[John Lilburne]
"Free-born John"

The English Revolution, 1647-1649


1. The aftermath of the First Civil War, 1646-47.

The Scots believed that the captured Charles I would agree to the introduction of Presbyterian government in the Church of England. Charles believed that he could play off the Scots against the English, and the various English factions against one another. Both sides were mistaken.
The English did want the Scots army to return home, and when Charles would not agree to a peace treaty, they simply paid off the Scots. The Scots handed over Charles and withdrew from England, 30 January 1647.
Charles was taken as Parliament's prisoner to Holmby House in Northamptonshire, where he continued to plot for a restoration of his power.
The English Civil War accelerated social change.
Social distinctions were brushed aside in pursuit of military efficiency.
Men who had never been outside their own parish before the war, were marched around the whole country.
The Self-Denying Ordinance struck at the heart of the aristocracy's monopoly of military command.
The process of social change was accelerated by ideological ferment.
The system of Church Discipline that had enforced social conformity and religious orthodoxy ceased to function in much of the country. Furthermore, the collapse of censorship and an explosion of cheap pamphlets led to opinions of all sorts being voiced publicly.

2. Presbyterians and Independents.

Even before the English Civil War started there were differences of opinion amongst the Parliamentarians. The collapse of the Laudian regime raised the question of how the Church of England should be governed.
The Westminster Assembly was convened to solve this problem. The Scots, many clergymen and some gentlemen wanted to replace episcopacy with Presbyterianism. This would have preserved a compulsory national church firmly under the control of the social elite:  simply replacing bishops with synods.
Amongst advocates of a National Church, there was friction between the Scots who (supported by many English ministers) wanted a clericalist settlement, and much of the gentry who wanted the lay elite to control the Church through Parliament and the secular Courts. The advocates of lay control were known as Erastians [named for Thomas Erastus (1524-83), an early Swiss opponent of Presbyterian clericalism]. The main Erastians in the Westminster Assembly were John Selden, John Lightfoot, Thomas Coleman, and Bulstrode Whitelocke.
English politicians, such as William Prynne and Denzil Holles showed Erastian tendencies that outraged the Scots, but shared with Presbyterians a belief in the enforcement of religious uniformity through a hierarchical state church.

The Independents rejected the idea of a national church: they believed that Christians should associate voluntarily in autonomous congregations. The state should provide religious education and curb open idolatry and blasphemy, but leave discipline and worship to the godly themselves.
Independent ministers formed only a small minority in the Westminster Assembly, but were able to delay proceedings because many moderate Presbyterian ministers wanted to proceed by consensus. In addition, the Independents had powerful supporters in Parliament, including Lord Saye and Sele, his son Nathaniel Fiennes, and Oliver Cromwell.
The Independents and the Erastians differed on some points, but in practice they worked together to obstruct the creation of a rigid Presbyterian government in the Church of England.
During the 1640s, the number of Baptists (often still called Anabaptists by their opponents) grew. There were two separate groups: the General Baptists, who believed in free will and traced their beliefs back to Mennonites; and the Particular Baptists, who were orthodox Calvinists in doctrine, but believed in adult baptism and held the same views as Independents on church government.


Another sect grew in importance only during the 1650s - this was the Quakers, whose founder was George Fox (1624-91).  Quakers refused to doff their hats to their social superiors; they used the familiar "thou" instead of the respectful "you" to gentlemen; they allowed - indeed encouraged - ordinary laymen and even women to preach.
Still more than other sects, the socially radical implications of Quaker doctrine strained the willingness of the elite to permit religious toleration.
After the death of John Pym and the collapse of the "middle group", Parliamentary politics came to be seen as a struggle between Presbyterians and Independents.
Because the Scots were the enemies of social and religious radicalism, the Members of Parliament who were willing to settle with the King in order to prevent further disorder became known as Presbyterians (even when they had no particular religious affinity). The trade and commerce of London had been severely disrupted by the war, so it became a stronghold of parliamentary Presbyterians.
Those who wanted to defeat Charles I entirely and curb the crown to prevent any future royal absolutism became known as Independents.
The political Independents were strong in the New Model Army, where Cromwell had promoted religious radicals on the basis of military efficiency and dedication - without regard to religious orthodoxy. Some political Independents were also religious Independents - Oliver Cromwell was one such. But others were not: Sir Henry Marten (1602-80), for example, attacked both King and Presbyterians vigorously but was also notorious for his loose morals.
The New Model Army was hated by the religious Presbyterians as a nest of heresy, and by the parliamentary Presbyterians for the enormous expense of its upkeep and for its parvenu officers.

