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Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

If the line of criticism is taken that the English Civil War (1642-1651) was as much an ideological war as it was a physical conflict, the proliferation of radical voices and sentiments in the Civil War years is unsurprising. As the nation pushed for social justice and political reform, radical groups began to promote their own views, as ideological differences and debate became a widespread societal phenomenon.

The Levellers

The Levellers are perhaps the most famous of the radical groups of the English Civil War. The radical movement came into being “no earlier than 1646” (Loughlin, 2007, p. 1) and only experienced a relatively short period of existence. Remembered for their advocation of democracy, equality, and civil liberties, the Levellers held particularly extreme views. Challenging the traditional power structures of England, the Levellers advocated the notion that all men were created equal, resulting in a search for political equality that pronounced all men worthy of the right to vote and participate in political processes. The volatility of the political environment of England during this period was particularly significant, allowing radical offset groups to gain increasing influence as the political system experienced unprecedented fragility.

Figure 1. John Lilburne (Glover, 1641).

As religion came under intense pressure during the Civil War, with Puritans, Presbyterians, and Catholics all keen to instil their views into a national and institutional paradigm, the Levellers sought religious toleration and promoted a vision of England in which the Church and the State were separated. As they began to view the monarchy and its structures as increasingly corrupt, the Levellers sought a vision of England in which the powers of the monarch were significantly curtailed. Believing, much like John Milton and Andrew Marvell, that power was a necessarily withdrawable entity, the Levellers were keen to promote a reformed structure of England in which power was first and foremost allocated by, to act for, the wishes of the people. Fairly early along, the Levellers “argued [...] for the sovereignty of the House of Commons over the monarchy and the House of Lords” (Tubb, 2015, p. 171). In their dedication to the freedoms and rights of the people, the Levellers have a significant place in England’s political history:

[They] concern for civil liberties led them into making the first-known attempt at writing down a law paramount which not even the legislature could alter. Their successive manifestoes […] were the earliest English approximations to a written constitution. (Thomas, 1972, p. 57)

The Levellers were led by John Lilburne, a former soldier imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to the monarchy. Using pamphlets, tracts, and speeches to diffuse his ideas and rally support, the Levellers understood the significance of literature in the Civil War as a vehicle to effectively gain support for their respective cause. This view is supported by Hopkins and Coster (2019), who recognise the significance that the Levellers were “active at a time when print literature was becoming a mass form of political communication” (p. 69). Pamphleteering, arguably pioneered by the Levellers, became a “quick and cheap way of communicating political views directly to specific audiences while avoiding “official” channels and agencies” (p. 69), allowing for the proliferation of radical views that otherwise would have been suppressed through censorship and other such governmental modes of control.

Figure 2: Leveller Pamphlet (Norton, 1643).

Monopolising upon growing discontentment among soldiers of the army, the Levellers’ views spread rapidly throughout their nation. As discontentment with the injustices against the people by the monarchy spread, the Levellers’ advocation for the rights of the people, as well as the equality of the people, struck a cord amongst ever-increasing disillusionment. The influence of the Levellers was so profound, in fact, that Keith Thomas (1972) goes so far as to recognise the Levellers as a “crucial pressure group who, by their influence in London and the army, did much to determine the course of events during the critical years, 1647, and 1648” (p. 57). Their influence amongst high-profile parliamentarians and army generals meant they played a significant role in the defining elements of the Civil War, forcing “Cromwell and the army ‘grandees’ into increasingly radical postures” (p. 58). So profound was the Levellers’ influence, in fact, that they played a significant role in “engineeri[ing] the seizure of the king in June 1647” (p. 58), and worked intensely in support of the regicide, which they believed would encourage the implementation of their ideal social and political reforms.

Following the regicide, however, Leveller’s influence began to decrease. Their predominant support base, the discontented soldiers of the army, dwindled as the new interregnum government appeased the disillusioned army with the payment of soldier’s arrears and pay increases. By 1649, the Levellers’ cause was lost, with “Leveller leaders [...] imprisoned and their adherents crushed by military force” (p. 58). The legacy of the Levellers, however, was not so easily diminished. Many critics recognise the impact the Levellers held on the political discourses of England, with Keith Thomas (1972) contending that:

the Levellers had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their numbers; and they had pioneered techniques of agitation by petition, pamphlet, party organisation and public demonstration that were to have a long subsequent history (p. 58).

Figure 3: John Lilburne, a leader of the Levellers, appeals to a crowd as he stands at a pillory (Alamy, n.d.).

This view is supported by Tubb (2015), who also recognises the significance of the Levellers’ insistence on the power of the pamphlet: “Leveller pamphlets in 1646” making claims for parliamentary sovereignty “led to the radicalisation of the debates about the constitutional settlement at the end of the Civil War” (p. 171). As such, it is apparent that whilst the Leveller’s direct influence was short-lived, the proliferation of their ideas was certainly impactful, directly involved within significant events of the Civil War such as the regicide, whilst their literary and political literacy are not so easily forgotten.

