Posted on 23 October 2019
During the chaos of the English Civil War Period a movement arose named the Levellers seeking radical political change.
The Levellers wanted equality and religious tolerance in a time when these values were seen as those of belonging to rebellious dissenters. They published a pamphlet, Agreement of the People, that spread their ideas like wildfire across the land.
The third and final version of the Agreement of the People was written in 1649 by John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton – whilst they were all prisoners in the Tower of London. Their key demand was power to be vested in the people through:
- One year Parliaments, elected by equal numbers of voters per seat.
- The right to vote for all men
- Recalling of any or all of their MPs by their electors at any time
- Abolition of the House of Lords
- Democratic election of army officers
- Complete religious toleration and the abolition of tithes and tolls
- Justices to be elected; law courts to be local and proceedings to be in plain English
- Redistribution of seized land to the common people
- Freedom to worship without fear
If the Agreement of the People Had Become Law
The rights of the people to recall and replace their parliamentary candidates, because of the inalienable sovereignty of the people, would have been upheld.
There would have been demand for far greater public accountability by all those who in power/who exercised control over civil, political and religious rights. This was to be governed by democratic control.
The Levellers would have warned against looking for deliverance to any elite group, whatever its origins, who might claim some special ability to carry through reforms by proxy, free from the discipline of recall or re-election.
In essence, no political party can undermine the will of the people. This would go in hand with a call for an elected judiciary and an end to both elitism and elitist terminology with regard to the law, which would be equally accessed by all.
The Agreement of the People would have supported both free speech and ‘freeborn rights’ as a common cause. It would have sided with those who fight for human rights against tyrants and dictators.
Fall and Legacy
Despite their support among the people at the time, the Levellers never lasted long enough to directly see their aims implemented. Many Levellers had been soldiers on the side of Parliment in Cromwell’s New Model Army.
Cromwell had promised them he would implement many of their reforms. However, by the time Cromwell rose to power he saw the Levellers as simple trouble makers and betrayed the movement. He executed three Levellers who were in his New Model Army for mutiny at Burford, Oxfordshire on 17 May 1649.
These executions suppressed support for the Levellers within the New Model Army. Across the country, Levellers had met in taverns and inns, but now as the English Civil War Period was ending these loosely gathered meetings were no longer attended by the common soldier.
With numbers dwindling, the Levellers found themselves lacking both organisation and the direction of coherent leadership. Two further Leveller soldiers were executed and by the time the war was over, the movement had all but died out.
Although some have confined the Levellers to history, The Smudgy Guide argues the Levellers cause is an ongoing ‘work in progress’. After their demise, many of the Levellers demands have been realised over the years.
This period of ‘levelling’ English history has left a wealth of radical ideas. The Levellers posed a serious threat to the ruling class – their direct appeals to both the poor and dispossessed resonate throughout the centuries.
Whilst the language and mode of expression may have changed, the essential demands of these dissenting voices remain as vibrant and necessary today as they were when they were first agitated.
Since 1975, Levellers Day has been held every year in Burford, the place of the three Leveller executions. It is a day of remembrance for what is arguably England’s, if not the world’s, first socialist political party.
“There had never been anything like such a spontaneous outbreak of democracy in any English or Continental Army before this year of 1647, nor was there anything like it thereafter till Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils met in 1917 in Russia.”
H.N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution
Image from portside.org