In 1972, during the era of student revolt, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill wooed its participants in his book The World Turned Upside Down. It explored the mid-17th century, a ‘period of glorious flux and intellectual excitement’, when the nation’s institutions broke down and Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of a Digger commune, declared ‘the old world’ to be ‘running up like parchment in the fire’. In the social complaints and theological heresies of the Levellers, Diggers, Anabaptists, Ranters, Seekers, Quakers, Muggletonians and so on, Hill discerned a challenge to ‘bourgeois society’ that might have ‘something to say to our own generation’. He even found an ‘analogy of modern drug-taking’ in the use of tobacco, ‘a novel and rather naughty stimulant’, to ‘heighten spiritual vision’ among members of the religious sects. One of Hill’s instruments of persuasion was the word ‘radical’, that heady presence in the 1960s and beyond. Subtitled ‘Radical Ideas in the English Revolution’, his book explored the ‘fascinating flood of radical ideas’ that emerged from the ‘radical underground’. The Levellers were ‘a very radical left wing of the revolutionary party’, he wrote, though since their thinking stayed ‘within the limits of a capitalist society’ they were less radical than others and less radical than they should have been.
Hill’s thesis disintegrated along with the mood he had captured and now seems inseparable from its time. Yet as David Como observes the book has earned ‘an enduring audience far beyond the walls of the academy’. It has also had a persistent influence inside them. When it appeared, the Levellers and Diggers had long been on the scholarly map, but the religious sects Hill placed alongside them struggled for recognition. The prevailing tone had scarcely changed since the founding historian of modern Civil War studies, the Victorian S.R. Gardiner, dismissed their adherents as wild eccentrics who lacked a ‘sense of decorum’. Now even those who take against them can’t ignore them.
Hill has had a lasting semantic victory too. Como’s Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War is the latest in a series of accomplished books on the period to have the word ‘radical’ in their titles. Yet there are caveats to be entered. The term would have foxed the 17th-century people to whom it is applied. ‘Radical’, which to them would merely have meant ‘of the root’, had yet to be applied to either politics or persons, at least in any sense comparable to ours. Of course, anachronism is innate to historical writing. Being bound to the vocabulary of their own time, historians (and their reviewers) translate the thought of the past every time they recount it. And sometimes modern terminology supplies indispensable shorthand. Many sentences can be kept to digestible proportions by the neutral use of ‘radical’ to denote those people who penetrated to the root of a political problem while others compromised or retreated. Yet there is neutral anachronism and loaded anachronism. Who, nearly half a century on from Hill’s book, includes among the ‘radicals’ the most penetrating and uncompromising thinker of the civil wars, authority’s friend Thomas Hobbes? The cast list remains dominated by Levellers and sects. Though Hill’s confrontational stance has yielded to scholarly circumspection, the category of radicalism continues to nourish, in Dmitri Levitin’s words, ‘the idea that critical or innovative thought is intrinsically linked to political dissent’. In particular, ‘radical’ hints at parallels or connections with the tradition which has proclaimed itself radical since the 19th century. Although Como claims ‘generally’ to have avoided the ‘progressive’ connotations of ‘radicalism’, the tradition will warm to his heartfelt plea for the present day pertinence of his ‘radicals’, at a time when, he laments, ‘representative democracy’ is being threatened by sinister governments and rampant capitalism. Would any academic risk a similar cri de coeur on behalf of a subject less likely to attract progressive sympathy?
