Monday, 20 June 2011

The Levellers and the English Revolution-1642-52

The purpose of this essay is twofold. Firstly to examine through the writings of four of the main revisionist historians and their current historiography on the Levellers. Secondly to present some observations on the Levellers place in the English revolution.

It is fair to say that up until some members of the Communist Party Historians Group namely Christopher Hill and a few others started to rescue them from historical oblivion the Levellers have had a pretty raw deal from historians.

A collective responsibility for the dearth major works of note up until the early part of the 20th century is largely the fault of Whig Historians. Large numbers of these historians in the words of Hill had a tendency to ‘bury their head in the sand’ as regards the Levellers.

Current historiography has certainly carried over much of the worst traits of Whig attitudes towards the Levellers. Some have ignored them completely such as John Adamson others have portrayed them as having little or no influence on the outcome of the war. John Morrill mentioned them twice in his book The Revolt of the Provinces.

While it is difficult to generalise as regards current historians views on the Levellers and not all current writing on the Levellers are by conservative historians some points can be made.

The Conservative orientated revisionist’s downplaying of the significance of the Levellers was really a by-product of their assault on Marxist historiography. Before I go any further one point I must make is that I am not against historians revising previous work on the English revolution. As one writer recently put it all historians especially good ones are revisionists, he states “I continue to believe that revisionism is absolutely essential to the study of history. In fact, there would be no history without it. In his book Who Owns History?, Columbia University history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, "When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?" Foner responded: "Around the time of Thucydides." (1) 

Modern revisionist historians who wrote on the Civil war period first appeared in the early 70s. John Morrill in an interview describes how a new revisionist outlook on the civil war came into being,“Well I think the interesting thing about revisionism was how a whole series of people came to the same conclusions simultaneously without really knowing one another. I hadn’t met Mark Kishlansky or Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe when we all published our 1976 works which were the initial canon of revisionism, and that’s one of the most interesting things. It’s also worth saying that almost all the revisionists were people who’d studied in Oxford and then been made to leave, for whom jobs couldn’t be found in Oxford. We reacted to some extent against a previous generation of Oxford-trained historians like Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Hill. So it was a curiously Oxford-dominated thing both in what was being reacted against and in the reaction itself. I think it was in 1973 in Oxford when I was a young research fellow that I gave a series of lectures called ‘Some Unfashionable Thoughts on English 17th-century History’, and these were extraordinarily crude and unsophisticated revisionism avant la lettre. But I’m not claiming I’m the progenitor – I’m saying there were a lot of people trying to work out a new position who were dissatisfied with the existing position. I’ve no doubt at all that Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution (1972) was the thing people reacted against, with its rather triumphalist claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English revolution. It was that I think which a number of people quite independently reacted against”. (2)

Social or economic determinist views on history are of course associated with a Marxist view of historical development. Morrill alongside others sought to revise previous historiography’s that were based on Marxist methodology. One such tenant of Marxism was the use of historical materialism in order to explain historical processes and events.

The revisionist attack on historical materialism took many forms. Holstun makes the point that when revisionists talk or address the question of class, “working people” or the historians who examine class issues through the school of historical thoughts called “history from below” their questions and their answers are usually only half answered and they try their best to stop any deeper understanding of class relations during the war.

Another point is that it would be wrong to define the group as a card carrying set of historians who met every Monday to work out new revisions or new attacks on Marxism. Each historian should be measured on their merits and what they wrote and said. It would also be fruitful to examine certain parts of their work from the standpoint of whether they brought a new insight into as regards the Levellers or whether they sought to impose a more conservative historiography on studies of the Levellers.

It would be good to start with perhaps the most outspoken representative of the revisionist hostility to the Levellers Mark Kishlansky. His philosophy towards the Levellers could be summed up best with his famous quote “The war created radicalism; radicalism did not create the war”. On the surface this can seem an accurate assessment of the Levellers. It is true that the immediate causes of any revolution are “a change in the state of mind of conflicting classes and changes in the collective consciousness by groups such as the Levellers which had a semi concealed thing about them. These changes in thinking mostly reveal themselves sharply when events such as a revolution occur. In these times they break through to the surface with an intensity not seen in peaceful times.

