On 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire, England. They were the leaders of 300 men who belonged to the movement known as the Levellers. They had decided to fight against Cromwell who they considered was betraying the ideals of what the “Civil War”, i.e. the English Revolution, had been about.
This lengthy article was written by Dudley Edwards in 1947-48 to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the mutiny in 1649 of regiments of Cromwell’s army stationed in Salisbury at the end of the Civil War. It is based on Leveller pamphlets stored in the records department of Oxford Corporation.
The Levellers came from within the New Model Army built by Cromwell which was made up of free yeomen, smallholders and the like. They were the men who did the fighting for Cromwell and fought valiantly in the belief that the struggle was about the return of basic freedoms such as ending the enclosure of common land, establishing religious tolerance and putting an end to taxation to finance the church. All this they had been promised by their leaders.
However, by 1649, the soldiers started to realize the true nature of these “leaders”. The latter had started to raise themselves above the men who had done most of the fighting and this created a spirit of anger and revolt among the ranks. The most determined of these gathered around John Lilburne ‑ who after Cromwell was the most respected leader ‑ demanding that what they had fought for be implemented. They became known as the “Levellers”, i.e. those who sought justice and equality, and mostly emanated from the “lower orders”, the poor. And although the conditions of the time did not allow for a fully fledged socialist movement to develop, the Levellers were striving for the rights of the working people. In one of their pamphlets, The Mournfull Cries of Many Poor Tradesmen, published in 1648, we find the following meaningful question: “Is not all the controversie whose slaves the poor shall be?”
Resentment at the new set up, which implied an open betrayal of the ideals many of Cromwell’s men had fought for, led to mutinies, the leaders of which were either shot, imprisoned or exiled. Dudley Edwards’ describes these events, and shows how Cromwell, having established the new bourgeois order, proceeded to crush those who wanted to go beyond the limits imposed by the new class relations that had emerged.
The Levellers lost and were defeated, but their experience should not be forgotten by all those who are struggling for an end to the present oppressive system of capitalism. Now the conditions for a genuinely egalitarian society exist and the aspirations of those courageous fighters can finally become reality. Dudley Edwards in 1975 did a service to the movement by digging out this important part of the history of the working people of Britain.
The Last Stand of the Levellers
Three hundred years have passed since the revolutionary artisans and yeomen of Cromwell’s army fought their last battle to win for the common people something more than a mere exchange of masters.
Battle scarred, iron disciplined and politically conscious, they saw that the overthrow of absolute monarchy and absolute tyranny was leading only to a change of taskmasters, and that the great parliamentary generals including even Cromwell himself were betraying the interests of the masses to the Presbyterian merchant capitalists of the City of London. They knew that these sanctimonious war profiteers, victuallers and country squires now intended to reap for themselves the economic fruits of the Civil War and awaited eagerly the opportunity to buy up the requisitioned estates of the defeated Royalists at knockdown prices. To realise their aims, however, they first had to destroy the growing power of the politically aroused petit-bourgeois masses, the artisans and craftsmen, who in the large cities were beginning to form the nucleus of a working class, and from which had sprung, in the main, the rank and file of the New Model Army.
This mass of NCOs and privates, once cheered on but now scorned by the city merchants, represented the cadres of the common people. Their political morale had been carefully attended to by Cromwell himself who was the first general to realise that intense conviction and faith in its cause enables a mainly civilian army to defeat the traditional and ready-made military skill of an old ruling class. For this very reason, Cromwell had encouraged the development of the first peoples’ army. Towards the end of the Civil War it had become, in fact, the first genuinely revolutionary army in history. In some respects its democratic structure was more complete than that of the revolutionary armies of France. Only three hundred years later can an adequate comparison be found in the revolutionary spirit and solidarity of the Red Guard detachments created by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party during the overthrow of Tsarism in 1917.
It is not the intention of the present writer, a non-academic worker-student, to evaluate the role of Cromwell in this historic struggle, nor the effect of his activities on the ultimate growth of the working class movement, as this is being done by more professional Marxist historians. That Cromwell was the great realist statesman of those stormy days there seems little doubt, and it is probable that he carried forward the English bourgeois revolution as far as the economic and social conditions of the period would permit. It does not follow from this, however, that the Levellers, who in the end bitterly attacked Cromwell, were hopeless visionaries hitting out blindly against a political brick wall. For several years their policy represented the only serious alternative to Cromwell’s. Their immediate programme was a realistic one based upon the facts and issues of the day, reflecting the genuine grievances of the masses. Their movement was no “flash in the pan” but a well organised and intelligently-led struggle lasting over several years. Many of them were the very men upon whom Cromwell had relied to maintain the morale of the army during the darkest days of the civil war; dour, hymn-singing soldier-agitators, often self-educated and ever-ready with an apt biblical text whenever their men needed inspiration in their battles with the “forces of Baal”, as they called the Royalists. Such veterans as these were a formidable force and Cromwell had to use all his immense prestige, political cunning, and even deception to defeat them. Indeed, if it had not been for this the final battle at Burford might have had another result.
The final stages of this struggle were extremely tense and all England must have been agog with rumour during these dramatic months of 1649, yet for several hundred years after, few national history books are found which devote more than a few lines to the whole movement. No graves of the four ringleaders shot against Burford churchyard wall can be found and their memory was buried so deeply by the bourgeois historians that their very existence was almost forgotten by the common people for whom they fought.