How the pendulum has swung since Gardiner’s dismissal of the sects. If our interest is in the overall shape of the period, they now hold disproportionate attention, as do the Diggers and Levellers. The civil wars laid the axe to the monarchy and the Church, although, as some ‘radicals’ indeed complained, they did not pull up the roots. But was the achievement theirs? When the Long Parliament abolished the bishops it was not in order to satisfy the sectarian clamour for their overthrow but to secure military aid from the Scottish Presbyterians, fearsome antagonists of the sects and of their cherished principle of liberty of conscience. In 1649 the execution of Charles I and the creation of the English republic were opposed by the Levellers, whose defeat by the high command of the New Model Army was clinched by those events. The Levellers are admired as friends of ‘the people’, but the concept of a collective popular will has never been convincing. They did win wide popular support, but so did the English Presbyterians, who, being less congenial to modern eyes, get less attention. The term ‘the people’ was familiar enough to the 17th century. The Levellers proposed, by national subscription, to recast the basis of government through an ‘Agreement of the People’, a document that proposed guarantees of parliamentary accountability and listed individual rights, but by ‘the people’ the framers meant those people who agreed with it. How many would have signed it? If contemporaries commonly judged one event in this period to have ‘the people’ on its side it was the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Yet who would wish away the body of work to which Como has now made such a substantial and distinguished contribution? Hill set his heroes apart from the ‘bourgeois’ world, but now that the dividing walls of Marxist sociology have come down, and Hill’s depiction of the sects as proletarian expressions of ‘class hostility’ has lost its authority, historians have been able to relate them to broad patterns of intellectual upheaval, literary experiment and social experience. Though Como, like Hill, views political and religious affiliations alongside each other, he concentrates on the 1640s, the decade of civil war and political fragmentation, while the groups discussed by Hill peaked in the 1650s, a decade of failed attempts at political reconstruction after the regicide. There are also basic contrasts of approach. The language of ‘radicalism’ enabled Hill to play down differences among his groups and to situate them within an essentially unified ‘culture’ of protest. Como describes not a culture but a coalition. Alert to the diversity of the beliefs he describes, and to the fierceness of competition among them, he explores a set of unstable alliances that were brought together by the often chaotic necessities and circumstances of politics and which shifted with them. It is the ‘very flexibility’ of the term ‘radical parliamentarians’ that makes it serviceable to him. If it is sometimes too flexible and too frequent for the reader’s comfort, it does give the author a rudder in choppy waters.
The process of historical recovery depends on establishing context and chronology, which in turn demands the writing of narrative. Hill, who saw events as the mere superstructure of history, avoided that approach. Como embraces it. It is not news that most of the Western texts written between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that we categorise as ‘political theory’, from Machiavelli to Paine or Madison, were intended to further a political cause, but here the relationship of ideas to events is delineated with rare exactness and intensity. We watch, from month to month and sometimes week to week, as political and religious arguments intertwine with what emerges as a perpetual ‘radicalising’ impulse: the requirements and emotions of civil war.
The narrative has to be slow but is never dull. Como takes us from the approach of war to 1646, the year of Charles I’s military defeat. Previous historians of civil war ‘radicalism’ have tended to concentrate on the aftermath of Parliament’s victory: it was the later 1640s that produced those landmarks of Leveller influence, the Putney debates over the franchise and the successive versions of the Agreement of the People. In conventional accounts of the period it was then that a conservative cause lurched into revolution. When Parliament went to war in 1642 it presented itself as the preserver of a hallowed constitution. It claimed to be fighting for ‘king and Parliament’, professed undying loyalty to Charles, and blamed the situation not on him but on evil advisers and established institutions. Those justifications were repeated regularly, if with diminishing conviction, throughout the war of 1642-46. Yet in 1649 Charles was convicted of treason against his subjects. In the same year the House of Lords, whose ancient status had seemed secure in the early 1640s, was abolished at a stroke. A cautious reform movement had become the English Revolution.
