Thursday, 15 February 2018

TheaurauJohn Tany (1608–1659)

This article was kindly sent to me by Ariel Hessayon. Ariel has just finished editing the collected works of TheaurauJohn Tany (1608–1659) to be released by Breviary Stuff Publications in March.You can buy the book here

Now know I am a mad man.  And ye declare me so to be, it will be a weaknesse in you to question me

[TheaurauJohn Tany, The Nations Right in Magna Charta (1650), p. 8]

I say, and many know, that by madness I came to knowing, and in time God will make me speak plain knowledge, that by all shall be acknowledged

[TheaurauJohn Tany, Theous Ori Apokolipikal (1651), pp. 62–63]

 On Friday, 23 November 1649 Thomas Totney, a puritan and veteran of the English Civil War, was working in his goldsmith’s shop at ‘The Three Golden Lions’ in the Strand.  He was to claim that after fourteen weeks of self-abasement, fasting and prayer the Lord came upon him in power, overwhelming his wisdom and understanding, smiting him dumb, blind and dead in the presence of hundreds of people.  Next his body began to tremble and he was tied down in his bed.  During his indescribable sufferings he saw the Passion of Jesus.  Then he was transported into God’s presence in the ‘High and holy Mount’ where he beheld a great light shine within him and upon him, saying ‘Theaurau John my servant, I have chosen thee my Shepherd, thou art adorned with the jewel of Exceliency’.  He was convinced that the Lord had spoken unto him, changing his name from Thomas to TheaurauJohn.

 Totney was baptized on 21 January 1608 in the parish of South Hykeham, Lincolnshire, the third but eldest surviving son of John Totney and Anne, née Snell.  His father, although a poor farmer and never of the parish elite, was a respectable member of the local community.  Nothing is known of Thomas’s education, yet it seems likely that by the age of seven he would have learned to read and by the age of nine, if his family could still cope without him, he would have learned to write.  In April 1626 he was bound as an apprentice in London to a fishmonger but was not taught their trade.  Instead he received instruction in his master’s adopted profession, that of goldsmith.  On receiving his freedom he married a daughter of Richard Kett, a prosperous Norfolk landowner whose great-uncle had been executed as leader of the 1549 East Anglian rebellion; Kett’s uncle was burned for heresy in 1589 and his father imprisoned for the same offence.  Rather than serving as a journeyman, Totney quickly established himself as a householder – a costly progression suggesting he received a charitable loan or financial assistance from family and friends.  He set up in St. Katherine Creechurch, a location favoured by small retailers for its inexpensive rents, his shop marked by an unknown sign near Aldgate.  To ensure that Totney’s business activities fell within their orbit he was translated to the Goldsmiths Company in January 1634.  However, along with the majority of ‘remote’ goldsmiths he resisted a Company initiative which had gained royal approval, to vacate his dwelling and relocate in Cheapside, the hub of the goldsmiths’ trade.

Totney remained in St. Katherine Creechurch for another six years.  There he heard the fiery sermons of Stephen Denison on the immutability of God’s decrees of predestination.  It was a doctrine that troubled Totney until his epiphany.  When his first son was born in December 1634 Totney refused to have him baptized, for which he was presented before an ecclesiastical court.  Following his wife’s death he remarried by licence during Lent, probably on Friday, 25 March 1636.  This was the first day of the New Year in the old calendar and his actions hint at a type of confrontational godliness and perhaps also zealous Sabbatarianism.  Upon his father’s death in 1638 he went to Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire to manage the family farm.  In the summer of 1640, probably while serving as one of the parish’s petty constables, he played an important part in resisting the collection of ship money.  By his own account he was imprisoned in London and his horse distrained on the county sheriff’s authority.  A series of payments in 1642 show his support for those opposed to Charles I.  Moreover, he claims to have witnessed one of Captain Oliver Cromwell’s orations delivered at Huntingdon to newly mustered volunteers.  Totney later possessed a great saddle, musket, pair of pistols and sword, suggesting he served as a harquebusier.  By December 1644 he had returned to Little Shelford where he resumed his duties as a local tax official, as well as taking up sequestered land and providing quarter for Parliamentarian soldiers and their horses.  Following the outbreak of a second Civil War, Totney uprooted.  He rented out his lands to a local villager and moved with his family to St. Clement Danes, Westminster.  In June 1648 his second wife died and was buried in the parish.

After his supposed revelation Thomas Totney assumed the prophetic name TheaurauJohn Tany.  TheaurauJohn he understood to mean ‘God his declarer of the morning, the peaceful tidings of good things’.  While his former surname may have been vocalized as Tawtney, his new last name was usually pronounced Tawney.  Because he had a speech impediment he may have dropped the consonant.  In addition, he appropriated the coat of arms azure, three bars argent surmounted by the crest a hind’s head erased, gules, ducally gorged, or.  This device, borne by Sir John de Tany of Essex during the reign of Edward I, appears on several of his works.  Furthermore, he declared himself ‘a Jew of the Tribe of Reuben’ and took the titles High Priest and Recorder to the thirteen Tribes of the Jews.  Tany justified his claims by inventing a fantastic genealogy that traced his descent from Aaron, brother of Moses, through the tribe of Judah and by way of the ten tribes of Israel, the Tartars and the Welsh.  He also circumcised himself.  Thereafter, believing he had been given the gift of tongues with which to preach the everlasting gospel of God’s light and love to all nations, he went forth armed with sword and word.  Crying vengeance in the streets of London, he declared woe and destruction upon that bloody city, prophesying that the ‘Earth shall burn as an Oven’ and all the proud, the wicked and the ‘ungodly shall be as stubble to this flame’.  Drawing on the potent image of Christ as goldsmith, purging dross and corruption in a furnace, Tany forged his prophetic identity – the messenger foretold by Malachi.  He claimed his authority rested with the one who sent him, God:

but who may abide the day of his appearing? for he is like fullers sope, a refiners fire.

