Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Overton, Richard

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OVERTON, RICHARD (fl. 1646), pamphleteer, was probably a relative of Henry Overton, a printer, who began to publish in 1629, and had in 1642 a shop in Pope's Head Alley, London (Arber, Stationers' Register, iv. 218, 494; Lemon, Catalogue of Broadsides in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries). Richard Overton probably spent part of his early life in Holland (B. Evans, Early English Baptists, i. 254). He began publishing anonymous attacks on the bishops about the time of the opening of the Long parliament, together with some pungent verse satires, like ‘Lambeth Fayre’ and ‘Articles of High Treason against Cheapside Cross,’ 1642.

Overton turned next to theology, and wrote an anonymous tract on ‘Man's Mortality,’ 4to, 1643. This he described as ‘a treatise wherein 'tis proved, both theologically and philosophically, that whole man (as a rational creature) is a compound wholly mortal, contrary to that common distinction of soul and body: and that the present going of the soul into heaven or hell is a mere fiction; and that at the resurrection is the beginning of our immortality, and then actual condemnation and salvation, and not before.’ Eccl. iii. 19 is quoted as a motto, and the tract is signed ‘R. O.,’ and said to be ‘printed by John Canne’ [q. v.] at Amsterdam. According to Thomason's note in the British Museum copy, it appeared on 19 Jan. 1643–4, and was really printed in London (Masson, Life of Milton, iii. 156). The tract made a great stir, and a small sect arose known as ‘soul sleepers,’ who adopted Overton's doctrine in a slightly modified form (Pagitt, Heresiography, ed. 1662, p. 231). On 26 Aug. 1644 the House of Commons, on the petition of the Stationers' Company, ordered that the authors, printers, and publishers of the pamphlets against the immortality of the soul and concerning divorce should be diligently inquired for, thus coupling Overton with Milton as the most dangerous of heretics (Masson, iii. 164; Commons' Journals, iii. 606). Daniel Featley [q. v.] in the ‘Dippers Dipt’ and Thomas Edwards (1599–1647) [q. v.] in ‘Gangræna’ (i. 26) both denounced the unknown author, the latter asserting that Clement Wrighter [q. v.] ‘had a great hand in the book.’

Meanwhile Overton had commenced a violent onslaught against the Westminster assembly, under the pseudonym of ‘Martin Marpriest,’ who was represented as the son of Martin Marprelate, the antagonist of the Elizabethan bishops. The series of tracts he issued under this name, of which the chief are ‘The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution,’ ‘Martin's Echo,’ and ‘A Sacred Synodical Decretal,’ were published clandestinely in 1646, with fantastic printers' names appended to them. The ‘Decretal’ is a supposed order of the Westminster assembly for the author's arrest, purporting to be ‘printed by Martin Claw-Clergy, printer to the reverend Assembly of Divines, for Bartholomew Bang-priest, and are to be sold at his shop in Toleration Street, at the sign of the Subjects' Liberty, right opposite to Persecuting Court.’ Prynne denounced these tracts to the parliament as the quintessence of scurrility and blasphemy, and demanded the punishment of the writer, whom he supposed to be Henry Robinson (A Fresh Discovery of some Prodigious New Wandering Blazing Stars, 1645, p. 9). Overton's authorship was suspected, but could not be proved (A Defiance against all Arbitrary Usurpations, 4to, 1646, p. 25). He did not own his responsibility till 1649, when the assembly of divines had come to an end (A Picture of the Council of State, 4to, 1649, p. 36).

In 1646 Overton, who had been concerned in printing some of Lilburne's pamphlets, took up his case against the lords, and published ‘An Alarum to the House of Lords against their Insolent Usurpation of the common Liberties and Rights of this Nation, manifested in their Attempts against Lieutenant-colonel John Lilburne,’ 4to, 1646. For this he was arrested by order of the house on 11 Aug. 1646, and, refusing to acknowledge their jurisdiction, was committed to Newgate (Lords' Journals, viii. 457; Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. pp. 46, 130). But, in spite of his confinement, he contrived to publish a narrative of his arrest, entitled ‘A Defiance against all Arbitrary Usurpations,’ and a still more violent attack on the peers, called ‘An Arrow shot from the Prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords.’ His wife Mary and his brother Thomas were also imprisoned for similar offences (ib. p. 172; Lords' Journals, viii. 645, 648; The Petition of Mary Overton, Prisoner in Bridewell, to the House of Commons, 4to, 1647).

