rees levellers

John Rees, The Leveller Revolution makes a powerful case that Leveller organisation during the English Revolution was essential to its success, finds Dominic Alexander


John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England 1640-1650 (Verso 2016), xxi, 490pp.

Establishment historians have always attempted to minimise the importance of the English revolution, and especially the role of popular forces during the 1640s. The nineteenth-century Whig historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, being deeply hostile to revolutions of any kind, found it difficult to explain why Oliver Cromwell, ‘the most profound politician of the age’ came to preside over a revolution, and the execution for treason of King Charles I. Apart from the ‘incurable duplicity’ of the latter, Macaulay found that the explanation lay in ‘the refractory temper of the soldiers’, who, he claimed, in exaggeration, were ‘for the most part composed of zealous republicans’.[1] This is the closest Macaulay got to mentioning the Levellers, whose influence within the army was crucial in 1647-9; to admit that it was not a Great Man like Cromwell who was in control of these events clearly offended his instincts.

A great deal has been written since then on the civil war, and not least on the Levellers, but the same fundamental issues still stand behind modern work. Macaulay was wrong that ‘republicans’ were numerically superior in the army, but right to sense that the actions of the radicals pushed the hesitant leaders of the parliamentary side into completing the revolt against royal power such that a full social revolution was the result. Even Macaulay’s grudging admission of the importance of popular power in the English Civil War has not, by any means, been matched by many modern histories, which tend to make wholesale dismissals of the importance of radical movements. Against this, John Rees’ The Leveller Revolution is of real importance. Its narrative elaborates an argument proving the case for Leveller organisation being pivotal to the revolution.

This full account of the Levellers also demonstrates that, contrary to the predilections of so many historians, it is the actions of people, not the appearance of novel ideas, which has the priority in changing society. Certain ideas, such as republicanism or popular sovereignty, gained increasing traction through the 1640s because of the active organisation of popular power in the Leveller’s own structures, and those of the rank and file of the army. Without all that, the ideas would have remained vanishingly marginal. Even on the left, such as in the classic analysis of the Levellers by C. B. Macpherson,[2] Leveller ideas tend to be treated as positions which can be considered in relative abstraction from events.

This is a general habit of professional history, but in this case, it is perhaps encouraged by one of the main kinds of evidence for radicals in the revolutionary period: the pamphlet. Rees, unlike most historians, has an activist’s perspective on this material. A pamphlet does not become significant just because of the writer and the writer’s ideas. It needs printers, it costs money, which must be raised from sympathisers, it needs to be distributed widely, by activists willing to undertake the work. Without social organisation, ideas cannot become history.

The origins of the Leveller organisation lie well before they can be said to have emerged as a coherent group, with their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being well known as a radical even before conflict between king and parliament began. Although the Levellers as a group were concerned with secular, constitutional issues such as the popular franchise, they emerged from the milieu of dissenting religion. Of particular importance were the ‘gathered’ churches; radical, popular congregations which defied the authority of the Church of England and the ordained clergy. This context of religious radicalism was key to the development of a popular, essentially democratic, politics. Shockingly, to those higher in the social scale, in these circles ‘every Ploughman’ and ‘every Tradesman’ could ‘pronounce on religion’:

‘These were once “but a handful” that had now become so bold that they might “overthrow the whole Land”. Indeed, it was claimed, “They are now growne to that height of impudence, that it is a common thing for them to command the preacher what he shall say, and no more”’ (original seventeenth-century spelling, p.58).

It is notable that it was in these kinds of congregations that not only could ‘mechanicals’ be found preaching, but also women (p.63). Revolutionary periods have always been notable for a marked increase in the participation of women in public life, and the English Revolution was no exception to this. One of John Lilburne’s most important collaborators, Katherine Chidley, also emerged from the context of the gathered churches. She published a remarkable defence of independent congregations, and religious leadership by the socially inferior, including women, becoming a key figure in Leveller publishing and organising (pp.38-40).

The propagation of egalitarian religious ideas, and the organisation developed by these democratic congregations, laid the basis for the later emergence of Leveller political organisation. Experience in printing and petitioning developed from the meeting places of the gathered churches, while the audience for later political radicalism was also founded upon the audiences for the earlier religious radicalism. Often enough the focal meeting points were taverns, which were much more than drinking places: ‘we should not see taverns and churches as being as distinct as they are today or as the stereotype of Puritan attitudes might lead us to imagine’ (p.53).

