Lost Causes: Levellers.

For the final post of our lost causes month we shall be looking at the Levellers, a group of rebels during England’s Civil War 1642-1651, who as a political movement attempted to bring ‘religious toleration, law reform, free trade, an extension to the voting franchise, and rights guaranteed under a written constitution and a government answerable to the People rather than to King or Parliament. As we can see by their ideals and political desires, the Levellers’, were well ahead of their time, and perhaps this is why they can be considered as a lost cause. In my opinion history rarely changes over night and if it does then it’s usually as a result of all the little factors building up and then finally exploding. This doesn’t happen in the case of the Levellers’ instead it could be considered as too much too soon and therefore they can be included in June’s L for lost causes that also begin with L month. However we mustn’t simply assign them to the Lost causes pile as I think that would neglect, another L –word, their Legacy which arguably has had influence on many political thoughts and ideas even today.

What’s in a name?

The name Levellers comes was first used to describe a section of Cromwell’s New Model Army who along with their London supporters wished to kill King Charles I of England. However it was later applied to a group of radicals under the leadership of John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. The name Levellers’ came from the idea that all the members of this faction wanted to bring everyone down to a common level; however it wasn’t originally used by the leaders of the group but it was later adopted by the group as the majority of the people recognised and by the time of their arrest and imprisonment in 1649 the current leaders Walwyn, Overton, Lilburne and Thomas Prince signed a manifesto in which they called themselves Levellers.

Political ideologies’

The Levellers had no set agenda, other than a broad commitment to the general good principles of abolition of corruption, religious toleration, having the Law in the common English that everyone could understand, and finally an extension of the Suffrage franchise. However these ideas changed over time with other ideas becoming more important such as the idea that the English common law and the Magna Carta was the foundation of English rights and liberties. Lastly they also believed in the idea of “natural rights”, where the people have certain right and liberties which they believed to have been violated by the king and his followers during the civil war. However what natural rights actually stood for remains ambiguous, with Thomas Rainsborough defining natural rights as those coming from the Bible, and Richard Overton considered that liberty was a part of everyman’s natural rights Therefore the Levellers cause can be considered as a lost one because what they wanted politically could be suggested as semi utopian ideals which weren’t not unpractical for the time, just a case perhaps of too much too soon.

Background and events

The Levellers began by handing out leaflets about soldier’s rights, along with extensions to the political franchise, as whilst the soldiers were fighting for parliament only a small amount actually could vote for it, and this is continued with the ideas that members of the House of Commons shouldn’t be allowed t serve for more than a year at a time as they were too corrupt. By 165 an official levelled party had been established under John Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, asking for their political desires and the abolition of the monarchy and the house of lords, trial by jury and an end to the tax on people earning less than £30 a year (imagine that having no tax). The Levellers also had their own newspaper The Moderate and organised petitions as a demonstration of their supporters.

The Levellers are perhaps best known for their document An Agreement of the People 1647, a proposal created with the Agitators of the new model army. The document stated that all sovereign power should reside with the people of England instead of the monarchy; members of parliament should be elected in probation to the population of their constituencies; the existing parliament should be dissolved on the 30th of September 1648 and be elected biannual and sit every other year between April and September consisting of a single elected house which would act as the supreme authority within England, although there were limits to its power as it couldn’t interfere with freedom of religion and it couldn’t enforce conscription into the armed forces or prosecute anyone for their part in the civil war. The document was debated at the Putney Debates (October and November 1647) with Cromwell and Ireton trying to limit perceived extremism of the Levellers. A second extended version of the agreement was created after King Charles I’s defeat, by John Lilburne hoping to find a middle way between royal despotism and military dictatorship however they failed to achieve a complete document that could be used as the legal constitution when the king was put on trial in January 1649. A final agreement was created in May 1649 it included the following;
• The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
• No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
• Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
• Equality of all persons before the law
• Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
• No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
• The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
• The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
• Abolition of imprisonment for debt
• Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
• Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
• Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes

This final document was created whilst Liburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince were under arrest by order of the Council of state and just before the army leveller s were suppressed as Burford, and these actions effectively put an end to the somewhat idealistic leveller movement.

The Levellers although considered a radical group politically were perhaps not as radical as they could have been actively as Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax were able to keep control of the Levellers in the army during the second civil war (). However it was in government that they caused the most problems, coming into conflict with the council of state and later growing unrest by the army Levellers over plans for the state invasion of Ireland leading to munities in April and May 1649. Heres were suppressed by Cromwell and Fairfax which lead to a decline of the Levellers influence as a result of no longer having the army to support them.

Although the movement itself was over by the end of 1649, some of the more radical members became involved in conspiracies’ to overthrow the Crowellian regime, which was regarded then as a betrayal of the principles which the civil war was fought over.

Therefore are the Levellers a lost cause, hmm it depends on your view of lost cause. Does lost cause apply to; something that was ahead of its time and therefore it is lost cause because it was never going to achieve much, even though world at that time was in a state of disarray that it could have achieved its goals if it had more support; or is it lost in that its simply forgotten or overlooked as a result of the wider picture of history and finally does the legacy of the Levellers over rule all of this, and leave you as a reader wondering why I covered this in the Lost Causes month.

My own thought is that the Levellers whilst I can see how they can be considered as a lost cause, I don’t think that they are one because, they can be demonstrated the beginnings of a wider perhaps more socialist movement and their political legacy and influence in this case has opened the way, albeit eventually, to greater equality . To conclude I would say the Levellers are a lost cause as in forgotten but not a lost cause overall, but feel free to comment if you agree or disagree all constructive comments are welcome.

Sophie 🙂


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