“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he…every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent put himself under that Government”, Thomas Rainborowe, the Putney debates.
The Levellers were a radical group that was active during the English Civil War (1642-49). They were mainly Londoners, with strong support from soldiers from the Parliamentarian New Model Army, and they wanted to reform the constitution.
The Levellers called for freedom of religion: equal treatment under the law; votes for all men aged 21 and over (except servants, beggars or royalists); annual elections; the right to remain silent during a trial; the right to call defence witnesses and to be tried in front of a fair jury; free trade; the end to the imprisonment of debtors; and the abolition of the death penalty, except for murder and treason.
Levellers had strong connections with religious radicalism, and one of their leaders, John Lilburne, became a Quaker shortly before his death. They were proud of their radicalism, and wore sea green ribbons as a badge of honour to identify themselves to one another. They were subject to persecution, and often wore rosemary in remembrance of Levellers who had been killed or imprisoned.
Another group, the True Levellers, or Diggers, led by Gerard Winstanley, asserted that all people were equal, and went further with their demands, such as the right to farm common ground, making the land “a common Treasury for all”. The first land they dug was on St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey.
The Levellers set out their arguments in a pioneering series of pamphlets. After Charles I was defeated by the parliamentary forces in 1647, Levellers, other soldiers, officers and civilians, including Thomas Rainborowe, met in St Mary’s Church in Putney to debate the constitution, a potential settlement with the king, and the future of England. These debates were based on the arguments in the first main Leveller pamphlet, An Agreement of the People.
In 1649, Lilburne, along with fellow Levellers Richard Overton, William Walwyn, and Thomas Prince, was imprisoned for treason. Women wearing sea green ribbons marched on Parliament to petition for their release and claim their rights:
“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities, contained in the Petition of right, and other the good Laws of the Land?”
Richard Overton’s pregnant wife, Mary, was arrested for producing radical pamphlets. She was dragged away with her six-month-old child in her arms, and miscarried in prison. She cited Magna Carta, one of the “good Laws”, in her petition for release, which was eventually successful.
At the heart of the Levellers’ radicalism was their belief in the need for a secular written constitution. Although they did not achieve that goal, their ideas have been influential. When MP and journalist John Wilkes was put on trial in 1763 for libelling King George III, parallels were drawn with the suppression of the Levellers. His friends presented him with a medal and pamphlet about the trial of John Lilburne.