3. The Levellers.

The Leveller movement began amongst London apprentices and artisans in about 1645, but it only became really important when Leveller ideas spread in the New Model Army.

The Levellers also attempted to spread their ideas amongst the people at large through a series of pamphlets.

"For it is the known, established, declared and unrepealed law that tells all the freemen of England that the knights and burgesses chosen according to law and sent to make up the parliament, are those that all the commons of England (who send and choose them) are to obey."
John Lilburne (1614-57) was a clothmaker's apprentice in the 1630s, but he soon became involved in radical opposition to the Bishops. He was imprisoned from 1638 to 1640.
Lilburne fought for Parliament, but refused to subscribe to the Solemn League and Covenant and its endorsement of religious uniformity.
Lilburne left the New Model Army in 1645. He attacked the powers of the House of Lords, and abandoned his early support of Oliver Cromwell.
In and out of prison, he was popular with the people and a thorn in the government's side. Late in life, he became a Quaker.
"For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety — as it were writ in the table of every man's heart, never to be obliterated — even so are we to live, everyone equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege; even all whereof God by nature has made him free." Richard Overton (fl. 1642-63) agreed with Lilburne on political questions but was more radical in his religious beliefs. In a pamphlet entitled Man's mortality (1643), he rejected the notion of an immaterial soul, arguing that the Scripture only gave grounds for belief in the resurrection of the body. This view was seen at the time as virtually the equivalent of atheism.
Like Lilburne, he was imprisoned: - Once for his tracts against the Westminster Assembly under the pseudonym of "Martin Marpriest" - a direct reference to the Martin Marprelate tracts. - Later he was arrested for his help with Lilburne's tract, England's New Chains Discovered (1649), an impassioned plea for freedom of speech.
In 1655, he fled to Flanders with Edward Sexby, where he conspired with Charles II to overthrow Cromwell's regime.
"That no man for preaching or publishing his opinion in religion in a peaceable way, may be punished as heretical, by judges that are not infallible, lest upon pretence of suppressing errors, sects, or schisms, the most necessary truths, and sincere professors thereof, may be suppressed, as upon the like pretence it hath been in all ages." William Walwyn (1600-81) was the younger son of a noble family, who became a prosperous silk merchant.
His political views were close to those of other Levellers, although he laid less stress on Magna Carta and more on inalienable natural rights than did Lilburne.
Walwyn's overriding concern was with religious freedom. He himself held Arminian views, but he came to the defense of Calvinists, insisting that persuasion was the only proper method of religious conversion.
Walwyn was imprisoned with other Leveller leaders in 1649, although unlike them he played no part in encouraging mutiny against Cromwell and the other army Grandees.
"That in all laws made or to be made, every person may be bound alike; and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.
That as the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good and not evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people."
John Wildman (1621-93) played an important part in the army disturbances of 1647 and was imprisoned in 1648.
His career of political radicalism continued long beyond the English Civil War. He was imprisoned from 1661 to 1667 for plotting against Charles II. Soon after his release, he conspired with Algernon Sidney against the succession to the throne of the Catholic James II.
Wildman finally found a government he approved in the reign of William and Mary, became postmaster general and was knighted.
"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under;…" Thomas Rainborough (d.1648) was one of the leaders of the Leveller soldiers in 1647, and he opposed all attempts at compromise with Charles I. Yet as vice-admiral in 1648, his imperious conduct helped provoke his squadron into declaring for the King.
In May 1648, while besieging Pontefract Castle, he was surprised by cavaliers and killed.
"I do think the poor and meaner of this kingdom — I speak as in relation to the condition of soldiers, in which we are — have been the means of the preservation of this kingdom … And now they demand the birthright for which they fought. Those that act to this end are as free from anarchy or confusion as those that oppose it, and they have the Law of God and the law of their conscience with them." Edward Sexby (1616-1658) served in Cromwell's regiment of horse from 1643.
He helped lead the Leveller soldiers in 1647, but remained in Cromwell's confidence and was made governor of Portland. He fought for Cromwell in Scotland and was sent as an agent provocateur to France in 1652-53.
He grew disillusioned with Cromwell's government and in 1657 wrote Killing No Murder, an endorsement of tyrannicide. He came to England - apparently intending to act on his principles - but was arrested and died in the Tower, 13 January 1658.
 The Levellers were accused of wishing to institute communal ownership of property and level all ranks and estates - this was the origin of their name. In fact, the Levellers were not communists and it is not even clear that they wanted to extend the vote to landless laborers.
However, the Levellers did wish to undermine the monopoly of political power held by the nobility and the gentry, and this certainly would have had significant social and economic effects.