 Insisting that the restitution of the Jews was at hand and that he had been sent forth to gather them and proclaim ‘Israels return’, Tany set about enacting a millenarian mission to restore the Jews to their own land.  In the manner of the children of Israel before him, he began living in a tent, perhaps modelled upon the tabernacle, which he decorated with a symbol representing the tribe of Judah.  He preached in the parks and fields around London and gathered a handful of followers.  His message was strong, denouncing the clergy as ‘diabolical dumb dogs, Tythe-mongers’, who fleece rather than succour the people.  Gospel injunctions also made him demand justice:

feed the hungry, clothe the naked, oppress none, set free them bounden, if this be not, all your Religion is a lye, a vanity, a cheat, deceived and deceiving.

 Tany’s first publication was a broadside entitled I Proclaime From the Lord of Hosts The returne of the Jewes From their Captivity (25 April 1650).  It is likely that Captain Robert Norwood, a wealthy London merchant, paid for its printing.  In early September 1650 Tany was at Bradfield, Berkshire at the same time as William Everard, one-time leader of the Diggers.  There was bedlam.  It was reported that the rector, John Pordage, fell into a trance while preaching and that bellowing like a bull he ran to his house.  There Pordage found his wife upstairs clothed all in white from head to toe, holding a white rod in her hand.  Moreover, an adolescent was said to have fallen into a very strange fit, foaming at the mouth for two hours.  He dictated verses concerning the destruction of London and demanded to go there to meet a goldsmith.

Tany next published two tracts: Whereas TheaurauJohn Taiiiiijour My servant (15 November 1650) and THE NATIONS RIGHT in Magna Charta (28 December 1650).  Both demonstrated his earnest desire for social reformation, the latter exhorting the common soldiers to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.  His next offering Aurora in Tranlagorum in Salem Gloria seems to have been written on three consecutive days in late December 1650.  It was printed by a Baptist who had previously printed a ‘very dangerous’ book.  The publisher was Thomas Totney’s brother-in-law.  It was sold by Giles Calvert from his shop at ‘The Black-spread-Eagle’ at the west end of St. Paul's Cathedral.  In January 1651 Tany wrote the first of the epistles that eventually comprised THEOUS ORI APOKOLIPIKAL (1651) and Second Part OF HIS Theous-Ori APOKOLIPIKAL (1653).  On 6 March he was apparently brought before the Westminster Assembly of Divines, responding to their questions with thirty-seven of his own queries.  Nonetheless, they accounted him mad.  Perhaps shortly thereafter he forsook his trade.

 On 25 March 1651 Tany preached at Eltham, Kent and then again on 13 April at Norwood’s house in St. Mary Aldermary.  In May Norwood was excommunicated from his gathered church.  The following month an indictment was prepared jointly against Norwood and Tany.  The indicters seem to have understood Tany as some type of Ranter, as one of ungodly conduct who allegorized the Bible and internalized hell; as an antiscripturian universalist who repudiated gospel ordinances and averred that men might live as they wished; as one who glorified sin and maintained that the soul is God.  Yet as Norwood recognized, only two of the charges fell within the scope of the Blasphemy Act of August 1650 – the allegations that Tany and Norwood affirmed:

the Soul is of the essence of God
There is neither hell nor damnation.

As their own accounts of the trial’s proceedings make clear, the defendants adamantly maintained that their words had been misrepresented, altered and taken out of context.  Even so, on 13 August 1651 they were convicted jointly of blasphemy by a jury of twelve men at the London sessions of the peace held in the Old Bailey.  They were each sentenced to six months imprisonment in Newgate gaol without bail or mainprize.  Conditions for those that could not afford the services of the gaoler were apparently intolerable.

 On 27 October 1651 legal proceedings were initiated in the Court of Upper Bench appealing the verdict.  After several sessions the case was deferred until the next law term.  More hearings followed.  On 4 February 1652 Tany appeared before the Court.  That same morning God spoke to a London tailor named John Reeve, revealing to him that he had been chosen as the Lord’s ‘last messenger’, or so Reeve was to claim.  Reeve and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton, a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, announced themselves to be ‘the two Witnesses of the Spirit’ foretold in the Revelation of Saint John.  In addition, they denounced Tany as a ‘counterfeit high Priest’ and pretended prophet, marking him as a Ranter, the spawn of Cain.  A few days later the judges of the Upper Bench made their judgement: Lord Chief Justice Rolle washed his hands of the business.  On 16 February 1652 Tany and Norwood having served their sentence were each released on £100 bail pending good behaviour for one year.  Thomas Totney’s former master and another man later described as a goldsmith, provided sureties.  In Easter term Norwood initiated a new legal appeal.  After several hearings the judges deferred proceedings until the following law term.  On 28 June 1652 they reversed the guilty judgement against Norwood and Tany, resolving that their opinions had been made to rigidly conform to the strictures of the Blasphemy Act.  For whereas the Act made it unlawful to maintain that ‘there is neither Heaven nor Hell, neither Salvation nor Damnation’, the defendants who affirmed that:

there is ‘no Hell nor Damnation’, are not within the Statute, for tho by Implication if there be no Hell there is no Heaven, yet the court is not to Expand these words by Implication but according to the Letters of the Stat[ute].

 Within a month of his release Tany published a pamphlet he had written in Newgate entitled High Priest to the IEVVES, HIS Disputive challenge to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the whole Hirach. of Roms Clargical Priests (March 1652).  Echoing Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Tany proclaimed the return of ‘Israels Seed’ from captivity.  About 1 January 1653 it appears from his own account that Tany underwent another purificatory ritual.  He refrained from speaking for thirty-four days, isolating himself for twenty-one of them.  On the fourteenth day he transcribed an edict to ‘all the Jewes the whole earth over’, which was to be engraved in brass and sent to the synagogue in Amsterdam.  He signed this proclamation with his new name and titles, ‘Theauroam Tannijahhh, King of the seven Nations, and Captain General under my Master Jehovah, and High-Priest and Leader of the Peoples unto HIERUSALEM’.  Together with some other material it was issued by an unknown publisher under the title HIGH NEWS FOR HIERUSALEM (no date).  It exasperated one reader, who complained ‘truly I skill not the man, nor his spirit; in his writing he offends against all rules of Grammar, Geography, Genealogy, History, Chronology, Theology & c, so far as I understand them’.

