The Leveller Mutinies

After the execution of King Charles in January 1649, unrest in the Army centred around the Council of State's plans for an invasion of Ireland and over the continuing reluctance of Parliament to settle arrears of pay. To the unpaid soldiers, the situation under the Independents in Parliament seemed much the same as it had been under the Presbyterians in 1647. Civilian and military Levellers were also demanding elections for a more representative Parliament.

Bishopsgate, April 1649

In April 1649, lots were drawn to select regiments for service in Ireland. The soldiers were told that they would not be compelled to go, but any who chose to remain in England would be dismissed from the Army. Three hundred infantrymen of Colonel Hewson's regiment threw down their weapons and declared that they would not go to Ireland unless the Leveller demands were granted. They were promptly cashiered without arrears of pay. Discontent at their treatment spread rapidly through the Army.

On 24 April 1649, around 30 troopers in Colonel Whalley's regiment, refused orders to leave the City of London for a rendezvous at Mile End Green. The mutineers seized the regimental colours, took over the Bull Inn at Bishopsgate and refused to obey their officers' orders, including those of Colonel Whalley himself. It was not until Fairfax and Cromwell arrived on the scene the following day that they finally backed down. Fifteen soldiers were arrested and court-martialled, of whom five were to be cashiered after riding the wooden horse and six were sentenced to death. In a gesture of reconciliation, Cromwell pleaded for mercy and all were pardoned except for Robert Lockier, a former Agitator within the regiment, who was believed to be the ringleader of the mutiny. Lockier was executed by firing squad in front of St Paul's Cathedral on 27 April 1649. Like the funeral of Colonel Rainsborough the previous year, Lockier's funeral occasioned a massive Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing ribbons of sea-green — the Levellers' colours — and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats.

Burford, May 1649

Mounting anger over the Irish expedition and Parliament's refusal to settle arrears of pay or to call new elections led to two extensive mutinies in early May 1649.

Colonel Scrope's regiment of horse was one of those selected for service in Ireland. Having marched as far as Salisbury, Leveller-inspired soldiers seized the regimental colours and elected new officers. An attempt by Colonel Scrope to pacify the mutineers was rejected, with only 80 officers and men remaining loyal. The mutinous troops issued a declaration stating their refusal to leave England until their grievances over arrears of pay were settled. They demanded a political settlement in line with the Levellers' Agreement of the People and the restoration of the elected Army Council of 1647. The discontent quickly spread and similar declarations were issued by the regiments of Ireton, Reynolds, Harrison and Skippon. Meanwhile at Banbury, the Leveller William Thompson issued a manifesto entitled England's Standard Advanced and led a mutiny of local troops in support of Lilburne and the Agreement of the People.

When news of the mutinies reached London, security was increased at the Tower, where the Leveller leaders were imprisoned. Fairfax and Cromwell reviewed their loyal cavalry regiments at Hyde Park and marched to confront the mutineers. Manoeuvring swiftly to keep units of mutinous troops isolated from one another, Fairfax succeeded in surrounding the main body at Burford in Oxfordshire. He ordered a surprise night attack which was led by Cromwell. After a few shots were exchanged, most of the mutineers surrendered. Several hundred were kept locked in Burford Church for several days, after which three of the ringleaders were executed by firing squad in the churchyard. The rest were pardoned by Fairfax.

William Thompson, with two troops of horse, was chased into Northamptonshire by Colonel Reynolds. Refusing to surrender, Thompson killed two of his pursuers before being killed himself in a skirmish near Wellingborough. His brother was one of the three ringleaders executed at Burford.

Leveller memorial, Burford Church

On 25 May, Cromwell reported to Parliament on the successful suppression of the Levellers in the Army.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i (London 1903

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

Roderick Moore, The Levellers: A Chronology and Bibliography,