Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter XI
The Levellers’ Revolt in the Army. Lilburne’s Last Years and Death

THE “purged” or “Rump” Parliament had meanwhile adopted drastic measures to end the dispute with Charles I. On December 23, 1648, it appointed a Commission, which was to consult as to the proceedings to be adopted against the King. On January 1, 1649, the Commission recommended that the King should be impeached for high treason towards the nation in having treacherously waged war against it, and. accordingly Parliament decided to appoint a Tribunal of State to judge him. When the majority of the few Lords still in attendance at the House refused to sanction this resolution, a further resolution was passed by the House of Commons on January 4th, declaring that “the people are, under God, the original of all just power”, and that therefore the representatives elected by the people, viz., the Commons, constituted the supreme power in England, whose resolutions had the force of law, even without the consent of King and Lords. On January 6th the resolution of impeachment was again proposed, and Parliament, on its own authority, appointed 135 persons to constitute a Special Court – “High Court of Justice” – for the King’s trial. Besides Cromwell and other “grandees” of the Army, Robert Lilburne was also among the members of this tribunal, and even John Lilburne (as he himself stated in a pamphlet soon after, without being contradicted) was offered a seat on the tribunal, for which, of course, none but Republicans were wanted. But John’s strict sense of legality prevented him from taking any part in an act, which in fact was but an act of the sword clothed in a legal form. “Honest John” did not object to placing the King on trial, but he challenged the right of the existing Parliament to pose as the representatives of the people. Moreover, he was not prepared to allow the King a special tribunal, but desired to have him tried by a regular court of law. However, his democratic objections did not prevail any more than his legal arguments. Charles was sentenced to death on January 27, 1649, as being guilty of high treason, and was executed on January 30th. On February 1st the Parliament sanctioned Pride’s “purge” by the formal exclusion of the members expelled by Pride; on February 6th a resolution was passed abolishing the House of Lords as “useless and dangerous” [1], and on February 7th it was resolved that government by a king or any individual be abolished as “unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous”. On February 15th a Council of State, consisting of forty-one persons, was appointed, which of course included among its members Cromwell, Fairfax, and other “grandees” of the Army, and also Henry Marten.

On May 19th, by resolution of Parliament, England was declared a “Free Commonwealth”.

During the month of January Lilburne had once more been in the North, in order to attend to his private affairs. He was thoroughly disillusioned and wanted to renounce public life altogether. Too proud to accept a well-paid Government post which was offered to him, as his influence in Radical circles was considerable, on his return to London (of which city he was a Freeman) he set up in business as a soap-maker in Southwark. He declared that he would not fatten at the expense of working people who were suffering want. However, he did not long resist the solicitations of his political friends, who were unwilling to abandon the struggle against the dominion of the Army chiefs. As early as February 26th he reappeared on the scene, heading a deputation of London citizens, who presented themselves at the Bar of the House of Commons in support of a petition against certain measures planned by the Council of State for the suppression of “disturbers of peace” in the Army.

These measures were prompted by the discontent that was rife in several regiments quartered near London, due to the growing disparity between the actions of the chiefs and the “agreement” of Newmarket Heath. Much had been done for the rights of Parliament, but nothing for the rights of the people, who showed their dissatisfaction by wearing sea-green ribbons, the badge of the “Levellers”. In order to quell this rebellious spirit the new Council of War decided to issue a proclamation prohibiting soldiers from addressing any petitions to Parliament or anyone else except their officers, or corresponding with any civilian on political matters. The Council further resolved to apply to Parliament for permission to have anyone who attempted to incite the Army to “mutiny” sentenced by court martial to be hanged. Lilburne’s petition was directed against these measures, and attached to it was a memorial, which he published a few days later as a pamphlet, under the title England’s New Chains Discovered. In this pamphlet he reveals the various modifications which the Army chiefs had introduced into the Agreement of the People as originally drafted, and severely criticizes the newly created institution of a “State Council”, which he declares to be a mere creature of the Council of War of the Army. He advocates that such State Council should be replaced by responsible commissions, the members of which should be frequently changed, and which should be controlled by Parliament holding permanent session until relieved by a newly elected House of Commons. He further demands complete freedom of the Press as an unconditional right of the people and as a safeguard against conspiracies and tyrannical aspirations of any kind.

But even from the ranks of the Army itself protests were not wanting. On March 1st there appeared a “Letter to General Fairfax and his Council of Officers”, signed by eight soldiers in General Fairfax’s army, being a protest which boldly enumerates all the complaints of the Army against its leaders, charging Cromwell with striving after the royal dignity, calling Parliament a mere reflector of the Council of War, and the latter a tool of Cromwell, Ireton, and Harrison, and inveighing in strong terms against the establishment of a “Rule by the Sword”. They declared: “We are English soldiers engaged for the freedom of England and not outlandish mercenaries to butcher the people for pay, to serve the pernicious ends of ambition and will in any person under Heaven”, and they demanded compliance with the terms of the “Agreement” of Newmarket Heath.

The letter concludes with a hearty recognition of Lilburne’s petition, which the signatories endorse “freely and gladly”, declaring themselves ready to stand or fall by the demands contained therein.