Today the working class movement with the aid of the Marxist theory of social development is able to revive the revolutionary traditions of the English people, and with the advance of Socialism in all lands, mankind is again able to see the great historical significance of these early English soldiers of democracy, who, looking “as into a glass darkly” saw that it was not a change of rulers for which they were fighting but the end of exploitation of man by man.
The bourgeois revolution started in England in the 17th century, coming nearly one hundred and fifty years before the French Revolution. In France the struggle was fought out to a clear-cut decision, whereas in England a peculiar compromise was reached between the old feudal rulers and the rising capitalist class lasting until the Industrial Revolution. In these circumstances such revolutionary traditions as the rising of the Levellers did not retain a vivid hold on the memory of the people or inspire the proletarian movement to the extent that similar incidents have always done in France. This is all the more reason why our great revolutionary history must now be popularised among the workers, not only to counter the reactionary and distorted picture of British history favoured by Tories and many rightwing Labour leaders alike, but as an inspiration to the working class in the decisive class battles which lie ahead.
The Levellers’ mutiny which culminated in the execution of their leaders in Burford churchyard in 1649 was a relatively small incident in the course of the left-wing fight for a democratic peace during the years 1647-1650. No attempt is made here to trace all the social conflicts which were being fought inside and outside the army during this period. It is hoped only to give a description of the dramatic series of incidents which led up to the final stand at Burford and convey the heroism of the men of action who took part in it.
Prologue – The Agreement of the People
The men who rose against their officers at Salisbury in the Spring of 1649 and set out on their historic march to Burford did not all regard themselves as Levellers. The title was mainly used as a term of abuse by the country squires and London merchants, just as today the word “red” or “Bolshevik” is so often used to create prejudice against militant workers.
(Note by author: There was a curious pamphlet called “Terrible and bloudy Newes from the disloyall Army in the North” with a picture on the title page of soldiers impaling babies on spears and swinging them up to dash out their brains. It proceeds to relate the terror of the inhabitants of Market Harborough when some Levellers arrived in the town on market day – they ran hither and thither in fright. But the only facts to be related when it comes to the point are that the Levellers proclaimed that there was nothing to be afraid of, “stayed awhile at the Crown and so departed peacefully”. Evidently some methods of modern journalism are not new.)
Lilburn himself, the national leader of the movement repudiated the title; further, their demands did not include anything like a rough and ready redistribution of property as the term “leveller” would imply. There existed no organised working class movement as we know it, nor any form of large scale manufacture, which are the conditions in which the scientific conception of a classless society is possible. Nevertheless, most of these men were politically conscious and for several years they had been fighting for a truly democratic government. On two occasions they had joined in great armed demonstrations on a national scale, compelling Cromwell himself to concede many of their demands, at least on paper.
These gatherings had taken place about eighteen months previously at Newmarket Heath in June 1647 and at Thriplow Heath a few weeks later. The first of these was endorsed by Cromwell but the latter seemed to have been much more under the control of the rank and file and more revolutionary in its decisions. Regimental delegates or “agitators” as they were called were appointed by the rank and file and a Grand Army Council set up on which the men’s representatives sat together with an equal number of officers to decide questions of policy. For some months this remained a genuinely democratic body, remarkably similar to the system of soldiers’ and sailors’ delegates elected throughout the armed forces during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Eventually the army council came to be dominated by the high officers and after the suppression of the Levellers it was abolished. At Thriplow Heath the vast concourse of soldiers who must have assembled there, took a solemn oath to keep what came to be known as the “Engagement” and not to disband until the liberties of England were secured. At the same time they adopted a clear-cut political programme written in stirring language and entitled “The Agreement of the People”. Thus the Levellers made clear to Parliament and the people what was meant by securing the liberties of England.
This was a remarkable document originally drafted by Lilburn and his Leveller followers. A year later in 1648 it received its final form at the hands of a sub-committee consisting of an equal number of soldier delegates, high officers and parliamentary representatives. It was finally accepted in principle, though in a modified form, by Cromwell and his “Grandees” (as the high officers were called by the common soldiers). It represented the high tide of the English Revolution. It reasserted the sovereign power of the people to make and change all laws and demanded the re-election of parliament every two years. It demanded a form of universal suffrage but did not include hired labourers on the grounds that this would lead to corruption. This was due to the fact that there was no secret ballot and it was thought, therefore, that the hired labourers on farms and in the few existing small workshops would be open to pressure from their employers. It insisted on democratic control of the army and election of officers, for whom civilians would have the right to vote; complete religious toleration and the abolition of all tithes and tolls. It also called for an alteration in the laws of land tenure which would give the yeomen and tenant farmers proprietary rights over the land they tilled.
There was another important immediate issue raised at these meetings which was the subject of strongly-worded resolutions and protests to the government. This was the question of arrears in army pay. The government was trying to fob the men off with what today would be called a form of post-war credit. These credit notes were useless to most of the now impoverished yeomen, small traders and artisans returning to “Civvy Street”. Many ex-servicemen were forced by poverty to sell these certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value, and Parliament itself was actually participating in this mean robbery by employing agents to buy back its own IOUs at three or four shillings in the pound. This secondary demand eventually became a focal point of all the Levellers’ grievances, leading to open revolt, just as in modern times economic strikes of the working class in defence of living standards have often led to much more far reaching political revolts.
