The Levellers of the civil war and interregnum were political radicals initially associated with John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. They had no special name for themselves; the term "Leveller" was coined by their enemies to imply that they favoured the abolition of property rights and the equalisation of wealth, which they strenuously denied. The Leveller program included reform of the law, religious toleration and free trade. Their principal constitutional demands were for an extended franchise, for individual rights guaranteed under a written constitution and for a government answerable to the People rather than to King or Parliament.
The movement first emerged amongst middle-ranking civilians in London and southern England as the First Civil War drew to an end. In protest at John Lilburne's imprisonment by Parliament for criticising MPs who lived in comfort while common soldiers fought and died for the cause, William Walwyn published England's Lamentable Slaverie in October 1645 in the form of a public letter to Lilburne.
Walwyn stated that Parliament's authority derived from the people who elected it and that Parliament should be answerable directly to them. This was restated in A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, published by Walwyn and Richard Overton in July 1646, along with calls for the dissolution of the present House of Commons, the abolition of the House of Lords, religious toleration, equality before the law and an ending of trade monopolies.
The Remonstrance also expounded the theory of the "Norman yoke", which maintained that the English people had enjoyed full constitutional rights and liberties until the Norman conquest, and that William the Conqueror and his successors were tyrannical usurpers who held on to power by virtue of the oppressive laws that they had imposed. This theory remained central to radical English politics into the 18th century.
The Leveller movement was never united behind a consistent set of policies and cannot be compared to an organised political party in the modern sense. While concern for individual rights and liberties was a common theme in Leveller writings and campaigns, the few years during which the movement was active were extremely volatile, calling for rapid adaptation to changing situations.
The most significant Leveller manifesto, An Agreement of the People, was developed over several versions during 1647-49 as a potential written constitution for England that was intended to form a contract between the electorate and the government. The Agreement was initially a collaboration between military and civilian Levellers and was completed by Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince after political activism in the army was stifled by Cromwell and Ireton.
Leveller proposals for revolutionary changes to the constitution and legal system were disseminated through effective use of the printing press. Pamphlets and petitions were circulated by a network of activists, with regular meetings of supporters and organisers to co-ordinate activity. A weekly newspaper, The Moderate, ran from July 1648 until its suppression in October 1649, coordinating Leveller supporters across the country.
Their opponents were able to undermine the movement by deliberately associating it with the radical True Levellers who wanted to restructure the social order by challenging concepts of land ownership and property rights. Ironically, Lilburne and his colleagues denied any association with the "levelling tendency" and disliked the name "Leveller" itself, which was coined to discredit the movement.
The Army Levellers
Leveller ideas took hold in the New Model Army in 1647 when Agitators were appointed from among the common soldiers to lobby Parliament for arrears of pay and to protest at Parliament's plans for disbanding part of the Army and committing the rest to an invasion of Ireland. In June 1647, the military Levellers adopted A Solemn Engagement of the Army and succeeded in setting up the Army Council where representatives of the rank-and-file sat alongside the senior officers, or "Grandees". The Leveller-influenced manifesto The Case of the Armie Truly Stated called for a radical new constitution for England, in contrast to the Grandee Henry Ireton's Heads of the Proposals which outlined a moderate settlement with King Charles.
The military Levellers supported the Agreement of the People, which was discussed at the Putney Debates of October-November 1647 between the Levellers and the Grandees. By this stage, however, the Grandees were determined to purge the Army of Leveller influence.
Despite a minor military mutiny at Corkbush Field in support of the Agreement, Fairfax, Cromwell and Ireton kept control of the Army during the Second Civil War and throughout the revolutionary period of the trial and execution of King Charles. After the establishment of the Commonwealth, the Levellers soon clashed with the newly-appointed Council of State. Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and others were imprisoned in March 1649 for publishing England's New Chains Discovered which criticised the new government for seizing power from the people.
Unrest amongst the Levellers in the Army, fanned by opposition to the Council of State's plans for the invasion of Ireland, culminated in the Leveller mutinies of April and May 1649. These were quickly and efficiently suppressed by Fairfax and Cromwell. Without the support of the Army, Leveller influence faded very quickly. It had ceased to exist as an organised movement by the end of 1649.
After the establishment of Cromwell's Protectorate in December 1653, some of the most radical of the former Levellers and Agitators became involved in conspiracies to overthrow the Cromwellian régime, which they regarded as a betrayal of the principles for which the civil wars had been fought. John Wildman was arrested in 1655 after conspiring with Royalists, and the Leveller sympathiser Vice-Admiral John Lawson was obliged to resign his commission in 1656. The former Agitator Edward Sexby plotted to assassinate Cromwell, and attempted to negotiate with Spain to overthrow the Protectorate.
Andrew Bradstock, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England (London 2011)
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)
David Hoile, The Levellers: Libertarian Radicalism and the English Civil War www.libertarian.co.uk
Roderick Moore, The Levellers: A Chronology and Bibliography www.diggers.org
English Dissenters: Levellers www.exlibris.org