On March 3rd they were brought before a court martial. In view of the gravity of their situation three of them were induced to yield, and were consequently pardoned. The remaining five, on the other hand, exhibited the utmost firmness. The court martial was most anxious to know who had drawn up the document, as they “had not the wit of the writing thereof”. But, in separate examination, they, one after the other, assumed full responsibility for the letter, and the sentence pronounced on them was that, although “on account of their grave offence they had really deserved death”, they were to be led past the heads of their detachments seated backwards on a wooden horse, and to be expelled from the Army after having their swords broken over their heads, which punishment was executed upon them on March 6th in Westminster. Their names are Robert Ward, Thomas Watson, Simon Graunt, George Jellies, and William Sawyer. [2]

But these measures did not avail to stamp out the movement. On the contrary, this result of the court martial simply persuaded the Levellers that more energetic action was required.

A contemporary, the Mercurius Pragmaticus, which was then decidedly royalistic [3], writes in its issue of March 20, 1649, with spiteful glee, that “the gallant Leveller, seeing his addresses laid aside and the agreement of the people violated, and not made good as he expected”, ... “thereupon with his confederate Harry Martyn [4] hath agreed to send away some pokey saints (of their own propagation) into many Counties of England (as Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, etc.), who have in several Market Towns not only proclaimed John’s addresses, but also posted them desiring the people to stand to those addressed which tend to their freedom, and oppose any power which will enforce them to pay excises and other unnecessary Rates and unreasonable Taxes, imposed on them by an illegal, arbitrary and unjust power of their fellow-commons”. [5]

On March 21st a new Levellers’ pamphlet appeared, describing the unjust proceedings taken against the five soldiers, and reiterating its charges against the Army chiefs.

It bears the arresting title, “The Hunting of the Foxes from Newmarket and Triploe Heath to Whitehall by five small Beagles, late of the Armie, or The Grandee Deceivers unmasked. Printed in a corner of freedome right opposite the Council of Warre, Anno Domini 1649”. The “Foxes”, of course, are Cromwell, Ireton, and the other “grandees,” and “Hunting” them means the exposure of their subterfuges from June 1647, when, in the places mentioned, they persuaded the troops to take joint action against Parliament, up to the time when they established themselves in Westminster. A still more scathing denunciation of Cromwell and his staff was read by Lilburne, on Sunday, March 25th, to an enormous crowd assembled in front of his house. Signed by Lilburne, Overton, Prince, and Walwyn, it demanded in vigorous terms the election of a new Parliament, and was entitled, The Second Part of England’s New Chains Discovered. [6] Its effect must have been disconcerting, for no sooner had it appeared in print than it led to the arrest of Lilburne and his three cosignatories, simultaneously with a public notice to the effect that all who were guilty of distributing this pamphlet, which incited to mutiny and was calculated to make the sending of reinforcements to Ireland impossible, would be considered enemies of the Commonwealth, and treated as such. A petition addressed to Parliament in favour of those arrested, which is said to have borne as many as eighty thousand signatures, was ignored; a deputation of citizens who spoke on their behalf was dismissed by the Speaker with a sharp rebuke for their “calumnious and seditious proposals”, and a deputation of women who presented themselves repeatedly were in the end sent away with the reply that the matter was of more far-reaching importance than they could understand. They were to go home and attend to their housework – “wash their dishes”.

The matter was indeed of far-reaching importance. The Presbyterians and the partisans of the Cavaliers in the Established Church, who by impressive pamphlets on the Martyrdom of Charles I, and a forged Diary of his (the famous Eikon Basilike, which had a larger sale than any other book before or for long afterwards), had turned many worthy citizens against the “bloodthirsty tigers of the commonwealth”, were again raising their heads; Charles’ son was proclaimed King in Ireland and Scotland, and troops were raised in his support, while on the Continent Charles himself and the Cavalier refugees and exiles were plotting at nearly every Court against the young republic. How, under these circumstances, could an agitation which threatened to disrupt the Army – the source and mainstay of power of the representatives of the. Commonwealth – appear to them other than as a blow aimed at the heart of the commonwealth, which would have to be suppressed by sheer force, if needs be? To impress this position upon Lilburne was, according to his own statement, the object of a conversation between him and Hugh Peters, the Republican Field Chaplain, then a zealous partisan of Cromwell, during a visit he paid to Lilburne in the Tower. Peters is said to have answered Lilburne’s appeals to the law with the remark that there was no other law than the sword. Evidently Peters intended (and not without Cromwell’s knowledge) to make a last attempt at gaining Lilburne over, but Lilburne’s distrust could not be overcome. [7] The consequence was that matters remained as they were left on the day after the arrest of the four Levellers, when Cromwell in the Council of State, striking the table with his first, addressing the chairman, Bradshaw, Milton’s brother-in-law, exclaimed: “I tell you, sir, there is no other way to deal with these men but to break them in pieces”, which, however, was not quite an easy matter. Instead of decreasing, discontent was spreading more and more in the Army and among the people. As we have noted, there was a great dearth in the country, commerce and trade were paralysed, yet the taxes were rising; and while Parliament was granting extraordinary salaries to the “grandees” of the Army and the Council of State, the soldiers’ pay was constantly in arrears. In order to replenish the exhausted Treasury, an expedient had already been adopted which was subsequently employed on an immense scale during the French Revolution. The Government had started to make payments in paper notes, which on account of the low level of the national credit soon fell to one-fourth of their nominal value, and even lower. In short, the discontent was not only due to spiritual causes – if we may thus describe the religious or political forms assumed by the class conflict – but also to causes of an economic and material nature.