Most of the troops that marched out of “Old Sarum” (Salisbury) flying their own sea-green colours into the green countryside of an English spring in 1649 would have attended the great popular assemblies which had adopted the Agreement of the People. Those who had not would have been fully conversant with its principles as with the terms of the famous “Engagement”. In the period since the first drafting of the Peoples’ Agreement the leaders of the movement had written and distributed great numbers of political pamphlets and tracts to reinforce the original arguments of the agreement. The regimental agitators had followed this up with continual verbal propaganda. The Leveller’s revolt was therefore a conscious, level-headed and inspired movement, typically English in its downright and practical methods of organisation; methods which the English masses have improved upon and extended through the centuries with increasing success.
An examination of various Leveller pronouncements during the risings disproves the contention of many orthodox historians that they were irreconcilable doctrinaires. The printed documents show that all their actions were the result of reasoned and careful discussion and they resorted to force only when they found themselves threatened with violence. Neither must it be thought that the Burford incident was an isolated one; mutinies on a larger scale had taken place in widely separated parts of the country. While the revolt at Salisbury was coming to a head, Cromwell with the very greatest difficulty, and by means of the most specious promises was preventing a much larger body of troops from taking similar action in London in 1647; several regiments had raised the sea-green colours at Ware and the leaders had been immediately shot. A short time before the Burford revolt, the City had witnessed a great sea-green demonstration at the funeral of a Leveller who had been shot in St. Paul’s Churchyard for the part he had played in an earlier mutiny.
Those who set out on the fatal march to Burford were well aware of the price they would have to pay for failure and although traitors, spies and cowards appeared within their ranks, the degree of unity and self-discipline they maintained to the end was proof of their great spirit. That they were betrayed rather than defeated is proved by an examination of contemporary documents. If they erred, it was in being over-trusting in their dealings with representatives of the high command who applied the method of delay until they were ready to strike in overwhelming strength. It is this battle of manoeuvre, quite familiar to the industrial worker engaged in strike action, which we shall now endeavour to describe in detail.
Gathering Storm in Salisbury
At the beginning of May 1649, two cavalry regiments were stationed in Salisbury. The second Civil War was over and Cromwell’s chief anxiety was what to do with these turbulent soldiers who had become infected with the revolutionary ideas of the Levellers. He decided that the most effective diversion of their militant energies would be a campaign in Ireland. This would not only divert attention from the grievances at home, but would also solve the awkward question of arrears in pay, by providing opportunities for loot and land settlement in Ireland.
At first this astute move had just the opposite effect to what had been expected. The soldiers under new and more revolutionary “agitators” (or Commissars as they might be described today) immediately invoked the famous “Engagement” not to disband their forces until they had obtained justice at home, claiming that this was a deceitful way of achieving their dispersal. It must be remembered that Cromwell himself had somewhat reluctantly endorsed the “Engagement”.
The selection of the regiments to proceed to active service in Ireland was to be arrived at by a lottery organised by the high officers. The very method adopted would have looked suspicious and when the lot fell on the two regiments of Colonel Scroop and General Ireton stationed in Salisbury, the troops immediately declared this to be an infringement of the 1647 “Engagement” and refused to go. They were given the usual harangue on the parade ground, consisting of a mixture of threats and pleading, whereupon the soldiers drew up a memorandum called “A Paper of Some Reasons, by way of Declaration” and despatched this to Colonel Scroop. In this they were joined by one of the officers, a certain Cornet (sub-lieutenant) Dene who pushed himself quickly to the front as an advocate of extreme revolutionary methods, until the time of the final crisis, when he revealed himself as a type the modern working class movement has become very familiar with.
Their views having been presented to the Colonel, the troops were called to a rendezvous by the officers and were told that no-one was to be forced to go to Ireland, but that those who did not wish to go could take their discharge and leave the army at once. This sounds a simple solution, but it was in fact a cunning attempt to throw confusion into the minds of the men, for it meant that if they stayed at home all chance of getting their arrears of pay would be gone, and if they went abroad the solidarity of the rank and file would be broken and the whole movement for post-war justice would collapse. When they refused to adopt either course but acted as one body, Colonel Scroop (who seems to have been an “ultra-blimp”, even in the opinion of his fellow officers) informed the men in strong terms that they were already guilty of mutiny. An ironical note is added by the fact that when the Colonel was asked whether he would go to Ireland, he replied that he himself could give no assurance that he would go.
After this Colonel Scroop’s regiment at once sent a letter to the troops under General Ireton who then decided to join the original mutineers. After further threats, Colonel Scroop ordered all the horses to be placed some two miles from the men’s quarters. This order the men carried out, proving that there was as yet no repudiation of discipline and that the men were still only standing on what they considered their constitutional rights and remaining true to the engagement undertaken by the whole army, including Cromwell himself. However, when it became evident that the Colonel was preparing to use force against them, the men regained their horses and began to make preparations to defend themselves if attacked. Whether the officers were actually disobeyed and driven away is not clear. The survivors of the Burford battle afterwards published a pamphlet in defence of their actions. This states that the officers themselves left the regiment, and the men then elected new officers. There seems to be some indication that the infamous Cornet Dene who joined the mutineers urged violence against his ex-colleagues. From the moment of the re-election of officers, of course, the die was cast and the whole incident may best be told in the words of some of those who survived:
“Our old solemn Engagement at Newmarket and Thriplow Heath, June 5th, 1647, with the manifold Declarations, Promises and Protestations of the Army, in pursuance thereof, were all utterly declined and most Perfidiously broken, and the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under… which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go… till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election… Whereupon we drew up a paper of some Reasons, by way of Declaration, concerning our said refusal to deliver to our Colonel; unto which we all cheerfully subscribed, with many of our officers (especially Cornet Dene, who then seemingly was extreme forward in assisting us to effect our desires) which being delivered a day or two after, immediately our officers called a rendez-vous near under Salisbury, where they declared that the General intended not to force us, but that we might either go or stay, and so certifying our intents to stay, we were all drawn into the town again, and the Colonel together with the rest of the officers, full of discontent, threatened us the Soldiers, and because we were all, or most of one mind, he termed our unity a Combination or Mutiny, yet himself upon our request to know, told us, that he could not assure us, that he would go. Which forementioned paper, with a letter, we sent to Commissary General Ireton’s Regiment, who took it so well, that they were immediately upon their march towards our quarters to joyn with us.”
