Ireton’s ‘Remonstrance’ – St Albans & the London Levellers:
When the Second Civil War ended, the frustrations and bitterness which had steadily been mounting against the king’s duplicity finally reached fever pitch. Many petitions were dispatched to London from various parts of the country demanding ‘impartial justice’ for all those involved in causing the recent bloodshed. The feeling was particularly strong in the army where Republicans and Levellers were extremely active. At some point in October 1648, Henry Ireton became fully convinced that the negotiations at Newport on the Isle of Wight with King Charles must be brought to an end, that the king must be brought to London to stand trial and that a new parliament must be elected. He prepared a new manifesto of these intentions which soon became known as The Remonstrance of the Army, for signature by its officers. It was considered at a meeting on the General Council of Officers, which had replaced the General Council of the Army of the Putney Debates the year before. This Council, which had no agitators or ‘rank and file’ soldiers, met at St Albans on 9th – 15th November to approve the first draft of the ‘Remonstrance’ for consideration by king and parliament. It was largely the work of Ireton, but Cromwell, still on duty with his regiment in Yorkshire, was duly informed of the decision. At this stage, however, there was no consensus in favour of forceful intervention, doubtless because Fairfax, recovered from illness and about to preside again, remained adamantly opposed to such a course of action. In fact, the Council voted to acquiesce in the Newport treaty, while also seeking to present the king and parliament with certain minimal conditions for his restoration.
Ireton’s draft did not satisfy the London Levellers, however, since they were now seeking a broad alliance with their fellow civilian independents in the capital and radical MPs, as well as with the Army. Leading Levellers and Independents had been meeting in London at the ‘Nag’s Head’ tavern, and had agreed on 15th November to aim for a constituent assembly consisting of representatives of the army and well-wishers from every county. Its task would be to draft a new constitution in the form of a revised Agreement of the People, and they wanted to get it endorsed by the officers at St Albans, who had already received the outline of their proposals sympathetically. They were paricularly anxious that the army should dissolve the parliament before any constitutional agreement had been reached, so some of them sought an urgent meeting with Ireton and a few fellow-officers at Windsor. They had a tough negotiation, but they secured the amendment and expansion of the Remonstrance in some significant particulars. It now specifically commended the programme of reform in the Levellers’ petition of September, and desired that ‘matters of general settlement’, including annual or biennial parliaments, so reformed as to render the House of Commons, as near as may be, an equal representative of the whole people electing, should be legislated for by the present parliament, or by the Commons alone if need be, and to be further established by a general contract or agreement of the people, with their subscriptions thereunto. To frame such an agreement, Ireton and his visitors agreed that a committee should be set up consisting of four representatives apiece of the Levellers, the army, the London independents, and what he called the ‘honest party’ in parliament.
The ‘Peace Party’ & the ‘Honest Party’ at Westminster:
Meanwhile, at Newport, Charles conceded the key point that that all military forces should be controlled by parliament for at least twenty years. The Council of Officers were pre-empted by parliament, however, still dominated by Denzil Holles and the presbyterian ‘peace party’ which on the 15th had voted to re-open negotiations with the king, resolving that he shall be settled in a condition of honour, freedom and safety, agreeable to the laws of this land. This was exactly the same form of words that those who had risen for him in the spring and summer had declared as their aims. It was too much for most of the officers at St Albans, who met again on 18 November and quickly agreed to send the ‘Remonstrance’ to parliament. This final version of the Remonstrance was approved by the Council of Officers on 18 November and the following day this was presented to Faifax who, having failed to persuade the king to sign a version of the army’s Heads of the Proposals, was now more or less compelled to agree to it. This ferociously worded final draft of the ‘Remonstrance’ now demanded the trial of the king and the abolition of the monarchy. Two days later, it was laid before the Commons, to whom it was addressed, with a covering letter from Fairfax. He must have winced at the central demand, which was for exemplary justice … in capital punishment upon the principal author and some and some prime instruments of our late wars. It argued at length that the pledge in the Solemn League and Covenant to preserve the king’s person and authority had ceased to be binding. Fairfax’s letter did not propose the abolition of the monarchy, but stipulated that no king should henceforth be admitted except upon upon the election of the people’s representatives in parliament, and after subscribing the proposed Agreement of the People. The same subsciption was to be required of all other holders of public office.
The House reacted by postponing any consideration of the Remonstrance for a whole week, and turned instead to debating the latest unsatisfactory answers from the king. Having gained the king’s assurances over their future control of the army, however, parliament voted in favour of extending the Newport negotiations. By these two decisions, taken together, it took a long step towards sealing its own fate, as the council of officers responded by ordering a military occupation of Westminster and the City. None of this, by now, could have been much of a surprise to Charles who, although apparently impotent, was at last in control, if not of his ultimate destiny, then of his legacy. His worst moment became his best moment. He must have taken satisfaction from the knowledge that everything that would be done to him could only be done by making a nonsense of the principles for which parliament had claimed to go to war: the protection of the liberties of the subject. Charles himself could now claim that, all along, he and not parliament, had been the shield of his subjects, the defender of the people.
Cromwell’s Conscience and the Colonels:
Cromwell’s continued absence in the north in early November could be easily explained, but from mid-month the reason for it became problematic. For the first fortnight after leaving Edinburgh he was busy dealing with the pockets of resistance and arranging garrisons in northern England, but by the end of October only Pontefract was holding on. Fairfax sent Rainborough, back in the army after the fleet had rejected his command, to take over command of the siege. But the royalist garrison got wind of his presence at Doncaster, and sent out a battalion of horse to capture him at his lodgings there. As he attempted to escape, his captors ran him through and killed him. Rainborough’s death roused a sense of of outrage throughout the army, and the regimental petitions that followed called for vengeance on his ‘murderers’. His body was brought back to London, and the Levellers mounted a great funeral procession for him, followed by many hundreds of mounted men; one estimate said three thousand. In these emotive circumstances it was appropriate for Cromwell to take over the siege fo a while, and Fairfax ordered him to do so. But he did not need to stay there for a whole month after Rainborough’s death, especially as Lambert’s detachment rejoined him before mid-November. He did not return south until Fairfax sent him a direct order to do so on the 28th. Even then he took a week to complete the journey. It’s likely that he still had doubts about Ireton’s efforts to commit the army to dissolving or purging parliament and putting the king on trial for his life. He would have been expected to take his seat in the Commons had he returned earlier, and may not have felt ready for that either.
We get a glimpse into his thinking and heart-searching ‘waiting upon the Lord’ in two letters to his cousin Colonel Robert Hammond, who was still acting as the king’s keeper as governor of the Isle of Wight and was known to have personal sympathy for his royal ‘guest’. These were written to his ‘dear Robin’ three weeks apart on 6th and 25th November, and they suggest that in trying to point where the path of conscience should lead Hammond, Cromwell indicated that he was wrestling with his own. In particular, he warned Hammond against letting his aversion to the Levellers lead him into ‘meddling with an accursed thing’. The first letter reveals that Vane and the other leading independents were concerned that his own agreement with Argyll amounted to ‘a compliance with presbytery’, and wished he had gone on to conquer Scotland. Cromwell wrote that while that might have been feasible, it would not have been ‘Christian’, and he had been commanded by parliament not to do it. For his own part, he had waited and prayed for the day to see union and right understanding between the godly people, who for him included Jews, Gentiles, Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists and all, as well as Scots and English. His second letter, written after the Council of Officers’ acceptance of the Remonstrance, shows Cromwell coming to terms with the necessity for the army to put a stop to the Newport treaty, this ruining hypocritical agreement, as he put it. ‘Robin’, he wrote, could neither expect any good to come from the king:
Good by this man, against whom the Lord hath witnessed? … seek to know the mind of God in all that chain of providence, … and then tell, whether there be not some glorious and high meaning in all this? … I dare be bold to say, it is not that the wicked should be exalted, that God should so appear as indeed he hath done.
Cromwell believed that the army was a lawful power, called by God to oppose and fight against the king upon some stated grounds, and whether, as such it might not resist a corrupted parliament as well as a king. On the ‘Remonstrance’ he wrote that he wished that it had been held back until after the treaty was concluded, but he hoped for God’s blessing upon it. But before he received this letter Hammond was was under arrest. He had refused to place the king under closer arrest, as Fairfax had commanded, without direct orders from parliament, so on 21 November Fairfax summoned him to Windsor, where the general was now headquartered. Colonel Ewer was sent to escort him there. Two radical officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Cobbett and Captain John Merriman arrived on the isle soon after and put the king under heavy guard. They were acting under the orders of Ireton and his close associates, and at daybreak on 1 December they roused Charles and removed him to Hurst Castle on the mainland. At the same time, a sizeable part of the army was on the march to London. The Commons had made it clear that they were not going to give any time to the ‘Remonstrance’ until they had fully considered the King’s final answer to parliament’s propositions, and that was the last straw for Ireton. A public declaration by Fairfax and the General Council of Officers heralded the army’s advance, claiming that it was …
… necessitated to, and justified in, an appeal from this parliament, in the present constitution as it stands, unto the extraordinary judgement of God and good people.