How was it possible, with a discontented Army, to stamp out discontent in the Army? A loan had been subscribed for fighting the rebellion in Ireland, and a number of regiments commanded by Cromwell had been ordered to quell the Irish insurrection. But just as previously Parliament had intimated to the King that it intended to settle accounts with him before assisting him against the foreign enemy, so the soldiers of the more radical regiments now objected to proceeding to Ireland while Parliament still postponed a settlement of their claims. In order to break down their resistance, the authorities began to move them to other stations. This brought the conflict to a head.

On the night of April 25th a large number of dragoons of Colonel Whalley’s regiment appeared in front of the “Bull”, Bishopsgate, London, where the colour-sergeant was billeted, and compelled him to give the standard up to them. They were due to leave London next day, but declared they would not go until their demands were granted. This was open mutiny, and if allowed to spread farther, the worst might be expected. But Fairfax and Cromwell did not allow matters to go farther. No sooner had they heard of the affair next morning, through the commanding officer of the regiment, than they appeared on the spot with other officers, accompanied by. a number of reliable soldiers, and by dint of persuasion, combined with intimidation, succeeded in inducing the mutinous soldiers to submit. Fifteen of those who had remained firm were arrested as ringleaders, to be tried by court martial; the remainder were marched off to the new quarters allotted to them. Five of the fifteen were sentenced to death next morning, but of these four were, at Cromwell’s request, pardoned, while one only, Robert Lockyer, upon whom the fatal lot had fallen, was shot on April 27th. He was a “brave and pious” soldier, who, although but twenty-three years of age, had served from the very beginning of the struggle against the King and enjoyed great popularity with all his comrades. He went to his death admonishing his friends to remain faithful to the cause of liberty and the weal of the people. “I pray you, let not this death of mine be a discouragement, but rather an encouragement, for never man died more comfortably than I do”, were his last words. His funeral, which took place on April 29th, was made the occasion of a great political demonstration by the extreme elements among the population. Thousands of craftsmen and labourers, with their wives and daughters, followed the coffin-decked with rosemary, one bundle dipped in the blood of the “Martyr of the Army”, as Lockyer was universally called. They wore sea-green and black ribbons as the token of their opinions. Outside the city they were joined by many more mourners, who did not care to show themselves openly within its precincts. Whitlocke [8] writes that “many looked upon this funeral as an affront to the Parliament and the Army. Others called these people ‘Levellers’, but they took no notice of anyone’s sayings”.

Lilburne and Overton, who in the Tower heard of all that happened in London, were unwilling to let this affair pass by in silence. No sooner had they heard of the sentence passed on the five soldiers than they at once, on the same day, drew up a letter to General Fairfax, “in which it is by law fully proved that it is both treason and murder for any General or Council of War to execute any soldier in time of peace by martial law”. This letter, dated “from our causeless, unjust and tyrannical captivity in the Tower of London”, was simultaneously published in print. Its arguments are conclusive, setting forth that Clause 4 of the “Petition of Right” expressly provided that martial law should no longer be applied with regard to soldiers, besides which, in the (Newmarket Heath) Agreement of June 1647, signed by soldiers and officers, the Army had been recognized as an independent organization of free citizens of England. The writers boldly declared that they valued liberty and the rights of the nation above their own lives, and hence felt bound to raise their voices in the face of the bloody sentence passed on Lockyer and his fellow-prisoners. The effect of this letter is shown by the demonstration just described as well as by the events immediately following.

Ten days after Lockyer’s funeral, on May 9, 1649, Cromwell held a review in Hyde Park. An ominously large number of soldiers wore defiantly the sea-green ribbon on their hats. Cromwell knew what this sign meant, and earnestly besought them not to endanger the cause of the commonwealth. He promised that all they desired should be done; their pay should be discharged more punctually than heretofore, while Parliament had already decided to dissolve and prepare for the election of a new Parliament. But discipline must be maintained in the Army; for the present they could not dispense with martial law, and whoever objected to this had better quit the Army. Those who were willing to fight with him and their well-tried comrades against the enemies of England must take the green ribbons from their hats. The soldiers yielded to the influence of this harangue, but the general discontent remained unappeased. Nevertheless, – a momentary advantage had been gained by spreading indecision among the soldiers quartered in London, for troubles were now growing apace in the regiments stationed in the provinces. News came from Banbury that Captain Thompson, with two hundred horsemen from Colonel Whalley’s regiment – presumably a portion of the dragoons transferred from their London quarters on April 25th – had raised the standard of rebellion. In a manifesto, entitled England’s Flag, Thompson, who had been prominent as one of the “Levellers” at Ware, strongly supported the revised Agreement, published in the form of a proclamation by Lilburne and his associates on May 1st, demanded satisfaction for the murders of Arnold and Lockyer, and threatened that if any harm came to Lilburne and his fellow-prisoners, he would avenge it seventy times seven. A Hotspur, but, as will presently appear, no mere braggart. However, the only effect of this threat was that Lilburne, Overton, and others, who hitherto had enjoyed some freedom within the Tower, were kept in solitary confinement.

