Academic journal article History Review

`A Wolf Held by the Ears' William Walwyn the Leveller: Ivan Roots Finds Much to Admire in a Man Reviled by the Authorities in His Own Day. (Talking Points)

Academic journal article History Review

`A Wolf Held by the Ears' William Walwyn the Leveller: Ivan Roots Finds Much to Admire in a Man Reviled by the Authorities in His Own Day. (Talking Points)

Article excerpt


During 1646, as the civil war petered out into victory for the parliamentary forces and the difficult search for a settlement began, a fiercely orthodox presbyterian `minister of the gospel', Thomas Edwards, alarmed by the boldness of `men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith', issued under the unequivocal title Gangraena a series of urgent pamphlets comprising `a huge catalogue and discovery of many of the errors, heresies, blasphemies and pernicious practices of the sectaries of this time, vented and acted in England in these last few years'. Warming to the task, Edwards told his horrified tales in `particulars', naming names and drawing conclusions. Raking away with relish at the `dunghill', he uncovered `Master William Walwyn, the Merchant', and found in him `a dangerous man, yea, a desperate dangerous man, a seeker and a libertine' - `a wolf', indeed, `held by the ears', precariously.

Strong stuff; but in Walwyn's expressed ideas and practice Edwards discerned a grave threat to religion and society. Walwyn had come to reject compulsion, putting forward human reason as the guide to faith and declaring that God revealed himself to individuals direct, without the intermediary of scriptures, ordinances or ministers. Here, wrote Edwards, was `a man of all religions, pleading for all and yet what religion he is no man can tell; a man of an equivocating Jesuitical spirit, being full of mental reservations and equivocations ... a strong head'.

The pattern was set for a host of contemporary hostile opinions, which noted Walwyn's fondness for putting awkward questions and the avidity of a taut and sceptical mind for satisfactory answers. Suspiciously, it seemed, he preferred to work for his view of a proper relationship with God, and equally for disturbingly novel political and social liberties from behind the scenes, quietly, modestly, a little quizzically perhaps, but nonetheless effectively. In this his critics like Edwards saw only the machinations of `a cunning and hypocritical juggler and abuser', `an unhappy factor for the region `of darkness', `a wolf in sheep's clothing', an inciter of `well-known subtlety and craftiness'. It was a formidable indictment. He was hard to pin down - `unfathomable' was one adjective aptly used about him - but clearly the man was a monster!

Yet we can see that, whatever else he was, he was a human being, a serious individual with a heart, a mind, a pen and a voice, albeit `a still and soft one'. Somehow this voice managed to rise above the cacophony of the times to be heard.


William Walwyn was born in 1600 at Newland, Worcestershire, the younger son of a moderately well-off gentry family, his mother a bishop's daughter. In 1619 he was bound apprentice to a city `silk man' and at length in his own right became a Merchant Adventurer, evidently with success. Married in 1627, he had a comfortable home, ultimately in Moorfield, with a private library and a garden where he entertained his friends - or dupes. His wife bore him some 20 children, mostly daughters. Parents and children were `very tender to one another', though one may suspect that such a houseful may have had some impact in sending him out in search of quieter company.

Some time in the 1630s he, like Oliver Cromwell, underwent a spiritual upheaval or conversion, and began to turn his attention to the religious problems of the day and the controversies which would bring on a civil war. From the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640 he supported moves against prelates and prerogative, and later he helped raise supplies for Parliament, meanwhile - as control of the press broke down - publishing anonymously half a dozen tracts stressing the need for unity and mutual tolerance in the anti-royalist front if victory were to be won. Soon, though he seems never by any formal act to have severed connection with the established church, he was associating with the Independent congregations springing up in the capital. …

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