The army took up the cause of Overton and his fellow prisoners, and demanded that they should be either legally tried or released (Clarke Papers, i. 171; Old Parliamentary History, xvi. 161). He was unconditionally released on 16 Sept. 1647 (Lords' Journals, ix. 436, 440). This imprisonment did not diminish Overton's democratic zeal. He had a great share in promoting the petition of the London levellers (11 Sept. 1648). He was also one of those who presented to Fairfax on 28 Dec. 1648 the ‘Plea for Common Right and Freedom,’ a protest against the alterations made by the council of the army in Lilburne's draft of the Agreement of the People. On 28 March 1649 he was arrested, with Lilburne and two other leaders of the levellers, as one of the authors of ‘England's new Chains Discovered.’ Overton, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the council of state or to answer their questions, was committed to the Tower (A Picture of the Council of State, 1649, pp. 25–45; Commons' Journals, vi. 174, 183; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–50, pp. 57–9). In conjunction with his three fellow-prisoners he issued on 1 May 1649 the ‘Agreement of the Free People of England,’ followed on 14 April by a pamphlet denying the charge that they sought to overthrow property and social order (A Manifestation from Lieutenant-colonel John Lilburne, Mr. Richard Overton, and others, commonly, though unjustly, styled Levellers, 4to, 1649).

On his own account he published on 2 July a ‘Defiance’ to the government, in the form of a letter addressed ‘to the citizens usually meeting at the Whalebone in Lothbury, behind the Royal Exchange,’ a place which was the headquarters of the London levellers. The failure of the government to obtain a verdict against Lilburne involved the release of his associates, and on 8 Nov. Overton's liberation was ordered (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–50, p. 552). The only condition was that he should take the engagement to be faithful to the Commonwealth, which he probably had no hesitation in doing. In September 1654 Overton proposed to turn spy, and offered his services to Thurloe for the discovery of plots against the Protector's government. In the following spring he was implicated in the projected rising of the levellers, and fled to Flanders in company with Lieutenant-colonel Sexby. There, through the agency of Sir Marmaduke (afterwards Lord) Langdale [q. v.], he applied to Charles II, and received a commission from him. Some months later he returned to England, supplied with Spanish money by Sexby, and charged to bring about an insurrection (Thurloe State Papers, ii. 590, vi. 830–3; Cal. Clarendon Papers, iii. 55; Egerton MS. 2535, f. 396). Overton's later history is obscure. He was again in prison in December 1659, and his arrest was ordered on 22 Oct. 1663, apparently for printing something against the government of Charles II (Commons' Journals, vii. 800; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663–4, p. 311).

It is difficult to give a complete list of Overton's works, as many are anonymous. The chief are the following: 1. ‘New Lambeth Fair newly Consecrated, wherein all Rome's Relics are set at sale’ (a satire in verse), 1642. 2. ‘Articles of High Treason exhibited against Cheapside Cross, with the last Will and Testament of the said Cross’ (a satire in verse), 1642. 3. ‘Man's Mortality,’ Amsterdam, 1643; a second and enlarged edition was published in 1655, in 8vo, entitled ‘Man wholly Mortal.’ 4. ‘The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution … by Reverend young Martin Marpriest,’ 1645. 5. ‘A Sacred Synodical Decretal for the Apprehension of Martin Marpriest,’ 1645. 6. ‘Martin's Echo; or a Remonstrance from his Holiness, Master Marpriest’ [about 1645]. 7. ‘An Alarum to the House of Lords,’ 1646. 8. ‘A Defence against all arbitrary Usurpations, either of the House of Lords or any other,’ 1646. 9. ‘An Arrow against all Tyrants or Tyranny,’ 1646. 10. ‘The Commoners' Complaint,’ 1646. 11. ‘The Outcries of oppressed Commons’ (by Lilburne and Overton jointly), 1647. 12. ‘An Appeal from the Degenerate Representative Body, the Commons of England, assembled at Westminster, to the … Free People in general, and especially to his Excellency, Sir Thomas Fairfax,’ 1647. 13. ‘The Copy of a Letter written to the General from Lieutenant-colonel Lilburne and Mr. Overton on behalf of Mr. Lockyer,’ 1649. 14. ‘A Picture of the Council of State’ (by Overton and three others), 1649. 15. ‘A Manifestation of Lieutenant-colonel Lilburne and Mr. Overton, &c.,’ 1649. 16. ‘An Agreement of the Free People of England tendered as a Peace-offering to this distressed Nation, by Lieutenant-colonel Lilburne, Mr. Overton, &c.,’ 1649. 17. ‘Overton's Defiance of Act of Pardon,’ 1649. 18. ‘The Baiting of the Great Bull of Bashan,’ 1649. There are also a number of petitions addressed by Overton to the two houses of parliament.

[Brit. Mus. Cat.; authorities cited in the article.]

C. H. F.