Sunday, 25 January 2015

Where Is A Trumpet Of Sedition Going

The beginning of a New Year usually warrants a list of intended resolutions. Normally I would ignore this tradition but it happens to coincide with the fact that A Trumpet of Sedition has had over 150,000 page views.

This seems a logical milestone to publish future intentions. This blog is just over five years old and hopefully over these five years it has progressed to reasonably high level and given my readers some satisfaction. The blog will continue much as before. I will continue to examine the latest historiography in the shape of book reviews. Some articles still need to re-written or updated but the general thrust of the blog will remain unchanged.

Mindful of making an announcement that might blow up in my face I would like to attempt a biography of the historian Christopher Hill. It is quite shocking that no conventional biography exists given his statue in study of early modern England. So any publishers out there interested in this project do not hesitate to email me otherwise it will be an Amazon selfie project

Monday, 19 January 2015

John Gurney Obituary

This is sad news. John Gurney the noted historian has died of cancer at the terribly early age of 54. I have enclosed this link from the Guardian . A further obituary will follow.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Review: Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836

“And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.—King James Bible 2 Samuel 16:7, 8. [1]

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33. [2]

The above two quotes are not to be found in Mark Kishlanksy’s new biography of Charles I. Kishlansky does not believe that Charles was a “man of blood” on the contrary he believes that history and its historians have much maligned this monarch.
Kishlansky believes “Even his virtues were misinterpreted and scandalously reviled. His gentleness was miscalled defect of wisdom; his firmness, obstinacy; his regular devotion, popery; his decent worship, superstition; his opposing of schism, hatred of the power of godliness.”[1]

Kishlanksy’s book is an aggressive defence of both Charles and monarchy in general. As Charles said "Princes are not bound to give account of their actions, but to God alone" Kishlansky seems to take the quote and turns it into a historical perspective.
According to him “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and people who were the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Kishlansky concludes in this brief book that its protagonist has been misjudged.

Even though the English revolution was the most devastating in terms of people killed and politically interesting given that a reigning monarch was executed a republic declared and the House of Lords abolished you get little of idea of this in this short book. I know Kishlansky did not have much space but surely only one mention of Oliver Cromwell is a little mean.
Given that the English revolution was primarily a political and religious dispute Kishlanksy’s heavy emphasis on the subjective mistakes, misjudgements and general bad luck of the monarch is typical of his historical methodology. In many senses this biography is part political rehabilitation, part polemical essay rather than a history book

The book has only been released recently so it is a little premature to make an overall assessment of its reception in the media or amongst academic journals but some comments can be made.
Generally the book has been well received. Given the conservative nature of its author this is not surprising. For instance on Amazon “In Mark Kishlanksy’s brilliant account it is never in doubt that Charles created his own catastrophe, but he was nonetheless opposed by men with far fewer scruples and less consistency who for often quite contradictory reasons conspired to destroy him. This is a remarkable portrait of one of the most talented, thoughtful, loyal, moral, artistically alert and yet, somehow, disastrous of all this country's rulers”.

Of course it is Amazon’s right to promote the book any way it sees fit but as the above quote suggests this has gone beyond normal promotion.
Hopefully whoever wrote the media blurb was not a historian for it reduces history to the level of a Janet and John book.

Firstly it must be said that the men who opposed Charles both inside parliament and out were men of principle and fought for those principles through to the end.
Kishlanksy’s adoption of the bad man or men theory of history does not enlighten us about Charles or the men who fought him. In many ways Kishlanksy’s theory of history owes more to Hegel than it does to Marx. As we can see later Kishlansky is no friend of a Marxist understanding of history.

Kishlansky believes of Charles that “Beneath the reviled and excoriated king of historical reputation is a flesh-and-blood man trapped by circumstances he could not control and events he could not shape.” Kishlanksy’s belief that individuals are prisoners of objective forces also does not get us very far.
As Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."[2]

Kishlanksy’s aim in this book is overturn centuries of this type of historiography produced in general to better our understanding of the civil war. He believes that the long held view of Charles and his reign has been distorted and the centuries long the historical narratives opposing this view is merely “parliamentarian propaganda”.
A major review of the book is to be found on the Guardian website. It is largely sympathetic of Kishlanksy’s’ view. Without examining in any detail what major historians have printed on the subject matter it produces quotes that back up Kishlansky hypothesis  “ GM Trevelyan thought him “selfish and stupid”, while the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell leaps off the fence to inform six-year-olds that “King Charles was a very stupid man”. It then quotes Kishlansky uncritically saying “What began as propaganda has been transmuted into seeming fact.”

