received hard measure from their landlords; and of worldly goods abused, to the injury of others, and the disadvantage of the owners.”

The House of Commons ought therefore by a resolution to reform the episcopate, but not to abolish it, so as to restore peace to men’s minds. Waller had given utterance to the thoughts of many. In May 1646 delegates from more than two thousand inhabitants of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire appeared at the bar of the House to petition for the removal of the tithes. Their demand met with no support, and they were sent home with the paternal injunction that they did not understand either the law of God or the law of man. They had better betake themselves off and obey both. “Some of the members observed that tenants who wanted to be quit of tithes would soon want to be quit of rent. Nine-tenths were due to the landlord on the same ground that one-tenth was due to the minister.” [5] Such authentic utterances as these throw interesting sidelights on the history of the Revolution.

We resume our narration of events.

Prynne, Lilburne’s quondam teacher and leader, had published a pamphlet steeped in the Presbyterian spirit of persecution described above. In answer to this pamphlet Lilburne in January 1645 published an open letter, in which he defended the sectaries and vigorously opposed the tyrannical spirit of the Presbyterians. This letter was declared by Parliament, under pressure from Prynne, to be “scurrilous, libellous, and seditious”, and a prosecution was started against Lilburne. When, in a second pamphlet, he denounced these proceedings, he was arrested by a resolution of Parliament in July 1645. In Parliament and among the big City merchants the Presbyterian influence prevailed, but Lilburne had strenuously opposed the granting of monopolies to the great merchants, which was as much in vogue as ever, and he was too popular with the great mass of the citizens for summary treatment to be meted out to him. A deputation of citizens called the attention of Parliament to Lilburne’s services “against the oppression and tyranny of the prelates and Court parasites”, and were assured that he should receive a fair trial and be allowed proper maintenance in the meantime. The deputation was not satisfied with this, and some of the more eager spirits seem to have planned an assault on the prison, an idea which Lilburne decisively vetoed as soon as he heard of it. When October arrived, in which month the trial was to be held, Parliament ordered his release, in answer to a new petition and in view of his long preliminary detention. The House was now in a somewhat difficult position. True, it had nothing further to fear from the King, who, after the battle of Naseby, had abandoned all thoughts of victory and had again resorted to negotiations. But Cromwell’s Army, almost to a man, supported the Independents, on whose side were also large numbers of the people of London; and unless these inconvenient and pressing men, who desired reform “root and branch”, could be mastered, the fruits of victory threatened to be lost. Thus these “advanced” men were regarded, to an increasing degree, as the foe.

Lilburne did not long enjoy his recovered freedom. Of his attitude towards the parliamentary majority there could be no doubt. A few days before his liberation he had published two violent pamphlets against them, the titles of which sufficiently indicate their purport. The first is called: “England’s Birthright justified against all arbitrary usurpation, whether regal or parliamentary, or under what vizor soever; with divers queries, observations, and grievances of the people, declaring this Parliament’s present proceedings to be directly contrary to those fundamental principles whereby their actions were at first justified against the King.” The main title of the second is: “England’s Lamentable Slavery, proceeding from the arbitrary will, severity and fulness of Parliaments, covetousness, ambition and variability of priest, and simplicity, carelessness and cowardliness of people.” On regaining his freedom, Lilburne became a regular attendant at the meetings of the London Independents, which were held in City taverns, and at these meetings the aristocratic character of the Lower House was already a standing topic. The general conditions of election to the Commons, both in town and country, had gradually worsened as time went on. At the period now under consideration, the suffrage, which had become of great moment, was restricted in many towns to the members of corporations, and even to their officers only, and, in the counties, to a minority of landowners. Those excluded from the vote, by tradition rather than by original enactments, felt that they were unjustly treated. Moreover, serious anomalies had grown up in connection with the size of the places represented. Towns and boroughs that had remained stationary, or had fallen behind the great centres of commerce, had the same representation as the most important commercial centres in the kingdom.

Composed almost exclusively of members of the wealthy classes in town and country, Parliament had abolished a great many institutions and impositions that were obnoxious to it, but had taken no great heed of the grievances of the lower middle and the working classes. It had cancelled the monopolies granted by the King, and had even taken the step of expelling those of its members who held such monopolies, but the privileges of the great trading companies were left intact. Feudal obligations, like the royal right to dispose of wardships – a right “oppressing to all the considerable families”, according to Hume – or such duties as knight service, were either expressly abolished or fell into desuetude, after practically all the prerogatives of the King had ceased to exist. But the game laws, tithes, etc., by which the small tenants and other “inconsiderable” families were grievously oppressed, remained, as we have seen, “unconsidered”, all petitions against them notwithstanding.