 In March 1654 a list of some thirty ‘Grand Blasphemers and Blasphemies’ was submitted to the Committee for Religion, which included:

XIX. A Goldsmith that did live in the Strand, and after in the City, and then at Eltham; who called his name Theaurau John Tany, the High Priest, & c.  Published in Print, That all Religion is a lie, a deceit, and a cheat.

Writing from ‘the Tent of Judah’ on the ‘Tenth DAY NISAN’ (probably 16 April 1654), Tany addressed a millenarian epistle ‘Unto his Brethren the QUAKERS scornfully so called, who ARE the Children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; who ARE circumcised in Heart’.  He saluted them as descendants of the Jewish race, an elect remnant who spoke a pure language and trembled at the word of God.  On 8 May 1654 he issued an edict to all ‘earthen men and women’ announcing that he would shortly proclaim the Law and Gospel from his tent standing in the bounds of the Middle Park at Eltham, Kent.  On 8 June 1654 he read out a speech in which he laid claim to the crowns of France, Reme, Rome, Naples, Sissiliah and Jerusalem, as well as reaffirming an earlier claim to the crown of England.  He did this by repeating Pontius Pilate’s reply to the chief priests of the Jews after Pilate had written ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS’ as the title to be put on Christ’s cross:

What I have written, I have written.

 On the morning of Saturday, 30 December 1654, in the week that Cromwell was offered the crown, Tany solemnly made a large fire at Lambeth into which he cast his great saddle, sword, musket, pistols, books and bible.  He crossed the River Thames in a rowing boat and made his way to Parliament, ascending the stairs into the lobby outside the door.  Unable to deliver a petition he departed, returning after about an hour oddly attired with a long, rusty sword by his side.  Pacing up and down the lobby he suddenly threw of his cloak and began slashing wildly, but was disarmed before anyone was hurt.  He was brought to the bar of the House and questioned by the Speaker.  He refused to remove his hat, was evidently mistaken for a Quaker and committed to the Gatehouse prison.  Having been examined by the Committee for regulating printing, he wrote to the Speaker requesting liberty to have an audience with Cromwell.  He then attached a great lock and long chain to his leg as a symbol of ‘the people of Englands Captivity’.  Legal proceedings were transferred to the Court of Upper Bench but on 10 February 1655 he was bailed upon habeas corpus.

 Two days later a fire broke out in Fleet Street.  In the following months London was engulfed by several more unexplained fires which were interpreted as a sign of the impending destruction of the world.  Eventually an arsonist was apprehended who may have been in the pay of William Finch, one of Tany’s disciples.  In September 1655, after weeks of heavy rain and widespread floods, Tany ‘in one of his old whimsies’ pitched his tent in the large tract of open ground between Lambeth Marsh and Southwark known as St. George's Fields.  A satirical newsbook writer thought him ‘a madman’ fitter ‘for Bedlam then a Tent’.

 On 7 June 1656 Tany married for a third time at St. Saviour’s, Southwark.  His wife was Sara Shorter, possibly a waterman’s daughter.  Three days later, on 10 June he pitched his tent on Frindsbury Street near ‘The Black Lion’ in Frindsbury, Kent.  That day, according to the title-page of his last known work, Tany read the law ‘unto the people ISRAEL, belonging to the returning from Captivity’.  Then, sometime after 16 June 1656, Tany set sail, perhaps from Kent, bound for the:

Wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars.

He crossed the English Channel successfully and at an unknown date arrived in the United Provinces, perhaps to gather the Jews of Amsterdam.  Some three years later, now calling himself Ram Johoram, he was reported lost, drowned after taking passage in a ship from Brielle bound for London.  He was survived by his eldest daughter and probably also a second daughter and second son.

 During his prophetic phase Tany wrote a number of remarkable but elusive works that are unlike anything else in the English language.  His sources were varied, although they seem to have included almanacs, popular prophecies and legal treatises, as well as scriptural and extra-canonical texts, and the writings of the German Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme.  Indeed, Tany’s writings embrace currents of magic and mysticism, alchemy and astrology, numerology and angelology, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Christian Kabbalah – a ferment of ideas that fused in a millenarian yearning for the hoped for return of Christ on earth.  The English Revolution freed men and women both self-taught and formally educated to speak their minds and challenge their times.  But only by contextualizing and then unravelling the mind of this exceptional person can we truly appreciate what it meant to be living in a world turned upside down

(Dr Ariel Hessayon's research interests include early modern ideas, religion, politics, literature and popular culture. Dr Ariel Hessayon is a co-convenor of the seminar on seventeenth-century British History at the Institute of Historical Research and would welcome enquiries from those interested in doctoral research in areas relating to radicalism in early modern England).


1 The images used in this article were given by kind permission of Harvard University, Houghton Library.

2 Ariel's ODNB entry can be found here

3 Wikipedia entry-

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

An Evening with Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer has spent the last few weeks touring the country publicising his new book To Catch a King. The basic story is of Charles II escape from parliamentary forces during the second civil war.

The evening spent at Waterstones Kensington High street with Spencer was a pleasant one, and the event itself was well organised.

The major problem I have in reviewing this event or his books is that we have opposed political and historical worldviews. That will not change.

Having said that Spencer from a human standpoint is a kind man and a skilful narrative led historian.Aside from the rigour of his work he has a passion for history that is admirable in a historian. His book Killers of the King was the second highest selling history book in the UK in 2014[1].

Spencer is a natural speaker almost like a raconteur. In fact, he speaks as he writes. His books are pure narrative, but that does not mean he is sloppy with his research.

He made some interesting points during the evening. Perhaps his most important was a downgrading of the study of the English revolution in schools both private and public.

In an interview, Spencer recounts “‘When I was a boy, you learned about the English Civil War. Now you do not. Part of that is because history is no longer a compulsory subject after a certain age. 'The Tudors and the Nazis are much easier periods to attract students to. If you are a history teacher you want to keep your job, so you go for the easy areas.”

Like many who write on the Revolution Spencer had descendants who were active during the civil war.The windows in his chapel were rescued from another Spencer house that was burned down during the English Civil War.