The Diggers

The Diggers were another radical group of the English Civil War, headed by Gerard Winstanley. In a time of unparalleled change and intense ideological debate, the Diggers emerged to propagate the ideal of an egalitarian, propertyless society. The Diggers escalated radical views for the limitation of monarchical power, finding issues with the division of the rich and the poor. For the Diggers:

the rise of private property, and the resultant division into rich and poor, was the entry of sin into the world and the basis on which tyranny and oppression had been structured ever since (Lindley, 2013, p. 33).

Figure 4: Gerard Winstanley (Unknown, c. 1650).

The Diggers were notably less influential than the Levellers, addressing the masses of the rural poor and landless labourers as opposed to a target audience of the modest-earning urban classes. Whilst their influence may have been more strictly limited, the Diggers are a significant study as an exemplar of the ways in which the ideological debates of the 17th century fostered subsets of political discourses that, for the first time, saw movements freely attacking the constitutional monarchy and offering alternative options for the political system. As Lindley (2013) writes, The Diggers never attained a significant mass following, “attracting at most a few hundred followers” (p. 33), with Digger communities being “constantly harassed” (p. 33). By 1650, the movement disintegrated. Their political impact was certainly minimal, though they have consistently attracted the attention of modern scholars, so much so that it has been argued that it is not in the contemporary political realm, but rather “in the realm of the history of ideas that their lasting significance is to be measured” (p. 34). The Diggers’ attempt to “revolutionise the economic structure of the early modern English society” (Chakravarty, 2006, p. 28) was by no means influential, nor successful, but evidences a newly acquired freedom of ideology, in which radical groups were looking at the English constitution in new and revolutionary ways, daring to speak against the centuries-old structural composition of England and envision a new political society.

The Fifth Monarchists

The Fifth Monarchists were a political and religious radical sect founded on millenarian doctrine. One group of many who saw the chaos and trials of the English Civil War as evidence of the “imminent Kingdom of Christ” (Capp, 2012, p. 1). The Fifth Monarchists were unique, however, in many ways. Founding their doctrine around millenarianism made them the first religious sect to do so, whilst their violent ideology also distanced them from more agitating groups such as the Levellers, or peaceful movements such as the Diggers. The Fifth Monarchists claimed the right and the “duty of taking arms to overthrow existing regimes and establish the millennium” (p. 1), and were particularly detailed in their “formulation of the political, social, and economic structure of the promised kingdom” (p. 1).

Believing that they were living in the final stage of human history, known as the fifth monarchy, the Fifth Monarchists were opposed to the monarchy and believed that a theocratic government, based on the laws of God, was the only legitimate form of government. As such, the existing structure of monarchical power was corrupt due to its ungodly nature, and the Fifth Monarchists staunchly believed that the Bible was the only legitimate source of law, and as such, a true government should be based upon the principles of the Bible. Whilst the Fifth Monarchists supported parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, they were opposed to the establishment of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate due to its secular nature and its failure to follow the principles of the Bible.

Figure 5: Title page of A Brief description of the Fifth Monarchy or Kingdome (Aspinwall, 1653).

The Fifth Monarchists were certainly known, and renowned, amongst contemporaries, with Oliver Cromwell remarking:

they had tongues like Angels, but had cloven feet (Qtd in Capp, 2012, p. 2).

In 1657, the Fifth Monarchists, led by Thomas Venner, staged a rebellion in London. Whilst this ultimately failed, being suppressed by the Commonwealth government, it evidenced the perceived power of the radical group. Capp notes that it “is impossible to doubt the fear they aroused during the 1650s” (p. 2). However, like the other radical groups of the Civil War period, the fear and influence of the Fifth Monarchists quickly diminished. They failed to “outlast the seventeenth century” (p. 2), and by the period of the Restoration, fears and anxiety surrounding the Fifth Monarchists quickly diminished into “ridicule” (p. 2).

Despite the fact that the radical groups of the Civil War period were notoriously short-lived, their contemporary influence, power, and methods of spreading their discourse and ideologies evidence the extent of the ideological conflict of the seventeenth century. As the volatile political situation in England deepened, radical groups advocating for a revised political structure were at least somewhat successful in propagating their ideologies, a feat that would not have occurred without such a political climate. That their voices for a reformed England were taken seriously, in fact, evidences the ideological state of England, as a nation willing to consider a changeeven when this change questioned the very fundamental structures of monarchy, power, and government.

Figure 6: Thomas Venner, Fifth Monarchist executed for treason in 1661 (Unknown, c. 1800).

The Agreement of the People

It is significant to consider that the first draft of the Levellers’ attempt at a written constitution of England, the Agreement of the People, was first read “on October 1647 before the general council of the army in Putney” (Vernon, 2012, p. 3). This evidences the significant influence that the Levellers held over specific groups within London, particularly the disillusionment of the army. Not to be considered an underground radical group, then, the Levellers exerted influence and had significant audiences in their attempt to spread their ideological vision of a reformed England.