The 10th of May brought still worse news to London. In Salisbury (Wilts) almost the whole regiment of Colonel Scroope had declared in favour of the Agreement of the Levellers, and had placed themselves under the command of Ensign Thompson, brother of the above-mentioned Captain Thompson. The greater part of Ireton’s regiment, stationed in the neighbourhood of Salisbury, as well as Harrison’s and Skippon’s regiments, also revolted. All these elements were about to join forces and to resist any attempt at sending them to Ireland before the promised reforms were carried out at home, intending to enforce these reforms if necessary. Nearly all of them were old and tried soldiers: Scroope’s horsemen, for instance, were some of the first levy-men who, as they declared in a manifesto couched in very dignified language, had sold their farms or given up their businesses in order to fight against the tyranny of the King and bishops, and would not allow any new tyranny to arise. [9]

This revolt could not be ignored. Hence Cromwell and Fairfax started at once with all the reliable troops they could muster, altogether about four thousand men, and proceeded by forced marches to Salisbury. On arrival at Andover they learnt, on May 12th, that the rebels had joined hands at Old Sarum with four companies of Ireton’s regiment, and turned northward, no doubt with the intention of marching into Buckinghamshire, where troops of the same mind as themselves (Harrison’s regiment) were stationed, and where they probably meant to join forces with Captain Thompson. Fairfax and Cromwell at once turned northward to intercept them. At Wantage the Levellers had already met Cromwell’s emissaries, who failed to deflect them from their purpose. They then marched towards Abingdon, where they were joined by two companies from Harrison’s regiment, the others having found their route cut off by Cromwell and Fairfax. Cromwell’s emissaries, who had followed the rebels, now numbering twelve hundred, once more negotiated with them, but again to no purpose. On the other hand, they appear to have kept Fairfax and Cromwell posted as to the Levellers’ movements. When the rebels turned to the west, in order to join the troops stationed there, and prepared to cross the Thames at Newbridge, they found the bridge held by a whole regiment of cavalry under Colonel Reynolds. Either to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, or because they did not yet feel strong enough to take the offensive, they desisted from forcing a passage. They sought a ford, crossing the river partly swimming, partly wading, and advanced without a halt through Bampton as far as Burford, which they reached at nightfall, as did also Captain Thompson, whose small band had been scattered in an encounter with Colonel Whalley, but who with a few faithful followers had successfully held the pursuers at bay. Tired and wet through, moreover deluded by the promises of Major White, Cromwell’s emissary, who declared the Levellers’ demands to be most reasonable, and that he himself would stand up for them, besides assuring them of the friendly feelings entertained by the General towards them, the Levellers retired to rest and put their horses out to grass. Brave men, but unpractical in their idealism, Carlyle was perhaps right when he wrote of their march: “What boots it; there is no leader, noisy John is sitting fast within stone walls.” But Cromwell was a leader. He and Fairfax had covered fifty miles that day on horseback, and scarcely less the preceding day; yet they would not let the night pass without action. After a short rest outside Burford, they fell upon the place about midnight, being conducted, it is reported, by Quartermaster Moore, whom they had gained over, and who had been entrusted by the Levellers with the posting of sentries. The Levellers, suddenly roused from sleep, defended themselves as best they could, but, fighting without plan or leader, they were overwhelmed by superior numbers, Cromwell having two thousand men with him. Over four hundred surrendered after having received an assurance of pardon and due consideration of their wishes; the remainder fled, abandoning their horses and arms. Two squadrons only collected under Captain Thompson retired in the direction of Northamptonshire. [10]

The next day a court martial was held on the prisoners. Four of them, including Ensign Thompson, were sentenced to death. Young Thompson and two corporals who were condemned died courageously. Of one of these we are told

Without the least acknowledgment of error, or shew of fear, he pulled off his doublet, standing a pretty distance from the wall, and bade the soldiers do their duty; looking them in the face till they gave fire, not shewing the least kind of terror or fearfulness of spirit

Even Carlyle, who, as a rule, is hostile to these men, cannot refrain from saying:

To die the Leveller Corporals; strong they, after their sort, for the Liberties of England; resolute to the very death. Misguided Corporals! But History, which has wept for a misguided Charles Stuart, and blubbered, in the most copious helpless manner, near two centuries now, whole floods of brine, enough to salt the Herring fishery, will not refuse these poor Corporals also her tributary sigh

The fourth of the condemned, Ensign Dean or Denne was very contrite, and was pardoned. The Levellers henceforth looked upon him as a traitor, and upon his condemnation as a preconcerted farce. After the execution, Cromwell in church gave the captive Levellers one of his half-religious, half-political addresses, which, though much derided, seldom missed fire, and in this instance too the result was that the prisoners addressed promised to abandon all intention of seditiously enforcing the carrying out of their ideas. After a short interval they were reinstated in their regiments, and during the following summer were taken to Ireland, where they either fell fighting against the Irish “Papists” or were settled upon the estates abandoned by the latter. In the afternoon of the day of the execution, Fairfax and Cromwell, with their staff, went to Oxford, where, amidst all kinds of festivities, the University conferred degrees upon them. Parliament conveyed to them the thanks of the nation, and the great merchants of the City, who had often enough execrated Cromwell, and held the purse-strings tight in the face of the financial requirements of the Parliamentary Army, on June 7, 1649, celebrated the overthrow of the Levellers by a splendid banquet given at the Grocers’ Hall in honour of Cromwell and Fairfax, now hailed as the saviours of Sacred Property. In order to show that they were no niggards, they presented Cromwell and Fairfax with gold dishes and plates, and at the same time granted £400 for distribution among the poor of London.

Most probably, in fact, they had been trembling in their shoes at the danger they had so luckily escaped. The most absurd rumours had been set afloat concerning the dark plots of the Levellers, and many of the denunciations published at the time read as if they were of most recent date. Thus, for instance, a few days before the banquet there appeared the following, “ENGLAND’S DISCOVERER, OR THE LEVELLER’S CREED. Wherein is set forth their great and unparalleled design against the twelve famous companies of the City of London, and all other trades, mysteries, arts, and callings whatsoever.”

