Academic journal article The Historian

"Whatsoever Yee Would That Men Should Doe Unto You, Even So Doe Yee to Them": An Analysis of the Effect of Religious Consciousness on the Origins of the Leveller Movement

Academic journal article The Historian

"Whatsoever Yee Would That Men Should Doe Unto You, Even So Doe Yee to Them": An Analysis of the Effect of Religious Consciousness on the Origins of the Leveller Movement

Article excerpt

The Levellers were in a special sense, bridge-builders; constructing a bridge that connects Christian teaching with humanism and democratic socialism.

Tony Benn, M.P., speech delivered at Burford Church, Oxfordshire (1)

Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne returned to England in 1653, following a seventeen-month continental exile. He had been accused by Oliver Cromwell, his old friend and comrade in arms, of conspiring with the king; an outlandish charge, Lilburne having spent much of the 1640s campaigning for the abolition of monarchy. (2) Now, a year and a half after his banishment, Lilburne believed that he might be able to slip quietly home to London. He began writing to his former companion, appealing for a pass. After sending out several letters, however, but receiving no reply, he set sail anyway from the French port of Calais on the morning of 14 June, with no right of entry into England. Immediately on arriving at Dover he was arrested by the local sheriffs and ordered to Newgate to stand trial for coming into the country illegally. He appealed for a postponement of his trial until a new government was formed. This he was granted, but on 13 July, following the establishment of the Barebones Parliament, Lilburne was brought to the Old Bailey to face his accusers. (3)

He began the trial in his typical manner: fighting for what he saw as his liberties. Specifically, he attempted to gain a copy of the indictment and he sought counsel, and refused to plead guilty or not guilty until these two requests were granted. (4) He approached the bench, saying, "My Lord, I am brought like a fellon to the Barre, who never committed any fellony in my life, my desire is onely that I may be tryed by the Laws of God, and the Laws of England." (5) Following three days of tedious debate over the legal technicalities of the trial, Lilburne cried out in an exasperated tone, appealing, "in the presence of Angels and Men, that if the Court would be pleased to record the thing that he [Lilburne] died for, and to hang upon File the truth and reality thereof, that so all the free born people of England might in future Ages, know, and understand, that John Lilburne died for the Fundamental Laws, Rights, and Liberties of all freeborn English men." (6) After a long trial, the court was unmoved by Lilburne's arguments. In August he was sent to the Tower, where he spent much of his time until death. (7)

Why did the man whose maternal grandfather was Keeper and Gentleman of the Standing Wardrobe at Greenwich Palace (8) and whose paternal grandfather was Lord of the Manor at Thickley Punchardon in County Durham (9) turn to radical pamphleteering and the advocating of what many have seen as an early form of democratic socialism? The answer to this question has been attempted many times. Indeed, the movement Lilburne led, which came to be known as the Levellers, is one of the most widely studied groups in the history of seventeenth-century England. (10) There are more than a dozen books devoted to those involved in the movement. (11) It is also the focus of countless chapters and sections within more general histories of the English Civil Wars and radicalism. (12) In large part, these works discuss the Levellers' political agitation. It is not difficult to see why this is such a popular subject. Christopher Hill, in his influential work The Century of Revolution, asserted that the Levellers were a "group of democrats" who proclaimed that, "Parliament's resistance to the King, and the sovereignty of Parliament, could only be justified theoretically if that sovereignty derived from the people," and therefore a more representative institution of government was necessary. Hill explained that the Levellers argued for the redistribution of the franchise and the direct election of sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, sought law reform, pressed for security of tenure for copyholders, and advocated the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, tithes, conscription, excise, and the privileges of peers, corporations, and trading companies. …

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