Ireton’s ‘Coup’ & Pride’s ‘Purge’:
The General Council of Officers in the army still aimed at a settlement based on a regular succession of parliaments, and hoped that the present House of Commons would expel its ‘corrupt and apostacised members’ forthwith. If it did not do that, and few expected that it would, the army called upon its ‘upright’ members to withdraw, and undertook to recognise them as a provisional government until a new and reformed parliament was elected, which was to be arranged as soon as possible. Ireton was the moving force behind this declaration and the army’s consequent moves, and he clearly envisaged a forcible dissolution rather than a purge. But parliament remained defiant, though on 1 December they did not go as far as William Prynne, who urged them to cashier Fairfax and declare the army to be in rebellion. They totally rejected the ‘Remonstrance’ however, by 125 votes to 58, and ordered Fairfax not to bring his forces any nearer to London. That was a futile gesture, for by the time Fairfax received the Speaker’s letter, he had seven thousand men already drawn up for review in Hyde Park. Ireton and his fellow officers did listen, however, to the pleas of members friendly to the army, who urged them to purge parliament rather than dissolve it. Later the same day, parliament received the formal report by its recently returned commissioners on the king’s final answer to the propositions put to him at Newport. A thinned out House of Lords voted without a division that it provided a ground … to proceed upon for the settlement of the peace of the kingdom. The alliance made that summer between Saye, the royal independents and the army leaders was in ruins.
The Commons put off their response, being preoccupied with more immediate military matters. On the following day, a Saturday, the whole of Westminster from Whitehall to Ludgate was crammed with troops; the City itself was temporarily spared having to quarter them on condition that it immediately handed over forty thousand pounds of its assessment arrears. When the Commons sat again the following Monday, they argued for a record-breaking twenty-four hours as to how to respond both to the king’s answer and the military occupation. Their numbers shrank from 340 to 214 before they finally voted, on the morning of the 5th, on the same motion the Lords had passed, and they concurred that the king’s reply furnished them with ground for proceeding to a peace settlement. Speaker Lenthall warned them that they were voting for their own demise. He was right, as later that day Ireton and other officers met friendly MPs to persuade them to agree to a dissolution rather than sit on as ‘a mock parliament’. He failed, and a committee of three officers and three members was entrusted with deciding how a purge was to be conducted, who should be excluded and who arrested. Those to be excluded were those who the previous August had refused to declare the invading Scottish ‘Engager’ army to be made up of enemies and traitors, as well as those who had just voted in support of the king’s final answer.
So it was that by 7 a.m. on 6 December several regiments were posted in the precincts of the parliament-house, and Colonel Thomas Pride stood in the lobby with his guard, ready to execute the operation which has become associated with his name. The Council of Officers had ordered him to ‘purge’ the Long Parliament of those members who were obstructing the army in its desire to bring Charles I to trial. Altogether 186 members were ‘secluded’ or prevented from taking their seats in the Commons. A further forty-five were sent to prison. Out of a total of 471 MPs, only seventy-one continued into Westminster Hall on the path that would bring the king to trial and, ultimately, to the scaffold. By stopping members who had voted for the Newport Treaty from entering and arresting others, Pride was violating precisely the parliamentary independence that the war had been fought to preserve. The truncated ‘Rump’ Parliament that resulted was more of a mockery of the institution than anything the Stuarts had ever convened or dissolved. Effectively, the ‘purge’ was a military coup d’état, which only Oliver St John and Henry Vane the younger embraced with any enthusiasm. Fairfax seems to have given Ireton free rein and kept out of the business himself, but he must have known what was going on; his lodging was close by in Whitehall. When a committee of six MPs waited on him to explain the previous morning’s vote he kept them waiting for three hours, and then would give them no straight answer to their questions about what his army was up to. Since the motive force behind that revolution and its ultimate success lay so much in the army, it was somewhat strange that the attitude of its grandees remained so equivocal. Fairfax was genuinely convinced that the treaty of Newport was a potential disaster and must be stopped, but he was deeply unhappy about the consequential moves to put the king on trial.
Later in the day on the 6th, Cromwell arrived from his long journey south, declaring that he had not been acquainted with the purge beforehand, yet since it was done he was glad of it, and would endeavour to maintain it. It is inconceivable that Ireton had kept his father-in-law and immediate superior in the dark about his intentions, but Cromwell probably took care not to know enough to ‘incriminate’ him in the days’ events, also timing his arrival so as not to be visibly involved in them. Cromwell’s standpoint throughout December remained hard to penetrate, and historians continue to disagree about it. He had had no qualms about the termination of the Newport treaty, as his letters to Hammond reveal, and no longer needed any convincing that Charles was unfit to rule, but that did not necessarily justify persuing him to his death or abolishing the monarchy in Britain. If a way could be found of sparing his life, or if Charles could have been persuaded to abdicate in favour of his youngest son, the Duke of Gloucester, Cromwell would probably have welcomed it. He had, for a long time, seemed painfully aware of the transparent manipulations of legality going on around him, and was deeply troubled by the prospect of a trial. In December, even though he accepted the need for a trial, he still referred publicly to those who had ‘carried on a design’ to depose Charles as traitors. But at some part over the next few weeks he had decided that Providence was, after all, unmistakably demanding the punishment of the ‘man of blood’, the ‘author’ of the civil woes of Britain.
The army moved into the City on 8 December, since the corporation had failed to meet Fairfax’s deadline for the demanded payment to the army. Fairfax had no compunction about helping his unpaid troops to twenty-seven thousand which his officers found in Weavers’ Hall, banked there by the Committee for Advance of Money. The shrunken Commons spent the 8th as a day of fasting and humiliation, and then adjourned until the 12th, as the Lords had already done. Somehow during these hectic days of early December the committee which Ireton had conceded to the Levellers just before the ‘Remonstrance’ finally managed to meet and thrash out a new Agreement of the People. We don’t know how many of its sixteen members took part; though the chief negotiators were Lilburne, Ireton, Colonel Tichborne, and Henry Marten, the only MP who attended. By Lilburne’s own account he and Ireton argued keenly over the contents of the document, which was much longer than the original Agreement, but it was drafted in time to be presented to the General Council of Officers on 11 December. Lilburne claimed to have understood that its text was final, to be accepted or rejected as it stood, but to the Levellers’ disgust the Council of Officers examined it closely, debated it at intervals for five weeks, and modified it in significant respects.
In mid-December, with parliament clearly subordinate to the army, it was the Council of Officers which also decided the fate of the king. On 15 December, it resolved that he should be brought speedily to justice, and appointed a committee to consider how this should be done. Cromwell and Ireton were conspicuously missing from its membership, perhaps because they were just too busy behind the scenes, but perhaps also, at least in Cromwell’s case, because he was still more than a little uneasy about the enormity of what was being contemplated. The small number of MPs who still attended the House contained many who were more resentful of the Purge than keen to proceed against the king, and it was not until the 28th that they gave a first reading to an ordinance for the establishment of a High Court of Justice to try him. Nine days earlier they had driven out the few remaining seekers after accommodation by requiring members, as a condition of their continuing to sit, to make a formal declaration that they dissented from the vote on 5 December which had accepted the king’s answer as grounds for proceeding to a settlement.
The military watch on the on the entrance to the House had continued until the 12th December, by which time forty-five members had been imprisoned, though all but twenty were released by the 20th. A rather larger number were prevented from taking up their seats. Just how many members were excluded is not known, and estimates vary widely, but many members avoided his actions on the day by staying away, and many more expressed their outrage at the army’s violation by voluntarily absenting themselves, either permanently or for an extended period. The pre-purge strength of the House was 471, since eighteen were vacant and eighteen more were held by men who had already been long absent. Eventually, just over two hundred members would take their seats in the ‘Rump’, as the purged parliament came to be known, but at the time the army’s action alienated most of the parliamentary independents as well as all the presbyterians. It was a thin company that carried on the business of parliament during the dangerous weeks of the king’s trial and execution, and several times in December the House was short of a quorum. The number of members who attended at any time between 6 December and 5 February, or who signed the king’s death warrant, totalled only just over seventy, and Vane, St John and Haselrig were not among them. The attendance of the peers rarely reached double figures. The ‘high court’, packed and processed into compliance by Ireton, was more arbitrary than than any of the prerogative courts of the Long Parliament had abolished as the tools of despotism.
Contemporary and Historical Views of the Purge:
Predictably, Pride’s Purge was denounced by most of the Presbyterian clergy in London and acclaimed by many, though not all, of the Independents, including the numerous Baptists (above). The army’s champion, Hugh Peter, was especially rapturous. Before the end of the year, parliament received a spate of petitions and declarations, by one account over a hundred, from radical puritans and commonwealthmen in various counties and towns, praising the army, urging members to complete the work of reformation, and, in many cases, calling for stern justice upon the king. They represented the views of a minority, but an articulate, active and organised one. The majority who looked upon the proceedings against the king with horror were powerless to resist them, for they had spent whatever force they could command in the spring, summer and early autumn. A presbyterian City corporation might just have attempted resistance, despite the military occupation, but such a body now no longer existed. Just before the annual elections to the Common Council on 21 December, the Rump rushed through legislation disqualifying all who had sided with the king in the wars or signed the engagement of the previous June calling for a personal treaty with him. As a result, only the old common-councilmen were re-elected, and the corporation’s support for the revolution in progress was assured.