“I think I would have done what my ancestor did. He was very anti the king during the build-up to the Civil War, but when it came to the actual conflict, he decided he could not draw his sword against his king. 'Reluctantly, he became a royalist.”

Another aspect of Spencer, the historian, is his openness to suggestions for future work from readers. His choice of subject for his latest book was in fact given to him by a reader.

When I asked him a question about Ollards book and other historians such as the great Whig historians he made some interesting points. He saw himself as primarily as a narrative historian, but he believes that parallels exist between the past and the present.

He is not reticent about describing his work as ‘popular history’. A Genre that that was mastered by historians such as Sir Thomas Macaulay, E. P. Thompson and A. J. P. Taylor.

Spencer is not yet in that league, but his work does command serious attention and is well worth the price of his books.

A review of To Catch a King will be done at a later date.


The escape of Charles II after the battle of Worcester Hardcover – 1 Jan 1966-by Richard Ollard
King Charles II Paperback – 6 Jun 2002- Lady Antonia Fraser

[1] See my review -

Claire Canary’s Review of Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue:Lord Rochester, in Chains of Quicksilver by Susan Cooper-Bridgewater ISBN: 9781783063079

Most of those who know of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester have something of a preconceived image of him. While that image is not altogether false, Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue allows us to see a more rounded man and brings into the limelight the side of him that is usually cast in shadow. Here, Susan Cooper-Bridgewater has brilliantly shown how wrong it is to define anyone by reputation alone.

The book is written in the first person, narrated by the earl himself. This is what really gives the readers insight. We get to feel his emotions, see events through his eyes and understand how and why he is who he is. 

The author was very courageous to make Rochester the narrator, but her clear familiarity with the period and subject himself enabled her to handle the challenge perfectly. There is some wonderful 17th-century phraseology to be found in this book, keeping us firmly embedded in the era throughout, but it never goes over the top, so is still easy to follow in a 21st-century head.

The research that must have gone into this is astonishing. The author has had academic work published but this book uses the information in an imaginative way. Tale upon tale is told with amazing detail and many of the locations themselves are described so vividly that it seems likely the author has visited them to get that feel for them. 

Adding extra feel is the picture of the 17th century that’s painted throughout. Through the food, the carriages, the clothes, the theatre and the medicine, we get a real taste of life in Restoration England. Enthusiasts for the period will recognise many of the names that pop up and the number of dates that are given are proof of just how much painstaking effort must have gone into getting the facts right.

As well as fact, though, this is partly fiction, and it’s impossible to tell which is which. In his all-too brief life, Rochester got up to some pretty shock-inducing stuff, so what may seem fabrication is just as easily truth and vice versa.

As can be expected from this infamous rake, he self-indulges in wine and women to a professional standard, but he certainly has a few other tricks up his sleeve too. Even people who aren’t into history will find plenty to entertain and, despite the joy of seeing the lesser-known aspects of Rochester, the accounts of his famous “bad boy” behaviour do not disappoint!
However, it is Rochester as a father, husband and lover that makes this book stand out most for me. Through his sensitivity as all three, we see the John Wilmot that surely existed but is never properly acknowledged.

As promised, there’s ink, wit and intrigue and the intrigue is provided to a T in the epilogue, which takes us right up to Georgian times. I don’t know quite how she did it but Susan Cooper-Bridgewater managed to change the atmosphere to match the new era, so, as well as the Restoration fans, anyone into the 18th century will find something here for them too.

A book to do His Lordship proud! I reckon he’d love to read it, but so should everyone else.

The book can be purchased at or

Friday, 9 February 2018

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr Hardcover – 11 Jan 2018 by Leanda de Lisle-432 pages: Chatto & Windus.

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it”.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33.


Leanda de Lisle new book continues a trend of modern-day revisionist biographies of Charles I[1]. It is difficult to conceive of this book being written or having the considerable press coverage it has received had it been published thirty years ago.

The dominance of Whig and Marxist historiography of the English revolution would have prevented it or at least provided it with a bumpy ride.If historians like Lisle had dared to raise their head above the precipice, they would have had it shot off.

Another by-product of this revisionist assault has been the attempt to de-politicise the English revolution. A development that was highlighted by Martin Kettle no less when he reviewed the ongoing Charles I: King and Collector exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Kettle makes the point “the 1640s battles between authority and liberty may not have produced another civil war. However, iterations of the divide have resonated down the centuries – from the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, through the Whig-Tory rivalry of the 18th century, the advance of liberalism and reform in the 19th century, and of labourism and equalities in the 20th. It is not hard to see, in contrast between a privileged and dissipated political figure such as Boris Johnson and a puritanical one such as Jeremy Corbyn, that there are 17th-century echoes in our own binary times too.

He continues “most of those who enter the Royal Academy galleries over the next three months for its new exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector will be given no inkling of this. They will come to look at stunning pictures by Van Dyck, Holbein, Titian and Mantegna among many others. Civil war, however, is conspicuous by its almost total absence from the new show. Only the fact that we arrive with some knowledge of Charles I’s notoriety and eventual execution ensures that this absence of politics is itself a huge and silent presence”[2].

While Lisle’s book to date not been seriously challenged, the general dominance of revisionist historiography has been by a new set of historians that are partly influenced by Marxist methodology or in some cases Whig orthodoxy. There is still a long way to go. Historiography today is still dominated by a plethora of obscure revisionist books. A process aptly named by the historian Norah Carlin as Craftism.

White King

Many things will strike the reader when reading this book. My first impression is that Lisle believes that the 1640s English revolution was somehow an aberration and in the final reckoning an event that was not typically English.

The book is part of a tradition believes that “English history has developed by gradual evolution, without sudden or violent transformations, by process of compromise and co-existence”.
Lisle’s prose has a sedateness about it when she writes about Charles I. Compare that to how she writes about his enemies, they are usually described as rabble or a mob. Her use of the word Junto to describe the parliamentary opposition tries to portray them as something foreign.
As one reviewer put it “De Lisle’s parliamentarians are an irascible group, resembling not so much freedom fighters as the tea party; on the other hand, the author’s Charles often seems the voice of reason”[3].