Undoubtedly these groups were radicalised by the war and gained support from soldiers and civilians who became disillusioned with the way things turned out. What Kishlansky leaves out are that these ideas were a reflection in the minds of men and women of powerful economic and social changes that were developing at least in the proceeding decades or according to some Lawrence Stone a century before.

Kishlansky concedes that the Levellers were a radical outfit but argues they had limited or no influence inside the New Model Army and certainly made no major difference to the radicalisation of the army. What radicalisms did occurred was for Kishlansky because of arrears over pay and conditions. He also states that the army was not radicalised before 1647. This view is common amongst other revisionist historians and writers take for instance this quote from Jason Eldred who is largely an apologist for Kishlansky views in his essay An Army So Provoked. (3)

“The New Model Army’s intrusion into politics was not as unavoidable as its historiography has made it seem. Mark Kishlansky’s enormously influential Rise of the New Model Army was the first major work on the New Model in nearly a century and stood generations of accepted belief about the New Model on their heads, arguing that the Army was not an intrinsically radical organization bent on radical ends from its inception. Few historians would now challenge Kishlansky’s thesis, although, as always in the historiography of England in the 1640s, there is room for plenty of debate. The Army could have been politicized or radicalized before the spring of 1647, but if it was, then neither the soldiers nor their officers left any indication of that nascent radicalism in print. Quite simply, the New Model’s politicization was provoked in the spring and summer and kept red hot by the actions of the House of Commons. Several factors triggered the Army’s entry into politics: their material, legal, and civil concerns, and the House of Commons’ concomitant total disregard for those concerns”.

Kishlansky questioned the level of Leveller involvement citing the fact that the dispute in army was largely over pay. This statement can be easily disproved if one examines the debates that took place at Saffron Walden. The debates showed that it was not just a matter of pay but there was the first indication of political demands and more significantly soldiers were showing a level of political independence through the setting up of spokesman for their cause in the form of agitators. The growing Leveller influence in the army can be detected in the statement that the soldiers saw that their "liberties as Englishmen are 10,000 times more important than our arrears of pay". Kishlansky counters by saying that Leveller rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lilburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file, while Kishlansky 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’.

Of course the statement by Kishlansky is true in so much that an army did have its own characteristics and demands but what is lacking in his argument is any understanding that the army was made up of people of different social and political backgrounds and they represented definite social and politics classes. These people fought out their ideas inside the army. The army itself was not above politics. The Levellers understood this and in a limited way so did Cromwell who knew that who controlled the army controlled power

While Kishlansky admits that the army was full of politics, it was driven not by the movement of people fighting for their politics. His somewhat crass view that the army was moved not by ‘Lilburne's rhetoric’ but by the ‘shedding of blood’

Kishlansky rejects this attitude and presents a somewhat one-sided view of the political struggles inside the army.

He dismisses the struggle was over ideology when he says ‘Much has been written about the 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 Spongers 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 objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism”.

Kishlansky is therefore hostile to any historical sources that seek to detect the social undercurrents that moved people of different social backgrounds into fight against the king and against parliament as the Levellers did.

From the 1640s onwards the Levellers advocated new and revolutionary ideas but as any person who studies this period they took the form of a “curious and archaic guise”. The Levellers who were the true ideologists of the revolution used the bible to find historical precedent to explain and justify what they were doing.

The left wing American historian Jim Holstun described Conrad Russell’s work as a ‘manifesto for historical revisionism’, he makes the point that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taken place in the English revolution that historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people who were rising according to Russell ‘not so much at the expense of the gentry, as at the expense of small holders and the labouring poor’.

Russell would often make the point that he not conversant with the term’s feudalism and capitalism. In many senses these revisionist views are not new in 1926 R H Tawney was highly scathing of historians and writers who rejected social change explanations for revolutionary events, he said ‘After more than half a century of work on (capitalism)… by scholars of half a dozen different nationalities and of every variety of political opinion, to deny that the phenomenon exists’ or to suggest that if it does exist, it is unique among human institutions in having, like Melchizedek, existed from eternity, or to imply that, if it has a history, propriety forbids that history to be disinterred, is to run wilfully in blinkers … (An author) … is unlikely, however, to make much of the history of Europe during the last three centuries if, in addition to eschewing the word, he ignores the fact.’