The guardian continues Kishlanksy’s theme that Charles was battling against bad luck all through his life “Whichever side you take, it’s hard to deny that Charles was plagued from early on by almost comical levels of bad luck. As a young man, his daring incognito voyage to Spain to woo the Infanta turned into a fiasco. Two decades later, not only would his armies suffer crippling losses at the battle of Naseby, but Charles’s own personal correspondence would be captured: the public revelation of his efforts to secure Catholic support against the forces of parliament would be a devastating blow to the king’s reputation. A botched attempt to attack and plunder Spanish shipping in the first year of his reign set the tone for later military ventures: ‘the winds, as always for Charles, were contrary’.[3]
Kishlanksy’s defence of Charles I is absolute and virtually unconditional. He rejects the standard view that Charles was intransigent. He believes that the king bent over backwards to conciliate and to compromise with parliament. Kishlansky is perfectly in his right as an established historian to counter prevailing historiography. It is a little surprising that he chooses to do so in such a limited space is surprising. I am not a professional historian but even I know that to overturn three centuries of historiography is going to take longer than 144 pages. As one writer puts it the “small amounts of evidence are made to bear an enormous argumentative burden”.

Even the sympathetic Guardian reviewer was forced to admit that Kishlanksy’s hoop jumping was in danger of turning his reconsideration of Charles into “whitewash”.
It is not in the scope of this review to go over Kishlanksy’s previous written work but it is clear from this new book that his place as a pioneer of a transatlantic revisionist interpretation of early Stuart history is secured.

Kishlansky joins a growing number of major historians such Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell and John Morrill. Who in one form or another rejected both the Whig and Marxist historians who had seen the Civil Wars of the 1640s as stemming from the growth of ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchs over the previous half-century,
The revisionist school seek to challenge the “ideological consensus” or as Kishlansky puts it the “fallacy of social determinism’ that has existed since1920s. These historians reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

In any review I try to be as generous as I can and on the whole I would recommend this short narrative on the life of Charles I as a competent introduction to the subject. If that was all it was then I would have no trouble but as this is more a polemic than a history book it needs to be answered in the future in a more detailed manner.


[1] A Sermon produced thirty years after Charles’s death
[3] Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky –

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Oliver Cromwell, the Levellers and the Putney Debates.

This article will seek examine the impact of the Putney Debates of 1647 on the thinking and actions of Oliver Cromwell. How did Cromwell defeat his Presbyterian enemies  before Putney and Leveller opponents after Putney?  
Why were the revolutionaries in the Leveller Movement not a sufficient enough political force to challenge Cromwell for power and therefore change the course of the revolution? It will also examine some revisionist attitudes to Putney. Originally published in draft form in 2010


The Putney debates started on 28 October 1647. A Meeting of the army’s General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss the state of the revolution and more specifically The Levellers document The Agreement of the People and the more conservative document The Heads of Proposals.

According to Wikipedia the agreement was produced by “civilian Levellers or agitators and called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law”.

 A Counter document the Heads of Proposals was issued by the Grandees. A much more moderate document. "Heads of Proposals" was the document to be adopted later on by the Cromwell’s government. It recommended a written constitution and led to Cromwell being given powers that bordered on a dictatorship.

Oliver Cromwell came to the Putney debates in 1647 from a position of considerable political and military strength. Although the fact that he still needed to invite radical elements within the army to the Putney Debates meant that he and his general’s position of power had been far from consolidated.
Cromwell was well aware that the invitation of civilian Levellers meant that the discussion held at Putney would have a resonance far beyond the walls of Putney church. How much Cromwell was aware of the growing radicalisation of his army is open to conjecture. To what extent Cromwell read the volumes of letters sent to him from the various radical groups is again hard to fathom.

But even this conservative of men would have least noted with alarm the growing influence of radical groups such as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. After all one of his top general’s Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist supporter and shared similar religious and political positions. Cromwell also up until Putney had a reasonably close social and political relationship with one of the Leaders of the Leveller’s John Lilburne.

In the months leading up to Putney Cromwell and his generals faced a growing threat to their leadership. They faced a two pronged attack from the Presbyterians and the radical groups.

One of the most important radical tracts printed by 29 October was called A Call to all soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of Parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an ‘exact council’ and to act with the ‘truest lovers of the people you could find’. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the “hypocrisy” and “deceit” of Cromwell and Ireton.

It must have been with extreme reluctance that Cromwell invited the agitators to Putney. In doing so his aim was to defeat these forces politically at Putney and then militarily later on.
Politically Cromwell was to the right of the English bourgeois revolution. In many ways his actions at Putney were largely opportunistic, he promised the Levellers to look into their demands but in reality he had no intention of adopting the Agreement.