In December 1648, Hewson’s regiment was part of the force with which Fairfax occupied London, and its commanders remained instrumental in political events as they unfolded in the capital. Some historians have claimed that, in the crisis which followed the second civil war, leading to Pride’s Purge and the trial of the king, Ireton used rank-and-file petitioners to achieve his own political ends and that the grandees exploited and then cast aside the Levellers of whom there is no fear, as Cromwell put it. Some of the reforms recommended by the Levellers were adopted – a republic, abolition of the House of Lords – but none of the democratic content which alone, in the Leveller view, could have legitimated military intervention in politics. It was at this time that Henry Pinnell seems to have had a role in the republication of the Agreement in December 1648. William Clarke recorded much of the proceedings, which took place in the Palace of Whitehall, and they are of as much interest as the more famous Putney debates. They reveal that, far from simply acting as pawns of the grandees, the regiments remained actively engaged in determining the direction of the Revolution. At least seventy-three officers participated at one time or another, attendances of fifty being not uncommon. One of the documents published for consideration, and then for wider circulation, has been attributed to Henry Pinnell, the chaplain of Hewson’s regiment, the front page of which is shown below. While it proposed a radical refom of parliament, it also set ot the terms by which the monarch could continue to play a role in the English state, even at this late stage in the proceedings against the existing king.
Besides these proposals, the grandees themselves were not of one mind and spirit as to what needed to be done next. In particular, throughout much of December, Cromwell was at odds with his son-in-law, Ireton. According to Woolrych, Cromwell may have found parts of the new Agreement of the People too radical for him, and he held three meetings with the old middle group men, including Speaker Lenthall at the third of these, to discuss proposals for a more conservative settlement. It was not until the 20th January that the Common Council presented its amended Agreement of the People, in a fair parchment copy, to the Commons, but by then the eyes of the whole country were on the adjacent Westminster Hall, where the king’s trial opened that day. Christopher Hill and other historians have argued that Ireton conceded the drafting of a new ‘Agreement’ only in order to neutralise the Levellers while the army went ahead with enforcing the king’s prosecution, to which even Levellers like Lilburne and Pinnell were opposed. But the length and intensity of the Whitehall debates surely show that the Agreement was intended as a blueprint for a settlement, as Woolrych calls it, which was being taken very seriously, not least by Ireton himself, who was prepared to risk the wrath of his commander and father-in-law in order to see it through. He told parliament:
The ground of the late war between the King and Parliament was … whether he or you should exercise the supreme power over us. … so it’s vain to expect a settlement of peace amongst us until until that point be clearly and justly determined, that there can be no liberty in any nation where the law-giving power is not solely in the people or their representatives.
Is not all the controversy, whose slaves the poor shall be? asked a Leveller pamphlet, pointing to the need for a radical reform of the ‘establishment’ as a whole. But the experiment of democratic politics had been tried, in the most favourable possible forum, the Army, a cross-section of men of all orders of society; even there it had failed. The myth was, and is, that it failed not because the ideas were wrong but because the generals were too treacherous, the radicals too trusting, the mass of those whom they led too little impressed with the importance of the issues. Sin, in seventeenth-century parlance, was too powerful. But, as Hill also pointed out, ‘Sin’ is the reflection in the minds of men of the realities of this society. Both Ireton and the London independent pastors appear to have had a clearer and more realistic view of fallen ‘human society’, at least in mid-seventeenth century England and Wales. Only a ruthless ‘Godly republic’ could succeed in controlling such a society.
Revolutionaries & Republicans – who were they?:
The Revolution was no longer, if it ever had been, simply a question of Independents versus Presbyterians, either in parliament or in the City. So who were the revolutionaries now, apart from the army officers who had ordered the ‘purge’? In attempting to answer this question fifty years ago, David Underdown continued a trend away from an almost total emphasis on the social and economic aspects of the ‘English Revolution’. Interest in the political issues was partly revived by the use of statistical sources and the introduction of quantitative techniques. These studies, culminating in Underdown’s (1971), Pride’s Purge, have provided subsequent historians of the period with a detailed picture of the complexity of party groupings within the Commons. Blair Worden (1974) challenged the long-established theory that the Rump acted throughout 1648-53 in mere self-interest. Underdown examined the evidence about the 471 individual MPs who were sitting just prior to the purge, though this varied greatly in both quantity and quality. He divided them into five groups: the active revolutionaries who openly committed themselves to the revolution while it was in progress during December and January; the conformists, who avoided formal commitment at that time, but accepted the fait accompli in February, when they could no longer be incriminated in the execution of the king; the abstainers, who were not actually secluded, but showed their opposition by staying away from parliament, at least until the spring of 1649; those secluded by the purge, including the hard core of the Army’s enemies, who suffered imprisonment as well as seclusion. At the end of this process, Underdown enumerated the categories as follows:
Revolutionaries 71 (15%);
Conformists 83 (18%);
Abstainers 86 (18%);
Secluded 186 (40%);
Imprisoned 45 (9%)
Underdown interpreted these statistics as showing that the ‘revolution’ was not essentially about either politics or religion; or that it was essentially either a class struggle or a mere coup d’état by a crowd of backwoods outsiders trying to get in. They do suggest that it was a mixture of all these things. He went on to descibe a ‘typical’ member of these categories. Here he characterised the ‘typical revolutionary’ as …
… a married man in his mid-forties. He had probably inherited an estate, but was quite possibly a younger son. He had gone to one of the Inns of Court, most likely Gray’s Inn, and was less likely to have attended a university. He may possibly have come from the North-East of England. He had no previous parliamentary experience, entered the Long Parliament in a by-election after August 1645, and attached himself to the radical wing of the Independents; … in religion he probably, but not necessarily, turned to Independency. Of country gentry status, he came of a rather insecure family, and was probably not a rich man, having a pre-war income of less than five hundred pounds a year: if richer, he may well have been in serious debt. He was likely to have large financial claims against the State, and to recover some of these debts in the form of Church, royalist or Crown lands, in that order of preference. He may have been an office-holder, and if not was quite likely to become one after the revolution …
The Monarch’s Path to the Martyr’s Scaffold:
Even with the removal of the presbyterian ‘peace party’, the remnant, or ‘Rump’ were reluctant to pursue the path that they anticipated would bring the king to trial and end on the scaffold. Cromwell himself, who had already hesitated in his support for the Purge, was half-drawn to a scheme advanced by a group of peers, whereby Charles might even have remained king, with drastically reduced powers. One of their leaders, Denbigh made a final offer to Charles, but the king was unwilling to consider such terms, and rather than compromise his crown any further, he was now resigned to what he saw as his martyrdom. By the 26th December, the quest for a bloodless solution was over, and Cromwell seemed fully convinced that the king must pay the penalty for making war upon his people. During the debate on the first reading of the ordinance for a High Court of Justice, he told the House that if any man had pursued a design to put the king on trial and depose him he would be the greatest traitor in the world, but that since providence and necessity had cast it upon them he would pray God to bless their counsels, though he could as yet offer them no counsel himself. Despite their misgivings, the Commons voted to end negotiations with the king and passed the ordinance on 1st January, but next day the Lords unanimously threw it out and adjourned for a week. Attempting to cover the illegal and unconstitutional nature of their ‘revolutionary tribunal’, the Commons then resolved:
That the people are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England, in parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared for law by the Commons … hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent and concurrence of king or House of Peers be not had thereunto.
The ordinance, as first drafted, intended the court to consist of 150 commissioners, presided over by the Chief Justices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas and the Chief Baron of the Exchequer. But none of these, nor any judge in the central courts, was willing to act. Most lawyers refused to associate themselves with what was clearly an illegal court. So they chose the best man they could find, John Bradshaw, the Chief Justice of Chester, a convinced republican and a friend of John Milton. The special High Court was hand-picked, with a great deal of trouble given to include a cross-section of the English notability – landowners, army officers and MPs. Such was the unwillingness to serve that the number of commissioners had to be reduced to 135, though most of those nominated only agreed under extreme pressure. Of these, fifty-five, including most of the lawyers named and all six of the peers, never attended the trial. Average attendances at sessions never seldom amounted to more than seventy. Vane, Skippon and Brereton were among those who never appeared. Fairfax attended the initial meeting of the court, dealing with preliminary business on 8 January, when attendance was so poor that it had to be postponed until the 10th, and he never attended again. When his name was called at the top of the roll, it was answered by Lady Fairfax, sitting veiled in the public gallery: No, nor will he be here; he has more wit than to be here! Oliver St John also decided against making an appearance. Colonel Algernon Sidney withdrew after these initial meetings, declaring that the king could not be tried by any court, and that no king could be tried by this one. He later became a famous republican theorist. John Cook, a republican fanatic at the time, was appointed solicitor to the Commonwealth on 10 January so that he could lead the prosecution.
