Sunday, 19 December 2010

What Was the Significance of the Levellers Revolt at Burford in 1649?

(This is a revised essay. It was re-edited from a post on the 14th December)

The year 1649 was perhaps the best of times and the worst of times for the Levellers. The revolt carried out by them at Burford was the high point of a fundamental military and political divergence between the Levellers and the army leadership.

However some historians such as Ian Gentles have challenged the premise that Burford represented nothing but a minor skirmish. He “claims that only a minority of the men in three (not four as Brian Manning alleges) of the troops of Ireton's regiment joined the Leveller inspired mutiny at Burford”.

Ian Gentles article tends to downplay a Marxist analysis of the English revolution. To back this claim up he says that there was widespread popular support for Royalist although he does point out that not one of Charles 1st subjects risked their necks to save him.

In defence of Manning he was enough of a historian to realise that this was not a chemically pure revolution. The revolution was a complex development and class relations were in a state of flux. But I feel that Gentles does not do enough in his article to rule out Manning’s particular theory of revolution.

Gentles does make one point that to my mind never been successfully countered by historians who are sympathetic to a Marxist historiography of the English revolution.

Gentles does not contend that the economic conditions were ripe for revolutionary upheavals. He concedes the point made by J.H. Elliott that "There was one permanent and universal precondition for revolt in every society in early modern Europe: the pressure of population on food resources, and the ever-present threat of harvest failure and starvation. Because of this threat, the possibility of popular uprisings was built into every society, and only a sudden tax increase or a rise in the price of bread was needed to precipitate a tumult." This precondition was without question present in England between 1646 and 1649. The conjuncture of harvest failures and trade depression in those years made it, in JP Cooper's words," ... probably the worst economic crisis of the century."

Manning never really successfully answers his own admission that "the most remarkable fact is the absence of popular disorders."

To find an answer to this Manning could have done no worse than to look towards a number of Russian Marxist historians who wrote extensively on the English revolution. The fact that he and Christopher Hill were reluctant to do so can be explained by the position they took in regards to the brand of historiography of “history from below”. This type of historical research and writing coincided with the popular front politics of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Manning and Hill were wary of using historians that arose out of the Russian revolution many of them were exterminated during the Purges of the late 1930s. Ann Talbot makes this point “it is notable that of the Marxist Historians Group Hill wrote on the seventeenth century, Thompson on the eighteenth century, Hobsbawm mostly on the nineteenth century and Hilton on the Middle Ages. But none of them specialised in the twentieth century. In more recent areas of history, as in politics, the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy was too great to allow the free development of Marxist thought and whether deliberately or not they all avoided venturing into the modern arena”.

Any way to answer Gentles I have no compulsion in using a major figure from the Russian revolution Evgeny Pashukanis who answer the question so

“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. For this of course there were fully sufficient reasons. In the first place, by that time serf dependence no longer existed in England. Almost everywhere the corvée had been replaced by money rent. The cause of the greatest discontent had therefore been eliminated. In the second place, the class divisions of the English peasantry, about which we spoke above, had gone rather far by the time of the Great Revolution. A rich upper stratum, separated from the general mass, tried to improve its farming at the expense of the less wealthy strata. Winstanley, the leader and ideologist of the “Diggers”, who attempted to realize something like agrarian communism, thus draws this contradiction between the rich freeholders and the poor: “they (the freeholders) exhaust the common pastures, put an excessive number of sheep and draft animals on them, and as a result the small renter and peasant farmer hardly manage to feed their cows on the grazing ground.” The rich upper strata of the country took an active part in the destruction of the old common system, in particular the enclosure of the common lands. In this instance, it united with the landowners against the rural poor”.

Another point Gentles was heavily critical of Manning and for that matter Hill’s was their reliance on printed material and manuscripts. But as Ann Talbot has stated this is not a new criticism of the Marxist historians who she said have “been criticised by later historians for only using the published sources and not making any use of the manuscript material that is available. Hill had some excuse for doing so, however, in that the amount of published material from this period when censorship collapsed is so enormous. In the 1640s everyone had something to say about the way the world was going and everyone who was literate wanted to get into print. It is a dramatic contrast with the preceding centuries, when only a small elite with government approval found their way into print. If later historians have made far greater use of unpublished manuscript sources, this to some degree reflects the extent to which Hill made the published sources his own so that they have had to look for new material”.

To return to our subject in hand .The New Model Army had just defeated Charles 1st. The King was executed in January 1649. Cromwell then declared England a republic.

The New model Army was clearly unlike any army that had appeared in Britain before. It had all the hallmarks of a party and had its own printing press and sought to defend its own programme and was willing to use military force to achieve it. It was clear to everyone that who controlled the army held the reign’s power.

Under conditions where Cromwell was seeking a compromise with the King the New Model army would have none it. Cromwell quite rightly feared that the Army which was being heavily influenced by the Levellers and was getting out of control.

It was clear to Cromwell and sections of the growing merchant capitalists that the Levellers had to be defeated in order to regain control of the New Model Army. One ruse used by Cromwell was to send sections of the most radical parts to be sent to Ireland.