He read very little outside of the bible and had only a superficial understanding of the radical tracts produced during the early period of the revolution. An interesting PhD dissertation topic would be to examine what was in his library at the time of his death.
It is clear that Cromwell at Putney completely underestimated his political opponents in the army. The documents presented by Leveller supporters in the army clearly shocked and dismayed this conservative of gentleman.

The debates brought to the surface deep seated ideas regarding property, democracy and the future course of the revolution. Political divisions were becoming sharper in the run up to the Putney Debates. Even deeper divisions among historians have meant that there is no agreement as to how radical the army was or when it started. This radicalisation for me did not fall from the sky. The ideas that came to fore at Putney were not only exacerbated by war , may have started as grievances over pay and condition, the fact of the matter is that these developed into broader political demands is because they were the product of a longer gestation.
As I said earlier there is little of no agreement among historians as to whether the radicalisation if it happened at all took place before or after 1647. A leading revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky classified has the period as marked by its “vaunted peace and harmony,”

The radicalisation brought about heated attacks on the army. Provoking one writer to say “it is objected to us, that we would have a toleration of all sectaries, schismatiques, heretiques, blasphemies, errours, licentiousnesse, and wickednesses.”[1]
This hostility to the radicalisation of the soldiers was given further political expression by the Presbyterian faction in parliament when it published its ‘Declaration of Dislike’ in the House of Commons. The document provocatively called the soldiers “enemies to the State and disturbers of the public peace”

The document represented a declaration of war against both independent and radicals alike. It was an expression growing class differences contained within and outside of parliament. As Austin Woolrych commented, “seldom can ten words have done more mischief than Holles’s ‘enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace.’”[2]
There existed a growing nerviness inside the Presbyterian party within parliament that was caused by the growing calls inside the army for more democracy, protests against social inequality and an end to property. The statement that  “We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the People's just Rights and Liberties.[3] Would have sent shockwaves through the Presbyterian Party.

After all the Presbyterian alongside the Independents had a lot to lose if Lilburne and his revolutionaries had their way. A large number of MP’s had grown rich out of the civil war and intended to keep their new found wealth come what may.

Many in Parliament had grown rich from the change of relations of land ownership, although the enclosure and the sequestration church holdings had begun before the civil war it was continued with during the first revolution with fresh impetus. The Long Parliament had got rid of the Episcopate and to administer its interests it organised a committee for the sale of church lands.

Often the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army were given permission to buy land cheap. Sometimes exchange for their unpaid salary and at half price. Fifth Monarchist’s like Lieutenant colonel Thomas Harrison became very rich out this process.
According to Evgeny Pashukanis “The Civil War between Parliament and the Crown thus had as a result the mass transfer of property (which was partly annulled upon the Restoration). Not less than half of all the movable property and half of the lands, rents and incomes of the noblemen who fought on the side of the Crown fell under sequestration. In order to raise the sequestration it was necessary to pay a composition in the amount of approximately one-fifth of the total value. Such an operation was conducted in 1644 on not less than 3,000 “gentlemen”. The direct profit from this measure was received by the Presbyterian party which then held sway in Parliament, a party whose members became rich buying land cheaply, squeezing out the Royalists who had fallen under sequestration, with money at usurious interest, and finally, releasing sequestration for a bribe. The corruption which developed gave one of the major trump cards to the Independents and their struggle against the parliamentary majority. In the interest of justice it should be noted that after this, when Cromwell’s army triumphed over Parliament, the Independent majority of the “Rump” began to engage in the same dirty business.[4]

Events Leading to Putney

It is extremely difficult to find in Cromwell’s early life an understanding of his actions at Putney. The Oliver Cromwell who was to occupy centre stage at Putney it can be said was not the same man who in early life would have followed under different circumstance a very pedestrian life.
He was born in Huntingdon, near Cambridge on April 25th 1599, four years before the end of Queen Elizabeth 1st reign. He was one of ten children only seven survived childhood and he was the only one to survive into adulthood. His mother Elizabeth had been widowed before she married Oliver’s father. She came from a respectable Norfolk family and had a small inheritance from her first marriage. Her family farmed lands near Ely cathedral.

Cromwell’s father, Robert was the second son of a knight and occupied a ‘median position in society’. In Cromwell’s own words ‘I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity’. [5]Little is known about his early life although one suspect tale had him bloodying the nose of Charles Stuart Later to become King Charles 1. It would be feasible to argue that when he attended grammar school he would have come under the influence of the master Dr. Thomas Beard, who was a Cambridge graduate and a clergyman.
Beard had written on the question of the English church. He preached a puritan faith which put forward that mans rewards were to be found not solely in heaven but on earth as well. Beard wrote of kings and rulers that they were not only’ more hardened and bold to sin’ but were also want to ‘ boldly exempt themselves from all corrections and punishments due unto them’. Much of Beards strongly Calvinist and anti Catholic teachings would impact on Cromwell in later life.