It is safe to surmise that Lisle does not believe a revolution took place at all. However, the problem for Lisle is that facts are a stubborn thing. If a massive civil war, a kings head being chopped off, a republic and a commonwealth do not make a revolution, then what does.
Alternatively, as  Norah Carlin eloquently points out  “many attempts have been made to explain it away. The present favourite among English academics is that it was a result of a misunderstanding and miscalculation among a political elite. These men were not ‘wild-eyed fanatics ... they were men of substance and wealth, men of broad acres with a stake in the country,’ writes J.H. Hexter. They were ‘for the most part deeply conservative men who sincerely believed they were defending ancient and traditional rights,’ says another historian, R. Ashton”[4].

Lisle believes Charles I was “defending ancient and traditional rights” and that parliament was acting illegally against this. Any reader looking for an objective account of the war will have to look elsewhere. Cromwell only appears halfway through the book and is portrayed like many other parliamentary military figures as bloodthirsty maniacs. The treatment of the Levellers reduces them to a footnote of history.


Despite being an excellent narrative driven writer Lisle’s approach can only take us so far in understanding the complex events of the English revolution.Her concentration on the narrative to the detriment of theory does not get us very far.

While it is essential to understand what went through the minds of the leading actors of the revolution such as Charles I, Olver Cromwell, Ireton, and Harrison to do so would only give us a partial understanding of why a king's head was cut off and a republic established. Lisle is free to adopt whatever theoretical approach she wants to portray historical events. However, historians such as Lisle’s preoccupation with narrative is one-sided.

The rise of narrative history has been at the direct expense of Marxist historiography and has done untold damage to our understanding of the English revolution. While I am sure that Karl Marx was not on her reading list for this book, she could have done no worse than to take on board his understanding of the relationship between historical figures and their place in history.

Marx states that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process”[5].


Lisle’s book has been well received by the media. Not surprisingly the right-wing media have gone overboard with praise not commensurate with the actual importance of the book. The reason for this lies not so much in history but politics. In fact, the reviews tell us more about the state of modern-day politics than they do about seventeenth-century politics.

As a reviewer of her book puts it “Recent elections in Britain and the United States have produced surprisingly dysfunctional governments. De Lisle’s fine, revisionist view of Charles may arouse nostalgia for a time when national leaders, elected or not, looked out for the zealous majority”.

One review stands out, the basic premise of which is that we are passing through enormous change. Capitalism is in crisis. We have a growing threat of nuclear and social inequality is at levels not witnessed for nearly a century we need a strong leader to counter the growing threat of the mob.

The author of this review in the Evening Standard is Andrew Marr. His review entitled  Basic civility and respect must prevail over the rule of the mob, according to him “The reign of Charles I shows that the 17th- century’s version of angry social media led to bloody violence”.

Marr continues “I have been reading a fascinating book on British politics which suggests that we really should worry. The bad news is that it shows a direct connection between angry and inflammatory language, and violence, up to and including murder. The better news, I suppose, is that it is about the 1620s and 1630s.

Leanda de Lisle’s White King is a new biography of Charles I, which attempts to make a case for that arrogant, incompetent Stuart monarch who famously lost his head on Whitehall one cold January afternoon in January 1649.

She does a good job. Charles was a sensitive and thoughtful man, a great lover of art who believed himself to be doing the right thing and was a genuinely committed family man. In the end, I was not convinced, however: like so many other British rulers he became too entangled in continental European politics, trying to take this country to war with catastrophic results.

“I was shocked by the behaviour of Charles’s opponents in the lead up to civil war. I had been taught they were parliamentary heroes, and yet they had deliberately fanned religious and ethnic hatreds to recruit to their cause, in the worst examples of populism. This propaganda still informs English culture, not least in popular memory of Charles’s maligned queen, Henrietta Maria.  Incidentally, she was called Queen Mary at the time (they considered calling her Queen Henry!), hence Maryland, which was named after her. I have stuck to Henrietta Maria, so not to confuse”.

So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with social media? The answer is that the breakdown in relations between Charles and various parliamentary factions, at least one of which was set on Civil War, was hugely influenced by the new media of the day, propaganda broadsheets and the very earliest newspapers”.

The ruling elites answered to this problem in the 17th century is the same as in the 21st century, and that is to censor it. The use of the Star-chamber to kill dissent has chilling resonance with today's attempt by Google and Facebook to do the same. Marr’ solution is that we must we “must hang together in adversity”.


Lisle’s book is not without merit. White King is exceptionally well written and researched. In places, Lisle writes like a novelist. She uses rare and entirely new archival sources. The book would be acceptable to both the general reader and the academic alike. As is usual with Chatos and Windus the book is beautifully bound with an abundance of colour photos.

The book is excellent if you want a read that does not require you to think too much. If you are happy with a book that verges on propaganda and should carry a government health warning, then this is your book. If not steer well clear.

[1] See my review Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836
[4]Norah Carlin-The First English Revolution-(April 1983)
[5]Karl Marx. The German Ideology. 1845
-Part I: Feuerbach.Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook-A. Idealism and Materialism -

Thursday, 1 February 2018

No Newes is Good Newes


An Evening with Charles Spencer- as he talks about and reads from his latest book To Catch A King. Tuesday 13th February 18:30 at London – Waterstones Kensington

To Kill a King-Rebecca Rideal- Thu 26 April 2018-18:00 – 20:00 BST- Guildhall Library Aldermanbury-London-EC2V 7HH


Charles I: King and Collector-27 January — 15 April 2018-Royal Academy


A History of Print and Printing Tuesday 27 February - Tuesday 27 March- Bishopsgate Institute-  This course looks at the history of print and printing in its social, economic and cultural context, exploring: the problems faced by early printers; the economics of early printing and how this affected the printed page; the social, legal and moral position of printers; the techniques of printing and the audiences for art prints; the technological developments of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century revival of letterpress.