Certain precautions had to be taken. The atmosphere of fear and tension was best illustrated by John Bradshaw, the presiding judge (pictured seated in the centre in the picture above), wearing a hat with a special metal lining ‘to ward off blows’ and protect him from shots from the public galleries, from which the prisoner was kept well away. On 19th January, Charles had been brought from Windsor, where he had been since 23rd December, to St James’ Palace, where he dined and lodged as ‘Charles Stuart’, without any of the service and courtesies due to a sovereign. It was as though he was already deposed, if not yet dead, but their were ‘certain formalities’ to go through. In Westminster Hall, the Stuart monarch was told by the prosecutor John Cook that he was being arraigned for his chief and prime responsibility for all the treasons, murders, ravages, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages, and mischiefs to this nation.
Charles’ attempted objections could not prevent Cook from reading out the rest of the lengthy charge which the lawyer had prepared with some difficulty and together with others. Its main burden was that Charles Stuart, having been entrusted with a limited power to govern according to the laws of the land, for the good of the people and the preservation of their rights, had pursued a wicked design to to arrogate to himself an unlimited and tyrannical power, in order to rule as he pleased. To that end he had traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present parliament, and the people therein represented. Moreover, he had compounded his guilt by deliberately causing the war to be renewed during the past year. Nothing was said about the ‘Engagement’ or the Scottish invasion, as he was on trial solely as the King of England. The Scottish parliament had been pressing that proceedings should be suspended until their country had been heard in the matter. But his dealings with the Irish rebels and his encouragement of an Irish invasion of England and Wales formed part of the charge at Westminster. When he heard himself condemned as a tyrant, traitor and murderer, a public and implacable enemy to the commonwealth of England, he laughed in the face of the judges. Asked to plead, he refused, demanding instead to know by …
… “what power I am called hither … I would know by what Authority, I mean, lawful; for there are many unlawful Authorities in the world, Theeves and Robbers by the highways … Remember I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the Judgement of God upon this Land, think well upon it … before you go any further from one sin to a greater.”
Denying the court its show trial, complete with witnesses, Charles, without his habitual stammer, reiterated his refusal to acknowledge the competency of its jurisdiction. Throughout the trial, he also refused to plead to the charge and to defend himself. When he reappeared on 22 January he was hoping to read the text of a written explanation of his reasons for refusing to plead, insisting that as king he could not be held accountable to any earthly judges and that nothing lawful could possibly be derived from a body that had removed one part of its indivisible lawmaking sovereignty. The only possible claim to such jurisdiction was through the revolutionary utterance, already made by the Rump Parliament when it had asserted on 4th January that the people are, under God, the source of all just power. Charles, not hesitating to expose the coercion behind this, protested that it was common knowledge that this parliament’s claim to represent the people was belied by the dentention and exclusion of many of its representatives. Here he was making the claim that he, and not the army or a fraudulant parliament, was the true guardian of the welfare and freedom of the people. That, of course, was what his most articulate and disinterested champion, Edward Hyde (later Lord Clarendon), had wanted him to say all along. However, the chiefs among his judges were not about to allow Charles to express these views out loud. He was silenced before getting very far into his statement and after much protest he was again removed from the court. The following day the same exchange ended when Bradshaw admonished Charles for seemingly not understanding that he was ‘before a Court of Justice’, to which Charles retorted: “I see I am before a power.”
Time and again, on this and subsequent days, he challenged Bradshaw to by what authority the court sat, and when told that it was by the authority of the Commons of England, he poured justified scorn on the idea that the Lower House of parliament was a court of judicature or that a small fraction of it, first elected more than eight years previously, had any claim to speak for the commons of England in a broader sense. If he had recognised the court’s jurisdiction and been prepared to abdicate, he could still have saved his life, but by refusing to plead, he frustrated the one purpose of his accusors, since until he did so the thirty-three witnesses who had been assembled to testify to his responsibility for the two wars could not be heard publicly. The further price that he paid by not pleading was that he was not allowed to address the court himself; yet his regal dignity and self-control on all three appearances before it won him many sympathisers. For the remainder of the proceedings the court merely sat as a committee, before which the witnesses were eventually heard on the 24th, and their depositions were read out in a public session in the Painted Chamber the next day. Only forty-six commissioners attended this, but they resolved that they could now proceed to a death sentence. In the face of his bold defiance, it was a foregone conclusion, and Charles was brought before the court to hear it on the 27th. He pleaded eloquently to be heard before the full body of Lords and Commons, and in doing so he had the better of yet another exchange with Bradshaw, but all he won was a brief adjournment. In the course of this, Cromwell is reported to have used all his powers of angry rhetoric to bring round the waverers among the commissioners. But Lucy Hutchinson, the wife of Colonel Thomas Hutchinson, wrote about how this was used as an ‘excuse’ by some of the fifty-nine ‘regicide’ signatories of the king’s death warrant when they were later called to account themselves following the restoration:
In January 1648/49*, the court sat, the King was brought to his trial. … One thing was remarked in him by many of the court, that when the blood spilt in many of the battles where he was in his own person, and had caused it to be shed by his own command, was laid to his charge, he heard it with disdainful smiles, and looks and gestures which rather expressed sorrow that all the opposite party to him were not cut off, … The gentlemen that were appointed his judges, and divers others, saw in him a disposition so bent on the ruin of all that opposed him, and of all the righteous and just things they had contended for, that it was upon the consciences of many of them, that if they did not execute justice upon him, God would require at their hands all the blood and desolation which should ensure by their suffering him to escape, when God had brought him into their hands. Although the malice of the malignant party and their apostate brethren seemed to threaten them, yet they ought to cast themselves upon God, while they acted with a good conscience for him and for their country. Some of them afterwards, for excuse, belied themselves, and said they were under the awe of the army, and overpersuaded by Cromwell and the like: but it is certain that all men herein were left to their free liberty of acting, neither persuaded nor compelled … As for Mr Hutchinson, although he was very much confirmed in his judgment concerning the cause, yet herein being called to an extraordinary action, whereof many were of several minds, he addressed himself to God by prayer; … and finding no check, but a confirmation in his conscience that it was his duty to act as he did, he, upon serious debate, both privately and in his address to God, and in conferences with conscientious, upright, unbiased persons, proceeded to sign the sentence against the King … and therefore he cast himself on God’s protection.
(*According to the old calendar, in use until 1564, the year began on 1 April, and some ‘chroniclers’ continued to use this in the first half of the seventeenth century.)
On the resumption of the court session, the sentence was read out in open court, and all sixty-seven commissioners present rose to signify their assent to Bradshaw’s declaration that the judgement was that of the whole court, sentencing the former monarch to be ‘put to death, by the severing of his Head from his Body.’ Charles was brought back to hear his fate. When he asked to be heard once more, he was about to be denied the opportunity to do so, and when one of the commissioners, John Downes, protested that Charles ought to be allowed to speak, he drew from Cromwell the intimidating question, What ails thee? He scoffed and asked to speak for a final time, but was again denied on the grounds that he had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court. He was taken away protesting, “I am not suffered to speak. Expect what Justice other people will have.” Only fifty-nine members of the court signed the death warrant, but all sixty-seven were later counted among the ‘regicides’ (two of the commissioners signed the warrant later who were not present when the sentence was read). Cromwell and Ireton were prominent among the signatories, together with a number of other colonels, including John Hewson; his signature can be seen on the warrant in the third column at the bottom (above).
The Views from the Scaffold – Witnesses & Historians:
Three days later, on the cold morning of 30th January, Colonel Hewson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Axtell (pictured above) commanded the guard for the king’s execution, which took place on the black-draped platform outside the Banqueting House of St James’ Palace in Whitehall. Charles had passed up chance after chance of saving his life because he thought that to do so he would have to compromise the sacred prerogatives of his kingly office. Those who brought him to the scaffold were driven by a no less sincere conviction that they were doing justice upon a man whom God had witnessed for shedding the blood of thousands of his subjects in an evil cause. His final ordeal was cruelly prolonged, largely because the Rump belatedly realised, on that morning, that the death of a monarch had to be followed by a proclamation of the successor, so they had to rush through an act to make such a proclamation illegal. Perfectly composed and dressed in two shirts, lest shivering be mistaken for fear, he was at last able to make his speech, written on paper that he opened on the scaffold. Not many of the thousands present can have heard his last words from the platform, but he accepted his ‘unjust sentence’ as God’s punishment for his failings as a monarch. He denied that he had declared war on parliament, neither Lords nor Commons, or to encroach upon their privileges. He reaffirmed his central political beliefs, though not in the form of Edward Hyde’s thought-out theory of a constitutional monarchy so much as an expression of personal sorrow and anger of all that had occured since the ‘Grand Remonstrance’ of 1642. But rejected the charge that he was the enemy of the people; indeed, he claimed to be ‘the martyr of the people’:
“For the people … truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things.”