From 1617-20 Cromwell studied law in London (this is hotly contested by some historians) where he may well of made acquaintances with many of the people who would later play an important role in the civil war. Of all the MPs between 1640-42 over 300 had been to one of the Inns of Court, one being Sir Thomas Fairfax who was a leading military figure. In 1621 he went back to Huntingdon where he concentrated on farming the family lands. At the age of 29 he became MP when he was elected as one of the two burgesses of Huntingdon. When Cromwell took his seat parliament was already in a state of flux over the question of the king’s prerogative and of parliament’s role in society. Previously six of Cromwell’s relatives had been imprisoned for refusing to pay the enforced loan demanded by Charles 1.
Antonia Fraser writes of this time quite perceptively ‘For him there were already in practice two divergent points of view-one basically royal and one critical of it- which may for convenience sake be termed parliamentary’. In 1640 he became MP for Cambridge and entered the short parliament, which was followed, by the Long parliament in the same year. He quickly became an important figure within parliament. He sat on 18 committees and moved the second reading of a bill calling for annual parliaments. Cromwell’s reading at this time was limited to the bible; the only other book he told people to read was Raleigh’s History of the World.[6]

It is not disputed that Oliver Cromwell was a powerful figure in 17th Century England. History imparted Cromwell with an extraordinary power and authority. He carried with him the hopes and aspirations of a new social class. Many historians have sought to obscure the inner social struggle that underpinned the ‘great drama of the seventeenth Century’. The 1640s began with a parliament that although saw itself as the main representing vehicle of the people it was based on a very narrow franchise. Its Lower House was three times as rich as the House of Lords. Yet it was still under the control of the King who could call it and close it as he choose.
Parliament began increasingly to need a defence against the king and began to create its own army. This army was at the beginning never seen as a threat or replacement to parliament. But it soon took on a life of its own and began to recruit into it the most courageous and resolute members of society. It is this reason that it was to become the most resolute prosecutor of the war against Charles 1.

It is not the fashion in today’s historiography to write about a religious outlook alongside a class one but it is high time this method was restored. Charles and his court were representatives of the Episcopal or Anglican religious order, alongside the Nobility and higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the high middle class today, while the Independents were the party of the lower middle class. In a simple sense the Presbyterian stood for a limited monarchy, the Independents stood for a republic. “The contradictory position of the Presbyterians was a mirror of the contradictory position of the middle class in the fact that it oscillated between the nobility and the plebeians”.
Much of the time even overtly political and economic events were shrouded in religious language. Both sides believed they were acting legitimately and  according to Gods will.

The French historian Guizot perceptively writes ” “Then commenced between the Parliament and the King, a conflict previously unexampled in Europe ... Negotiations were still continued, but neither party expected any result from them, or even had any intention to treat. It was no longer to one another that they addressed their declarations and messages; both appealed to the whole nation, to public opinion; to this new power both seemed to look for strength and success. The origin and extent of the royal authority, the privileges of the Houses of Parliament, the limits of the obligations due from subjects, the militia, the petitions for the redress of grievances, and the distribution of public employments, became the subjects of an official controversy, in which the general principles of social order, the various nature of governments, the primitive rights of liberty, history, laws, and customs of England, were alternately quoted, explained and commented upon.

In the interval between the dispute of the two parties in parliament and their armed encounter on the field of battle, reason and learning interposed, as it were, for several months, to suspend the course of events, and to put forth their ablest efforts to obtain the free concurrence of the people, by stamping either cause with the impress of legitimacy. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved ... Now, however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated the ancient rights of the country, and had not abjured the maxims of tyranny; and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved, now however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated. The ancient rights of the country, and had no adjured the maxims of tyranny, and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown”[7]

It is clear that Cromwell built not merely an army but also an armed party. In 1644 Cromwell's “holy” squadrons was given the nickname of “Ironsides.” Which was playing an independent political and military role in the English revolution.

The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.” [8]

Cromwell, and his Grandees at Putney.

