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

Rachel Foxley's excellent book is part of a growing recent interest in the Levellers. Most of which seeks to place the Levellers rightful place in the English revolution. Given the assault on the Levellers from revisionist historiography, it is not surprising as John Rees points out in his review for the IHR (Institute of Historical Research) that this book is "the first full-length study of the Levellers for fifty years since H. N.Brailsford's The Levellers and the English Revolution was published in 1961".[1]

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 connection between a rightward shift in academic circles and the type of history being studied and written about today.

The book takes full account of recent scholarship. It contributes to historical debates on the development of radical and republican politics in the civil war period, the nature of tolerations thought, the significance of the Leveller movement and the extent of the Levellers' influence in the ranks of the New Model Army. The importance of the Levellers has been a contentious issue amongst historians for over fifty years. During this time a historian's dispute or Historikerstreith[2] has existed. 

The battle lines may be a little blurred at times but have characterised this dispute the most has been the full-frontal attack on a Marxist interpretation of historical events.

It is not within the scope of this review to examine the revisionist revolt whose origins can be traced 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. A by-product of these attacks has been to downplay the Levellers role in the English Revolution.

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).

Foxley is not immune to these attacks as the arch Leveller revisionist Gary de Krey picks up in his review "Foxley's presentation of Leveller ideas is fresh and provocative, and it will undoubtedly draw rejoinders and responses. She does occasionally make assertions about historical questions that she has not fully pursued. Her discussion of the exchange between New Model soldiers and the Leveller authors in 1647–8, for instance, leads her into a lesswellinvestigated proposal for 'cautious dialogue' (p. 154) between the generals and the Levellers. Here, her argument insufficiently tackles the depth of suspicion that developed on both sides by late September 1647. She also treats the Levellers as a 'movement' (in preference to the prerevisionist 'party') that began as early as mid-1645. But any treatment of the Levellers as a movement from 1645 forwards, albeit one without neat 'contours' (p. 5), structures Leveller history in particular ways. It inevitably transposes the name and substance of the urban Levellers of 1647–9 upon prePutney London petitioners, pamphleteers and protestors. But can these earlier political phenomena really be termed 'Leveller'? That label emerged only around the beginning of November 1647; and in 1645–7, Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn enjoyed a variety of political contacts within a broader Independent coalition that contended with the parliamentary Presbyterians. Exactly when a distinct Leveller faction broke away from the Independent alliance is, in fact, a critical unresolved question. It bears heavily upon the political selfunderstandings of these authors as well as upon the political identities of those who read and responded positively to them. Yet, dividing developing authorships into preLeveller and Leveller phases could be equally problematic in a study of this nature".[3]

It is open to question how much Foxley has adapted to this revisionist assault. One criticism of the book is her concentration on Leveller political theory. In other words, there is many superstructures but very little base. 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. A view would not look out of place amongst other post 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). It would appear that Foxley has not fully worked out her position regarding the class and political nature of the Levellers.

One has sympathy for anyone who attempts a new evaluation of the Levellers. Although describing another historical period, Hegel's perceptive remarks can be applied here it "not hard to see that our time is a time of birth and transition into a new era. Spirit has broken away from its former world of existence and imaging; it is about to sink all that into the past, and is busy shaping itself anew."[4]

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 that need 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 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 context of the revolution. Given the complexity of this work, it is entirely correct to say that Foxley's work on the Levellers is far from over.

Foxley 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 leaders did react to events as John Rees put it they did it "in the midst of a political crisis not in the seminar room,"[5]. While this was true, they did not spend all their time making up as they went along as Ann Talbot points out the Levellers were the "ideologists of the revolution, and they ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedents for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing".[6]

The Levellers were part of a broader and international movement that sought in a limited way to move away from a purely 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 underway. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment".[7] In much of their political thinking, the Levellers were the forerunners not only of the 18th century Enlightenment but of the socialist movement.

The book highlights several significant moments of the revolution that involved the Levellers which show that the Levellers attracted a large audience than had previously thought.

Citing the July 1646 publication of the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens Foxley believes it  'was the first Leveller text to claim a mass following, a significant moment in the genesis of the group.'(p. 36).
John Rees claims that their work was carried out on a considerable scale saying "In January 1648 it was claimed that 30,000 copies of a Leveller petition were being printed for widespread distribution.28 The same year opponents of the Levellers were complaining of Leveller plans to print 3,000 copies of a petition.29 The Remonstrance of Many Thousands of the Free-People of England…and those called Levelers claimed this 'is already signed by 98064 hands, and more to be added daily'. Lilburne claimed that two publications in 1649, the Manifestation and The Agreement of the People of 1 May, had a print run of 20,000 which were sent 'gratis all over England'. In March 1649 The Humble Petition of Divers wel-affected Women, a plea to free Lilburne, Walwyn, Prince and Overton from their imprisonment in the Tower collected 10,000 names using women ward organisers. In May 1649 Leveller-supporting apprentices in the Cripplegate Without ward were using the same method."[8]

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.'[9]

For me, the best or most important 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 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.

