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 mostly taken the form of an attack on any kind of Marxist interpretation of historical events.

It is not within 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 the 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 ‘ 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 emphasize 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 complicated relationship between the Levellers and other political and religious groups and individuals 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 on 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 some extent this is correct. The Levellers and their leader did react to casual 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 previously 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 actually 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 military’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 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 great proof of Leveller influence on the Grandees of the army and the contacts between the ‘civilian’ Levellers and the military 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 some 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 primarily 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 class so enamored 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 compound and exciting 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 compound 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 a significant 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.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Baal's Priests: The Loyalist Clergy and the English Revolution by Fiona McCall ISBN: 9781409455776 317pp

The title or subtitle of a book is usually a given it says what is on the tin. However, McCall’s book while being adamant and exciting on the matter of the Loyalist clergy has next to nothing to say on the English revolution.

In this circumstance, it is unclear to me whether the author chooses the title or as I suspect the editor or publishers did.

The author has quite deliberately steered away from a political interpretation in her work and has not followed the standard practice of drawing upon an archive to “support particular points” The John Walker collection of manuscripts is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. McCall’s book is probably the first full study of this group.

 It is hard to believe that this excellent collection of oral histories has not been mined before. It is to McCall’s credit that she was prepared to spend a long time studying this archive. Her book looks to be a labor of love.

The under use of the Walker archive by historians is a little mysterious as it appears to contain a goldmine of material. However, this stuff comes at a price in so much some of it might seem to be fool’s gold.

Drawing political conclusions from a relatively unreliable source such as an archive based on oral transcripts is a challenging and complicated thing to do. Which is probably why McCall has not done so.

Does this detract from her book for me it does? Having said that I am not opposed to the genre that is oral history. I spent two years in an oral history archive, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience, but it does have its limits.

To her credit, McCall appears to have avoided a significant number of the pratfalls of such research. Hopefully, McCall’s book will provoke an interest in the archive.

The Walker file began life when in 1702 following the publication of Edmund Calamy’s work which cataloged some ministers who were driven from their livings during the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

 John Walker was given ‘over a thousand letters’ along with contemporary letters and legal documents dating back to the 1640s and the 1650s, They catalog a trail of misery for large numbers of clergy who supported the royalist cause in one form or another.

The strength of the book is the detailed description of the various maltreatments of Loyalist clergy at the hands of the Cromwellian regime. For any student wishing to study the impact, the civil war had on significant sections of the population this book would be a good start.

The vast majority of the accounts are incredibly detailed and were “written by correspondents who were either members of the sufferer's family or their clerical successor in the incumbency where they suffered. Clergymen were often imprisoned.”

The Walker Archive

John Walker was born in 1674 in Exeter. According to R. Freeman Bullen, “the “Sufferings of the Clergy" is really two distinct works. The first part treats of ecclesiastical affairs under Puritan rule part two deals with the persecution suffered by individual clergy; it is this moiety which will mainly interest the local historian. Walker had been engaged upon his work for about ten years when it was finally published in 1714. This means that from 60 to 70 years had elapsed since the period of the sequestrations and that to a very great extent Walker was dependent upon existing documents, plus tradition, for his data. His notes and correspondence still exist in the Bodleian Library, and from these, we may gather some ideas of his method.[1]

“Walker conducted his research using printed and manuscript sources available to him. He also directly solicited information, via a circular sent to archdeacons to disseminate amongst parish clergy.  He received over a thousand letters in response. After his individual death accounts were deposited, along with his other papers, as the J. Walker archive in the Bodleian Library”.
In many ways, McCall faced the same problems encountered by Walker. Both historians had to interpret the material as best they could. Both questioned how accurate and truthful the records were.

Despite some reservations, McCall is happy to treat the Walker manuscripts as a generally reliable archive of materials. In McCall’s book, you get glimpses of class relations and even class antagonisms between loyalist clergy and their tormentors. Some of these battles were personal others followed the battle lines drawn in the revolution itself. Perhaps one of the strongest attributes of the book is its opposition to some historians attempts to “consign Civil War experiences to oblivion.”

As James Mawdesley from the University of Sheffield points out in his review of the book   ““None of this is to suggest that these clergymen only accepted their lot as poor sufferers for their king. Jonathan Swift, the grandson of Thomas Swift, the vicar of Goodrich in Herefordshire, claimed that his grandfather’s setting of a trap in a river resulted in the deaths of 200 of the enemy (p. 107), and McCall has calculated that no fewer than 150 of the Walker accounts include acts of aggression by the ‘sufferer’ (p. 201).

It will take a more polemical historian or historians to fully counter this downplaying of the social effects of the English Civil War so loved by revisionist historians who still consider it a relatively mild conflict, a ‘war without an enemy.'

McCall’s book establishes that the attacks on loyalist clergy were sanctioned by the highest authorities with Parliament operating as a rubber stamp. While McCall treads carefully in her book to separate the subjective interpretation of walker’s collection from the objective assessment of the material this even for a trained historian is a difficult task for the general reader it is doubly difficult. This book is not therefore for the faint-hearted reader.

I also agree with Maudsley when he says the book would “have benefited from being interwoven with a general account of the civil wars and republic: the execution of Charles I in January 1649 is omitted from McCall’s chronology, and it is not made clear when governance without a monarchy commenced”.

McCall is fascinated with how memory is used to portray historical events. The trauma suffered by the Loyalist clergy and their families and supporters was real clear to see. I would, however, have liked a more balanced approach after all suffering on a large scale appeared on both sides of the barricades

Caution should be observed when viewing the Walker accounts of trauma. Those on the receiving end sought to back up their accounts in order not to be dismissed. Walker was a good enough historian to err on the side of caution himself when recording events and testimonies. There are inconsistencies within the archive and should it not be treated as verbatim.

It is ironic in the least as McCall points out that the clergy who suffered during the civil war and under the Cromwellian regime despite the monarchies return to power the loyalist clergy in many places fared not better than under Cromwell. Charles II was more interested in settling old scores.


As a large number of modern books on the civil war, it is extremely hard to pin down what side of the historian's war McCall comes down on. The title of the book is a little misleading. I am not sure who choose the title, but this is not really a book that explains the plight of the loyalist clergy in class terms. Having said that McCall is at least sympathetic to the historical writing of ‘Marxists’ like Christopher Hill.  McCall comes down most favorably on the side historians Like John Morrill who saw the civil war as the last religious conflict of the 17th century almost a continuation of the Thirty years war.


In Baal’s Priests, Fiona McCall has written an important study which will hopefully provoke an interest in the Walker manuscripts. The book is solidly researched and is written in a style that is both accessible to the academic and general reader. It is hoped that if McCall returns to this subject, she is able to draw some political conclusions from her hard work. It should be seen as an excellent introduction to the subject and not the final word on royalism, or the Walker manuscripts.


[1] Sequestration In Suffolk -R. Freeman Bullen.