To Banbury to Join Forces
Having drawn up a further Declaration of Aims and despatched it to Generals Fairfax and Cromwell, the two regiments, which numbered over a thousand men, had to decide on their future tactics and strategy. This must have constituted a serious problem for the leaders. It is doubtful whether they would have known much about the threatening disturbances that were taking place among the much larger bodies of the London troops. News, which today spreads over the land in a few minutes, would have taken two or three days to reach Salisbury from London. They would know, of course that feeling was very strong and that similar movements were likely elsewhere, but that is all. Few of them would even have heard of the more thoroughgoing communist and civilian arm of the Levellers’ movement, which, in that very spring of 1649, was making the first attempt to occupy land in the name of the people and cultivate it along co-operative lines. They therefore decided to strike for the town of Banbury from which they had received indisputable information that a similar mutiny to their own had taken place.
These troops, under an NCO by the name of William Thompson, were at the same time declaring their solidarity in a powerfully worded manifesto of their own. This refers to the news they had received from Salisbury in the following terms:
“We do own and avow the late proceedings in Col. Scroop’s, Col. Harrison’s and Major General Skippon’s regiments, declared in their resolutions published in print; as one man resolving to live and dy with them in their and our just and mutual defense.”
In view of this information, the leaders who constituted a regimental committee decided to make a junction with their comrades at Banbury. This would involve a stiff march across country much rougher than it is today and would include a great part of the Cotswolds, a distance of over fifty miles. Once such a junction had been made, a force of nearly three thousand cavalry would have been able to take the field. This would have made a formidable force, and using Banbury as a centre it could have reasonably expected to hold out for some time. If threatened by overwhelming forces it could have retreated into the Cotswolds.
Assuming that the leadership was made up in the main of those who were eventually executed in Burford churchyard, the Military Committee probably consisted of about six men, the most prominent of these being Cornet Dene, ex-regular officer, Cornet Thompson (brother of the Banbury leader) and Corporal Perkins and Private Church. The two latter ordinary soldiers were the most stable and courageous leaders remaining constant and incorruptible to the end, although less vociferous than the others.
On May 11th the Salisbury regiments struck across Salisbury Plain. They rode hard as they had heard that Cromwell and Fairfax were already on the move, and had reached Andover. From Andover Cromwell dispatched four officers to catch up with the mutineers. These officers were supposed to discuss terms with the mutineers, but it seems probable that they were actually dispatched for tactical reasons and that their real orders were to delay the rebels as long as possible and so give Cromwell and Fairfax time to get within striking distance. They made several attempts to involve the Levellers in long-winded discussions and, although the men were not inclined to listen to them, these contacts must have reduced the speed of the advance.
Cromwell’s agents first made contact with the main body at Wantage late in the evening of May 12th. They evidently met with a rebuff but were promised an interview at Stanford in the Vale the next morning. This meeting was also abortive, apparently because the men’s old Colonel, the detested Scroop suddenly appeared, and the Levellers moved on to Abingdon. Again the officers rather ignominiously trailed along behind the troops. At Abingdon the men would have no dealings with Scroop but agreed to parley with the other four officers. One of these, Major White, made a speech in which he spoke of the need for army unity to save the Commonwealth and concluded by reading a letter from Fairfax and Cromwell. This had little effect on the men who believed that it was the salvation of the Commonwealth that made their present fight necessary. Most of their national leaders, men of great courage like Lilburn and Overton, were imprisoned in the Tower of London. These men had fought in every notable battle for the Commonwealth and had given unconditional loyalty to Cromwell until the end of the Civil War. Lilburn, in particular, had distinguished himself; he had been wounded several times and risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The soldiers now saw him as the only public man willing to fight for a genuinely democratic Commonwealth instead of a dictatorship of the high generals and the City of London merchant princes.
The Levellers had decided to proceed to Banbury via Abingdon – a most roundabout route – owing to information that the troops of Colonel Harrison would probably join their ranks near that town. They now proceeded in this direction, with Major White and two officers still following. Colonel Scotten, to use the mutineers’ own words “slipped away” to give Cromwell news of their next destination. In the pamphlet “The Levellers Vindicated” it appears that many of the men saw through these tactics, as the following extract from the original document indicates:
“Being in treatie with the commissioners, and having intelligence that the General and the Lt. General were upon their march towards us, many of us several times urged to Major White that he came to betray us, to which he replyed, that the General and the Lt. General had engaged their honours not to engage us in any Hostile manner till they had received our answer… We gave the more credit to them who seemed extreme forward and hastie to make the composeure, pretending so far to improve of our standing for the things contained in our arrangement at Triplo-Heath, that himself with our consents drew up a Paper or Answer to the General for us… During this time of treatie while the commissioners thus assured us all security, one of them, the Colonel Scotten privately slips from us, and two others, Captains Bayley and Peverill, left notes at every town of our strength and condition…”
Had Major White and his talkative officers been sent packing after the first contact, it is very doubtful whether Cromwell could have destroyed the Levellers by his final surprise attack at Burford. The success of his plan clearly depended on precise information as to the position of the mutineers. It is true that his travelling speed of forty or fifty miles a day was remarkable, but it was the exact knowledge of the point reached by the Levellers, that enabled him to catch them at Burford with a large body of troops.