One such tavern, the Windmill in Lothbury, had a long radical past, eventually becoming a centre of Leveller organising in 1647. Lilburne had been elected onto a committee there in 1644 ‘to decide action against the king’. Another Leveller leader, William Walwyn, defended his religious positions against slander there. The later leading Leveller, Richard Overton, can early on be found operating a clandestine press, and was associated with Thomas Lambe’s radical church. There was then a

‘dense fabric of political opposition in the capital during the early days of the Revolution, and in some cases from before that, from which the Levellers emerged as an organised current. Underground activity in churches and taverns, combined with the secret printing and petitioning activity … provided a schooling in organised politics which would feed into the foundations of the Leveller movement. The point where meetings in churches and taverns spill over into mass street demonstrations is possibly an early decisive moment of transition. This is the point where clandestine or semi-clandestine activity becomes irrefutably public opposition to established authority’ (p.65).

This last point reveals why so many historians have been able to present the Levellers without a prehistory, and to ignore the question of their organisation. It is particularly difficult to track underground activity from this far in the past. And yet the evidence exists, and Rees has pulled it all together here to very convincing effect.

Against those historians who have tried to present the Levellers as just a loose collection of idiosyncratic radicals, Rees provides extensive evidence to the contrary. They had coalesced into a well organised and strongly coherent group, based around the underground presses and the radical churches, whose congregations were willing to distribute the publications that normal booksellers would eschew. By 1646, the group ‘both in the eyes of their opponents and in the internal ideological support they deliver to each other, is a functioning collective organisation’ (pp.142-4).

The highpoints of the Leveller agitation came in 1647 and 1649. The former year saw the uncertainties after the first defeat of the Royalist side culminate in unrest within the parliamentary army, leading to the election of Agitators to represent the common soldiers. There followed the famous Putney debates, between the leading Army officers, and representatives of the Agitators and civilian Levellers, over the political settlement that should follow. It was during these debates that Colonel Rainsborough, on the Leveller side, made his famous speech:

‘For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think itt’s clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his owne consent to putt himself under that Government; and I doe thinke that the poorest man in England is nott att all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under’ (original seventeenth-century spelling, p.210).

The remarkable thing about the Putney debates was that the leaders of the army, Cromwell, Ireton and others, had effectively been forced by a Leveller-led and inspired mobilisation, to debate the practical issues of how the country should be governed with the elected representatives of the rank-and-file, and a group of civilian radicals. The debates at Putney were formally constituted as the Council of the Army:

‘No such body had ever been, even temporarily, in charge of a victorious army before. The questions it addressed were even more remarkable: how should a revolution in progress deal with a defeated king and what new constitution should it adopt?’ (p.204).

This is one of the moments which exemplify the Levellers’ role in making the revolution, but it was based, again, on the extensive capacities of the group to use pamphlets and petitions to reach the soldiers and win them over to their perspective.

The events of 1647-9 are complex, but included a second war against the king, who had attempted to play his enemies off against each other, and, following his final defeat, Charles I’s execution in 1649. Again, key events through this whole period were driven by the Levellers, and without them, ‘it is unlikely that Ireton could have carried the day among the officers to break with the king and to open the road to Pride’s Purge’ (the expulsion of the Presbyterian MPs who had gone over to the king, p.276).

Following the stage of decisive revolution, the Levellers were attacked by their erstwhile allies in parliament and the army leadership, Cromwell and the Independents. Rees argues that, in fact, the scale and sophistication of Leveller organisation is seen at its fullest extent in time of this crisis and their eventual defeat. In the spring of 1649, the key Leveller leaders, Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince, were all suddenly arrested and placed in the Tower. Despite this, the organisation was still functioning, ‘with surprising resilience’ and effectively mobilised popular support to defend its own leadership (p.290).

A campaign which reached and energised many thousands in London and Essex was led, notably, by Leveller women, with a petition which:

‘was the result of a subscription campaign that asked supporters to deliver copies to “the women which will be appointed in every Ward and Division to receive the same” and then to “meet at Westminster Hall” on 23 April between eight and nine in the morning to present it’ (p.290).