The General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from 28th October to 11 November1647. According to H N Brailsford ‘When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney the mood was sultry and tense’. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them “.[9]
It is clear from the Clark papers or transcripts that Cromwell was no great theoretician, He was ambitious and with his class outlook had a tendency to develop his thinking and conduct on the spur of the moment. Cromwell at Putney had a significant amount of prestige amongst his men. Through a combination of persuasion and promises Cromwell had led his men to crush Royalist forces and his Presbyterian enemies. In doing this he was able to enlist the help of the Levellers who “were the first among the people and the simple soldier agitators in the army to understand the necessity of energetic opposition for the counter-revolutionary elements of Parliament.”[10]

It is ironic that the very organisation created by Cromwell the Council of the Army, where the agitators sat next to the officers and the generals gave him the most political trouble.
It is unclear how much Cromwell acted in a fully conscious matter in the political sense of word but according Pashukanis “One can have doubts about the degree to which Cromwell and the other leaders of the Independents truly wished to remain loyal to the Presbyterian majority in Parliament. But there is no doubt that the soldiers’ organizations never entered into their calculations for the purpose of their struggle with Parliament. It is one thing to put pressure on Parliament by relying upon a disciplined armed force subordinate to oneself, but entirely another thing to create an illegal organization embracing the mass of soldiers and awakening their independent activity, an organization which immediately and inevitably had to bring forth socio-political demands extending far beyond the ideas of the moderate Independents”.

He continues “In the English revolutionary movement of the seventeenth century we observed the struggle of these two movements, a struggle the fiercer because of the high degree of consciousness and political activity among the soldiers of Cromwell’s army. To transform them into submissive weapons of his moderate gentry-bourgeois policy was not an easy task. It is necessary to add still another fact to this. The officer corps of Cromwell’s army included a certain number of democratic elements (Pride, a former horse-cab driver; Rainborough, barge captain; Colonel Joyce, a former tailor etc.); moreover, many of them were convinced supporters of the extreme left movements”
As Pashkunis states before Putney Cromwell had no intention of taking on both the radicals within army and the Presbyterians. In fact there are significant indicators at the time that Cromwell in the spring of 1647 was thinking of leaving England to travel to the Europe to spread the protestant cause.

It was only when he realized that on May 25th and 27th both Houses adopted resolutions to stand down the army in Britain and send other parts of it to Ireland  that he sensed that the Presbyterian party was seeking to establish its control over both the army and parliament that Cromwell. He soon came to his senses.  It was only his decisive intervention with the support of the agitators and Levellers that the Presbyterians were defeated. Had it not been for this resistance the subsequent course of events would have been very different. And may well have changed the course of the English revolution.
After the Presbyterian party had been defeated That Cromwell turned to Putney and the appearance of two platforms – the conservative Heads of the Proposals, and the radical, expressed in two documents Case for Truly Standing Army and Agreement of the People.

It should be noted that the participation in the Council of the Army by “civilians”, i.e. of representatives of the London Levellers – Wildman and Petty could be seen as the first move towards the transformation of the army council into a revolutionary party and a party brisling with arms at that.
In order to prevent this Cromwell alongside Ireton and other Grandees. decided to divide the army and limit the influence of the Levellers.

He decided to call three separate meetings. He continually kept calling prayer meetings to dissipate the anger of the Radicals.
Cromwell’s’ manoeuvring could only go so far. Why were the Levellers unable to defeat Cromwell at Putney? As Pashukanis points out “The Levellers found their support among the peasants, small rentiers, craftsmen and workers. It is enough to recall the influence which they enjoyed in the London suburbs, in particular in Southwark, which was populated by weavers. However, their main support was the army. Here we encounter a fact imposing a characteristic imprint on the whole course of the first English Revolution: it was not accompanied by any significant agrarian movement. Proceeding from the Levellers, the attempt to transform the political structure of England of that day into a consistent bourgeois democratic condition was never supported by a massive peasant uprising”.

The Levellers undoubtedly were a petit bourgeois party. While some historians protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such I believe that there was sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at   the 1640s to warrant such a claim.  
It is true that capitalist relations had not developed to a large extent into the English countryside, to such an extent demands could not enter into their programme for a general division of land, “an agrarian law”.

When Cromwell saw for the first time the Leveller tracts he knew what was at stake was not just a mere debate but who was to have power and what class would control it. He wasn’t the only one to recognise that Putney was a battle of contending social forces, Colonel Thomas Rainborowe in a little known passage from the Clarke Diary’s  cited ‘Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If you say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold men. When these gentlemen fall out among themselves, they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill one another for them’. Do these comments represent an individual or did his words echo a much wider yet unconscious expression that Putney represented not just the people that took part but had a broader significance in the army and within the country itself