All the Leveller theorists' shared certain basic principles:


I. Sovereignty of the people.

Many Parliamentarian theorists argued that Parliament was sovereign. The Levellers insisted that Parliament was accountable to the people as a whole. Hence the title of a 1647 pamphlet An Appeale from the degenerate representative body the Commons of England...to the body represented, the free people in general.
The Levellers advocated regular parliaments, stripping King and House of Lords of their veto powers, and widening the franchise to financially-independent adult men. This would have excluded from voting household servants and those dependent on charitable handouts: there was no secret ballot, and the Levellers feared that poor, dependent men would simply vote as their masters' wished. It would also have excluded women; most adult women married, and wives were legally and financially dependent on their husbands. (Only Royalist theorists - mocking democratic ideas - argued that democracy meant that women too should vote).
The Army Grandees - Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton - agreed with the Levellers that the franchise should be more representative than it was. In particular, that populous areas should have more representatives. But they thought that only men with a permanent stake in the country - land or trading capital - could be trusted to vote responsibly.


II. Individual natural rights

The Levellers often appealed to Common Law and to Magna Carta to sustain their claims to the "birthrights" of "freeborn Englishmen". However, they were more willing than conventional common lawyers to admit that English law was defective and corrupt.
Overton called Magna Carta "a beggarly thing" and many Levellers complained of a "Norman Yoke" imposed on the free English people by the Norman conquerors of 1066.

Leveller theorists ultimately relied on a theory of inalienable natural rights. They argued that regardless of human law, every individual possessed certain fundamental rights including
religious freedom
freedom from arrest without cause
due process of law
no taxation or legislation except by the consent of the governed
Many Leveller theorists wanted these rights formally framed in a written constitution.


4. The Army in politics.

Carisbrooke Castle

The political Presbyterian majority in the House of Commons, fearful of New Model Army radicalism and tired of its huge cost, decided after the defeat of Charles I to disband the army. They wanted to do so without paying soldiers their arrears of pay, and without granting them indemnity for any offences committed while under arms. Parliament even decided to send some regiments - who had been raised to serve in the Civil War - to Ireland to suppress the Catholic rebels.
In addition, Parliament agreed to Charles I's proposal that a Presbyterian system of church government be introduced provisionally for a three year trial.
These decisions angered the New Model Army. The rank and file soldiers appointed "agitators" to discuss their grievances with the officers, many of whom were sympathetic to their cause.
3 June 1647, Cornet George Joyce took a detachment of cavalry to Holmby House and seized control of Charles.
Parliament in response began raising new troops in London - excluding anyone with Independent sympathies.
The New Model Army published a declaration denouncing Denzil Holles and the leaders of the Presbyterian faction in Parliament.
22 July 1647, a group of London apprentices responded by invading the House of Commons, threatening Independent MPs.
By 30 July 1647, fifty-eight Members had fled to the Army (including the Speaker, William Lenthall), as had Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester (who was Speaker of the House of Lords) along with eight other peers.
7 August 1647, the New Model Army marched into London and reinstalled the Independent MPs.
The Army was now in effective control of the country and issued The Heads of the Proposals as an outline of a constitutional settlement. The Levellers' plan, An Agreement of the People, was more radical. Representatives of both viewpoints tried to arrive at a joint scheme during The Putney Debates (October to November 1647).
Some New Model Army soldiers wanted Charles I put on trial and punished for causing the Civil War. When Charles heard of this, he fled to the Isle of Wight, 11 November 1647. Although confined in Carisbrooke Castle, Charles reached a secret agreement with the Scots to invade England. The Scots' reward was to be the institution of Presbyterianism and the suppression of heresy; Charles would be restored to his throne.
Believing that the Scottish alliance rendered any compromise unnecessary, Charles rejected Parliament's suggestions for a peace settlement so completely, that it passed the Vote of No Addresses, 17 January 1648.