Books of Interest

Raymond, J., (2017). Michiel van Groesen, Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review. 132. DOI:

Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason-Francis Young-London, I. B. Tauris, 2017, ISBN: 9781788310215; 272pp.; Price: £69.00

Following the Levellers, Volume One: Political and Religious Radicals in the English Civil War and Revolution, 1645-1649 Hardcover – 23 Dec 2017-by Gary S. De Krey (Author)

Following the Levellers, Volume Two: English Political and Religious Radicals from the Commonwealth to the Glorious Revolution, 1649–1688 Hardcover – 18 Feb 2018 by Gary S. De Krey (Author)

White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr Hardcover – 11 Jan 2018- by Leanda de Lisle (Author)

Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (Christopher Hill Classics) Paperback – 21 Aug 2018 by Christopher Hill (Author)-Reprinted by Verso Publications

Reformation to Industrial Revolution Paperback – 21 Aug 2018-by Christopher Hill  (Author) Verso

To Catch A King: Charles II's Great Escape Hardcover – 5 Oct 2017-by Charles Spencer (Author)

A New Way of Fighting: Professionalism in the English Civil War: Proceedings of the 2016 Helion and Company 'Century of the Soldier' Conference Hardcover – Illustrated, 15 Oct 2017-by Serena Jones (Editor)

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

John Lilburne and the Levellers-Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On-Edited by John Rees-© 2018 – Routledge-158 pages

"Though we fail, our truths prosper" - John Lilburne.

“That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly”.

--- attributed to William Walwyn

‘Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe,”’ Christopher Hill 

The essays contained in this book are primarily the product of a conference held at Bishopsgate Institute to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Lilburne leader of the Leveller Party. The remit of this new book is a daunting one. To reappraise any historical topic or figure is usually a fraught undertaking to do so after 400 years have passed has to be applauded. This article will examine the extent the authors of these essays have achieved this aim.

The central thrust of this collection of essays is to establish John Lilburne (1615–1657), or 'Freeborn John' as the central revolutionary figure of the English Revolution. The book also contends that his party the Levellers played a significant part in this glorious revolutionary period.

The subjects covered in the book range from an examination of Lilburne’s writings and ideas, the role he played as a lead activist in the revolutionary drama. Personal and political relations with his wife Elizabeth are examined, his exile in the Netherlands, and contentious decision to become a Quaker.

If Thomas Carlyle was correct about removing the dead dogs from Cromwell’s reputation the same could be said about Lilburne. Looking back from such a distance it is hard to believe that Lilburne was such a feared figure and was subjected to “sophisticated propaganda campaigns”. Out of all this Lilburne has according to Mike Braddick become the ‘celebrity radical’.

On a more serious note, The book is also testimony to the strength and contemporary nature of his ideas. As Edward Vallance points out, it is debatable whether the radicals of the eighteenth century or even nineteenth century would have been so radical without Lilburne laying the foundations for their revolutionary activity.

The last decade or so has seen a significant rise in the interest in John Lilburne and his Leveller Party. In the last few years alone there have been four significant studies beginning with Elliot Vernon and P. Baker’s the Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution followed by Rachel Foxley’s The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution. John Rees’s The Leveller Revolution. A further examination of the Levellers will be released at the End of October by, Gary S. De Krey Following the Levellers, Volume One, volume two will be released in 2018.

All these studies attempt to answer one primary question How radical were the Levellers. This is a contentious issue even today?  Out of these studies and I am well aware of generalising too much there appear to be two strands. One takes a more cautious and conservative approach this is represented by the essays contained in Elliot Vernon and P. Baker’s The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution and more radical approach as represented by these essays.

The Paper by Elliot Vernon and Phillip Baker called What was the first Agreement of the People tends to argue that the Levellers were far from a cogent group but were, in fact, part of a far more significant political grouping centred on the Independent Alliance. They argue that” the very concept of ‘the Levellers ’, in the sense of a political group which, in Taft’s opinion, existed from mid-1646 ‘as a distinct party with a programme and an organisation to advance it ’, is problematic in itself. As is now well documented, at the level of nomenclature, any talk of ‘the Levellers ’ before the Putney debates is a terminological anachronism, for although the word had been used to describe enclosure rioters earlier in the century, it was not first used as a proper noun until 1 November 1647.

Naturally, the absence of a name does not preclude the existence of such a grouping, and a small number of individuals, including Overton and William Walwyn, evidently came together in the mid-1640s through their involvement in a petitioning campaign in support of Lilburne and their common belief in religious toleration. For both Gentles and David Como, the triumvirate of Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn was sufficiently interconnected by 1645 or 1646 to constitute the leadership of an identifiable group with their own distinctive political agenda. Yet, and in common with Kishlansky, we maintain it remains difficult to distinguish members of this group from the much larger alliance of political and religious Independents, sectaries, and self-styled ‘ well-affected’ Londoners who banded together at the same time through their support for the New Model Army and common hostility to Presbyterianism”[1].

Another question that comes to mind is what accounts for this plethora of studies. Much of the new stuff has started to take on the previous anti Marxist revisionist historiography. The historian Christopher Hill answered this when he was asked in 1992 How do you see the development of the debate around the English Revolution over recent years? Would you agree that the revisionists have taken some ground?

He replied “They have made a lot of useful points, but their more extreme views are now being attacked by the younger generation of historians. Although the revisionists had all sorts of useful ideas they had a terribly narrow political approach in that they tried to find the causes of the English Revolution solely in the years 1639–41. This simply assumes what you are setting out to prove. If you look just at those years then, of course, it is a matter of political intrigue and not long-term causes.

“I think people are reacting against that now. The better of the revisionists are themselves switching around a bit. John Morrill, for instance, who thought everything depended on the county community and localism, is now taking a much broader point of view. Moreover, Conrad Russell has become aware that long-term factors must be considered – he does not like it, but he recognises that religion has some long-term effects on what happened in 1640, a rather elementary point but he left religion out altogether in the early days. Now he has bought it in. He still leaves out the cultural breakdown in society of that period, but he is moving a bit. I think a consensus will arise and then there will be another explosion in 20 years or so. These debates occur regularly – ever since 1640 people have been arguing about what it was all about”. This analysis is being vindicated today.

Also, I believe the attempt in reappraising both Lilburne and the Levellers is a partial reflection of contemporary events. We are after all witnessing social upheavals that have few parallels in history. Maybe the fact that we could be on the brink of a nuclear war between North Korea and America has sharpened a few minds.