While it took Cromwell a little while to understand what was going on at Putney when he saw the Levellers Pamphlet The Agreement of the People he reacted in this way on October 28th “These things that you have now offered, they are new to us: they are things that we have not at all (at least in this method and thus circumstantially) had any opportunity to consider of, because they came to us but thus, as you see; this is the first time we had a view of them. Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say, since it was a nation –I say, I think I may almost say so. And what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider. I say, if there were nothing else to be considered but the very weight and nature of the things contained in this paper. Therefore, although the pretensions in it, and the expressions in it, are very plausible, and if we could leap out of one condition into another that had so specious things in it as this hath, I suppose there would not be much dispute – though perhaps some of these things may be very well disputed. How do we know if, whilst we are disputing these things, another company of men shall not gather together, and put out papers plausible perhaps as this? I do not know why it might not be done by that time you have agreed upon this, or got hands to it if that be the way. And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And if so, what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another and one county against another to go on along with it, and whether those great difficulties that lie in our way are in a likelihood to be either overcome or removed”.?
What was Cromwell’s aim at Putney?  According to B Coward Putney began ‘as an attempt by Cromwell to defend the strategy for a settlement he had followed ever since the end of the war and to defuse the recent Leveller attack on it. His main aim at Putney was to maintain the unity of the army behind a settlement programme based on the Heads of Proposals and his speeches at Putney are peppered with pleas to this effect “I shall speak to nothing but that, as before the Lord, I am persuaded in my heart tends to uniting us”. Cromwell throughout Putney sought that the army was pledged to keep the “engagements” that had bound the army since June. He had hoped that by debating with the Levellers that a common ground could be made between the heads of proposals and the Leveller’s statement the agreement of the people’.

The Levellers had other ideas and their disagreement with Cromwell stemmed from their social position rather than in any tactical nuances. In that sense it is important to view the Levellers in the context of the period. It is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for radical if not revolutionary for the time.
The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.
Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell. They had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained ‘I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient’. Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it.
The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. Rainborowe stated that ‘The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government’.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘freeborn Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill argued that ‘The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were’.
To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine “that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here”. The vote was rightly restricted to those who “had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom”. Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation’s in whom all trading lies’

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody.  This argument completely confused Rainsborough and undermined his argument.
Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the levellers and other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”

The view that Cromwell’s role at Putney could be understood better within the context of contending social forces as been attacked by a growing number of revisionist historians. As early as the 1970s. The main purpose of this group has been to attack any conception that historical events can be best understood within the context of a socio-economic or even Marxist viewpoint.

One such revisionist historian who has challenged the above premise is Conrad Russell who in his Origins of the English Civil War sought to explain the civil war from the standpoint of the Nobility not from any socio economic changes. Jim Holstun described Russell’s book as a “manifesto for historical revisionism”. Holstun went on to point out that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taking place in the English revolution. That historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people. Russell would often make the remark that he was not conversant with the terms feudalism and capitalism.
Woolrych says “we should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army”.  While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where ‘open incitements to mutiny, and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburn’s foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided. Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up’.

Mark Kishlansky writes ‘Much has been written about ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.

In conclusion hindsight is always a great general after the events. At Putney Cromwell moved decisively against his main enemy at the time the Levellers.  Cromwell’s individual qualities came to the fore in this time it is undoubtedly true.
The debates at Putney if nothing else gave us proof that the ideas that were discussed there highlighted the actions of different class forces each seeking to control the revolution. Clark  gave us a documentary proof that contrary to the revisionists the main motor force in history is the struggle of contending class forces.

Or put another way “The suppression of the May uprising of 1649 rendered the final blow to the Leveller movement. In Cromwell’s army was concentrated the most active and politically conscious part of both the peasantry, urban craftsmen and workers. There the Levellers had the basic mass of their adherents. The destruction of the Levellers in the army, therefore, signified the destruction of radical elements in the entire country. After this the revolutionary energy of the democratic strata was not directed along the lines of mass political struggle. It found its outlet partly in attempts at terrorist struggle in which, among others, Edward Sexby, one of the first agitators, was beheaded; partly in the religious movement of the Quakers among whom the Levellers’ leader John Lilburne ended his life. But neither of these directions presented any danger for the rich and the powerful. (Evgeny Pashukanis revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)

[1] [1] Vox Militaris: Or an Apologetical Declaration Concerning the Officers and Souldiers of the Armie, under the Command of his Excellency Sr. Thomas Fairfax, (London: 11 August [Thomason]),
[2] Austin Woolrych, Soldiers and Statesmen),page  36-37.
[3] — From The Representation of the Army 1647
[4] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[5] On himself, speech to the First Parliament of the Protectorate, Sept, 1654. Antonia Fraser; Cromwell, Our Chief of Men.
[6] Cromwell, Our Chief of Men
[7] Leon Trotsky's Writings On Britain Chapter Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
[8] T.B. Macaulay History of England Chap. I, Before the Restoration
[9] The Levellers and the English revolution (1961)
[10] E. Bernstein, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1919), 3rd German edition, p.78. – See also E. Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1930), Allen and Unwin, London [eds.]