 5. The Second Civil War.

John Lambert (1619-83)

Late frosts and heavy rains during the Spring and Summer of 1647 had resulted in poor harvests. This combined with heavy taxation meant widespread economic hardship during the winter of 1647-8. By April 1648, wheat prices were very high.
Ordinary people's discontent was exacerbated by the Puritan regime's attempts to suppress Christmas celebrations as "superstitious".

To conclude, I'll tell you news that's right, Christmas was killed at Naseby fight:
Charity was slain at that same time, Jack Tell-truth too, a friend of mine,
Likewise then did die, roast beef and shred pie,
Pig, Goose and Capon no quarter found.
Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turned upside down.

Ballad, 1646.


In the first few months of 1648, areas of South-East England that had always stood loyally with parliament began to exhibit increasing discontent at the costs of maintaining the army.
In May 1648, the navy mutinied and ten warships deserted to Charles, Prince of Wales (Charles I's eldest son).
In Wales, May 1648, Colonel Poyer led a revolt of Royalists and disillusioned Parliamentarians. Cromwell commanded the army sent against them and besieged their stronghold of Pembroke Castle.
In Kent, 10,000 men revolted, and assembled to march on London. A smaller force also rebelled in Essex.
June 1648, Sir Thomas Fairfax defeated the Kentish Royalists and marched on Colchester to besiege the Essex Royalists.
July 1648, the Scots invaded England. They were delayed by Major-General John Lambert until Cromwell, having forced the Welsh rebels to surrender, could march northwards.
The Scots army was badly organised and had left its best troops in Scotland. 17-19 August 1648, Cromwell comprehensively defeated the Scots at the Battle of Preston.
A few days later, Fairfax took Colchester, and the Second Civil War was over.
Many members of Parliament still tried for a negotiated settlement. The Treaty of Newport (September 1648) was the result of their discussions, but Cromwell and Ireton had now lost all trust in Charles. Cromwell decided that the New Model Army should take direct control of the country.

6. Pride's Purge

5 December 1648, the House of Commons decided to continue negotiating with Charles.
6 December 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride and a troop of soldiers prevented Presbyterian MPs from sitting in Parliament. 45 were temporarily imprisoned. (Cromwell only returned from the North after the event, although there is little doubt that Henry Ireton had planned the coup with him).
The House of Commons was know after Pride's Purge as The Rump. The Purge reduced the number of MPs from about 240, to about 50.
(In the weeks after Pride's Purge, the House of Lords' attendance was three and four, reaching a high point of eight peers on 28 December).
The remaining MPs decided to stop talking with Charles and bring him to trial.
1 January 1649, the House of Commons proposed the establishment of a High Court of Justice to try Charles I. When the House of Lords refused to approve the measure, the House of Commons decided that the Lords was unnecessary, as the Commons alone represented the sovereign people. It was abolished 6 January 1649, (despite Cromwell's objections).
6 January 1649, the Commons appointed the High Court of Justice.
19 January 1649, Charles was brought to Westminster for his trial.
135 men had been appointed to try Charles, but only 67 put in an appearance. (Sir Thomas Fairfax was amongst the absentees).

Charles refused to recognize the Court's jurisdiction. It found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death.


There was a certain oddity in finding Charles guilty of treason, since the Statue in force at the time (The Treason Act, 1351) defined as treason:

" …when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the King, …or if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King's enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere …"

Parliament, of course, had spent the last few years levying war against the King, and was trying him for treason in order to compass his death.


Those who signed the death warrant became known as The Regicides.
Charles I was executed 30 January 1649.


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