Cromwell moved against the leadership of the Levellers and its leaders were arrested and imprisoned. This coup against the Levellers culminated in May when at a “rendezvous at Burford in Oxfordshire, over a thousand troops of the New Model Army mutinied. These mutineers got rid of their Officers. Perhaps their leaders did not really understand the political and military significance of their mutiny after all they were in dispute over arrears of pay and the proposed service in Ireland.

Cromwell, Ireton and Fairfax clearly saw the dangers to their rule and put down the mutiny with ruthless force. While the Levellers only amounted to just over a thousand soldiers their rebellion was enough for Fairfax to accuse them of the danger of a third civil war in a letter dated May 12 1649 Fair fax wrote

“Gentlemen, I Hear much of your late disorderly carriage, which doth not a little trouble me, that you who have so much opposed the common enemy, should now condemn the Lawful Authority set over you, give the Malignants new hopes, it may be new footing, to occasion another war, and deprive your selves of all your honour, and one another of your Arrears, and present provision of pay, putting the Country upon Free-quarter, which the Parliament had provided against, hinder the Parliament from settling the Kingdom upon those just foundations of Liberty you have so long and often desired, and what other mischiefs may follow is very hard to determine; if there were nothing else but dividing the Army, and engaging one part of it against another, this were to be lamented with tears of blood. I have thought fit to send these persons to you, to let you know, that if you shall return to your obedience, these mischiefs are not yet gone so far, but that they may be healed by your submission and acknowledgement: if you pretend to have done this unlawful act for just ends, when did I ever refuse you, in referring any just desire of the Armies to the Parliament? if you refuse this tender to you, I must and I shall through God’s assistance, endeavour to reduce you by force to a just obedience, and when you have tried to gather up all discontented spirits to you, you will find you had better have followed this counsel of mine, then your own, whereby you hazard all that is dear to you, for that which you might obtain without any hazard or trouble at all. These Gentlemen will acquaint you more fully with what may be for your good; I rest, you’re assured Friend,

Major Francis White whose pamphlets provide a rich source of knowledge of the period served as an emissary from Fairfax and Cromwell to the Burford mutineers. White was instructed by Cromwell to develop an ‘understanding’ between them and the Generals.

White issued his pamphlet in order to refute accusations that he had betrayed the soldiers at Burford. White was reported to share certain sympathies with the Levellers. White felt the need to clear his name “ Having upon former occasions appeared in print, once to seek the preservation of my life, and another time to keep the peace of my mind, by bearing my public testimony, I thought I had sufficiently discovered my weakness to the world, that I should have kept silence for a time, at least from public view: But I am put upon it a third time, for the defence of my integrity, and reputation among good men, and the vindicating my innocency towards God and the world”.

White accepted his role of intermediary between the Levellers and Cromwell but was mindful of the fact that Cromwell wanted to use force against the Levellers White writes

“I being in May last commanded by my Lord General, with some others, to go to the revolted Horse of Commissary General Ireton’s and Colonel Scroop’s Regiment, for whom I received a Letter, and Instructions from my Lord, that I should communicate that Letter, and use what means I thought expedient, according to my judgement and conscience, to produce a right understanding, and procure a union, to which Lieutenant-General Cromwell added, that I should let them know, that although they sent Messengers to them, they would not follow with force at the heels”

White was still not convinced that his good name had been established he went on “but since there have been some things appeared in print, which do reflect upon myself, (and were I not in public employment I could freely submit in silence; but to defend innocency, and to satisfy friends, which have pressed it upon me as my duty,) I have here published the truth of proceedings, without fear or flattery on the one hand, or prejudice on the other”.

Clearly at this time the arrears of pay which was a common theme throughout the army. The Levellers were in the forefront of seeking payment of arrears but if this was the only problem then it is unlikely that Cromwell would have taken such violent action. Despite its religious garb the Levellers were seeking a far more radical conclusion to the Civil war. This can be seen in their documents released at the time such as For A New Parliament By The Agreement of the People England Standard A d v a n c e d dated May 1649: A Leveller message 'to the whole world' by Cornet William Thompson

According to Robert.R.Style “The document was signed by a never-commissioned Leveller 'Captain', William Thompson, not his younger brother, Cornet James Thompson executed in the Burford Churchyard, May 1649. William broke out of Burford, rode to Northampton and died a hero's death, fighting till the end against all odds”.