To Como this contrast is misleading. He shows that arguments prominently deployed in 1649 to justify the regicide and a unicameral republic had been advanced in the earlier period, not, admittedly, in official parliamentary statements – though there were MPs who lent support to these and other ‘radical’ positions – but in private writings and, more consequentially, in the barrage of publications that followed the breakdown of royal censorship. Parliament had its censors too, but in the ferment and ideological heat of the wars they were often defied. Como’s tenacious detective work uncovers secret printing presses, traces their publication history, and explores the contact writers and printers had with parliamentary patrons and with preachers and congregations and soldiers and committee men. Here was the popular base of the ‘war party’, the section of parliamentarian opinion that refused negotiation with the king, railed at the Roundheads’ aristocratic and tepid military leadership, and backed the reforms that produced the New Model Army in 1645. Como’s story is about the intellectual ‘radicalisation’ of people who were desperate for victory.
It is also about London and its teeming and fractious parishes and wards. The capital provided the ideological and material base for the parliamentarian cause. Citizens built huge walls for its defence and sent volunteer forces into the regions. From the time of the king’s flight from the city in 1642 they dreaded the prospect of his conquering return and of retaliation for the civil disturbances that had driven him away. The economic privations of war; the energies and disruptions and sacrifices demanded by the mobilisation and supply of the parliamentary armies; the tales of Cavalier brutality and Roundhead faint-heartedness: these are the backdrop to the ideas Como explicates. It is also the context of Milton’s idealised portrait, in Areopagitica (1644), of
this vast city; a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with [God’s] protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas … others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.
This paean omits the anger, the division, the epidemic of vituperation.
Where did the ‘radical’ political ideas recounted by Como come from? Were they developments of previously held beliefs? Did they have long roots, or were they generated by the exceptional events of the 1640s and by the rise of mass publication, which was largely a consequence of those events? It is hard to say, because we know so much less about public opinion before the expansion of printed source material in the civil wars. Whatever the answers, it is the short-term incitements to ‘radicalism’ that Como brings to life. One essential component of its appeal was the hold on public affection of the institution of Parliament, a word that, as Cavaliers ruefully conceded, ‘carried armies in it’. Perhaps, if we had the evidence, we could trace the popularity of Parliament to the nation’s traditions of political thought. What emerges from Como’s account, however, is the impact on opinion of the breakdown of Charles I’s government, when only Parliament, the body the king had sought to suppress, could rescue the nation from havoc. In that febrile crisis, thought was subordinate to mood.
That mood transformed the image of the monarch: Charles was no longer a misguided king but a tyrant ripe for deposition. Although the regicides of 1649 insisted that he had aimed all along to enslave his subjects, it was not for his prewar assaults on the constitution that he was beheaded, but for war crimes. He had declared war on his people in 1642 and, in prosecuting that war, had butchered them, ruined them, stained his hands with their blood. Hitherto this allegation has been viewed as a product of the late 1640s and especially of the second civil war in 1648, a still more acrimonious conflict than the first, but Como demonstrates its recurrent and furious articulation earlier in the decade. That so partial an account of the outbreak and events of the first war could seem objective truth to so many is a measure of the visceral dimension to the arguments reported by Como, though in his eyes it doesn’t discredit them. Being the creation of a mood, they were limited by it: Como shows that the hostility to Charles occasionally extended into denunciations of kingship itself, but in the 1640s the self-professed detesters of monarchy never probed beyond their detestation. They did not trouble themselves with questions of constitutional architecture or wonder how to empower an alternative executive authority while preserving the liberties kingship allegedly affronted.
The ‘new notions’ Milton saw being ‘revolved’ in the mansion house of liberty were religious rather than political. They heralded, he proclaimed, God’s inauguration of ‘some new and great period in his Church’. The religious controversies of the civil wars were more extensive than the political ones and sometimes drowned them out. Down the centuries the relationship between the two has been one of the most perplexing issues of the period. This perplexity did not detain Hill. Taking political and religious dissent to be articulations of a single set of class relations, he thought them natural allies. So did Charles I, who viewed them as joint threats to his authority and drove them together. Yet the conjuncture was entirely contingent, for nothing in Puritanism was inherently hostile to political authoritarianism. In any case both Puritanism and parliamentarianism fragmented with the approach of war. New and no less contingent alliances had to be formed, as war party rhetoric was combined with challenges to Puritan orthodoxy and its doctrinal intolerance. With imposing scholarship Como describes the range of heterodox and semi-heterodox voices that were lined up behind the war party. Defenders of ‘rational’ religion, who mocked the ‘dreams and delusions’ of spiritual ecstasy, kept political company with claimants to divine revelation and prophets of the destruction of the Beast. Opposing arguments were submerged in a joint political cause: for strict congregational discipline and for the spiritual autonomy of the believer; for the distinctiveness of the clergy and for lay preaching; for predestination and for free will; for human dignity or perfectibility and for mankind’s helpless depravity; for a religion of solemnity and for a faith proclaimed through mirth.