In spite of Major White’s protestations spoken at the time and put in writing later, it is obvious that he created an effective intelligence service under the guise of being an emissary to discuss honourable terms.
Treachery at Burford
Just outside Abingdon the expected meeting with Colonel Harrison’s troops took place. Delegates were sent by the Salisbury regiments, who read out their declaration. This was favourably received by Harrison’s men who stated that they were marching to quarters at Thame, and in the morning would communicate their decision. Before the two bodies separated, however, the first brush with some of Fairfax’s reconnaissance troops took place, which thanks to Major White, must have still further delayed progress to Banbury. These hostile troops ‑ not more than a hundred in number ‑ placed themselves astride a bridge at Newbridge. These troops could have been routed probably without loss of life, but Major White persuaded the Levellers not to force a crossing, pleading that they should not be the first to shed blood in a new war. As a result the Salisbury men withdrew and were compelled to ford the river at another point a considerable distance away ‑ a difficult and delaying operation.
It was now growing late on Sunday May 13th. The troops had already travelled from Wantage; they were tired and wet after fording the river. The question of quarters for the night was becoming an urgent problem. The decision was left to Lieutenant Ray and ‑ Cornet Dene, who decided to proceed a further fifteen miles to Burford. This would have appeared satisfactory to the men, as being well on the way to their comrades at Banbury. Further, Burford had a solidly parliament reputation during the Civil War. It was a centre of the wool clothing industry and the population would probably be sympathetic. From this town had come Lenthall, the speaker of the House of Commons, which had resisted the King when he had attempted to impose his will on Parliament on the eve of the Civil War.
Some time after dark, fifteen hundred grim and exhausted Leveller horsemen entered Burford and proceeded to find suitable quarters and billets for a night’s sleep. The little grey-stoned Cotswold town was not large enough to shelter so large a body of men and many had to go to surrounding villages. Arrangements were unfortunately left in the hands of Cornet Dene who appointed a fellow traitor, Quartermaster Moore to organise the guard. This he did in a very casual way, and then, pretending to be going for refreshments left the town, returning some hours later at the head of the General’s forces to strike down his ex-comrades.
In the meantime, Major White, who was still accepted as a genuine intermediary between the Levellers and the High Command, was exerting all his eloquence to convince them that Cromwell and Fairfax had pledged their honour not to attack… at least until they had received and considered the communication which the men had sent them. Major White even asserted that if hostile forces arrived he himself would go out and stand between the bullets and the Levellers.
It must be admitted that Major White afterwards denied any treacherous intentions in thus endeavouring to lull the vigilance of the men. It is, of course, possible that he was that type of would-be-pacifist who was really deceiving himself as well as the Levellers. Against this must be set the fact that several of the NCOs were ordinary paid agents of the High Command, and it seems likely that Major White was in continual contact with them. It is also significant that on his own admission, the professional “stooge” Cornet Dene was with the Major at his quarters a few minutes before the Fairfax troops broke into the town.
Whatever may be the truth about Major White’s conscience, the effect of his activity was to create a false atmosphere of relative security just at the moment when the greatest danger was threatening. Believing Fairfax and Cromwell to be at least a day’s march away (Major White must have certainly known better) the men settled down without much apprehension.
At midnight Cromwell’s hand-picked cavalry burst into the quiet little town with muskets firing and swords drawn. The Levellers had little choice either of putting up an effective fight or of surrendering without resistance. In the confusion of the darkness each man was forced to defend himself as best he could. Only at one point was an organised resistance put up. A small party of Levellers barricaded themselves into an Inn (probably the Bull), maintaining a brief but stout defence, during which they suffered several casualties, one man being shot dead. After this all resistance was at an end. Several hundred Levellers escaped into the surrounding countryside, but three hundred and forty were captured and imprisoned in Burford Church.
Cromwell now began a deliberate and methodical campaign to break the morale of those who had previously proved implacable. He aimed not only to force the mutineers to renounce their previous views, but also to deprive the Levellers of public sympathy by presenting their actions in the most unfavourable light. He therefore did not order immediate executions but subjected the mutineers to a “war of nerves” by keeping them locked up in the old church for the best part of a week. This would have been a period of intense anxiety, as for a long time no information was given them as to their fate. It was during this long vigil, while the men were left to reflect on all that had happened since they began their struggle at Salisbury, that one of the troopers roughly carved his name on the lead lining of the ancient font. Thus the words “ANTHONY SEDLEY 1649 PRISNER” became the only inscription to commemorate the last stand of the Levellers. Thousands must have stood before this font unaware of its grim significance, yet these crude letters mark the historical turning point of the first great social revolution in England. It was not until three hundred years later that the common people were able to realise most of the political ideas for which Anthony Sedley fought in 1649, while true economic emancipation is yet to be achieved.