Published by special authority to undeceive the people, the like being never heard of in all former ages.” London, 1649, June 6th

Let these things be noted from those called Levellers

1. It is asserted by them, that Reason is God, and that out of this Reason came the whole creation

2. The immortality of the soul they flatly deny, and scoff at such people as believe the soul’s immortality ..

4. All that we call the history of the Scripture is an idol; hence they say the public preachers have cheated the whole world, by telling us of a single man, called Adam, that killed us by eating a single fruit

Their communism is of the worst kind: “They will have no man to call anything his, for it is tyranny that a man should have any proper land; particular property is devillish, the mystery of Egyptian bondage, a destroying of the creation, a lifter-up of the proud, covetous flesh, a bringer-in of the curse again, a mortal enemy to the Spirit, and that which hath brought in all misery upon the creature.” And their practice is even worse than their theory. “To these therefore are their emissaries specially sent, to raise the servant against the master, the tenant against the landlord, the buyer against the seller, the borrower against the lender, the poor against the rich, and for encouragement every beggar shall be set on horseback ...” And they should not allow themselves to be misled by their official statements. “But you heard them say they approve not of this Levelling, unless there did proceed an assent from all the people. Here is a cloak so thin that a man may see through it.” The poor and the workers, being the majority, could be easily gained over by such promises.

As will be seen from the above, even at that early date, people knew how to mix up truth with falsehood, theoretical speculations with practical demands, party pronouncements with individual utterances and the declarations of dissenting factions, in order to throw discredit upon the whole movement, and thus justify the employment of the harshest measures. Nevertheless, it must be said that well-meaning mediators were not wanting. Thus, for instance, on the day of the executions at Burford there appeared A Serious Aviso to the Good People of this Nation concerning the sort of men called “Levellers”. The author of this publication, who calls himself “Philolaus”, admits the justice of many grievances of the Levellers, but warns them against extreme steps. “I am verily of opinion”, he exclaims, “that fantastick Eutopian Communities, introduced among men, would prove far more loathsome and be more fruitful of bad consequences than any of these of the basest alloy yet known.” Why, even Plato himself, though such a great thinker, had gained nothing but adverse criticism with his imaginary model state. [11]

Nor did the Levellers themselves remain silent. Lilburne and his associates, soon after their arrest, had issued a publication entitled “Manifestation from Lieut.-Colonel John Lilburne, Mr. William Walwyn, Mr. Thomas Prince and Mr. Richard Overton (now prisoners in the Tower of London) and others, commonly (though unjustly) styled LEVELLERS Intended for their Full Vindication from the many aspersions cast upon them, to render them odious to the world”, etc., [12] in which they declared that “Equalling of men’s estates and taking away the proper right and title” would be “most injurious unless there did precede an universal assent thereunto from all and everyone of the people”, adding that an unrepresentative Parliament had no right to enact measures designed to transform private conditions; even the communism of the early Christians had been a purely voluntary one. [13]

In May “divers well-affected apprentices” within the Cripplegate Ward Without issued a “thankful) acknowledgment and congratulation unto the ever to be honoured Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, Mr. William Walwyn”, etc., in which they assert the purity of their endeavours; and in June a Levellers’ pamphlet turns the tables on their opponents with the challenge: “Will the Levellers take men’s estates from them? Truly if it be proved that any of their nests are feathered with what is the Republique’s, and not their own, it may then be so.” [14] We may explain that while the Levellers were decried as “anxious to share”, their opponents carried this “sharing” policy into practice. Parliament was sharing out, with a most liberal hand, the confiscated estates among its deserving adherents, and the wealthy men of the City were injuring the exchequer of the commonwealth to the best of their ability by usurious interest. History repeats itself, in this respect, with remarkable frequency.

But neither the pamphlets quoted nor any that followed them could regain for the Levellers the position that they had lost.

It is true that the number of their adherents among the London populace was by no means insignificant, and that they still had friends in the Army, but they could no longer withstand Cromwell’s influence; and it was the Army which determined the policy of the country, the masses being unable to challenge its ascendancy to any purpose by their own effort. Moreover, Cromwell could always win over to his policy, by promises and protestations, many who sympathized more with the Levellers than with any other party, and could immediately suppress any threatening symptoms of opposition. In particular, it was his spirited and intelligent foreign policy that gained him many personal adherents. Hence, after the failure of several attempted revolts, the more desperate among his implacable enemies (which now included nearly all the Levellers, who had ceased to regard him in any other light than as the arch-traitor and conspirator, the chief adversary, and, above all others, the tyrant standing in the way of liberty) now proceeded to plot against his life; but these plots were doomed to failure, their only effect being to spoil Cromwell’s enjoyment of the brilliant position of Dictator and Lord Protector to which he had attained. [15] We may here pause to tell of the subsequent fate of Lilburne, who died in 1657. The remainder of his life was no less troubled than the earlier part. About the end of July 1649, while Lilburne was still confined in the Tower, his eldest son died, and Parliament, which had ignored his requests to be permitted to see his sick child while yet alive, now sanctioned his liberation on bail: In consequence of a new political pamphlet, entitled An Impeachment of High Treason against Oliver Cromwell, he was re-arrested in September. Being almost ruined financially, and convinced of the impossibility of making headway against Cromwell’s influence, he yielded to the entreaties of his brother, Colonel Robert Lilburne, and published on October 22nd an open letter dated from prison, addressed to his persecutors, in which he offered to go to the West Indies if they would release him, pay his arrears, and allow those who wished to accompany him.

