William Walwyn, c.1600-81

Merchant who wrote several religious and political pamphlets and became a leading figure in the foundation of the Leveller movement.

The second son of Robert Walwyn of Newland in Worcestershire and grandson of the Bishop of Hereford, William Walwyn was apprenticed to a London silk merchant. He married Anne Gundell in 1627, with whom he had 20 children, and became a master weaver in the same year. By 1632, he was a merchant and member of the Merchant Adventurers' Company. Walwyn's private study of the Bible, theology and philosophy led him to an acceptance of complete religious freedom and toleration of all sects, a view which he advocated in a series of seven tracts published anonymously between 1641-6.

In October 1645, Walwyn published England's Lamentable Slaverie in protest at the imprisonment of John Lilburne whom he admired for his courage and commitment to the defence of liberty. The following year, Walwyn appealed to the House of Commons to free Lilburne from his imprisonment by the House of Lords. When the Commons ignored his appeal, Walwyn collaborated with Richard Overton in organising a petition: A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens in July 1646. The Remonstrance is regarded as a founding document of the Leveller movement. Shortly after its publication, Overton was arrested for publishing further criticism of the Lords. Lilburne and Overton continued to publish their views whilst in prison, but it was Walwyn who organised and co-ordinated the protests of the burgeoning Leveller movement on their behalf. Between March and June 1647, he presented four petitions at the House of Commons calling for the release of the prisoners and for the implementation of reforms.

Disillusioned at the Commons' condemnation of the petitions, Walwyn met with army Agitators and called upon the New Model Army to uphold the nation's rights and liberties against the corrupt Parliament. When the Army occupied London in August 1647 and drove out the Presbyterians, however, Walwyn was dismayed at Fairfax's refusal to hand over control of the City to civilians.

Walwyn collaborated with John Wildman in drafting the original version of the Leveller manifesto An Agreement of the People in October 1647, but did not take part in the subsequent Putney Debates between Levellers, Agitators and Grandees. Angered at the outbreak of the Second Civil War, Walwyn unfairly attacked the Grandees for causing unnecessary bloodshed in The Bloody Project (August 1648), in which he also proposed a restoration of the monarchy with the King's power limited and regulated by law. Although he objected to the Army's march on London in December 1648 that resulted in Pride's Purge, Walwyn participated in the Whitehall debates between representatives of the Levellers, the Independents and the Council of Officers.

Walwyn withdrew from political activity after the King's execution and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He was unexpectedly arrested along with Lilburne, Overton and Thomas Prince in March 1649 following the publication of the second part of Lilburne's criticism of the new régime in England's New Chains Discovered. Walwyn later attributed his arrest to the hostility of the Independent congregations in London, which he had criticised for their lack of true piety and Christian virtue. Several weeks after his imprisonment, a savage attack on Walwyn was published entitled Walwin's Wiles, which was probably written by John Price, a member of the congregation of the Puritan divine John Goodwin.

The Leveller leaders were released from prison in November 1649 following Lilburne's trial and acquittal. Walwyn pledged his loyalty to the Commonwealth by taking the Oath of Engagement and returned to quiet family life at his home in Moorfields. He became interested in medicine and began practising as a physician during the 1650s, publishing several medical tracts and handbooks. He died in January 1681.


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

Barbara Taft, William Walwyn , Oxford DNB, 2004