Towards the end of the Imprisonment, the Colonels Harris, Okey and Scroop were sent into the church to inform the prisoners that there would be a general death sentence. It is improbable that it was ever intended to carry this out, but by these means Cromwell hoped to bring about their humble contrition, which would be very useful to him in his effort to dissipate all national sympathy for the Levellers. It would seem that his methods met with some success and it was claimed that the men drew up a petition beginning with the words: “The humble petition of the sad and heavy hearted prisoners remaining in Burford Church.” This certainly looks sufficiently contrite. Whether more than a small minority signed this wordy plea is, however, an open question. Corporal Perkins proudly averred his beliefs at the execution wall and it would be reasonable to assume that his example influenced most of the others. It is most likely that the petition was the work of Cornet Dene and that during the last hours of confinement the mutineers were split into two factions.
Finally, after much hesitation, Cromwell selected four alleged ringleaders for execution, leaving the others still in suspense. These were Cornet Dene, Cornet Thompson, Private Church and Corporal Perkins.
Before the executions the whole body of Levellers were ordered to a position where the executions could easily be seen, some being placed on the roof of the church for this purpose. Cornet Thompson was the first to be taken to the churchyard wall. He did not die too well. The rank and file afterwards maintained that he had expected a pardon at the last moment, and for this reason repeatedly proclaimed his penitence. The conduct of the two common soldiers was a great contrast to this. Corporal Perkins proudly avowed the part he had played and his belief in the cause for which he was dying, and his actual death is most vividly described in a contemporary news-sheet in the following terms:
“Corporal Perkins was the next ‑ the place of death and the sight of his execution was so far from altering his countenance or daunting his spirit that he seemed to smile upon both, and account it a great mercy that he was to die for this quarrel, and casting his eye up to his father and afterwards to his fellow prisoners (who stood upon the church leads to see the execution) set his back against the wall and bade the executioners shoot.”
Thus in his death Corporal Perkins saved the honour of the Levellers movement and bequeathed to the common people a name which down the centuries they would be able to honour and revere. Private Church died equally bravely but without making a clear-cut statement, and in the words of a contemporary document “after taking off his doublet he took his place a pretty distance from the wall” thus confirming his lack of fear.
The last to be brought to the execution wall was Cornet Dene, and the nearer the moment of the execution, the more hypocritical became his mode of expression. It was even asserted by the surviving mutineers that he had previously bought his own winding street. In his statement he continually harped on the remorse that he felt for the bad ways into which he had led the other mutineers, and then after he had commended his penitent soul to the mercy of the Lord, an officer came forward with a last minute pardon, which was no surprise to most of those in his unfortunate audience.
Having witnessed these executions, the Levellers were taken back to the church, where Cromwell ‑ no doubt using the pulpit for the purpose ‑ proceeded to deliver a sermon. This must have been a distressing experience. Cromwell had always been given to long rambling speeches, often difficult to listen to in the best of circumstances. The speech was, of course, liberally sprinkled with religious references. The official historians wish us to believe that all this had the desired effect. However, the story afterwards told by the survivors hardly supports this claim, for they describe his remarks as being in “his old manner of dissembling speeches”.
To complete the men’s discomfiture, Cornet Dene was then compelled to preach to the men on the need to repent their sins. If some may have seriously listened to Cromwell because they still felt respect for him as their old war leader, it is impossible to believe that they would have listened to Dene with anything but scorn in their hearts, and in their pamphlet they certainly leave no doubt about their feelings for him:
“And to put an utter inconfidence and jealousie for ever amongst such upon all future engagements, they made that wretched Judas Dene to that end their pandor and slave. They enjoyned Dene to preach apostacy to us in the pulpit of Burford Church to assert and plead the unlawfulness of our engagement, as much as before the lawfulness to vindicate those wicked and abominable proceedings of the General… howling and weeping like a Crocadile, and to make him a perfect rogue and villain upon everlasting record.”
After his release Dene continued to be used by the authorities as a propaganda tool, and he was compelled to write a pamphlet along the same lines as his hypocritical recantations at Burford. This was broadcast throughout the land. Naturally Dene eventually received a greater reward than the mere granting of his life, and a few years later we find him well established as a preacher at Fenstanton in the county of Huntingdonshire. Here some of his Baptist and Quaker parishioners were imprisoned for refusing to take the oath and characteristically, it is reported that he made every effort to induce them to forsake their religious principles in this respect.
After the public execution the remainder of the mutineers were drafted to Devizes, and the magistrates in all counties were ordered to issue warrants against all those that had escaped. During his sermonising in Burford Church Cromwell had made some vague promises that the Leveller’s original grievances would be rectified, but a short time after their arrival at Devizes the regiments concerned were disbanded. Shortly after the collapse of the Levellers at Burford, their comrades whom they had failed to reach at Banbury, were defeated after a short battle in the streets of the town. The Banbury leader had been William Thompson, a brother of the one executed at Burford. Unlike his brother he died fighting, killing three men before he himself was shot in a wood near Banbury.
With the collapse of the Levellers’ revolt at Burford, the whole movement began to disintegrate. The unity and cohesion of the Levellers was mainly the result of the close-knit type of organisation, only possible within the army which brought them together. The new bourgeois state was now becoming consolidated and with the gradual disbandment of the more militant army units, the Levellers found themselves isolated. Most of them were small independent tradesmen, tenants, farmers, artisans and some casual labourers. Their mode of existence did not reunite them in civilian life in large industrial enterprises as is the case with the modern working class. Once outside the army, economic necessity forced them back to an isolated petit-bourgeois way of earning their livelihoods which made effective mass organisation impossible.