Certainly, no one had ever accused Charles of pandering to the public. From beginning to end, through all the tactical twists and turns of his relatively short reign, he had remained utterly constant in his belief in the sanctity of his appointment. He concluded his oration with the words, “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.”
Elizabeth I had wanted the execution of Mary Stuart, Charles’ grandmother, to be carried out in utmost secrecy, far away from public gaze. Cromwell and Ireton were convinced that as many people as possible should see Charles beheaded, both to dissuade any attempts at rescue and to do God’s work in the clear light of day, without shame or hesitation. Unlike his grandmother’s messy execution, Richard Brandon cut through his neck with a single blow. Cromwell had given notice that he would “cut his head off with the crown upon it”, but the ‘groan’ which went up from ‘the thousands present’ when the king’s head dropped into the bloody basket and was held up by Brandon, could not have been very reassuring for the grandees present. The person of the monarch had already proved to be separable from the institution. Simon Schama has claimed that, in his last days, Charles had managed, despite all attempts to gag him, to teach by actions as well as words that armed power could not remould the broken legitimacy of either the English state, nor the Scottish. But henceforth, it was not sufficient for any king of either state to to simply assert a ‘Divine Right’ to rule. It would only be when a monarch of both England, Scotland and Ireland ruled who recognised that the status of the Crown might be enhanced, not compromised, by partnership with the parliaments that the violent pendulum swings of all three kingdoms could find their equipoise. That issue was not finally resolved until the second, less bloody revolution of 1688-89 and the establishment of a ‘constitutional monarchy’ in England.
Fifty years ago, the historian C V Wedgewood described the Trial and Execution of Charles I as one of the most startling – perhaps the most startling – event of English history. It astounded the whole of Europe in 1649, with some calling it the most horrible and detestable patricide ever committed by Christians. It was condemned almost everywhere. Only in some of the Swiss Protestant cantons does there seem to have been a sympathetic reception to the event as, in Cromwell’s words, ‘a cruel necessity’. Kings had been deposed before, and some killed. But this was the first time that a king had been arraigned under his title as King and in the name of his people. Three weeks before putting him on trial the House of Commons proclaimed that the people under God are the source of all just power. They went on to assert the rather less convincing proposition that the remnant of the Hose of Commons elected eight years previously truly represented the people. According to Wedgewood, the trial and execution were an attack on the mistique of the monarchy, an assertion that ithe monarch was no more than the highest officer of State, a steward appointed by and for the people, who was accountable to them. This was a new concept in 1649. It was the work of a dominant group of officers in the Parliamentary Army led by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, seconded by Republicans like Colonel Edmund Ludlow and sectarians like Colonel Thomas Harrison. They acted in conjunction with Commonwealthmen in the Commons, of whom Henry Marten was the most significant.
Wedgewood pointed out how, inevitably, in any account of his trial the King appears in a more sympathetic light than his accusers and judges. But polically and in the long-term, the greater courage was theirs. Convinced, as Cromwell chose to record, that God had witnessed against the King and that he deserved death, they chose to defy convention; they did not engineer som hole-in-the-corner murder; they sought to demonstrate the guilt of the monarch in the traditional seat of English justice, Westminster Hall, before a full audience of his subjects, in a trial that was fully reported. As one of their supporters proudly predicted a few days after the king’s death, their actions would live and remain upon record to the perpetual honour of the English State, who took no dark and doubtful way, no indirect by-course, but went in the open and plain path of Justice, Reason, Law and Religion. John Milton praised the glory of the act: God has inspired the English to be the first of mankind who have not hesitated to judge and condemn their king.
Filling the Void – Commonwealth and Republic:
As we have seen, the months between October 1648 and January 1649 were crucial to the English Revolution. With the execution of Charles I, England was kingless. The Scots, however, declared their willingness to accept Prince Charles as their Charles II and as king of all Britain, on condition that he accepted the Solemn League and Covenant. But it was not until the end of June 1650 that Charles landed in Scotland and he was proclaimed king in July. In England, meanwhile, a series of radical acts followed: the Commons declared themselves the sovereign power, the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished on 17 March 1649, and England was declared a Commonwealth in May, making its government that of a republic. An executive Council of State had been established to deal with day-to-day business of government which had previously been the province of the king’s ministers at court. The decision to establish it was taken on 7 February, immediately after the Rump had voted to abolish the monarchy. A powerful committee had been set up to define the council’s powers and propose the names of its initial members. The latter were to number forty-one, of whom thirty-one were MPs; the others included five peers, the three chief judges, an alderman to represent the City, and John Bradshaw, who had presided over the king’s trial. But only three of the peers, Denbigh, Pembroke and Salisbury, were willing to serve, and from the committee’s nominees, the House rejected Ireton and Harrison. This was a heavy slight to the army, whose only members on the council were Fairfax, Cromwell and Skippon. Since Fairfax was seldom seen and would eventually resign his command, and since Cromwell was to be absent in Ireland and Scotland for much of the next two years, the army was most unwisely under-represented.
The council was empowered to raise forces, conduct relations with foreign powers and their ambassadors, and imprison anyone who disobeyed its commands, but it was firmly subjected to whatever orders parliament gave it, and was appointed for one year only. Behind the Rump stood the army, to which it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long, since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The army had seemingly committed itself to supporting a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution of parliament itself, regulated the frequency and duration of its sitting, brought large alterations to the law of the land, and changed the whole relationship between the church and the state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that this caretaker régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past. Yet, as Worden (1974) commented in his analysis of its eventual dissolution in 1653, the Rump had never regarded itself as anything other than an interim government, and it had always acted on the assumption that it would eventually make way for a newly elected parliament. In all its resolutions from March 1649 onwards, it implicitly if not explicitly acknowledged that by postponing them it was compromising between the ideal and the necessary; elections were desirable, but they were not yet practicable. Worden has challenged the traditional view of the Rump among historians that it was ‘energetically radical’ in 1649, yet by 1653 it had become intolerably oligarchical, dilatory and corrupt. He has shown that:
Both the initial radicalism and the subsequent decadence of the régime have been exaggerated. The explanation of the Rump’s demise lay less in any change in its character, which had been largely determined in infancy, than in the changing requirements Cromwell made of it. Cromwell, the destroyer of the Commonwealth régime, had also, more than anyone else, been its architect. The Rump was his conservative solution to the problems of 1648-49.
In the Spring of 1649, the Levellers reached the the peak of their influence, through the share they had had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’. From the early months of 1649 onward there was a burgeoning of various groups outside parliament of even more radical than the Levellers; the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up a régime ruled exclusively by their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the Diggers who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property. Of these groups only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. For the Fifth Monarchists and a multitude of other equally fervent sects, the emptiness left by the dethroned king was not a void at all but the antechamber to glory. Their preachers and prophets said so in the streets and to rapt congregations of appremtices and artisans. But the message resonated with special force in the army where sabres had been honed by the fire of sermons. With the Scottish Presbyterian régime having declared for Charles II as King of both Scotland and England, and Ireland still in the power of the Catholic confederacy, now reinforced by the royalist army of the Duke of Ormonde, the New Model Army could not afford to let its guard down.
So England remained an armed camp, an occupied country in all but name, where law might as easily be delivered on the point of a sword as in a magistrates’ court. The army’s officer corps, especially at the junior level, was younger, less traditionally educated, drawn from lower down the social scale and passionately Independent in religion. Since about seventy per cent of artisans – shoemakers like Hewson, weavers, coopers, tanners and others – were literate, the rank and file had a political awareness of its destiny and that of the country. For the most part, the Leveller leaders were at pains to distance themselves from any imputation of social egalitarianism. At the same time, Lilburne detested everything about the new régime. He had been against the trial and execution of the king, which he believed were violations of all the principles of equity encoded in the common law. The response of the Leveller leaders to a formal ban on political discussions within the army was a two-part pamphlet called England’s New Chains, which called into question any kind of obedience to a régime they condemned as illegitimate. On 28 March, Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, together with Thomas Prince, were arrested and dragged before the new ‘Council of State’. According to Lilburne, both they and the councillors were treated to a fist-pounding eruption of rage from Oliver Cromwell:
“I tell you … you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them, or they will break you; yea, and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your heads and shoulders, and frustrate and make void all that work that, with so many years’ industry, toil and pains, you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most comptemtible generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth … I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.”
Not surprisingly, then, the Levellers who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Council were packed off to the Tower. But then, a petitioning campaign for their release immediately broke out in London, mobilised by Leveller women. The most articulate and impassioned preacher-turned-Leveller was Katherine Chidley, who tried to make the Commonwealth understand the particular sufferings of their sex and institute poor relief for their assistance:
Considering that we have an equal share and interest with men in the Commonwealth and it cannot be laid waste (as it now is) and not we be the greatest and most helpless sufferers therein: and considering the poverty, misery and famine, like a mighty torrent is breaking in upon us … and we are not able to see our children hang upon us, and cry out for bread, and not have the where-withal to feed them, we had rather die than see that day.