Como sees some basis for ‘ideological affinity’ between political and religious extremism. He argues that people who rejected all forms of ecclesiastical hierarchy, and who thought that only voluntary gatherings could constitute true congregations, might be attracted to ‘bottom-up, ascending understandings of the polity’. Perhaps, too, there was a logical correspondence between one of the most influential religious movements of the war, the insistence that baptism should be confined to consenting adults, and the principle of political consent that the war party mobilised first against royalist and then against parliamentarian authoritarianism. However, mental linkages counted for little without favourable facts of political life. The essential fact was that Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army was pledged both to unqualified victory and to liberty of conscience, and that the parliamentarian peace party, which had allied itself with the Presbyterians – Milton’s ‘old priest writ large’ – was bent on the sects’ destruction. Admittedly Charles I tried repeatedly to divide religious unorthodoxy from the parliamentarian cause by offering his own version of liberty of conscience, but it was not one the sects could trust.
Como stresses another contingency that brought political and religious ‘radicals’ together. One didn’t need to be a sectary to want Parliament to win the war outright or to admire the contribution to victory made by sectarian courage on the battlefield. People normally wary of liberty of conscience were persuaded that the sects had earned it through their actions. The sentiment was adroitly exploited by Cromwell, the sects’ political shield. For his part, Cromwell regarded religious persecution as the enemy not of human entitlement but of God’s grace, whose passage to the soul is blocked by man-made restrictions on faith. Yet he cleverly commended liberty of conscience on political grounds, as the reward merited by soldiers in the service of the state and of political freedom. If a single influence held the war party and the religious enthusiasts together it was Cromwell’s rough and ready accommodation of the miscellaneous convictions of both groups.
Many of Cromwell’s followers would fall out with him during the rise to power that made him first the dominant figure of the republic of 1649-53 and then Lord Protector. They decided that he had exploited them in pursuit of his own ends and abandoned the principles he had professed to share. Yet there was another dimension to the parting of the ways: the disintegration of the political-religious alliance. Cromwell’s military coups set him against former allies whose overriding political goal was the establishment of government by consent. So did his pronouncement that constitutional arrangements were ‘dross and drung in comparison of Christ’. The Levellers came from the sectarian world, but during the 1640s their vision expanded to include – and was perhaps overtaken by – secular ambitions. From their perspective, Cromwell’s godliness came to look like humbug. A Leveller pamphlet of 1649 attacking him and his son-in-law and ally Henry Ireton illustrates the disillusion: the two men ‘fast’, ‘pray’, and ‘have nothing more frequent than the sentences of sacred Scripture, the name of God and Christ in their mouths. You shall scarce speak to Cromwell about any thing, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.’