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 then it is the Levellers influence inside the New Model Army. As John points out 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."[10]

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 sense of its honour, its legitimate demands as an army, and its own experience in war and peace."

Rachel Foxley
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 significant proof of Leveller influence on the Grandees of the army and establishes contact 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).

But still, the political and historical blindness of some revisionist historians towards the Levellers exists with some contending 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 a 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 ". [11]

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 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 enamoured of compromise (with its' betters,' of course) as the British bourgeoisie". [12]

One of the compound and exciting chapters in the book is The Laws of England and the free-born Englishman.  One major criticism of Foxley's work is her little use of Soviet historians works 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."[13]

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 read by all history students. Foxley's book is a significant contribution in placing  Levellers in their proper revolutionary context. Hopefully, when the book is published in paperback, a reasonable price would mean it is getting the wider readership it deserves.

[4] Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit- G. W. F. Hegel-
[6] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill
By Ann Talbot-25 March 2003-
[7] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North  24 October 1996
[8] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution-John Rees
Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2014.
[9] The Levellers: Radical political thought in the English Revolution-By Rachel Foxley
[11] John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)
[12] Cliff Slaughter Religion and Social Revolt from Labour Review, Vol.3 No.3, May-June 1958, pp.77-82.
[13] Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

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

This book examines the experiences of the expropriated loyalist clergy during the highpoint of the English Revolution. It offers new insight into the practices and of this significant group.

The first thing that strikes you about McCall's book is a heavy concentration on the Loyalist clergy. She, unfortunately, has little to say about 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. Baal's Priest steers clear on any political controversy surrounding the resurgence of studies of Royalist involvement of the English revolution.

The book is groundbreaking in other aspects with it being the first major study that uses the John Walker collection of manuscripts held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.  It is hard to believe that this excellent collection of oral histories has not been mined before. You have to admire her adherence to the historian's craft. She must have spent a long time in that archive. The underuse of the Walker archive by historians is a little mysterious as it appears to contain a goldmine of material. 

However, caution is needed in that this source should be approached with extreme caution.  Drawing political conclusions from a relatively unreliable source such as an archive based on oral transcripts is a challenging and complicated thing to do. A thing that Mcall has largely avoided. Some might say this detracts from her book. Oral testimonies are a valuable source of material but can take a historian only so far. As the great old Karl Marx said Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language."[1] Hopefully, McCall's book will provoke an interest in the archive.

The Walker collection began life in 1702 following the publication of Edmund Calamy's work which catalogued 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 catalogue a trail of misery for large numbers of clergy who supported the royalist cause in one form or another. The strength of this book is the detailed description of the various maltreatments of Loyalist clergy at the hands of the Cromwellian regime. For any student or a general reader 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 people who were members of the sufferer's family or their Clergymen. These  Clergymen were often imprisoned.

The Walker Archive

According to R. Freeman Bullen, "the "Sufferings of the Clergy" is two distinct works. The first part treats ecclesiastical affairs under Puritan rule part two deals with the persecution suffered by individual clergy; it is this moiety that will mainly interest the local historian. Walker had been engaged in 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. 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 death accounts were deposited, along with his other papers, as the J. Walker archive in the Bodleian Library".[2]

In many ways, McCall faced the same problems encountered by Walker. Both 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. 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. Despite McCall's aversion to politics, she does offer the reader 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)."[3]

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.

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 really 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. 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 with a large number of modern books on the civil war, it is extremely hard to fathom McCall's historiography. She does not favour the view of an English revolution. McCall is sympathetic to the historical writing of 'Marxists' like Christopher Hill, but her historiography has more connection to historians Like John Morrill who saw the civil war as the last religious conflict of the 17th century and continuation of the Thirty years war.

To conclude, any reader looking for an attack on revisionist historians downplaying the social effects of the English Civil War will be disappointed for them this relatively mild conflict and a 'war without an enemy.' In Baal's Priests, Fiona McCall has written an important study that 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] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852
[2] Sequestration In Suffolk -R. Freeman Bullen.