His petition remained unanswered, but he was due to be tried on October 24th, in the Guildhall, before a special Court, for high treason, committed in the pamphlet referred to (An Impeachment, etc.), and an even more violent one, published on September 1st, under the title An Outcry of the Young Men and Apprentices of London. His contention that the constitution of the Court was contrary to the fundamental laws of the country was unheeded, and his claim that the jury was legally entitled to judge not only as to matters of fact but also as to the application of the law itself, as the Judges represented only “Norman intruders”, whom the jury might here ignore in reaching a verdict, was described by an enraged judge as “damnable, blasphemous heresy”. This view was not shared by the jury, which, after three days’ hearing, acquitted Lilburne – who had defended himself as skilfully as any lawyer could have done – to the great horror of the Judges and the chagrin of the majority of the Council of State. The Judges were so astonished at the verdict of the jury that they had to repeat their question before they would believe their ears, but the public which crowded the judgment hall, on the announcement of the verdict, broke out into cheers so loud and long as, according to the unanimous testimony of contemporary reporters, had never before been heard in the Guildhall. The cheering and waving of caps continued for over half an hour, while the Judges sat, turning white and red in turns, and spread thence to the masses in London and the suburbs. At night bonfires were lighted, and even during the following days the event was the occasion of joyful demonstrations. In fact, Lilburne’s popularity among the bulk of the London populace was so great that a commemorative medal was struck in honour of his acquittal. [16]

The Government were taken by surprise. They had ordered Lilburne to be sent back to the Tower after his acquittal, in order to institute a new trial, if possible, but they were urged on all sides to respect the verdict of the jury and release him. Among the members of the Council of State, Henry Marten and Lord Grey of Groby, one of the few peers who sided with the Independents, particularly championed Lilburne’s cause, and finally carried their point, not the least circumstance in their favour being that Cromwell with the major part of the Army was still in Ireland. The Council of State resigned itself to its defeat and released Lilburne, Overton, Prince, and Walwyn on November 8th. [17]

At the end of the following month, December 1649, Lilburne was elected member of the common Council of the City, but Parliament nullified the election because Lilburne had declined to declare unconditionally in favour of the existing constitution, and because he was incapacitated by his imprisonment from holding this office. On the other hand, in the summer of 1650, Parliament at last assigned to him land to the value of the indemnities still due to him.

In 1651 he was drawn, through a relative, into a civil action against Sir Arthur Hazelrig, Member of the Council of State and Governor of Newcastle. With his customary zeal he took up the cause of his relative against the influential “grandee”, who, in his opinion, had robbed the former of his rightful property by an abuse of his position. The matter finally came before Parliament, which appointed a commission of inquiry into the case. The decision turned out in favour of Hazelrig, and Lilburne, who in a pamphlet criticized this decision as unjust and partial, was condemned by Parliament (!), early in 1652, for “contempt”, to a fine of £7,000 and banishment for life. All protests and petitions proved unavailing, and in the spring of 1652 Lilburne found himself for the second time an exile in Holland, this time in company with leaders of the very party he had fled from on the first occasion. Holland at that time afforded a refuge to numbers of fugitive and banished Cavaliers.

There was every temptation for him to join these in a conspiracy against the hated “usurper” Cromwell, and in all probability he received overtures in this direction. But we have no reason to doubt Lilburne’s emphatic statement that he refused to co-operate in restoring Charles Stuart except on the basis of the “Agreement of the People”. It is true that a report was sent to London to the effect that Lilburne had offered the Duke of Buckingham and other Cavaliers to return to England and achieve Cromwell’s overthrow for £10,000, but, as Lilburne proved conclusively, the authors of this report were paid spies of Cromwell, and they are scarcely to be believed in preference to Lilburne himself, whose outstanding characteristic was love of truth, carried to the point of reckless disregard of his personal interests. Nor was Lilburne so simple as to imagine that he could, at the moment when Cromwell, fresh from victories over the Irish and Scotch, was stronger than ever, achieve with such a trifling sum the object which Charles I and the City Merchants, under far more favourable circumstances, had been unable to accomplish with adequate financial resources.

Finally, the above imputations are at variance with the tenor of Lilburne’s letters, addressed by him during his exile to his political friends at home. These letters teem with exhortations to adhere to the democratic principles for which they had striven, and to be tireless in asserting them.

When, in April 1653, Cromwell forcibly dispersed the “Rump” of the Long Parliament, and summoned a Parliament consisting of 139 selected notabilities of the Independent party, and known as the “Little” or “Barebone’s” Parliament, Lilburne returned to London, contending that the sentence of banishment pronounced against him by the “Rump” was legally annulled by the mere fact that the latter had ceased to exist. But this was not Cromwell’s view. He ordered Lilburne to be arrested at once and tried for “breach of exile”, which was punishable as an act of high treason. Again monster petitions poured in on Lilburne’s behalf, but they had no effect upon the Council of State any more than had an open letter, published by Lilburne immediately after his return, entitled The Banished Man’s Suit, etc.