Christopher Hill argues that Russell had a tendency like Kishlansky to say that the civil war occurred due to a series of accidents, which were the consequences of the personal peculiarities of powerful individuals. He still takes too short-sighted a view of the social and economic causes and consequences of the greatest revolution in our history. (4)

Austin Woolrych has a similar position on the Putney debates as Russell he correctly states that, the Putney Debates of 1647 were regarded as a chapter in the history of the Levellers he rejects that Putney was an essentially a battle between contending social forces. With Cromwell representing the Grandees and the Levellers representing the petty trades and artisans.

Woolwich somewhat 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? Is history just a series of unconnected episodes? 

Woolrych’s books are worth reading not so much for his analysis but for the tremendous use of empirical material. In fact it would be correct to say that a number of revisionist historians who have at least attempted to address the Levellers have done so with a disdain for the theoretical nature of a lot of Leveller writings.

In one passage, Woolrych again tries to separate the debate at Putney from the general discussion within the army and outside it. ‘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’.

While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground, even a cursory look at who was at Putney would give a much clearer picture as to the significance of these individuals. Wooldrych mentions Edward Sexby, who at the time was a colonel in the New Model Army. Sexby who came up through the ranks and began life from a lowly position. Sexby spoke not for himself but for the rank and file soldiers who he said were as poor as him and had risked their lives for their ‘birthright and privileges as Englishmen’ only to be told by Ireton that unless they had a fixed estate they had no birth right, he then vented his frustration ‘we sought to satisfy all men, and its was well’ but in going (about) to doe it we have dissatisfied all men. Wee have laboured to please a Kinge, and I think and I think, except we goe about to cutt all out throats, we shall nott please him, and we have gone to support and housewh. Will prove roten studs, I meane the parliament which consists of a company of rotten members’.

Even Woolrych is forced to describe incidents where ‘open incitements to mutiny were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had ordered Colonel Robert Lillburne's foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons, but a party of new agent bearing copies of The Case of the Armies 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 wound up’.

The first thing I would like to say about John Morrill is that he is a generous historian who is willing to pass comment and give his time to other historians. He as can be seen above was perhaps the first historian to notice that the new revisionist historiography sought not only to attack Marxist writings but also Whig interpretations of the civil war. Morrill’s attempt to replace Marxist historiography as the dominant force in civil war studies was to reject social, economic explanations and to resort to ‘local studies’. As Kevin Sharpe explained “the key to English political thought was not theory but circumstance, practical politics rather than philosophy. Morrill downplayed the use of “larger economic explanations” as “less important as family and upbringing

What was the place of the Levellers in the English revolution? The Levellers appeared to take on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. They were the radical wing of the Independent coalition and were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. As an aside William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets found in his collection was over eighty Leveller pamphlets. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had significant support in the army.

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 a 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 layers, which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

Some historians such as Alan G. Smith have a mistakenly put forward suggestions that the Levellers were proponents of’ social revolution’. Certainly, in recent studies communist ideas have been attributable to them by the very same people who have tended to exaggerate the revolutionary potential of the Levellers. As we will see later, this was not just attributable to later day historians but by the some participants of the civil war themselves.

The Levellers themselves were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. 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, this stemmed from their religion 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.

The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. 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. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be founded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English civil war, who controlled the army controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war is granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

At the Army Council debate at Putney held in the October/November of1647 came the Levellers opportunity. The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in Parliament and Henry Ireton, 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 ‘free born Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says, “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider, than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. However, 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 a majority 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 position in parliament. Again, Hill explains, “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, 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 person in whom all lands lies and that 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 Rainborowe and undermined his argument.

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 were 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) All Historians are Revisionists by John Fea

(2) Professor John Morrill interview transcript at Selwyn College, 26 March 2008

(3) An Army So Provoked Popular Print and the Language of Radicalisation in the New Model Army Jason Eldred University of Virginia

(4) The bashed-up revolution: Christopher Hill responds to last week's article by Conrad Russell marking the 350th anniversary of the start of the English Civil War Thursday, 27 August 1992 .

(5) Radicalism and Revisionism in the English Revolution Geoff Kennedy 2007 Verso


Holstun Jim Ehud’s Dagger Class struggle in the English revolution Verso 2000

Morrill John The Revolt of the Provinces

Russell Conrad The Crisis of Parliaments 1603-1660 (1971)

Russell Conrad The Causes of the English Civil War (1990)

Russell Conrad The fall of the British Monarchies.

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