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution Rachel Foxley , Manchester University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780719089367; 304pp. Price: £70.00

Given the recent flood of academic books on or around the subject of the English revolution as John Rees points out in his review for the IHR (Institute of Historical Research) it is a little surprising that this book is “the first full length study of the Levellers for fifty years not since H. N.Brailsford’s The Levellers and the English Revolution was published in 1961”.
The absence of a systematic study of this important political group is to found not so much in history as in politics. While some historians would like to keep politics out of history there is and has been a profound link between a rightward shift in academic circles and the type of history being studied and written about today

Certainly in my field of study a veritable historian’s war has existed for well over fifty years. While the battle lines maybe a little blurred at times when the smoke clears the debate has largely taken the form of an attack on any form of Marxist interpretation of historical events.

It is not in the scope of this review to examine the revisionist revolt whose origins can be traced all the way back to G R Elton but the central focus of this disparate group of historians has been to attack any Marxist conception of historical study. The downplaying of the Levellers role in the English revolution is a by-product of this attack.
As Rachel Foxley points out in her introductory chapter on ‘The Levellers and the historians’ ‘The revisionist historians who have rewritten the history of the seventeenth century have questioned almost every aspect of the historical reputation of the Levellers’ (p. 3).

It is open to question to what extent Foxley herself has adapted to this revisionist assault. One criticism of the book is her concentration on Leveller political theory to the detriment of their economic and social base. Foxley is in a historiographical sense part of the post revisionist approach.
However she does insist that ‘revisionist treatments of the later 1640s cannot wipe out the contribution of the Levellers to the radicalisation of parliamentarian political thought’.

Foxley does not see the Levellers as an independent group of radicals or revolutionaries but places their politics within a broad parliamentarian alliance. This view would not look out of place amongst other revisionist historians. She then appears to contradict herself by saying that we should not ‘dissolve them into an undifferentiated part of that complex political world’ (p. 6).
As John Rees correctly points out that this “approach which Foxley criticizes runs the risk of producing the effect that the philosopher Hegel describes as ‘a night in which all cows are black’, meaning that it is impossible to differentiate the object of study from its background[1].

Given the limits of this review it is impossible to give sufficient justice to all the arguments presented by Foxley in the book. However there are some areas which need further comment.
Foxley is correct to emphasise the originality of Leveller thought. She opposes that view that the Levellers merely adapted arguments found within parliament’s supporters. Despite their independence the Levellers clearly had alliances with many disparate political groups and people.

The complex relationship between the Levellers and other political and religious groups and people makes it extremely hard to gauge both the size and influence of the Levellers. This anomaly has been seized upon by many conservative historians to dismiss the group as irrelevant.
One of the strengths of the book is that probes these relationships and attempts to explain them within the revolution itself. Given the complexity of this work you feel that Foxley’s work with the Levellers is far from over.

Foxley clearly sees the Levellers as radicals and not revolutionaries.  There is a tendency within her work to see the Levellers as making things up as they went along. To a certain degree this is correct. The Levellers and their leader did react to spontaneous events and cut their cloth accordingly.
But the Leveller ideology was not just product or pure expression of spontaneous developments. It is true it was adapted “in the midst of a political crisis not in the seminar room” but Foxley does not attempt to place the Levellers on a more objective basis.

On my part the Leveller’s were part of a broader and international movement that sought in a limited way to move away from a biblical explanation of political social and economic problems. This is not to say as some left historians have done that they were proto Marxists but they should be seen as a group of individuals who sought to go beyond previous held beliefs.
As the Marxist political writer David North says “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”. [2]

In much of their political thinking the Levellers were the forerunners not only  of the 18th century Enlightenment but of the socialist movement .
While in a limited sense Foxley places the Levellers within the dynamic of the revolution. She highlights the most significant moments of the revolution that involved the Levellers. She challenges previously held views that the Levellers did not attract a mass audience for the views.

The July 1646 publication of the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens Foxley believes ‘was the first Leveller text to make a claim to a mass following, a significant moment in the genesis of the group’.(p. 36).
Foxley also contests the view that the Levellers were solely driven by religious thought.  Of course it is understandable that the political thought of the day would be heavily cloaked in religious garb as she states ‘There is simply no need to go hunting in covenant theology or congregational practice for Leveller political ideas of equality or “democracy”, or for a prototype of the Agreement of the People’.

For me the best or most interesting chapter is the ‘Levellers and the army’. Perhaps the most hotly challenged area of Leveller historiography has been the extent of Leveller influence in the New Model Army.  Anyone who has argued that the Levellers had significant influence in the army is accused of falling victim to the “fallacy of social determinism”.
Austin Woolrych contentiously states that the army had “refrained from political activity despite the tendency of the Presbyterians both religious and political to portray it as a hotbed of sectaries and radicals”. If this is true then did Putney really drop from the skies? Is there no connection between the activity of the army before Putney and during? Surely history is not just a series of unconnected episodes.

