Revolutionaries with ribbons of sea-green

Print edition : August 18, 2017

Charles I.

Oliver Cromwell.

John Lilburne.

The author takes us into the very tissue of contention, reconnecting us with the fire and passion of the English Revolution and enabling the Levellers to come roaring back to life.

IN 1647, when Shah Jahan occupied the Mughal throne, Louis XIV ruled like the sun over France, and the East India Company “factory” in Madras (now Chennai) was in its infancy, extraordinary events were unfolding at Putney, an ancient village to the south-west of London.

Beginning in the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin before moving on to nearby lodgings, a great debate raged back and forth across a two-week period. Its focus: England’s future constitutional arrangements and the fate of its defeated king, Charles I. Rather than bigwigs, jurists or grandees, the participants were mostly soldiers: commanders, junior officers and elected rank-and-file representatives of the New Model Army that had led the republican side to victory in the first phase of the English Civil War. But also present were radical civilians, already celebrated for their activism, interventions and incendiary publications—and on the verge of being known collectively as the Levellers.

The idea of radicalised soldiers and civilians gathering to dissect the intricacies of government in the context of an upturning of the existing social order (“the world turned upside down”) still generates more than a frisson of shock and awe. This sense of being brought up short by the Putney Debates is reinforced by their content, recorded in part for posterity by William Clarke and his team of stenographers (their minute-taking was abandoned after a few days and the whole record was lost until its rediscovery at Worcester College Oxford in 1890 and subsequent publication). Two questions dominated the proceedings. How should a revolution in progress deal with a defeated and captive king? What new constitution should the revolution adopt? Disagreement, often fierce, separated those open to rapprochement with the monarchy from those determined to shut the door on any royal return. Equally vexing was the issue of who was to participate in the new constitutional order. Should property ownership be the qualifying factor? Or should there be an extensive broadening of the franchise, premised on the principle of popular sovereignty? If so, how far should this go?

The answer delivered by Thomas Rainsborough—the senior-most member of the Army Council to support the Levellers—still resonates 370 years on:

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

That something not far remote from the modern notion of universal franchise was under debate at Putney in 1647 is testimony to the power of the Levellers, then heading for the acme of their influence. Who exactly were these 17th century revolutionaries? What were their origins? What factors contributed to their nothing short of spectacular rise during the course of the 1640s? How did they set about mobilising support and how were they able to exert such influence, including within the army? To what extent were their interventions crucial to the direction of events, including the fate of Charles I? What happened to them, their ideas and traditions as revolutionary impulses were crushed by Oliver Cromwell’s iron rule? What lessons might their experience—of political organisation, popular mobilisation, democratic functioning and extraordinary boldness in the face of reaction—hold for us today?

In a resplendent new study, John Rees ransacks the archives in search of answers. Feasting on primary sources that speak to us directly from the battlefront, Rees takes us into the very tissue of contention, reconnecting us with the fire and passion of the English Revolution and enabling the Levellers to come roaring back to life. The result is both a superb work of scholarship and a call to arms.

For Rees, a Marxist political activist, broadcaster and writer (he is a national officer of the Stop the War Coalition, a spokesman for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, and a founder-member of Counterfire), the Leveller past is all around us: a living tradition whose defeats and victories, forward movements and reversals, feed into contemporary experience, offering lessons, parallels and inspiration we neglect to our loss.

Combination of combustible elements

Who, then, were the Levellers? 1 Rees sees them as first and foremost an organised group of political activists, one that proved capable of integrating different constituencies and creating still broader alliances with other political currents. Following their progress therefore demands a “history of emergent properties”, a chronological and synoptic unravelling of the “dialectical relationship between a radicalising constituency and a radical organisation”. Adopting this trajectory, the book tracks the origins of the movement, the social background of those drawn to it, specific factors (geographical and technological) that contributed to its growth, and the “sinews of resistance” which sustained and nurtured its progress as it spread across the land.

For the Levellers, London was the crucible: specifically the teeming medieval streets of the city 20 years before the devastation of the Great Fire of 1666. Here, in a compressed geography defined by alleys and alehouses, churches and corporate premises, combustible elements came together: thousands of apprentices serving seven-year indentures with the trading companies that ruled the city roost; religious dissenters against an established church (the Church of England) that lorded it over vast tracts of land, imposed tithes and compulsory church attendance, and exerted formidable powers of censorship; and ordinary folk who formed part of a rapidly expanding urban population, often engaged in manufacture (clothing, metal work and leather), retail or building.

The legendary Lilburne

As Rees reveals, such were the origins of many prominent Levellers, including the legendary John Lilburne, “Freeborn John”, who had served as a London apprentice to a cloth merchant. Since becoming an apprentice required capital and an upfront payment, this avenue tended to attract the “middling sort”: lesser gentry, yeoman farmers, and second sons who could not inherit. Boisterous but not politically homogeneous, the London apprentices could be mobilised for the parliamentary cause but proved unreliable allies, prone to vacillation and contending pulls. More stalwart support came from the gathered church congregations of the Puritan underground (a key element of Lilburne’s background and persona).

