Edward Sexby, c.1616-58
Agitator and Leveller who turned violently against the Protectorate and conspired to assassinate Oliver Cromwell.
Probably born in Suffolk, Edward Sexby served as a trooper in Oliver Cromwell's regiment of Ironsides during the English Civil War. He remained with the regiment when it was transferred to General Fairfax's command on the formation of the New Model Army in 1645.
By 1646, Sexby was a follower of the Leveller leader John Lilburne. He visited Lilburne during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and helped to get his pamphlets printed and circulated. Sexby played a leading role in spreading Lilburne's Leveller doctrines in the Army and in setting up the Council of Agitators to petition for soldiers' rights. He was one of the three Agitators who presented the soldiers' grievances to the House of Commons in April 1647 and was a member of the army delegation sent by Fairfax to lay charges against the Presbyterian Eleven Members in July. Sexby was the chief spokesman for the Leveller faction at the Putney Debates (October-November 1647), where he denounced the monarchy, fearlessly berated Cromwell and Ireton for their dealings with the King, and argued the case for democratic rights for all men.
After the Second Civil War, Sexby quarrelled with Lilburne and the Levellers over their opposition to the trial and execution of King Charles, which they regarded as illegal. Sexby became an active supporter of the republican Commonwealth. In 1649, he was promoted to captain and appointed governor of Portland Castle. In June 1650, he was commissioned colonel of an infantry regiment raised for service in Ireland but subsequently sent to Scotland. Sexby's promotion was due to the influence of Oliver Cromwell, who hoped to reconcile and unite all factions for the defence of the Commonwealth. Sexby's regiment served under General Monck at the siege of Tantallon Castle in the spring of 1651. However, his career as a Grandee came to an abrupt end in June 1651 when he was court-martialled and cashiered for a number of irregularities, including the unjust execution of a soldier and the withholding of pay from troops under his command.
In the autumn of 1651, Sexby was employed as the Commonwealth's agent in France, where he tried to negotiate an alliance with the Frondeurs. However, Sexby found that the Fronde rebellion had deteriorated into factional fighting between French noblemen with no interest in proclaiming a republic. He encouraged the Frondeurs to adopt an adapted version of the Agreement of the People, but the authorities at Bordeaux ordered his arrest. Sexby narrowly escaped by climbing over the town wall at night.
Sexby violently opposed Cromwell's elevation to the office of Lord Protector in 1653, which he regarded as a betrayal of the principles for which the civil wars had been fought. In association with John Wildman and other disaffected radicals, he began actively plotting against the Protectorate. Pursued by government agents, he travelled all over southern England distributing pamphlets denouncing Cromwell. He attempted to form alliances between all parties that were hostile to the Protectorate: Royalists, republicans of the old Commonwealth, disillusioned Levellers and Presbyterians. After almost being arrested in 1655, Sexby escaped abroad and tried to raise Spanish support for an insurrection to bring down the government of England. Although he was received at Madrid, the Spanish government was reluctant to commit troops and money to the enterprise. At Bruges, Sexby attended Charles II's court-in-exile, where he offered his services in leading an uprising against Cromwell. Sir Edward Hyde was sceptical, realising that Sexby's proposal to unite Royalists and Levellers had little practical chance of success.
Sexby co-authored a pamphlet: Killing no Murder, in which he argued with biblical and classical examples that tyrannicide was justifiable and that Cromwell was a tyrant worse than Caligula and Nero. He became involved in plots to assassinate Cromwell, employing Miles Sindercombe to carry them out. After the failure of several attempts to shoot Cromwell in 1656, Sindercombe and his accomplices were arrested when their scheme to set fire to Whitehall was betrayed. In June 1657, Sexby himself came to England, intending to instigate new conspiracies against Cromwell. Thwarted by the vigilance of John Thurloe's agents he decided to return to Flanders, only to be arrested as his ship was about to sail.
Sexby was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Under interrogation he admitted to being the author of Killing no Murder and to his involvement in the assassination plots, but he refused to name his accomplices. He died of a fever in January 1658 before being brought to trial.
C.H. Firth, Edward Sexby, DNB, 1897
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate, 1656-58, vol. i, (London 1909)
C.H. Frith & G. Davies, The Regimental History of Cromwell's Army vol.i (Oxford 1940)
Alan Marshall, Edward Sexby, Oxford DNB, 2004
Killing No Murder full text (PDF format)
The publication of Killing No Murder Mercurius Politicus blog