Not only is this episode revealing of the sophistication of Leveller organisation in general, it is also a vivid window into the radical nature of popular self-organisation involved. That women should organise in this way was shocking to conservative onlookers, who made predictably insulting comments on the women’s revolutionary politics; they intended to ‘cock their Petticoats’ just as the Leveller men ‘do their Pistolls’:

‘On the day of presentation some twenty women [out of a much larger demonstration] got into the lobby of the Commons despite troops drawing pistols on them. One MP told them to go home and wash their dishes, to which one of the petitioners replied, “Sir, we scarce have any dishes left to wash”’ (pp.290-1).

It was not just women who were mobilising at this point, but new groups of apprentices, for example, were appearing in support of the Levellers, showing the group’s ability to expand its support base even under conditions of repression (p.292).

Much more could be said about how Leveller organisation was able to mobilise the popular forces of London and the army all through the 1640s, driving the revolution towards the decisive moment at every step. Rees’ narrative takes the reader along the whole story very effectively, but along the way there are some important analytical arguments which emerge from the course of the narrative.

The capacity of the Levellers to organise mass support not only put pressure on the Army leaders at crucial moments of the revolutionary process, but also acted to turn popular sentiment decisively in support of a radical political agenda, when feelings could well have turned in different directions. Thus, in 1647 when discontent rose among the rank and file of the army, due to the lack of pay and the hardships of the last years, an inchoate popular royalism began to appear in many places. That this didn’t become more serious than it did can be seen to be down to the Levellers’ capacity to lead popular discontent. In one instance, a regiment that had mutinied, co-incidentally commanded by John Lilburne’s elder brother, was given political direction by a Leveller officer, William Bray:

‘Bray’s account demonstrates that he had to contend with a strand of popular royalism among some soldiers in the first days of the revolt by Lilburne’s regiment. But his appeal to the authority of the Agitators managed to give the revolt a different direction. Bray suggested to the troops that “the way to get the Regiment to march, was to send a faire letter to the Agents …” This shows not only a connection with the Leveller-influenced new Agitators, but also the political shape that could be given to such elemental revolts by Leveller activists. Bray stuck with the mutineers and brought them to Ware … Bray was the only officer still with the regiment. He obviously enjoyed support among the troops, who, on a later occasion in 1649, petitioned for his release [from arrest], citing their support for the Levellers’ (p.215).

The Levellers may have been a minority, but their organisation and their ear for the popular disappointments with the parliamentary side enabled them to command substantial forces at the key moments. Moreover, episodes such as this during the English Revolution are a demonstration of the complexity of social consciousness at any time; revolutions do not happen because a majority of people uncomplicatedly agree that fundamental change is necessary. Instead, minorities, whether Levellers, Jacobins or Bolsheviks, act in a concerted way at crucial points in events, forging decisive support out of contradictory tendencies at work amongst the mass of people.

There is an ideological preference among mainstream historians to prefer to see ideas as leading the way towards actions, but one of the lessons of this account of the revolution is that it was events and activity which paved the way for new ideas to emerge and become popular. Hence, while conventional historiography tends to present the secular radicalism of the Levellers as emerging almost out of nowhere, it makes much more historical sense to root the development of their ideas in the background of longstanding radical activity.

The Levellers were pioneers of revolutionary mass organisation, and if their movement was not a political party in a modern sense, they did at their height have party-like features, such as appointed treasurers and dues-paying members (pp.339-49). It was precisely through such organisation that ideas such as republicanism, which had been a vanishingly fringe notion before the civil war, became popularised and powerful. Many historical accounts over the years have attempted to dismiss the Levellers and their role, and even to claim that they were simply an amorphous collection of differing individuals within a wider, loose radicalism of the late 1640s. John Rees’ highly readable account thoroughly debunks such dismissive conceptions, and puts the Levellers at the centre of the revolution, where they deserve to be.


[1] Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England (1848, Everyman Library edition 1906), vol. 1, p.94.

[2] C. B. Macpherson, The Poltical Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford 1962).

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

Tagged under: