1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Levellers

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21980661911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16 — LevellersArthur William Holland

LEVELLERS, the name given to an important political party in England during the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth. The germ of the Levelling movement must be sought for among the Agitators (q.v.), men of strong republican views, and the name Leveller first appears in a letter of the 1st of November 1647, although it was undoubtedly in existence as a nickname before this date (Gardiner, Great Civil War, iii. 380). This letter refers to these extremists thus: “They have given themselves a new name, viz. Levellers, for they intend to sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom.”

The Levellers first became prominent in 1647 during the protracted and unsatisfactory negotiations between the king and the parliament, and while the relations between the latter and the army were very strained. Like the Agitators they were mainly found among the soldiers; they were opposed to the existence of kingship, and they feared that Cromwell and the other parliamentary leaders were too complaisant in their dealings with Charles; in fact they doubted their sincerity in this matter. Led by John Lilburne (q.v.) they presented a manifesto, The Case of the Army truly stated, to the commander-in-chief, Lord Fairfax, in October 1647. In this they demanded a dissolution of parliament within a year and substantial changes in the constitution of future parliaments, which were to be regulated by an unalterable “law paramount.” In a second document, The Agreement of the People, they expanded these ideas, which were discussed by Cromwell, Ireton and other officers on the one side, and by John Wildman, Thomas Rainsborough and Edward Sexby for the Levellers on the other. But no settlement was made; some of the Levellers clamoured for the king’s death, and in November 1647, just after his flight from Hampton Court to Carisbrooke, they were responsible for a mutiny which broke out in two regiments at Corkbush Field, near Ware. This, however, was promptly suppressed by Cromwell. During the twelve months which immediately preceded the execution of the king the Levellers conducted a lively agitation in favour of the ideas expressed in the Agreement of the people, and in January 1648 Lilburne was arrested for using seditious language at a meeting in London. But no success attended these and similar efforts, and their only result was that the Levellers regarded Cromwell with still greater suspicion.

Early in 1649, just after the death of the king, the Levellers renewed their activity. They were both numerous and dangerous, and they stood up, says Gardiner, “for an exaggeration of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.” In a pamphlet, England’s New Chains, Lilburne asked for the dissolution of the council of state and for a new and reformed parliament. He followed this up with the Second Part of England’s New Chains; his writings were declared treasonable by parliament, and in March 1649 he and three other leading Levellers, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Prince were arrested. The discontent which was spreading in the army was fanned when certain regiments were ordered to proceed to Ireland, and in April 1649 there was a meeting in London; but this was quickly put down by Fairfax and Cromwell, and its leader, Robert Lockyer, was shot. Risings at Burford and at Banbury were also suppressed without any serious difficulty, and the trouble with the Levellers was practically over. Gradually they became less prominent, but under the Commonwealth they made frequent advances to the exiled king Charles II., and there was some danger from them early in 1655 when Wildman was arrested and Sexby escaped from England. The distinguishing mark of the Leveller was a sea-green ribbon.

Another but more harmless form of the same movement was the assembling of about fifty men on St George’s Hill near Oatlands in Surrey. In April 1649 these “True Levellers” or “Diggers,” as they were called, took possession of some unoccupied ground which they began to cultivate. They were, however, soon dispersed, and their leaders were arrested and brought before Fairfax, when they took the opportunity of denouncing landowners. It is interesting to note that Lilburne and his colleagues objected to being designated Levellers, as they had no desire to take away “the proper right and title that every man has to what is his own.”

Cromwell attacked the Levellers in his speech to parliament in September 1654 (Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, Speech II.). He said: “A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman; the distinction of these; that is a good interest of the nation, and a great one. The ‘natural’ magistracy of the nation, was it not almost trampled under foot, under despite and contempt, by men of Levelling principles? I beseech you, for the orders of men and ranks of men, did not that Levelling principle tend to the reducing of all to an equality? Did it ‘consciously’ think to do so; or did it ‘only unconsciously’ practise towards that for property and interest? ‘At all events,’ what was the purport of it but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord? Which, I think, if obtained, would not have lasted long.”

In 1724 there was a rising against enclosures in Galloway, and a number of men who took part therein were called Levellers or Dykebreakers (A. Lang, History of Scotland, vol. iv.). The word was also used in Ireland during the 18th century to describe a secret revolutionary society similar to the Whiteboys.  (A. W. H.*)