Again when Hill was asked why he wrote a particular book, he said “there was no direct connection to events going on around him, but he did admit there was no conscious decision to write the book because of the events at the time, but inevitably as I wrote, I was seeing analogies between the 17th century and contemporary events all the time” .

Introduction: John Lilburne, the Levellers, and the English Revolution by John Rees

The writer John Rees is quickly becoming a leading expert on John Lilburne and the Levellers. Rees acknowledges in this introduction that despite being called Levellers at the Putney Debates of 1647, they were, in fact, a recognisable political entity well before that.

It was clear very early on that Lilburne, and his Leveller’s represented a force that went well beyond their class base. Moreover, their propaganda began to reach a broad section of society. You only have to funerals of Levellers that were killed by Royalists such as Thomas Rainborough or Levellers killed by Cromwell to see that the sheer size of these funerals indicates a level of support beyond their class.

Lilburne was a member of the gentry. As Rees points out this was a “discontented and volatile group”. Lilburne and his fellow Levellers could have a reasonably comfortable life, but they choose to tackle injustice poverty and a lack of democracy by carrying out political agitation.
Rees correctly points out that Lilburne’s ability to reach a broad audience was done not just with his physical bravery and undoubted talent as an agitator but helped enormously by the growth of new technology such as the colossal growth of secret printing.

He sums up “How Lilburne’s reputation and the history of the Levellers have come down to us is long, complex and contested. There has never been a moment when it has not interacted with contemporary politics or refracted through modern political debate. In Reborn John? Edward Vallance charts the first of these great transitions as radicals and others in the eighteenth century debated the lineage of the first modern revolutionary leader and the movement he represented”.

Chapter 1: John Lilburne and the Citizenship of ‘Free-born Englishmen’ (Rachel Foxley)

This essay was not written for the Conference it is in fact, a reprint from 2004[2]. It is quite ironic that as Foxley wrote this essay back in 2004 citizenship rights were being attacked all over the world. Many people were and are still being stripped of their citizenship by governments who have cynically used the Magna Carta to do this.

People seeking to defend these rights could do no better than study Lilburne’s struggle to establish them in the 17th Century. As Foxley correctly brings out in her essay, Lilburne had used the Magna Carta to justify extending citizenship rights to a broader section of the population. His battle-cry for democracy was a progressive one in that it sought to eradicate social relations based on Feudal laws and social customs.

As Hoffman and Read point out “In the context of medieval England itself, the social reality behind the formal rights of freemen and the continuing struggles of the peasantry was revealed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, 166 years after the Magna Carta. Led by Watt Tyler and Jack Straw, 60,000 peasants marched on London to demand the abolition of serfdom, tithes, and the poll tax. The rallying cry of the peasants was the rhyme “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?”

Nevertheless, the formal rights and freedoms, and constraints on arbitrary power, enunciated in the Charter also contained a universal content. Essentially, they gave early expression to the assertion of the inherent rights of man, however necessarily constrained and formed within the current historical realities and class relations of the early 13th century England. These political rights were the subject of centuries of struggles waged by the masses against the property-owning classes in England, the Continent and, later, America[3].

When Lilburne fought for his and other citizenship rights his ideas were also were constrained and formed within the current historical realities. These realities were not products of his gifted mind but reflected material reality.

As Foxley correctly points out that there is no consensus amongst historians as to what Lilburne meant by Citizenship.  “Lilburne’s writing emerges out of the context of parliamentarian argument during and after the first civil war. There has been a tendency to classify political theories of the early to a mid-seventeenth century in England by asking whether they resulted from historical or theoretical modes of thought”. Alternatively, put another way does social being determine social consciousness.

This subjective was taken up by the Russian Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis who pointed out “the contrast between the Levellers and those movements which sought social revolution and attacked the existing property relations was, so to speak, confirmed. However, this was only the case if we are to be satisfied by the consideration of ideological formulae and not the objective meaning of the given revolutionary movement. The ideology of the Levellers was a typical bourgeois ideology, and the overwhelming majority of the Levellers acted as defenders of the principle of private property and this by no means contradicts the fact that the victory of the Levellers’ movement should have objectively led to the most decisive infringement on the right of feudal property. Moreover, this success and this victory could not have found its expression other than in the elimination of feudal ownership. Therefore, when the opponents of the Levellers accused them of attacking property, and of favouring communism, this was not merely slander. It was a statement of uncontested fact that for the privileged feudal owners the radical democratic transformation for which the Levellers strove would have presented a most real threat. The affirmations of the leaders of the Levellers, concerning their adherence to the principle of private property, were a very weak consolation. And, on the contrary, the preaching of the communality of ownership and the clouded communist ideology of the extreme left leaders of the German peasant war, was in fact less of a threat to embryonic capitalist social relationships, but was instead the banner of the implacable, most consistent opponents of feudal ownership and all serf and semi-serf relationships. It is here that it seems possible for us to find a series of elements which bring the two movements closer together even though they are so different in their ideological bases”.[4]

Like many of the historians who have contributed essays to this collection, Foxley believes that the Levellers were radical to a degree, but she does not believe they were revolutionary. She tends to separate the ideas developed by the Levellers from their material base in society.
Foxley is correct to point out that revisionist historians have not only attacked Marxist conceptions of the Leveller’s ‘The revisionist historians who have rewritten the history of the seventeenth century have questioned almost every aspect of the historical reputation of the Levellers’. How far Foxley intends to go in defence of the Leveller’s is another matter.

It is open to question to what extent Foxley herself has adapted to this revisionist assault. One criticism of her is concentration on Leveller political theory to the detriment of their economic and social base.

As John Rees correctly points out that this “approach runs the risk of producing the effect that the philosopher Hegel describes as ‘ night in which all cows are black’, meaning that it is impossible to differentiate the object of study from its background.