The outrageous temerity of women giving voice to these grievances was profoundly shocking to mainstream Puritan culture, devoted as it was to the dominant Calvinist view of the hierarchy of the sexes in which the woman’s role was seen as that of the obedient, quietly devoted helpmate. When Elizabeth Lilburne and Katherine Chidley, at the head of mass demonstration of women, presumed to petition parliament for the release of the Leveller leaders, they met with a predictably chauvinistic response:
The matter you petition about is of a higher concernment than you understand, the House have an answerto your Husbands and therefore you are desired to go home and looke after your own businesse, and meddle with your huswifery.
But the Leveller women did not go home, and instead made sure that the Manifestation, published from the Tower under the names of all the imprisoned Levellers, was widely distributed in London. It was an explanation of why, after so much persecution, deprivation and frustration, they had no choice but to persevere, whatever further ordeals might come their way. In its determination and bleak pathos, the Manifestation was a vocational manifesto for ‘the revolutionary calling’, as Schama has called it. All the same, the four denied that they were impatient and over-violent in our motions for the Publick Good, hoping to achieve their ends through another ‘Agreement of the (Free) People’, which they proceeded to publish from their ’causelesse captivity’ on 1 May. The document was serious and practical in content, repeating many of their original proposals of 1647, but judged by what was thought politically acceptable, in the Commonwealth, this third Agreement was a non-starter. But this does not mean that the kind of assumptions and arguments made by the Levellers could be thought of as utopian, hence the determination to mark themselves as fundamentally different from the ‘Diggers’, who preached community of lands and goods.
The early years of the Commonwealth revealed its internal isolation. The means by which it came to power, its decision to create a Council of State and the slow pace of further reform also alienated many of its potential allies like the Levellers. Despite the minimal role he had played in the trial and execution of Charles I, Fairfax and the army supported the Council of State. But although he was originally listed as a commissioner in his trial, Fairfax had never approved of the king’s execution and was clearly disillusioned by what the revolution had achieved. He retired from his commission as general at the age of thirty-eight. Cromwell took over the command of the army and eventually usurped the power of the Council of State as Lord Protector. However, in the first half of 1649 he remained an MP and this initial period was at a time when everybody could still ask, What is the ideal way for the Commonwealth of England to be governed? A great variety of answers were offered to that question during the ‘interregnum’. It is worth reminding ourselves that, from a religious perspective, Cromwell remained an Independent throughout the interregnum, and held strong views about liberty of conscience which also continued to influence his political and constitutional outlook. The manner in which the composition of the Rump and its Council of State evolved goes a long way to explain why the early fears of radical change in political, legal and social institutions – far beyond the the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords – proved to be unfounded. Conservative spirits had been equally apprehensive about the influence of the army, and particularly about its leaders’ collaboration with Lilburne and the other Levellers in framing a new constitutional settlement.
Final Acts of the Revolution: ‘Diggers’ & Mutineers:
But though religious and political differences caused the civil wars, it was social and cultural differences that made the revolution. In addition to the powerful new classes of mechants and gentry, there were increasing numbers of craftsmen, small traders and tenant farmers who were in danger of eviction because the landowners wished to enclose their lands and farms for their own use. There was much to be done in restoring stability and prosperity to the countryside after the wars. As a region that had been at the centre of the fighting, Oxfordshire and Berkshire (see the map below) had much wasted land; landowners were heavily taxed, and in many cases their tenants had failed to pay their rents for some years. The Rump government provided an opportunity for petitions for redress. For example, the citizens of Oxford petitioned parliament for help to restore the damage done to the city during the siege and fire of 1644. Others rebuilt their estates in a different way. The Loder family, based around Kintbury and Harwell in Berkshire, were keen to experiment in the most modern farming and land-management techniques. They were at the forefront of those progressive landlords who sought agreement to enclose land and to manage and divert water-courses in order to improve the quality, productivity and profitability of their lands. The region remained strategically important, too, as it lay between London and the west coast ports from which troops were to embark for the continuing, unpopular war in Ireland. Signs of dissent, such as the mutinies at Banbury and Burford in 1649 over pay and unwillingness to fight in Ireland, remained a major concern for the Council of State in the Rump parliament.
In religion, these new, ‘lesser’ gentry and yeoman classes tended to be Independent, and in the army they had won promotion to become officers and even generals by this time, though they were still more numerous among the ordinary soldiery. They still had no political power, although the war had brought them closer to it, and many of them made excellent agitators, demonstrators and pamphleteers. A man needed to own a substantial amount of property before he could vote in these times. The Levellers wanted the property qualification removed, but this was a view of democracy that did not gain acceptance for another two centuries in Britain. Ireton’s view, clearly expressed at the Putney debates with the Leveller agitators in the army in November 1647, had been: Liberty cannot be provided for in general sense if property be preserved. Those were circumstances in which revolutionary solutions might be well received; they must have existed in many more parts of the country. In ‘Banburyshire’, for example, there were pockets of religious enthusiasm among the largely puritan and parliamentarian area, which easily became a stronghold of opposition to the deeply unpopular Rump. Abingdon was also known as a centre of both relgious radicalism and civil unrest. In the early 1650s, both counties continued to be regarded as centres of both royalist and sectarian resistance to Cromwell’s Protectorate.
The national economic and political situation in the early months of 1649 was particularly explosive, with many in the capital also starving. Some Levellers and army radicals felt that they had been duped in the negotiations which led to the trial and execution of the king: the republic set up by the Independent Grandees had set up fell far short of the of the reformed democratic society they had hoped to see. They demanded the reappointment of Agitators and recall of the General Council of the army. It was out of the Levellers that the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ emerged in 1649. In April, they took over a patch of waste land near Cobham and established a ‘colony’ there which survived for a year in which it won much support in southern and central England, where similar ventures were established. Its leading pamphleteer, Gerrard Winstanley, from a Wigan mechant family, published a number of pamphlets, culminating in 1652 with a summary of his ideas in The Law of Freedom in a Platform, dedicated to Oliver Cromwell. It was on the day that Charles was sentenced that Winstanley published his pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness. It was a time when almost anything seemed possible, a time at which ideas developed rapidly. The point was made by Winstanley’s title. For most conservatives, there could be no such ‘new law’: there was only a long-established and well-known one. Confidence in novel ideas was itself a new concept, and one which only radicals possessed.
We can see why Winstanley’s sudden insight struck him as a divine revelation. The generals’ coup d’état had not solved England’s social and economic problems. All over the country poor squatters and cottagers, the victims of enclosure and heavy taxation, were ready for desperate remedies. It was no coincidence that the Diggers’ standard was first set up in north Surrey (see the map below), close not only to the radical South Bank of the Thames but also was in an area in which there were large crown estates, parks and forests, and where there had been a great deal of enclosure and consequent hardship to the peasantry. Nearby was Windsor Great Forest, which squatters were illegally cultivating. Other areas from which we have evidence of Digger activity including Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, counties in which there had been much enclosure and which had been much enclosure and which had been the scene of considerable fighting and free-quarter in the civil war. In the parish of Wellingborough, Northants, 1,169 were receiving alms in 1650. The local magistrates had ordered a workhouse to be set up, but the ‘true’ Levellers, or Diggers, claimed that…
… as yet we see nothing is done, nor any man that goeth about it; we have spent all we have, our trading is decayed, our wives and children cry for bread, our lives are a burden to us, divers of us having five, six, seven, eight, nine in family, and we cannot get bread for one of them by our labour. Rich men’s hearts are hardened, they will not give us if we beg at their doors; if we steal, the law will end our lives. Divers of the poor are starved to death already, and it were better for us that are living to die by the sword than by the famine.
The Digger movement appeared during a period of panic, when it was no means obvious that the radical threat had been overcome. On Sunday 1 April, a group of poor men assembled on St George’s Hill in the parish of Walton-on-Thames and began to dig the waste land there, sowing it with corn, parsnips, carrots and beans. The Diggers’ numbers soon rose to twenty or thirty. One observer noted, They invite all to come in and help them and promise them meat, drink and clothes … They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days … It is feared they have some design in hand. Local property-owners tried to drive them off (as desribed in one of their pamphlets above), before calling on the Council of State to intervene with military assistance. Thinking that great conflux of people may be a beginning whence things of greater and more dangerous consequence may grow, the Council of State alerted the Surrey J.P.s and General Fairfax. The latter sent a couple of troopers down to see what was happening. From the report which Captain Gladman sent in to Fairfax it is clear that he thought the Council was being unduly alarmist and Fairfax refused to take the incident seriously.
