The Levellers were a group of radicals who during the years of the English Civil War challenged the control of Parliament. Between July and November 1647, the Levellers put forward plans that would have truly democratised England and Wales but would also have threatened the supremacy of Parliament. For this reason, the Levellers never gained the amount of support in the right places that they needed to succeed.
By early June 1647, it had become clear that the Levellers had established support in the Parliamentarian army where pay arrears were a key issue as was the projected campaign in Ireland. When Parliament rejected the Levellers call for more radical reforms to be introduced to England and Wales, the leadership of the Levellers looked for support from the army’s rank and file. Here they found many who were willing to support them and their ideals. Army leaders were also targeted by the likes of Edward Sexby and ‘Major’ John Wildman; the latter played a significant part in the declaration and aims of the Agitators.
In the summer of 1647, the Levellers presented their demands to Parliament. They wanted the Long Parliament dissolved and a new assembly elected but from a much wider franchise than existed at the time. If the members of the Long Parliament were not willing to be voluntarily dissolved, then the Levellers fully expected the army to do it for them.
In fact, the army as an entity was not as radical as the Levellers believed it to be. The army’s senior commanders gave their support to Parliament and marched to London to demonstrate their support for the Long Parliament.
In October 1647, Wildman published ‘The Case of the Army Truly Stated’. It was a document that plainly stated known grievances in the army but it developed into a call for radical political reform, including the creation of a truly representative parliament. It stated that power lay with the people and those who represented the people in Parliament had to take their views into account. Wildman wanted elections to Parliament every two years so that the MP’s elected were responsive to their constituents wishes. He also wanted a redistribution of Parliamentary seats based on population so that what were eventually to be termed ‘rotten boroughs’ would cease many years before the 1832 Reform Act removed them. While Wildman never used the words ‘universal male suffrage’, it was implied in the document. The power of MP’s was also to be restrained by the granting of written and guaranteed political rights and liberties, including religious toleration, for everyone.
Wildman’s publication was redrafted and renamed ‘Agreement of the People’. If the document had been fully carried out, the Levellers plan was to give all power to the people. The Levellers believed that everyone was capable of salvation because God had given everyone the capacity to accept faith through reason. As the people had this ability to accept reason, they, therefore, had the capacity to make decisions based on reason about themselves.
Such ideas found no favour with the most powerful in the Long Parliament. However, they agreed that there should be a debate about what the Levellers wanted and this took place at Putney Church during the end of October and early November. Henry Ireton, an Army ‘grandee’, spoke and argued on behalf of Parliament and the non-radical element within the Army while men called ‘Agitators’ spoke for the Levellers. Agitators were representatives of the rank and file in the Army.
Written records were kept of what was debated but these are incomplete. However, it seems that the key area where both sides found little agreement was over the issue of the franchise. The Levellers argued for what can be called universal male suffrage while Ireton argued for suffrage based on property, which would have excluded the poor, paupers, servants etc. Some in the army spoke to support the Levellers and Oliver Cromwell’s main concern was the army fragmenting over the issues raised. How the debate would have ended had it gone its course is difficult to know but it came to a sudden end when Charles I escaped from captivity on November 11th. There was a real fear that Charles might get as far as France where he could have rallied foreign support for his cause.
This fortunate episode gave Parliament the excuse it needed to restore discipline in the army where Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were aware that some dissenters did exist but they did not know just how far that support went amongst the rank and file.
A short-lived mutiny in the army took place at Corkbush Field near Ware in Hertfordshire. This was quickly ended by Cromwell with three mutineers arrested and one shot.
This ended any influence the Levellers might have had in the army. The real fear of a second civil war served to rally the army to Parliament. A second version of the ‘Agreement of the People’ was produced but it came to nothing. A revised draft done by army officers was sent to Parliament where it was simply put to one side.
In 1649 an attempt by the Levellers to subvert the army led to their crushing defeat at Burford.