Here, a long tradition of martyrdom helped shape a discourse of rebellion, which combined contempt for those (bishops and priests among them) riding roughshod over the liberties of the people with an almost superhuman capacity for survival under duress. Summoned before the Star Chamber (a court synonymous with political oppression and the abuse of power) in 1637, Lilburne repudiated all efforts to bring him into line, and was sentenced to be whipped all the way from Fleet prison to Westminster, placed in the pillory and then imprisoned, guarded by a jailer enjoined to use exemplary methods of punishment. Denied food, linen and medical treatment and heavily chained, the prisoner was kept in solitary confinement, his solitude on occasion interrupted by assassins sent to murder him.

Not only did Freeborn John contrive to stay alive (ingenious ways were found to smuggle food to him), but he also continued his political-religious activism, firing off pamphlets, which were then smuggled out for printing and distribution. In 1639, his Cry for Justice, a direct appeal to the London apprentices to go to the Mayor “by the hundreds of thousands” to seek his freedom, hit their mark to such a degree that a few months later Lilburne walked free.

The contribution made by pamphlets, news-sheets and other printed material to the Levellers’ organisational muscle and reach constitutes an important strand of Rees’ analysis. Although not the sole determinant creating Leveller organisation, “print, and the ability to use it on a mass scale” are seen as central to its creation and spread. Rees continues:

“No political organisation that mobilised beyond the political elite had done this before and no other organisation that did these things existed at the time. It is the Levellers’ coordinated use of print for political purposes that is one of the things that marks them out as an effective organisation” (page 67).

Still a relatively new technology in mid 17th century England, print opened up exciting new possibilities, albeit menaced by censorship. By 1640, pamphlets were rolling off the underground presses of London-based printers such as Richard Overton and William Larner, both active in the Leveller cause. The very secrecy of the production process demanded organisational finesse: locations had to be found, compositors and printers identified, editorial decisions made and distribution networks built, at all times with strict adherence to the covert nature of the operation. Various means of distribution were deployed; while some printed material was simply scattered in the streets, pamphlets and news-sheets were also sold in bookshops and bookstalls for a penny or tuppence a piece. Inventive turns were rife: one of Overton’s pamphlets was turned into a two-part printed ballad to be sung to the tune of a popular song. From London, illicit printing spread to other centres, including Cambridge and Northampton.

An additional “sinew of resistance” for the Levellers was the steeling many acquired through direct participation in the First Civil War. In October 1642, Lilburne took up arms against the king and marched with his regiment to Edgehill, the first major battle of the conflict, where he and his comrades distinguished themselves. Henry Marten, a radical republican MP, who would become a central figure in future Leveller organisation, set about raising his own regiment of cavalry. That some Levellers were of the army themselves, rather than external to it, enhanced the standing of the nascent organisation and fortified its interventions at key moments of the revolution, whether the struggle against the “peace party” (royal appeasers) in 1642-43 or army rebellions later in the decade.

Shaped by their opposition to compromise in the conduct of the war, and their rejection of the conservative, compromise-ready Presbyterianism that gathered strength after its first phase, the Levellers by 1645-46 constituted what Rees calls “a visibly distinct grouping in their radicalism, their popular orientation and their collective organisation” (page 155). On this basis, they swung into innovative and multifaceted action to safeguard the Revolution and carry it forward. Following a mass petitioning of parliament—an extraordinary eruption of popular discontent that achieved particular intensity across a 10-week period in 1647—the Levellers, whose demands for the dissolution of the Long Parliament and a new assembly based on a much broader franchise had been rebuffed by an intransigent House of Commons, then made common cause with radicals within the republican New Model Army. It was in the context of this strategic gamble that the great debates at Putney took place. Delving into the relationship between army and civilian radicals, Rees documents the growing sway of Leveller ideas within the ranks, evidenced by the establishment of an army printing press, mass petitioning by soldiers and—a momentous turning point in the fortunes of the Revolution—the election by soldiers of their own directly accountable representatives, something no army had ever done before. These agents, or Agitators, often came from the lower ranks: one such was Cornet George Joyce, who intervened with his troops in May 1647 to thwart a Presbyterian plot to spirit Charles I away to Scotland and safety. When the king demanded to know under what commission Joyce was acting, the latter replied:

“Here is my commission. Where, said the king? He answered, Here. His Majesty again asked, Where? He answered, Behind me: pointing to the Soldiers that were mounted; and desired his Majesty that that might satisfie him” (spelling as in original)

As Rees notes: “it would have previously been unthinkable that a mere cornet, the lowest-ranking officer in the army and a tailor by trade, could on the authority of having been elected by his fellow troopers take the king of England into custody” (page 185).