Further, the old feudal class and the new merchant capitalists were rapidly patching up their quarrel and this compromise was firmly consolidated with the re-establishment of a new bourgeois monarchy. In this way the ruling class erected a durable barrier against any further social revolution which lasted until our own times.
While it is just conceivable that the Levellers might have seized power for a short time, they could not have prevented the establishment of a capitalist Britain. As Marx later pointed out to the early working class movement of the last century:
“Man makes his own history but only within certain limits.”
These limits are set by the level of development of the productive forces of a given epoch. Only if those revolutionary soldiers could have linked with a great mass movement of the people would it have been possible to set up a genuinely democratic republic. No heavy industry existed, no large scale factories had yet been built, no widespread and rapid system of transport had developed and, therefore, the proletarian had not yet appeared on the historical scene. Since none of these necessary economic conditions yet existed, a Levellers’ government could have done little to change the march of events.
A hundred and fifty years later the Jacobins actually succeeded in seizing power in revolutionary France, but in spite of their revolutionary measures, it was the big industrialists and bankers who eventually gained the upper hand because, here too, no industrial proletariat yet existed powerful enough to play an independent political role in the struggle for power.
Today capitalism, long past its heyday, has created just those social and economic conditions which were absent in England in 1649, and in 1789 in France, and for several decades the industrial proletariat has been in a position to succeed where the Levellers failed. Already in 1917 the Russian workers utilising the revolutionary experience of the common people in the West were able to overthrow their own absolute monarchy and capitalist class. It is true that owing to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the long delay in the socialist revolution in the West, the Russian workers have not gained the full fruits of the October Revolution. Nevertheless it did lay the economic basis upon which a genuine socialist society can be built once the bureaucratic caste now in control there has been removed. Petrograd 1917 did in fact mark the beginning of a World revolution even though it was delayed much longer than Lenin had calculated. Today there is worldwide evidence that the revolutionary wave is once again gathering speed.
In England, capitalism is forced to lean on the opportunism of the right-wing Labour leaders, but they cannot prevent the continued decline of capitalism, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to hold back the workers with talk about the “Middle Road to Socialism”. They overlook the fact that for many years the workers of the world have been marching along the right road to socialism, in overwhelming strength. The bourgeois historians give every support to the cult of the “Middle Road” (in reality the road back for the workers) by the careful cultivation of the theory that it accords with the historical traditions of the British people. This is the reason why they have devoted but a few pages to the revolutionary movement of the Levellers and whole volumes to the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 which established the constitutional Monarchy. Of course the real revolution took place fifty years earlier in the course of which King Charles lost his head and the common people began their long march to freedom.
The revolutionary social theories expressed by men like Lilburn and the more nearly socialist philosopher Winstanley established a tradition of militant struggle, the continuity of which can be traced throughout the three centuries of English history that have passed since the execution of Corporal Perkins in Burford Churchyard. In the same way the revolutionary thoughts and actions of these Englishmen inspired the revolutionary thoughts and actions of the common people in other lands. The great leaders of the French Revolution were indirectly inspired by the writings as well as the deeds of these English revolutionaries of the 17th Century, just as many of the political demands made by the Levellers were inscribed on the banners of the English Chartist workers a hundred years ago.
Today the modern working class movement, and the Marxist wing of the movement in particular, are the true heirs to this great tradition of militant struggle against the exploiting classes.
We cannot claim that the Levellers ever adopted a clear-cut socialist theory; on the contrary their ideas were often vague and confused, but armed with the scientific theory of social development ‑ the theory of Marxism ‑ socialism will eventually realise those ideas towards which the Levellers were groping.
There is no recorded link between the army movement of the Levellers and the more socialist movement of the so-called Diggers which was led by Gerald Winstanley. Lilburn and many of his followers repudiated Winstanley and denied any wish to interfere with private property. Nevertheless, Winstanley described himself as a “True Leveller” and appealed to the soldiers for support, and it would be logical to believe that some of the rank and file would have sympathised with his ideas. Many of the common soldiers were impoverished or dispossessed yeomen, artisans and landless labourers who would have approved of Winstanley’s plan to take over all uncultivated land in the name of the people. Indeed, when soldiers were sent to eject the “Diggers” from the land they had occupied at St. George’s Hill, Surrey, the authorities had great difficulty in inducing the troops to take any action against these primitive collective farmers, and there is little doubt that Winstanley was voicing ideas which were beginning to dawn in the minds of the common people.
In his great work “The Law of Freedom the True Leveller” Gerard Winstanley clearly defines the only conditions in which a really free society is possible:
“The storehouses shall be every Man’s substance and not any one’s… He or she who calls the earth his and not his brother’s shall be sat upon a stool with those words written on his forehead before all the congregation, and afterwards be made a servant for twelve months under the taskmaster. If he quarrel or seek by secret persuasion or open rising to set up such a kingly property he shall be put to death.”
Thus would this typical Englishman have dealt with those who by force or by cunning would seek a return to so-called “free enterprise”. On capitalist trade and speculation his ideas are equally stern:
“If any do buy or sell the earth or the fruits thereof, unless it be with strangers or another nation according to the Laws of Navigation, they shall be both put to death as traitors to the peace of the Commonwealth.”