On 3rd April, two days after Winstanley and his comrades started digging on St George’s Hill, Peter Chamberlen suggested using the confiscated lands of crown, church and royalists, together with common and waste lands, for a public bank. If you provide not for the poor they will provide for themselves, he declared, and a continual anxiety during the civil wars had been that the necessitous people of the whole kingdom should set up for themselves, to the utter ruin of all the nobility and gentry. A third party of the poor was a continual nightmare for the men of property and their armies, for whom the ‘Clubmen’ of the south-west had been a major threat in 1645 and by Levellers in London and the Army in the years following the end of the first civil war. Pamphlets and petitions in 1647 and ’48 demanded common lands for the poor in which Winstanley had estimated that from half to two-thirds of England was not properly cultivated, and that one third of the country was barren waste. But if the poor were allowed to manure and cultivate the wastes and the commons, there was land enough to maintain ten times the existing population, so that begging and poverty could be abolished. This was the vision that he conceived some time between 16 October 1648 and 26 January 1649. Four days before the execution of King Charles, Winstanley solemny announced:
… when the Lord doth show unto me the place and manner, how he will have those of us that are called common people to manure and work upon the common lands, I will go forth and declare it in my action, to eat my bread with the sweat of brows, without either giving or taking hire, looking upon the land as freely mine as another’s … The spirit of the poor shall be drawn forth ere long, to act materially this law of righteousness.
On 20 April two of the principal Diggers, William Everard and Gerrard Winstanley, were brought before the Commander-in-Chief. They kept their hats on in Fairfax’s presence, the traditional symbolic refusal to recognise social superiority and political authority. Lilburne had made the same gesture in 1637, and it was later a point of principle by the Quakers. Fairfax, the Digger leaders said, was but their fellow-creature. Their intention, they told the general, was to cultivate the waste lands as a colony: they would ‘meddle only with what was common and untilled’. Any rights in the commons claimed by lords of manors, Winstanley later explained, had been cut off with the King’s head. They hoped that before long the poor everywhere would voluntarily surrender their estates and join in communal production. Fairfax thought Everard was “no better than a madman”, when he called himself a prophet “of the race of the Jews” and recalled stories of his visions. William Everard, probably the same man, had been an Agitator in the New Model Army, where he had promoted the Agreement of the People. He had been arrested for his participation in the mutiny at Ware in November 1647, and was alleged to been involved in the conspiracy to kill the King, together with Captain Bray and William Thompson. In December he was released from prison, but cashiered. In the early years of the Digger movement Everard rather than Winstanley seems to have been its spokesman. This would fit with the Digger William Everard, whom we know was dismissed from the army.
After the Ware mutiny, William Everard had been a fellow-prisoner with his fellow-agitator Thompson, who had led some of the mutineers. This would seem to explain Everard’s disappearance from the Digger story and his reappearance at Bradfield, near Reading, at harvest-time, since if he had been in arms after leaving St George’s Hill, he would have have sought a safe refuge. Soldiers, tired of war, continued to read Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn. In April 1649, they mutinied in London over pay, and in response to moves to send them to ‘pacify’ Ireland. Throughout April, further mutinies broke out when soldiers who refused to serve in Ireland were demobilised without payment of arrears. One of these was in Colonel Whalley’s London-based regiment of horse when fifteen troopers publicly defied their Colonel’s personal orders to march. They were court-martialled, and six were sentenced to death. They made a humble submission, however, and Cromwell was for pardoning them, but Fairfax insisted that an example must be made of the one considered most responsible. On 27 April, Trooper Robert Lockyer was shot in St Paul’s Churchyard. Fairfax was not deterred by a menacing letter which appeared in print from Lilburne and Overton, accusing him of treason and murder, and threatening a popular rebellion if the sentence were carried out. Lockyer died bravely and defiantly, and his funeral two days later was a vast demonstration of popular support for the Leveller cause in London, with four thousand following his coffin. The mourners included large numbers of women, and they wore the green ribbons which had become the colour of the movement. Hundreds of soldiers also joined in the procession.
In May more serious revolts broke out among troops in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, with rumours of civilian support from the old Clubman areas of the south-west. The Levellers in the Tower published a new, third edition of the Agreement of the People, to serve as a manifesto for what they hoped would become a general rising and expressing their ultimate end and full scope of all our desires and intentions for concerning the government of this nation, free from any pressure to make compromises. However, it was no more radical than the second version, and far less practcable. In mid-May, a serious mutiny broke out among some troops passing through the garrison stationed in the staunchly Puritan town of Banbury in north Oxfordshire (see the map below). Colonel Reynolds, half of whose new regiment had joined the mutiny, engaged the mutineers under Willian Thompson’s direction, and routed them near Banbury. Thompson got away, but died later that month in a shoot-out with his pursuers. What really broke the mutiny was the resolution with which Fairfax and Cromwell in person led a force of four thousand so far loyal troops against its focal area in Bristol. On 12 May, when they were marching through Hampshire, a shrewdly calculated declaration was published in Fairfax’s name, assuring the whole army that no one would be compelled to serve in Ireland against his wishes and that the mutineers’ grievances were being heeded. It claimed, with little justification, that the implementation of the Agreement was in hand, meaning of course the one presented to the Rump by the army. The declaration offered pardon to the mutinous regiments if they returned to obedience immediately, but if they did not they would be reduced by force. By this time the mutineers were becoming worried by their failure to mobilise more supporters, and their resistance began to crumble.
Two more regiments that had mutinied near Salisbury attempted to join the ‘Banburyshire’ rebels. They failed when, on 13 May, Cromwell and Fairfax marched a pursuit force fifty miles in a single day, catching the mutineers in the middle of the night on the edge of the Cotswolds (see the map above). Fairfax sent a delegation of to parley with representatives of the mutineers and appointed Major White, the former Leveller, to head it. White performed his duty faithfully, but the negotiations broke down. Cromwell and Fairfax then cornered the mutinous regiments in a skirmish at Burford on the night of 14/15 May. There was little fighting, however; 340 were taken prisoner and another six or seven hundred fled. Five were sentenced to be shot, the sentence ultimately being carried out on three of them. The other prisoners were not only released, but were given debentures for their arrears of pay. The next day, Cromwell received an honourary degree in law from Oxford University. Leveller statements continued to be published from Bristol before the heavy hand of the grandees came down again. There was little to connect the Leveller leaders in London directly with the mutiny, though contemporary news-sheets suggest that Everard had left the Digger colony at St George’s Hill by the end of April 1649 in order to join the Banburyshire mutiny. His brother, another fellow Agitator, Robert Everard, certainly was at Burford, and had taken part in the Putney Debates. He published several pamphlets between 1649 and 1652, defending adult baptism and denying original sin.
After the glorious rich providence of God to England – the ‘quashing of the Levellers at Burford – the grandees and the Council of State decided that there would be no further social revolution. It was almost inevitable that those who had done well out of the civil war should seek to consolidate their position. This, they came to recognise could best be achieved by compromise with their defeated enemies, even at the price of retaining or restoring much of the old order. The alternative of continuous revolution, or a further extension of democracy, was too frightening to contemplate for many of those now in power as well as for many moderate Levellers. The Revolution had begun with Oliver Cromwell leading fenmen in revolt against the Court’s drainage schemes; it effectively ended in the routing of the Leveller regiments at Burford, which was, incidentally, immediately followed by an act for draining the fens. By the autumn, it was clear that, whatever else was going to fill the space left by the monarchy, it was not going to be the visionary alternative Commonwealth of the Levellers. Bought off, bullied or imprisoned, their remaining leaders and agitators dispersed. The rank and file of the regiments were shipped off to Ireland where they could vent their fervour and frustrations on the rebels there. Hewson’s regiment was among these, chosen by lot, along with three other existing regiments and six new ones.
After Burford, the Levellers rapidly lost coherence as a political movement and their organisation sank into terminal decline. The voices of some of them would be heard again at intervals in the 1650s, but they were never again serious contenders for power. Much of what they contended for was achieved, at least in part, by the end of the 1650s: regular parliaments at minimal intervals, a rational reappointment of seats, and a broad liberty of worship and belief. The Levellers were not the only champions of these objectives, but they took an early lead in asserting them. Between receiving the second version of the Agreement and confronting the Leveller mutiny, Fairfax was directed by the Council of State to deal with the small incident in Surrey caused by the emergence of the Diggers. Returning from putting down the grave events in Oxfordshire, however, Fairfax still refused to take the Digger ‘threat’ seriously. Visiting the colony at the end of May, and with Everard departed, he had an amicable exchange with Winstanley, during which the latter repeated his assurance that the Diggers had no intention of using force. Despite this, an action for trespass was brought by local landowners against the Diggers in the court at Kingston, where they were not allowed to plead unless they hired an attorney. When they refused to do this, they were condemned unheard. With no means with which to meet the fines, the Diggers had their goods distrained. An exciting tussle ensued over Winstanley’s cows, which changed hands many times and became symbols of resistance.