In 1648, with counter-revolution crackling in the air, the Levellers pressed on towards the summit of their powers. In the context of multiple dangers—the threat of Scottish invasion, pro-royalist uprisings in Kent, Essex and Wales, repeated calls by conservative forces for the disbandment of the New Model Army, the open recruitment of royalist forces in the heart of the City of London—the radicals upped the ante. As the counter-revolution flared into a Second Civil War, Henry Marten left the capital for Berkshire to raise a Leveller regiment; army radicals threw their weight behind Thomas Fairfax’s military campaign for the republican cause; and thousands of Leveller supporters and activists, in London and beyond, mustered to defend the Revolution.

Once again from a prison cell, Lilburne put his pen to exemplary use, collaborating with William Walwyn to draw up “that most excellent of Petitions”: the Large Petition of September 11, 1648. Bearing 40,000 signatures, this was accompanied to Parliament by a clamorous mass demonstration against any treaty with the king. In the context of this upturn, the London funeral of the Leveller Thomas Rainsborough, assassinated in Doncaster by royalist forces in October 1648, became “a symbolic moment of resistance” against accommodation with the king and a defining moment in Leveller identity.

The giant cortege that accompanied the coffin through the streets of London to Wapping constituted, by the testimony of a range of witnesses, an ocean of sea-green and black: Rainsborough’s personal colours. It seems that from this point sea-green and black was adopted as the badge of the Leveller movement.

What satirists now dubbed the “Sea-green Order” now had its own visible marker, worn with commitment and pride; as a Leveller news-sheet of the day puts it:

“Every one so wearing our Colours in hatband, cuff, garment, bridle, mayn, or sail … shall hence forth, according to our Noble Order, be intitled the Free-born Assistant of Justice” (spelling as in original).

To what extent did the Levellers impact the outcome of the English Revolution and its defining events: the trial of Charles 1 and his beheading outside the Banqueting Hall in London’s Whitehall on January 30, 1649? While Rees does not linger over the execution (whose grisly details and earthquake-scale repercussions continue to fascinate), he argues persuasively for the central role played by the Levellers, both in breaking the political stalemate that prevailed after the Second Civil War and in propelling the Revolution forward to this moment of rupture; never before had the world witnessed a democratically driven movement of the people publicly trying their monarch for treason and putting him to death.

In the aftermath of this seismic shock, the revolutionary impulses unleashed and harnessed by the Levellers became themselves the target of eradication, as Cromwell’s military regime set about stamping out every manifestation of upstart democracy. Across 1649, the radicals continued a defiant, rearguard campaign to safeguard the spirit of the revolution and maintain its impetus. Following the arrest of key Leveller leaders, supporters reacted with surprising resilience, generating a fresh torrent of petitions demanding their release. In April, an estimated 500 Leveller women (“bonny Besses, In the sea-green dresses”, as a Leveller publication of the day described them) converged on Westminster to present a petition bearing 10,000 signatures. Twenty women defied armed troops to get into the lobby of the Commons; when one MP directed them to go home and wash the dishes, there came the reply: “Sir, we have scarce have any dishes left to wash.”

With hindsight, the outcome of this continuing audacity, this will to battle on, never seems in doubt. For the Levellers, defeat sprang from victory; as Rees puts it, the Revolution, and the political bloc that had accomplished it, “shattered on the rock of its own success”. By 1650, only vestiges of the great movement survived, although Leveller ideas, organisational flair and sheer cussedness in the face of authority persisted, finding expression in the ongoing currents of religious dissent and non-conformism.

Contemporary relevance

Why should the Levellers detain us three and a half centuries on? What relevance do these revolutionaries, with their pamphlets, petitions and ribbons of sea-green, hold for political movements of the early 21st century, addressing contemporary agendas in radically different circumstances? Rees’ new study—impeccably documented, persuasively argued and openly, proudly partisan—reconnects us with the epic quality of the Levellers and their bid to transform their world. Viewed across its complex dimensions, organisational sophistication and compelling cast of players, this was a political movement on the cusp of modern times, one whose aspirations soared beyond the limits of the age to raise new possibilities, to stir disadvantaged people into forms of self-organisation and protest that startle with their familiarity.

Retrieved from the archives and from arcane academic debate, the music of the Levellers sings out from the pages of Rees’ magnificent book, entrancing all of us who make common cause with its central theme: the possibility, urgency and luminous beauty of a better world.


1. A letter dated November 1, 1647m wrutten when the Putney debates were in progress, is thought to contain the first recorded use of the term "Leveller". Its writer notes that Agitator "extremists have given themselves a new name, viz. Levellers, for they intend to sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom" (spelling as original).

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