Again according to Woolrych “Anyone who strains to hear the voice of the soldiery in the Putney debates should be aware that, apart from one brief interjection by an unnamed agent, the only troopers who spoke that day were Sex by and Everard, and on the other two days recorded by Clarke the only others who opened their mouths were Lockyer and Allen. No agitator of a foot regiment is known to have spoken. Out of just fifty officer-agitators listed in October, twelve spoke in the course of the three-recorded days five of them only once, and very briefly. We should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army’?
If ever an area of academic study needed more work it is the examination of the politics of the New Model Army. As Rees says that with “Independents, other army activists and the Levellers all existed on a political spectrum in which it is difficult to cleanly separate one set of ideas or personnel from another”.

Other conservative historians have been “prominent in seeking to challenge the nature and extent of Leveller penetration of the army, certainly before the high summer of 1647. John Morrill argues that Leveller rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lillburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file, Mark while Kishlansky has suggested that “the dynamics of army relations with parliament could be explained adequately in terms of the army’s own sense of its honour, its legitimate demands as an army, and its own experience in war and peace’.
Foxley believes this is “unjustified in the light of ‘the petitioning campaign of the spring 1647, the pre-existing cooperation between the core of Leveller leaders, and the growing consistency of concerns and demands in the sequence of joint and individual works associated with the Leveller leaders’ (p. 153).

Foxley’s work on the Putney debates is hampered by the constraints of the publishers. They could have perhaps given her more pages. However she presents extensive proof of Leveller influence on the Grandees of the army and the contacts between the ‘civilian’ Levellers and the army radicals. She concludes that ‘the revisionist story about Putney and its aftermath cannot easily account for these continuing connections’ (p. 159).
This has still not stopped the political and historical blindness of a number of revisionist historians towards the Levellers from believing that the Levellers “were exterior to the army”.

As John Rees points out many “ Levellers were of the Army themselves. Lilburne had an exemplary and widely publicised military record. But Lilburne was not alone in this. Leveller William Allen served in Holles’ regiment. Leveller printer William Larner served as a sutler in Lord Robartes’ regiment. Thomas Prince fought in the London Trained Bands until he was injured at Newbury in 1643. John Harris ran an Army printing press. Leveller ally Henry Marten had close engagement in military affairs in London and eventually raised his own regiment in Berkshire. Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were Leveller sympathisers. Edward Sexby was a central figure in the actions of the Agitators. Army chaplains Jeremiah Ives and Edward Harrison supported the Levellers “. [3]
These connections add weight to Foxley’s observation that the Putney debates ‘marked not the end but the beginning of a potentially fertile alliance between civilian Levellers and army radicals’ and that this ‘reverses the picture painted by the standard revisionist historiography’ (p. 158).

One aspect of the Levellers underplayed in the book were their relationship with Cromwell and their inability to go beyond their own social base.
Leveller ideas had their roots essentially in the lower strata of society, as Cliff slaughter states “they become anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes. It was as necessary for Cromwell to crush the Ranters as to liquidate Lilburne’s Levellers and Winstanley’s Diggers. A few selections from their tracts will show their lack of appeal to a class so enamoured of compromise (with its ‘betters’, of course) as the British bourgeoisie”[4]. This would also explain that after the 1650s the Levellers all but ceased to exist

One of the complex and interesting chapter in the book is The Laws of England and the free born Englishman.  Given Foxley’s extensive research on this matter it is little surprising that she makes little use of Soviet historians work on the English revolution.
One historian comes to mind is Evgeny Bronislavovich Pashukanis. In his work Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law 1927 postulates that much of Lilburne’s theory on state law was adopted at a later date by the English bourgeoisie  according to Pashukhanis “ John Lilburne in his work, The Fundamental Laws and Liberties, incidentally formulates two classical principles of the bourgeois doctrine of criminal law: no one may be convicted other than on the basis of a law existing at the moment of commission of the act, and the punishment must correspond to the crime according to the principle an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Lilburne himself was of course the first man in England to succeed in being served with an indictment”

It is a fact that that this book was primarily targeted at academic circles. It is perhaps natural given the complex nature of the subject material. However the book should be of concern to all history students both of a left or right persuasion. Foxley’s book should be seen as an important contribution to placing the Levellers in their proper revolutionary context. Hopefully when the book is published in paperback a reasonable price would mean it getting the wider reader ship it deserves.


1 John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)
 Date accessed: 27 December, 2014
[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North  24 October 1996
[3] John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)
[4] Cliff Slaughter Religion and Social Revolt from Labour Review, Vol.3 No.3, May-June 1958, pp.77-82.