The Diggers called themselves ‘True Levellers’, but their communitarian views were rejected by many Leveller leaders in London, including John Lilburne, though there was support for them in the countryside. However, the connection was emphasised by the publication of their manifesto, The True Leveller Standard Advanced (pictured above) by The Moderate, the Leveller newspaper. Signed by Winstanley and fourteen other Diggers, it had first appeared on 26 April, and in it Winstanley claimed that The old world … is running up like parchment in the fire, the powers of England and all the powers of the world. Some time in or before August 1649, the colony abandoned St George’s Hill and transferred to Cobham Heath, a mile or two away. This gave rise to further complaints against, and this time the council gave the army firm orders to suppress it. The squatters’ shacks were pulled down, their crops destroyed, and the men convicted of trespass and fined. By the winter of 1649-50, the Digger colony was in dire financial straits, but somehow the little colony survived quietly into the spring in 1650. Other Digger communities sprang up in various parts of the country, but they were equally short-lived, and the movement was never large. But in Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers had a leader and publicist of genius. In the spring of 1649, when he published the first ‘True Leveller’ manifesto, he had become convinced that the prophesied kingdom of the saints was to be brought into being through Christ, the second Adam, working in the breast of every man and woman, and inspiring them to redeem the first Adam’s sin by renouncing lordship and property. Spiritual regeneration was to be attained through the sharing of the earth and its fruits.
At least the various programmes of Levellers, Diggers, and even Fifth Monarchists were borne up by a stronger conviction than the few dragging steps which the Commonwealth’s actual government took towards shaping its constitutional future. Even Cromwell had voted against the act abolishing the House of Lords, and a substantial number of ‘Rumpers’ wanted to retain the Lords in a purely consultative role. What tipped the balance was a printed royalist declaration, proclaming Charles II as king and designating the House of Lords as the sole legitimate authority until he was able to exercise his regal powers in person. In response, the Commons passed the abolition bill rapidly, but in the Lords it only had a majority of fifteen in a House numbering seventy-three. The Rump was being made daily aware of the deep unpopularity of its rule in the country at large. One piece of evidence for this was the huge success of a pious forgery entitled Eikon Basilike (pictured above), a book which purported to record the late king’s meditations and devotional exercises during his final captivity. It was compiled and probably mainly written by John Gauden, the future Bishop of Worcester, and published ten days after Charles’ execution. As a tear-jerking portrayal of martyred innocence and piety, it had a very broad appeal; despite government attempts to suppress it, it was reprinted thirty times within 1649 and translated into several European languages. One hostile and exasperated reader was John Milton, who had had no quarrel with the monarchy when he had first taken up his pen against the bishops, but during the civil wars had found himself firmly aligned with the Independents and the New Model Army.
By 1649, Milton had become well known as a scholar, poet and polemicist in defence of the Rump, which had few enough supporters. Gratefully, it appointed him as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Council of State on a salary of two hundred pounds a year. Alongside his routine duties of translation and diplomatic writing, mainly in Latin, Milton earned this quite handsome salary by defending the Commonwealth in print, one of the council’s first requests being for a reply to the Leveller tract, England’s New Chains Discovered. He never wrote it, suggesting to some that he was sympathetic to the Leveller cause, but Woolrych believes that it was because he gave priority to writing an answer to Eikon Basilike in his 242-page Eikonoklastes, published in October 1649. Milton believed that the popularity of the Eikon revealed a fundamental weakness in the Commonwealth, that it was unlikely to win the hearts and minds of a people who had little idea of what a republic might look like by comparison with a very vivid and visceral monarchy. More than five months passed after Pride’s Purge before the Rump defined what kind of state it purported to govern. Even then, it did so in a one-sentence act declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State … governed by the representatives of the people in parliament … without any king or House of Lords.
The Rump became aware that the state of public opinion made it impossible for it to keep its promise to hold early general elections. It was also precluded from courting the popularity it lacked by reducing taxation, because the threats from Ireland and Scotland forced it to keep up large land forces, which would grow even larger when conquered territory had to be garrisoned. The Commonwealth had a total of about 47,000 men under arms in March 1649, many with large arrears of pay and living at free quarter. Furthermore, it had to continue to build ships, not only to counter Rupert’s small fleet and the much larger number of royalist privateers, but because it faced the hostility and colonial rivalry of the Dutch. ‘Charles II’ was the guest of his brother-in-law, William II of Orange, who was well disposed to assist him. The Rump’s hope to reduce the monthly assessment from ninety to sixty thousand pounds at the end of 1649 proved to be a forlorn one. So, when Fairfax, in the midst of the Leveller mutiny in May 1649, assured the army elections to a new parliament were high on the Rump’s agenda, he cannot have known how mistaken he was. But the pressure in the army for an early dissolution did cause the House to debate the matter. It set up a committee, over which Vane was given special responsibility, to consider both the apportionment of seats in future parliaments and the date by which the present one should dissolve itself. But amid the external threats to the Commonwealth, and the demoralising impact on it of its unpopularity at home, the prospect of putting its future in the hands of a volatile and potentially hostile electorate became ever less attractive. Nothing was heard from Vane’s committee, though the House did try in October to prod it into activity by ordering it to meet daily.
As time went by, the suspicion grew that the Rumpers were clinging to their seats in order to retain their pecuniary privileges. Sir Arthur Haselrig was sometimes referred to as ‘the bishop’ because of the amount of diocesan land he bought in the see of Durham, and Colonel Philip Jones, who was born in Swansea’s High Street of very minor gentry stock, rose by questionable means to become a significant magnate in south Wales. He was by no means the only army officer to do well for himself through sequestration, as the map of Oxfordshire and Berkshire in the civil war (above) shows. Sequestered lands, like those of Sir Edward Hyde (below), who had joined Charles II in exile, were confiscated and sold off, or granted to prominent parliamentarians. Henry Marten gained lands at Eynsham to add to his estates between Shrivenham and Longworth, and the brothers John and William Lenthall increased their land holdings around Burford. Speaker Lenthall was alleged to have taken bribes, and so was his MP son, but the allegations were never substantiated. These circumstances offered great opportunities for speculators such as the former Leveller John Wildman who, as a lawyer used his knowledge of the land market and his connections with leading figures in government toaccumulate large land holdings in northwest Berkshire, as well as in other counties. One Rumper, and only one, was actually convicted for taking bribes, Lord Howard of Escrick. The fact that the House of Commons expelled him, disqualified him from public office, fined him ten thousand pounds and sent him to the Tower shows that it regarded corruption as a serious offence, from which rank gave no protection. Furthermore, looking at the Commonwealth as a whole, it was managed by its councillors, officials, military and naval officers with more probity than and a stronger sense of public service than the early Stuart monarchy had been, and that remained true right through the 1650s.
The charges levelled against the grandees, however, were of a far higher order, even though they continued to come from outside parliament. Despite his apparent detachment both from the mutineers and the Diggers, in August 1649 Lilburne published An Impeachment of High Treason against Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton. In October it was he himself who found himself on trial for treason at the Guildhall in the city of London. He played brilliantly to the gallery by insisting that the jury alone was empowered to issue a verdict as the judges were merely ‘cyphers’ of the people’s will. It duly acquitted him and Lilburne was freed without conditions, the other three in the Tower following on condition that they subscribed to the oath of engagement which was now required by the Commonwealth of all its citizens. All three of them did so, but Lilburne was not even asked. Lilburne took up various social causes and grievances before finally being banished for life in 1651. Returning to England from the Netherlands in 1653 he published again, was again imprisoned and eventually became a Quaker, like many other radical independents who turned what eventually, after much ‘quaking’ by Fox, Nayler and others, became a ‘quietist’ religion.
But by the autumn of 1649, and until Cromwell’s death a decade later, the military régime was secure. The English Revolution was effectively over, and Ireland had been ‘pacified’ by Cromwell, who had sailed there on 13 August with an army of two thousand (to be dealt with in my next chapter). For a short time, perhaps as little as two years, most ordinary people were freer from the authority of the established church and their social superiors than they had ever been before, or were for a long time to be again. We have a pretty full record of what they discussed. They speculated about the end of the world and the coming of the millennium; they contemplated the possibility that God might intend to save everybody, that something of God might be within each of us. They founded new sects to express these new ideas. Some considered the possibility that there might not be a creator God, only nature. They attacked the monopoly of knowledge within the privileged professions; divinity, law, medicine. They critised the existing educational structure, especially the universities, and proposed a vast expansion of educational opportunity to both sexes. They also questioned parts of the ‘protestant work ethic’. In the decade that followed, the eloquence and power of the simple artisans who took part in these discussions came across in print, especially from George Fox the Shepherd, John Bunyan the tinker and James Nayler the yeoman, all of whom I have written about on my previous website (www.chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com).
Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: OUP.
Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC Worldwide.
Sara Barber (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.
Glenn Foard (1994), Colonel John Pickering’s Regiment of Foot, 1644-1645. Whitstable: Pryor Publications.
David Starsmere (1978), Diggers: The Story of a Commune. Glasgow: Blackie.
John Wroughton (1980), Documents and Debates: Seventeenth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Christopher Hill (ed.) (1973), Winstanley – The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.
Christopher Hill (1975), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.
David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Welsh & Bower.