Nor could Parliament, to whom Lilburne appealed on its assembling (early in July 1653), do anything for him beyond referring the matter to the competent jurisdiction, i.e. to a jury, which, as a matter of fact, was more in Lilburne’s than in Cromwell’s interest. The hearing of the case at the Old Bailey Court of Assizes dragged on for several weeks, because Lilburne pertinaciously insisted, supporting his claim by convincing arguments, that a copy of the writ of indictment should be delivered to him before the trial, in order to enable him to take counsel’s advice upon it. And indeed, as an eminent lawyer puts it, he accomplished the “great deed never before achieved by any man”, of enforcing the delivery of the writ of indictment. On August 20th the case came on for final decision. The sympathy of the populace for Lilburne had risen to such a pitch as to cause Cromwell to keep several regiments ready under arms, in order to employ force, if necessary. [18]

Slips of paper with the inscription

And what, shall then honest John Lilburne die!
Three score thousand will know the reason why,

were circulated in large numbers.

As a matter of fact, the number of Lilburne’s partisans was not so great as this [19], but quite apart from the special measures taken by Cromwell, the pamphlets of the period [20] dealing with Lilburne’s case reveal the intensity of the agitation at this moment, and the enormous popularity acquired by Lilburne. And after a twelve hours’ final hearing, in which Lilburne defended himself with his usual skill, the jury pronounced the verdict of “Not Guilty”. [21]

But once more it was a case of “acquitted but not set free”. The Council of State retained Lilburne in strict custody, and caused a rigorous examination of the whole proceedings to be made in order to have the verdict set aside if possible. The jurymen were separately examined, one by one, but they remained firm and adhered to their verdict. Hence it was impossible to get at Lilburne by means of the ordinary legal procedure, and therefore “reasons of State” were invoked. In December 1653 the “Little Parliament” was dissolved, a new constitution created, and Cromwell proclaimed “Lord Protector” of the Republic with almost regal powers. In March 1654 Lilburne was conveyed to the Isle of Jersey and incarcerated there, as a prisoner of State, by reason of “seditious” statements uttered by him in the course of his trial. In Jersey, where the law is different from that in England, it was easier than anywhere else to ignore any appeal to “Habeas Corpus”. As long as Cromwell could depend on the Governor of the Island, he could feel safe from the dreaded demagogue. Lilburne had thus been rendered innocuous, and Jersey did more in this respect than Cromwell could have hoped. They granted Lilburne an allowance of £2 a week, so that at least he was secured against suffering material distress. He appears, however, to have very keenly felt his intellectual isolation, and no less depressing was the effect produced on him by the news he received from England, announcing the failure, one by one, of all the plots undertaken by his confederates against Cromwell. Gradually a mental change was produced in him, such as, in fact, affected many of his partisans in the country. A reaction from his former restlessness set in, and a calmer outlook invaded his mind. He began to doubt the wisdom of his former tactics, and when failing health supervened on his growing scepticism he renounced a continuance of the struggle after the old manner; his fiery spit was broken. In the autumn of 1655, the Council of State, who had doubtless heard of his change of mind, transferred him from Jersey to Dover Castle, where, although still kept in confinement, he nevertheless had more intercourse with his countrymen. A few weeks later London newspapers received a report, which was confirmed in Lilburne’s letters to his friends, to the effect that he had joined the sect of the Quakers, which was then coming into prominence, and had donned the garb of the “friends of inward light”. Thus the most eminent leader of the political Levellers was eventually absorbed in the same movement into which the most prominent representative of the True Levellers had drifted.

But it was not only his political pilgrimage that he had finished. About the end of July 1657 he obtained permission, on finding sureties, to proceed to Eltham, where he took a house for his wife, so that in case of sickness she might be near her relatives. Cromwell had no sooner heard of this than, on August 19th, he issued a peremptory notice, ordering Lilburne to present himself again in Dover within ten days. Probably he had his suspicions. However, the order was useless – a higher power had laid its hand on the still dreaded man. Only ten days later, on August 29, 1657, “turbulent” John was a stilled man in every sense – death had finally removed from the ranks of the fighters the quadragenarian whose bodily strength had been prematurely broken by many persecutions.

Lilburne’s body was conveyed to London, where it became the cause of a dispute between his old and his new partisans. The former desired to bury him in the customary manner, with a pall over the bier, the latter (the Quakers), according to their custom, in a plain coffin. In the crowd which had assembled outside the house of mourning, the Quakers were in the majority (which is significant), and they gained their point. When the body was carried from the house, an attempt was made to throw a velvet pall, held in readiness for the purpose, over the coffin, but this was frustrated by the Quakers, who took the coffin on their shoulders and proceeded with it to the cemetery in closed ranks.




1. Witty Henry Marten moved as an amendment that the word “dangerous” be expunged, or that “not” be inserted before it. As a matter of fact, the Lords, disorganized as they were, played at that time a most pitiful role.

2. One of the three pardoned men, Richard Rumbold, was prominently concerned under Charles II, in the famous Rye House Plot (1683) against the restored King. Warned in time, he escaped to Holland, but in 1685 he took part in the insurrection of Argyle and his Scots Highlanders against James II, when he was taken prisoner. Being badly wounded, and lest he should die a natural death, he was tried with all speed and executed the following day (June 27, 1685) with revolting cruelty. But to the last he exhibited the greatest firmness and strength of conviction. During the trial he uttered those words, which subsequently were often cited, that “he did not believe that God had created the greater half of mankind with saddles on their backs and a bridle in their mouth, and some few booted and spurred to ride on the rest”.

3. Subsequently the highly gifted but unprincipled editor, Marchmont Needham, accepted bribes from Cromwell, at whose service he placed his very caustic pen.