Exceedingly harsh measures perhaps; if they were included in the programme of the Labour Party the capitalist press would call this further evidence of “Bolshevik ruthlessness and the alien political ideology of the Communists”. Would it not he nearer the truth to say that, when the Bolsheviks adopted similar methods in 1917 against the ex-landlords, White Guards and grain speculators, they were influenced by the ideas of these revolutionary Englishmen of the 17th Century?
Today the right-wing Labour leaders and others tell us how necessary it is to preserve an opposition of big-business and anti-socialists in Parliament. This is supposed to be “protection of the rights of the minority”, meaning, of course, the rights of the minority of property-owners against the commonwealth. No more apt answer could be given than the words of Winstanley written three centuries ago:
“Everyone talks of freedom, and the actors for freedom are oppressed by the talkers for freedom… It is clearly seen, that if we be suffered to speak we shall batter to pieces all the old laws and prove the maintainers of them hypocrites and traitors to the commonwealth of England… Wherever there is a people united by common cummunity of livelihood into oneness it will be the strongest land in the world for there they will be as one man to defend their inheritance.”
In making this quotation from Winstanley, we do not mean to say that we favour only one-party government. Lenin never declared in principle for the elimination of all other parties or factions. Only the terrorist methods of the White Guard and the old landlord capitalist class forced the Bolsheviks to counterattack when these elements threatened to destroy the infant Soviet State by violence, sabotage and foreign intervention. Similarly, Cromwell was forced to establish for a time a one party dictatorship when the monarchy threatened a second Civil War and the importation of foreign troops to destroy the new state which Parliament had created. In Soviet Russia Lenin insisted until right up to his death that democratic forms of rule including tolerance of a legal opposition should be restored once the threat of violence had been removed. Contrary to Lenin’s wishes, Stalin developed these temporary measures into a permanent form to support his own “dictatorial” rule.
These noble words of Winstanley must therefore be seen in relation to the bitter Civil War which had been raging. The execution of Charles I finally came about as a result of positive proof that he was preparing to bring in Irish and French troops to overthrow the will of his own people and also because his person constituted a rallying point around which counter-revolutionary forces continually grouped. Cromwell himself did not set out to establish one-party government, but only suppressed the opposition when the Commonwealth could not be preserved in any other way. He turned and destroyed the Levellers for the same reason. From his viewpoint they were a threat to the only kind of social order that could effectively replace the absolute monarchy which he had overthrown ‑ a system wherein the new ruling class, the men of property and trade, would be free to develop the economy of the country in accordance with their own interest, unhampered by arbitrary feudal rights and privileges previously used against them by the king and the nobility. Cromwell no doubt was right in insisting that this rule of the men of commerce and property was the only alternative to chaos. But let us remember that in the light of man’s age-long struggle for full political and economic freedom, Winstanley, Lilburn and the simple Leveller soldiers also stood for the brighter future of mankind.
Dudley Edwards, 1948
Author’s Postscript (1975)
I have been asked to give a brief bibliography and also explain how a layman and active Trade Unionist who was a member of the Oxford District Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union during and just after the Second World War came to be interested in the doings of our Leveller forefathers 300 years previously.
The bibliography is extremely easy to provide. Almost all the material on which the story of the brief battle at Burford is based can be found in the local history archives of the Oxford City Library. Most of the quotations from Leveller pamphlets are also included in this material. I merely wrote this up in what I hope was a more interesting and gripping manner. Some quotations from Winstanley and from other anonymous pamphleteers during the Cromwellian period can be found in the works of Christopher Hill who I believe to be the outstanding historian of this period in Britain today. Most of Winstanley’s views and those of many other radical thinkers can be found quoted in great detail in Christopher Hill’s books “Puritanism and Revolution”, and “The Reformation to Industrial Revolution”, and many other works on different aspects of the English Civil War period.
I wrote this pamphlet in 1947-48 when, after the honeymoon with Stalinist Russia during the Second World War, the mass media were once again portraying communism as everything that was alien to the “true spirit” of the British nation ‑ a purely foreign importation. As a passionate young follower of the history of British socialism I was convinced that the insinuation that the communist idea had no roots in our own history was essentially false.
Therefore I felt the need to show that when those emotive words “our national heritage” are used by the representatives of capitalist society, the aim is to blot out that other heritage ‑ the heritage of the common people. I wanted to show that for hundreds of years, indeed, from the days of Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt, the labouring masses have always fought against the establishment of the day.
As a matter of fact communist ideas were prevalent among the common people long before the USSR or even Karl Marx were heard of. I believed therefore that it is this heritage that must be revived. The story of the Levellers is just one incident in the age-long struggle of the rank and file to change society. The official historians have buried such incidents as the battle at Burford under great files of dry-as-dust manuscripts. The uncovering of these revolutionary struggles will become an inspiration to the working-class movement to realise those ideas which were seen by the old pioneers as “through a glass darkly”.
Dudley Edwards, 1975
Click here to read Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution.
Click here to read The English Civil war and the Levellers (Part One)
Click here to read The English Civil war and the Levellers (Part two)
Click here to read The English Civil war and the Levellers (Part three)
Click here to read The English Civil War and the Levellers (Part Four)
Click here to read The English Civil War and the Levellers (Part Five)
Click here to buy “The Levellers and the English Revolution” by H. N. Brailsford