Richard Overton, Leveller

Pamphleteer who wrote satirical attacks on the Presbyterians and radical political tracts. He emerged as a founder member of the Leveller movement.

Nothing is known for certain about Richard Overton's origins or early life. The earliest pamphlets attributed to him appeared around 1640-2 and are satirical attacks on Catholicism and the Laudian church reforms. He probably became a convert to General Baptism around this time. In January 1644, Overton published Man's Mortalitie, in which he argued that the human soul as well as the body is subject to death, but both are resurrected at the Last Judgement. This belief was widespread among General Baptists, but was denounced as heretical by Presbyterians.

In 1645, Overton published a series of satirical attacks on the Presbyterians under the pseudonym Martin Mar-Priest (a reference to the Elizabethan "Marprelate" tracts), which proved popular among Independents and soldiers of the New Model Army. He also began to write political tracts expounding what were to become key principles of the Leveller movement: the abolition of tithes, monopolies and the excise, reform of the law, annual parliaments with paid state officials excluded from seeking election. The Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, published in July 1646 and probably written by Overton in collaboration with William Walwyn, is generally regarded as the founding document of the Leveller movement.

Overton took up the imprisoned John Lilburne's case against the House of Lords in An Alarum to the House of Lords, published in August 1646. The pamphlet was condemned and Overton was promptly arrested. Upon refusing to acknowledge the Lords' jurisdiction, he was committed to Newgate Prison. Like Lilburne, Overton kept up a steady stream of pamphlets during his imprisonment in which he proclaimed individual rights and the nation's liberties. He also called upon the New Model Army to intervene in reforming the corrupt Parliament and took the first steps towards associating the civilian Levellers with the army Agitators by drawing attention to the soldiers' grievances against Parliament. Leveller supporters kept up a sustained campaign of petitioning, which resulted in the release of Overton and Lilburne in the autumn of 1647. After holding a series of meetings with Agitators in London, they both went to Ware in Hertfordshire to support the Leveller mutineers at Corkbush Field, only to find the mutiny suppressed and the Grandees firmly in control.

In December 1648, Overton attended the meetings at Whitehall when the Grandees and London Independents debated the constitutional proposals set out in An Agreement of the People. However, he and Lilburne walked out of the talks in protest at the Grandees' attempts to modify the Agreement. Unlike Lilburne, Overton commended the Army's purging of Parliament and the execution of King Charles, but he mistrusted Cromwell's motives and attacked him in The Hunting of the Foxes (March 1649), written in support of five soldiers cashiered for trying to organise a petition critical of the new régime. Around the same time, Lilburne published the second part of England's New Chains Discovered, which Parliament condemned as treasonous. Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Thomas Prince were arrested and brought before the Council of State. Refusing to incriminate themselves by admitting authorship of the document, the Leveller leaders were imprisoned in the Tower of London to await trial. The final version of the Agreement of the People was published in May 1649 during their imprisonment, but the suppression of the army Levellers at Burford by Fairfax and Cromwell in the same month effectively ended the movement's political viability.

The Leveller leaders were released from prison in November 1649 following Lilburne's trial and acquittal. After the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate, Overton became involved in Leveller-Royalist conspiracies against the government and joined Edward Sexby at Amsterdam in February 1655. The plots came to nothing, however, and Overton returned to England, where he published a revised version of his treatise Man Wholly Mortal. Although several political tracts and pamphlets are attributed to Overton during the Protectorate, details of his later life are uncertain.


Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)

B. J. Gibbons, Richard Overton, Oxford DNB, 2004