4. Martyn or Marten had little to do with this agitation, although, as stated, he assisted to draw up the Agreement of the Levellers and may have been mentioned in this connection. On the contrary, he defended the continued sitting of the Rump Parliament by saying that the young Moses, i.e. the newly created Republic, ought not to be deprived at once of his natural nursing-mother. Moreover, as already stated, he was himself a member of the Council of State.

5. Mercurius Pragmaticus, No.46, from Tuesday, March 13th, to Tuesday, March 20, 1649.

6. Lilburne’s remarks, reproduced on page 66, regarding the suspicious game which Cromwell and the “grandees” had played in the autumn of 1647 with Charles I, are taken from this document.

7. Lilburne’s account of this conversation, as given in the Legal Fundamental Liberties, etc., is undoubtedly vitiated by his personal prejudices and his fanatical “sticking to legality”.

8. Memoirs, p.385.

9. The Unanimous Declaration of Colonel Scrooge’s and Com.-General Ireton’s Regiments, Old Sarum, May 1649.

10. They succeeded there in taking Northampton by surprise and providing themselves with fresh ammunition as well as a piece of artillery, but they were too few in numbers to prevail against whole regiments. In the first engagement the men surrendered unconditionally, and Captain Thompson fell a few days later in an almost unparalleled single-handed combat against more than a hundred pursuers. He would not surrender alive at any price, and though bleeding from several wounds fought like a lion. It was not until he was struck by the seventh bullet that he fell.

11. We may mention, as a very interesting publication written in a conciliatory spirit, which, among other things, pleads strongly in favour of economic reforms for the benefit of the poorer classes, and proposes a suitable programme, the pamphlet, An Apology, etc., by Lieut.-Colonel John Jubbes. Among the large number of publications written by military men on behalf of the Levellers, we may also name the pamphlets by Colonel William Bray and his Quartermaster John Naylier. Under the title A Declaration of Lieut.-General Cromwell concerning the Levellers, Cromwell published a short defence against the charges brought against the chief authorities of the Army by the leaders of the Levellers. An official report on the negotiations between the Army leaders and the rebels was likewise published, under the title: A Full Narrative of all the Proceedings between His Excellency the Lord Fairfax and the Mutineers.

12. London, 1649, April 14th.

13. No doubt this is the statement referred to in the denunciatory publication referred to above.

14. The title of this pamphlet is in rhyme: “Seagreen or blue, see which speaks true, or reason contending with treason. In discussing the late unhappy difference in the Army, which now men dream is well composed”.

15. The first persons who incited to attempts at assassination were, by the way, Champions of Order, Throne and Altar. As early as in the issue of March 20 to 27, 1649, of Mercurius Pragmaticus we read: “Why don’t you fight Rogues to’t Rebels, ye brave Levellers ... What you that are Rebels of undaunted valour, it is base for you to deale like Billingsgate wenches with nothing but words. I tell you your claims of justice are not worth a T-, unlesse recorded with the blood of them that deny your demands; therefore be ye not baffled, bold Levellers; stand up, be constant and prosecute your claims of justice against that perjured traytor Fairfax to the death ... turne Executioners of Justice yourselves upon both Tom and all his partakers.”

16. The medal bears the significant inscription, “John Lilburne saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of his jury, who are judges of Law as well as of facts. October 26, 1649.” A reproduction of it, together with a picture of Lilburne pleading before the Court, is to be found in the book, The Trial of Lieut.-Colonel John Lilburne, London, 1649.

17. After this, Prince and Walwyn no longer figure in the movement. There exists a sermon, God Save the King, preached 1660 in honour of the return of Charles II by a “William Walwyn”, but it is doubtful whether the author is identical with the “Leveller” Walwyn. Perhaps it was his son, Overton, who had issued several pamphlets from the Tower in which he denounced the members of his party, half bitterly and half humorously, for their inaction, and was subsequently involved in Sexby’s plots against Cromwell’s life, of which more in the next chapter. In the aforesaid pamphlets he reproaches their London friends with egging him, Lilburne, and their associates on to action against Cromwell, and says that they now forsook them (Overton’s Defiance of the Act of Pardon, July 1649), and that it appeared to him that the heroes of the great meeting of September 11, 1648, had been dispersed, simultaneously with the Burford affair, like sparrows scattered by a blowpipe. But he hoped that his blunt words had roused them from their stupor and reminded them once more of the Agreement (The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan).

18. Thurloe, State Papers, p.336

19. Although a publication dating from 1649 states that the Agreement of the Levellers had already received 98,064 signatures, and that new ones were being added daily (The Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free People of England).

20. One of them, emanating from Sam. Chidley, a radical Independent, which tries to make excuses for Cromwell’s political measures, says. “O Lilburne, Lilburne, hear what he saith who said he would be wise but it was for him. If thou hadst as much wisdom as courage, as much prudence as confidence, if as much meekness and gentleness as strength of memory, if as much depth of apprehension as ready delivery, thou wouldst be a rare Phoenix or Bird of Paradise.” (An additional Remonstrance to the valiant and well-deserving Souldiers, etc. With a little friendly touch to Lieut.-Colonel John Lilburne London, 1653.) In reply to remonstrances of this kind, Lilburne published a pamphlet, The Just Defence of John Lilburne against such as charge him with Turbulency of Spirit.

21. The trial is reported at length in Cobbett’s State Trials.


Last updated on 21.11.2002