The pamphlet bears the influence of the Leveller leader John Lilburne, a recurring figure in Como’s radical coalition and the subject of Michael Braddick’s commanding and enlivening new biography. Lilburne fought courageously for Parliament as the nation’s defender against tyranny, but turned his eloquence and campaigning energies against it when, in victory, Westminster acquired its own despotic tendencies. With his fellow Levellers he sought principles that would protect subjects from all forms of government, regal or parliamentarian. He was outraged when the generals crushed Leveller influence in the ranks and then installed what Lilburne judged a puppet republic. He died in 1656 after converting to the newly emerging Quaker movement. If Braddick’s book has a weakness it is its treatment of religion, for although he recognises the power of Lilburne’s faith he struggles to get inside it or to pinpoint its relationship to his other convictions, which arguably arose from it but which came into tension with it. Before the wars he adopted the daring stance of separatism, joining those who denounced the Church of England as anti-Christian and worshipped outside it. His outspoken pamphlets in the late 1630s earned him a public whipping and an extended imprisonment from which, at the outset of the Long Parliament in 1640, ‘my old friend’ Cromwell secured his release. In the war the two men were courageous comrades in arms. Though the relationship soon became difficult, it was only with the regicide, the product not of consent but of a coup, that he broke decisively with Cromwell. The breach also divided Lilburne from separatists who had been his close allies in the dark prewar days but whose preference for God’s cause over man’s persuaded them to stay with Cromwell.
Not that it took much for Lilburne to fall out with someone. He was an impossible friend (and husband). It was a standing joke of the time that if John and Lilburne were left in the same room they would shortly be at each other’s throats. He was the scourge of power and of its every representative, royalist or parliamentarian. Four times he was accused of treason, and three times he was on trial for his life. In 1652 the republic sent him into exile, only for him to risk death by returning. Braddick acknowledges his ‘maniacal and destructive’ side and his ‘almost monstrous egotism’. He was, in Braddick’s phrase, ‘an activist rather than a political thinker’. His stream of pamphlets is strong on indignation and self-dramatisation but lacks the reflective insights of two of his fellow Leveller leaders, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, and the polemical incisiveness of the third, John Wildman. Yet his passionate concern for liberty, combined with a theatrical flair for victimhood and martyrdom, brought his tracts a wide readership and made their author the hero of protesting crowds.
‘Leveller’ was originally a term of abuse and has always been problematic. Lilburne and his allies declared the appellation ‘unjust’ and protested against the absurd but widespread imputation that they aimed to ‘level men’s estates, destroy propriety [property], or make all things common’. He reacted touchily when his (minor) gentry status was impugned. Our continued use of the term, though another piece of indispensable shorthand, risks distorting not only his views but his career. Though Braddick does justice to the activities that earned Lilburne the Leveller label – the troublemaking involvement in army politics, the demands for social reform, the framing of the Agreements of the People – he also reverts to an earlier interpretative tradition, before Lilburne became ‘the property of the left’. Lilburne’s admirers in the 18th and early 19th centuries averted their eyes from his social programme. They celebrated instead his assertions of legal rights, seeing him as a Roundhead antecedent of John Wilkes. Braddick’s book takes wing as he reconstructs Lilburne’s two trials for treason during the republic, in 1649 and 1653. Conducting his own defence, he defied all odds and secured acquittal on both occasions, to huge popular acclamation and the great embarrassment of the government. After the first trial a medal was struck in honour of ‘the integrity of his jury’. His assertion that jurors are judges of law as well as fact, and his claims for the defendant’s right to an open trial, to silence, and to habeas corpus, lasted in public memory even when the Restoration had cast the Leveller demands of the late 1640s into near oblivion.
Before socialism injected collectivist values into the study of Lilburne’s world, he was understood as a champion of the individual rather than of the community. In Britain the end of the Liberal ascendancy in 1914 weakened this individualist perspective, but it persisted in the United States, where lawyers frequently cited Lilburne’s defences, even in the Supreme Court. Leveller attacks on trading monopolies, which modern English readers have interpreted as protests against elitist privilege, have been seen by Americans as pleas for a free market. The Levellers’ suspicion of the state, and their enunciation of rights on which it must not infringe, have been toasted by the Tea Party. For all the achievement of recent work in the field of study that Christopher Hill brought to life, Braddick’s warning that Lilburne cannot justly be monopolised by ‘the British radical pantheon’ points to a vulnerable spot in the vocabulary of present day historians.