Thompson said “Whereas it is notorious to the whole world, that neither the Faith of the Parliament, nor yet the Faith of the Army (formerly made to the People of this nation, in behalf of their Common Right, Freedom and safety) hath bin all observed, or made good, but both absolutely declined and broken, and the People only served with bare words and faire promising Papers, and left utterly destitute of all help or delivery : And that this hath principally bin by the prevalency and treachery of some prominent persons (now domineering over the People) is most evident. The Solemn Engagement of the Army at New-Market and Triploe Heaths by them destroyed, the Councel of Agitators dissolved, the blood of War shed in time of Peace, Petitioners for Common Freedom suppressed by force of armes, and Petitioners abused and terrified, the lawful Tryal by twelve sworn men of the Neighbour-hood subverted and denyed, bloody and tyrannical Courts (called an high Court of justice, and the Councel of State) erected, the power of the sword advanced and set in the Seat of the Magistrates, the Civil Lawes stopt and subverted, and the Military introduced, even to the hostile seizure, imprisonment, tryal, sentence and execution of death, upon divers of the Free People of this Nation, leaving no visible Authority devolving all into a factious Juncto and Councel of State, usurping and assuming the name, stampe and Authority of Parliament, to oppresse, torment and vex the People, whereby all the lives, liberties, and estates, are all subdued to the Wills of those men, no Law, no justice, no right or Freedom, no ease of grievances, no removal of unjust barbarous taxes. no regard to the cryes and groanes of the poore to be had while utter beggary and famin (like a mighty torrent) hath broke in upon us, and already seized upon several parts of the Nation”.

White according to the Oxford National Biographical Dictionary seems to be a minor figure in the history of the civil war he appeared to at the right place at the right time on numerous occasions He was at the debates at Safron Walden and more crucially at Putney in 1647 and his writings are important in the sense the appear to record important events as they happen. White was a parliamentary officer in the army of Fairfax. He was clearly trusted by the Grandees in the New Model Army as well as the Levellers after all he presented the grievances of his regiment at Saffron Walden on 15 May 1647 to the parliamentary commissioners who were overseeing the disbandment of the New Model Army.

The Grandees clearly saw Whites usefulness because of his sympathies and contacts with the Levellers although they trusted him only so far “who ‘issues out orders as if he were the lieutenant colonel’ (Firth and Davies, 1.324).

According to the Oxford Dictionary White was constantly outspoken against perceived grievances of the rank and file against parliament. “He opposed the proposal to give control of the army to parliament for ten years, contending that the dominant Presbyterian faction, with their Scots allies, intended to keep the people in ‘servill bondage’ (White, Copy, 3). In the condition the kingdom now found itself, he affirmed, there was ‘no visible authority … but the power and force of the Sword’ (Two Declarations, 6). He was expelled from the council on 9 September, conceding that his words had given ‘distast’ (White, Copy, 1). He defended his conduct in an open letter to Fairfax dated 23 September, including his opposition to giving a tribunician vote to Fairfax in the army's proposed settlement, The Heads of the Proposals, and declared that his only interest was in the restoration to the kingdom of its ancient liberties as they had existed before the Norman conquest”.

While he was a career officer White’s political sympathies were with the Levellers he was trusted to be with the agitators who took part in the Putney debates in October 1647. He was loyal to the armies cause and warned against Cromwell’s attempt to negotiate a settlement with the king “. While this source should be treated with caution according to a royalist news writer, at a rendezvous of Fairfax's regiment of foot on 11 November he tried to persuade the men that England should now abandon monarchy: unavailingly, as the men threw their hats in the air, shouting ‘A king! A king!’ and ‘This king! This king!’ He also said two years earlier at Putney being at the convention I spoke some words which gave distress that they were repairing an old house, and that when they were laying the top stone it would fall about their ears”. This is from a letter dated Nov 1647.

“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”.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

In many respects the true revolutionary of the civil war was Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were essentially a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.


1. The editor of this site has religious proclivities. Looks like he is influenced by the Radicals. Cites the civil war as a bourgeois revolution.

2. A True relation Of the Proceedings in the Business of Burford With other is course of public Concernment. by Francis White, Major to the Lord General’s Regiment of Foot. London , Printed by Robert Austin, on Adlin-hill. 1 6 4 9 .

3. Oxford DNB

4. Letter from Thomas Fairfax May 12. 1649.

5. The copy of the Letter sent by White in Nov 1647 is held in the British Museum E.413 17

6. The Levellers and the English revolution, ed. C. Hill (1961) • The Clarke papers, ed. C. H. Firth, 4 vols., CS, new ser., 49, 54, 61–2 (1891–1901) •

7. Two declarations from … Sir Thomas Fairfax, and the general councell of his army [Thomason tract, E 407/1,

8. Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary elements in the History of the English State and Law 1927

9. Soldiers, Levellers and the "Middle Sort"in the English Revolution Ian Gentles 1994

10. "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot 25 March 2003

11. Brailsford, H. N.,The Levellers and the English Revolution, Spokesman, Nottingham ISBN 0 85124 154 9.

12. Sir John Huxtable Elliott, FBA (23 June 1930 - ) is an eminent historian, Regius Professor Emeritus in the University of Oxford and Honorary Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge.[1]

13. Brian Manning 1649 The Crisis of the English Revolution Bookmarks 1992

14. “The craving of the rich peasantry for the improvement of their farming, by separation from common land, partly explains the weakness of the agrarian movement during the course of the English Revolution.” N.M. Lukin, From the History of the Revolutionary Armies (1923), Moscow, p.8.

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