At this time the House of Lords gave its decision that the proceedings of the Star Chamber against Lilburne were illegal, and that he must be compensated for the wrong he had suffered. In consequence probably of this decision, he married the same winter, and set up his own establishment, but he was again arrested on April 14, 1646. There was one Edward King, a Presbyterian colonel, whom Lilburne – and not Lilburne alone – had accused of playing into the hands of the Royalists on several occasions by traitorous delays, but, owing to his parliamentary influence, no action had been taken against him. This man complained of Lilburne on the ground of malicious slander, and caused him to be put under preliminary arrest.

Out of this affair grew a whole string of actions and persecutions aimed at Lilburne, of which we can here only mention the most important. Lilburne exposed the illegality of the proceedings against him in his appeals to the judicial and parliamentary authorities, and asked for redress. In one of his addresses, The Just Man’s Justification, he refers to what he designates as the treachery of the ex-general, Lord Manchester, who had in the meantime become the Speaker of the House of Lords. Instead of the anticipated legal protection, Lilburne received a summons to appear before the Lords to justify his. attacks. Repeatedly brought before them, he steadfastly refused to answer them, or in any way to acknowledge their authority, holding that they possessed no jurisdiction over him in criminal matters. He appealed from them “as encroachers and usurping judges” to his “competent, proper and legal triers and judges, the Commons of England assembled in Parliament”. But before the Commons could reach a decision, he was, on July 10th, condemned by the Lords to a fine of £2,000, the loss of the right ever to hold any official position, and seven years’ imprisonment in the Tower. On the whole, his treatment in the Tower was tolerable. In this respect, at least, the new regime was better than the old, although the prisoners were exposed to scandalous exploitation by the officials.

Even in prison, however, Lilburne was not quiet. He and his friends were tireless in their efforts to prevail upon Parliament to intervene, and they succeeded to the extent that at the end of 1647 Lilburne was liberated on bail. He used his freedom to promote all kinds of agitations, in the course of which he journeyed to places where certain divisions of the Army, in which he had many friends, were quartered. The object of these journeys will transpire later. Early in 1648 he was denounced by a hostile minister for speaking at a meeting in Shoreditch, which had resolved upon the distribution of 30,000 copies of the leaflet, undoubtedly his, The Earnest Petition of many Freeborn People of this Nation. As a consequence Lilburne was informed that he had forfeited his permit, and must return to the Tower.

This petition is one of the most remarkable documents of the English Revolution. In fact, the organization of petitions was one of the chief means of propaganda at that time, and a study of these petitions is indispensable to an understanding of contemporary history. In March 1647 the House of Commons is described in a petition promoted by Lilburne as “the highest authority in the nation”. This was such an audacious assertion of the sovereignty of the elected representatives of the people that Parliament on May 29th, by 94 votes to 86, ordered the pamphlet to be burnt by the common executioner, because it “called in question the existing constitution”. Besides its strictures on the constitution, the pamphlet attacked tithes, trade monopolies, and the whole judicial system, and demanded in energetic language its radical reform both in principle and procedure.

On their side, Lilburne’s friends and adherents among the London public were not idle. Petition after petition in his favour was presented. Finally, on August 1, 1648, again “ten thousand citizens of London, men and women”, petitioned that Lilburne be set free or have a legal trial. This time they succeeded in prevailing upon Lords and Commons to liberate Lilburne and cancel the fine decreed against him. But there was a special reason for this act of compliance with the popular will.




1. E.g., in an address to the English Parliament from the Scottish in 1645 it is said: “The Parliament of this kingdom is persuaded that the piety and wisdom of the honourable houses will never admit toleration of any sects or schisms contrary to our solemn league and covenant.”

2. Letters of June 14 and September 14, 1645.

3. Vol.iii, pp.78, 79.

4. This subject is exhaustively discussed in Hermann Weingarten’s Die Revolutionskirchen Englands, Leipzig 1868. Weingarten writes: “We see the Independents advancing in two directions: in the religious, through the sectarian fermentation, which culminated in Quakerism, and in the political, whose first incidental form was the Leveller movement, but whose fundamental ideas have passed as driving forces into the political life of modern times.” Masson, in his Life and Times of John Milton, vol.iii, pp.142-59, gives a very clear summary of the sects in the early days of the Revolution. In vol.v. (pp.15 et seq.) of the same work is a description of the sects under the Protectorate. Robert Barclay, in his Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, gives much information bearing on this subject, although his standpoint is narrow.

5. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, vol.iii, p.124.


Last updated on 21.11.2002