Drafted in the wake of the First Civil War, the Agreement was developed through several manifestoes between October 1647 and May 1649. The Agreement was intended to define the powers of government, ultimately concluding the imperative nature of their being a reserved set of rights which placed power initially and finally in the hands of the people.

1. That the people of England being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities and boroughs for the election of their deputies in parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned according to the number of the inhabitants. 2. That to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority, this present parliament be dissolved upon the last day of September, which shall be in the year of our Lord, 1648. 3. That the people do of course choose themselves a parliament once in two years, 4. That the power of this and all future representatives of this nation is inferior only to theirs who choose them, and doth extend, without the consent or concurrence of any other person or persons, to the enacting, altering, and repealing of laws; to the erecting and abolishing of offices and courts; to the appointing, removing, and calling to account magistrates and officers of all degrees; to the making war and peace; to the treating with foreign states; and generally, to whatsoever is not expressly or impliedly reserved by the represented to themselves.

Figure 7: Plate Depicting the Trial of Charles I in January 1649 (Nalson, 1688).

The Levellers were sure to constrain the powers of Parliament, arguing that the power of Parliament was second to the power of the people, whose rights were inalienable and absolute. This Agreement was essentially the advocation of a “massive redistribution of power from the central government to the local communities of the English State” (Baker, 2012, p. 1). The written agreement was considered to lay out the “foundations of freedom” (p. 2), that essentially promoted the centrality of civil liberty and the unshaken power of the people in acts of governance. Considering the influence of the Agreement, it is significant to consider that the “Agreements of the People did not cease to be influential with the demise of the Levellers” (p. 9).

Baker (2012) is acutely aware of the ways in which the document continued to have a significant impact “both amongst the draftsmen of the protectoral constitutions and the discontented army officers and radicals who opposed to the Cromwellian ascendancy” (p. 3). Baker (2012) argues that whilst the document was, for the most part, widely forgotten in the wake of the Restoration of Charles II, its influence, albeit to a fundamentally more limited level, did survive. It survived in the royalist accounts of the “Machiavellian rise of Cromwell” (p. 10), as those who deemed Cromwell the renewed tyrant of England found renewed hope in written declarations such as the Agreement that sourced power in the hands of the people as opposed to a corrupt individual. The agreement was sporadically mentioned throughout the rest of the duration of the seventeenth century (Baker, 2012, p. 10), evidencing not only the continuing discontentment in the nation throughout subsequent political structural reforms but also the power that literature held in ideological debates and discourses.

Figure 8: An Agreement of the People, a series of manifestos (Unknown, 1648).

The Agreement is particularly notable in its expression of the rights of the people. Advocating an upheaval of a corrupt constitutional structure, the Levellers were staunch believers in a system of government that rested first in the hands of the people. As Vernon (2010) writes:

The first section, concerning parliaments, called for the dissolution of the Long Parliament; a redistribution of seats "according to the number of the Inhabitants"; and for biennial meetings of parliament, affirming that the power of the representative "is inferiour only to theirs who chuse them". Regarding this final point, the second section consisted of a list of "reserved powers" which the people retained to themselves: freedom of conscience in matters of religion; freedom from impressment; legal equality before the law; and indemnity for anything said or done during the Civil War. The legitimacy of these provisions was to be secured through a nationwide subscription campaign, in a literal re-formulation of the social contract (p. 40).

The Agreement of the People certainly had an enduring legacy, with its proposals for a representative government and political reform mirroring modern evidence of political and constitutional reform. Its call for the establishment of representative government, the extension of voting rights, and the abolition of many traditional powers of the monarchy illuminate the ways in which the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century fostered new visions of reform. Possibilities of reform were widespread throughout the nation, with a proliferation of radical groups searching to lay out new structures of government. The proliferation of such discourses and groups, many of which centred on the people as the fundamental basis of power, evidences the ways in which the violence, tension, and turmoil of the conflicts of the seventeenth century opened new doors for ideological debate and discussions of reform.

Bibliographical References

Baker, P. (2012). The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan.

Capp, B. (2012). The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism, Faber and Faber.

Chakravarty, P. (2006). Like Parchment in the Fire: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War, Routledge Press.

Hopkins, C., & Coster, W. (2019). The Levellers, political literacy and contemporary Citizenship education in England. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 14(1).

Lindley, K. (2013). The English Civil War and Revolution: A Sourcebook, Routledge Press.

Loughlin, M. (2007). The Constitutional Thought of the Levellers. Current Legal Problems, 60(1).

Thomas, K. (1972). The Levellers and the Franchise. The Interregnum, 57-58.

Tubb, A. (2015). Review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, by R. Foxley. The Journal of Modern History, 87(1), 170–172.

Vernon, E. (2010). What was the first agreement of the people? The Historical Journal, 53(1), 39–59.

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Ella Fincken

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