Chapter 2: Lilburne, Toleration and the Civil State (Norah Carlin)

Norah Carlin who wrote the Causes of the English Civil War and has published much on religious toleration during the English revolution correctly states in this chapter that Lilburne was a man of profound principle and unlikely to compromise on the matter of perspective or strategy.
Carlin’s chapter covers a subject that has been widely neglected by modern day historians that is religious toleration. As she correctly points out in a previous essay,

“out of the Independent and Separatist congregations of London, there emerged in 1646, under attack from the Presbyterians, a movement for religious toleration. As the Presbyterians organised for their attempted coup in 1647, it became evident that this movement would have to defend civil liberties as well, for one of its leaders, John Lilburne, was thrown into prison for his writings. Moreover, as the soldiers of the New Model Army began to organise spontaneously in their own defence against disbandment, a group of those active in the movement turned to address the army and work among the soldiers for a new constitution that would guarantee both religious and civil liberties. This is the group known to their contemporaries and to history (though they disliked the name themselves) as the Levellers.[5]

The amount of irreligion in the English revolution has been contested by numerous historians. Christopher Hill in his pamphlet Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution quoted Richard Baxter who believed that those who rejected mainstream religion were ‘a rable’ “if any would raise an army to extirpate knowledge and religion, the tinkers and sow-gelders and crate-carriers and beggars and bargemen and all the table that cannot read…. Will be the forwardest to come in to such a militia” It is understood Baxter argued for their suppression with violence if necessary.
Carlin’s viewpoint and many other aspects of the Leveller’s philosophy has as John Coffey mentions in his paper Puritan and Liberty “fallen on hard times”. Meaning that the sustained attack of the revisionists has won the day. Carlin rejects this premise.

Carlin-like Coffey believes that the revisionist historians have deliberately downplayed the extent of religious toleration argued by groups such as the Levellers.

Carlin brings out that Leveller views on toleration were not confined to their own organisation but spread to the New Model Army who said “our design is to over throw Presbyterie, or hinder the settlement thereof, and to have the Independent government set up, we doe clearely disclaime, and disavow any such designe; We onely desire that according to the Declarations (promising a provision for tender consciences) there may some effectuall course be taken according to the intent thereof; And that such, who, upon conscientious grounds, may differ from the established formes, may not (for that) bee debarred from the common Rights, Liberties, or Benefits belonging equally to all, as men and Members of the Common wealth, while they live soberly, honestly, and inoffensively towards others, and peaceably and faithfully towards the State”.[6]

Carlin’s work on toleration of the various religious groups is a refutation of the current wave of revisionism which seems to reject everything that has been written on the Levellers from a left viewpoint.

Carlin has held a relatively consistent position on the Levellers. She perhaps holds the most orthodox Marxist positions on their development and class outlook. Her article Marxism and the English Civil War should be the starting point for any discussion on the English revolution.
While not agreeing with every statement she makes her views on the Levellers are worth a read and study. She believes that far from being a radical wing of the Independents she belives the Levellers “broke with Puritan politics and even with Puritan language to develop a secular and democratic perspective. Their main social base was the small independent producer, and their most important achievement was their intervention in the army in 1647, which forced Cromwell and the army officers at least to listen to them for a few months. Their programme, designed to separate political power from wealth, foreshadowed the nineteenth century People’s Charter, and their organisation in the City of London on a ward-by-ward basis – with weekly subscriptions, a central committee, a regular newspaper and door-to-door canvassing – was the seed from which all grassroots organisations were to spring”[7].

Her summation of the Levellers is also significantly different from many contemporary radical historians in that she believes that “It is wrong to see the Levellers as simply the most revolutionary section of the bourgeoisie. Both their social criticism and their political principles were opposed to the continued growth of capitalism. That the reforms they proposed could not have stopped the development of capitalism in practice is another matter. The least that can be said of the Levellers is that they made a long-range social forecast of an era of exploitation, oppression and imperialism, and tried to stop it from happening. In doing so, they left a legacy of organisational and political principle which bore fruit in the development of Chartism and the nineteenth-century working-class movement. They deserve, at the very least, our recognition of their struggles”[8].

Chapter 3: Women and the Levellers: Elizabeth and John Lilburne and their associates (Ann Hughes)

This chapter is a long-overdue appreciation of not only Elizabeth Lilburne but other women Levellers. The Leveller women were the backbone of the movement. It is safe to say that the influence of the Levellers would not have been so significant without the political work of female Levellers. Indeed without the intervention of his wife Lilburne himself would have been killed.
Studies of the role women during the English revolution both in the past and present have been few and far between.  Ann Hughes’s last book Gender and the English Revolution was an attempt to rectify this anomaly.

History and for that matter, historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle at this time. As far as I can ascertain no significant biography exists of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

It is only now that Lucy Hutchinson is now getting serious attention. For the last few hundred years, she has only been known as the wife of Col Hutchinson.

While being part of the Leveller movement of the party they were in some respects an independent movement themselves. It is high time that a serious study of the women who took part in the English revolution.

After all, as one Leveller petition put it “have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood”[9]?

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands.”

If their male counterparts underestimated women Levellers, this was nothing to the treatment they received when they started to carry out political agitation independently.

When Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions for social equality, they were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged. overall, middle-class women were treated with derision, but mostly no violence was committed against them. It is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle-class women were quietly escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.

While it is difficult to gauge the size of the support for the women Levellers one cannot be blind to the fact that when The Levellers organised petitions, ten thousand Leveller women signed them. Many of these petitions were calling for equality with men.

 “Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. 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? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? Moreover, can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defences of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power”[10]?

To conclude even the small amount of research needed for this article has uncovered that for historians who like a challenge a detailed study writings of the radical women of the 17th century will in the future provide us with much deeper understanding of the radical Women today who are still struggling for social equality today could do no worse than study the struggles of the women Levellers.

Chapter 4: Lilburne and the law (Geoffrey Robertson)

Robertson concentrates in this chapter not so much on Lilburne’s political activity but his impact on English law. It is hard not to agree with Ed Valance that “his legal struggles exerted a tangible influence on British law, helping to change legislation relating to libel, the power of juries and even the legal status of slaves on British soil”[11].

It is again ironic that the very democratic rights that Lilburne fought for are coming under sustained attack to today. As Robertson warned “in a country where Parliament is now the sovereign, that any attempt to pass laws that deny to the people the rights which "Freeborn John" extrapolated from the Great Charter – to jury trial, access to justice, free speech and to call government to account – will be struck down by the High Court because they are rights which may now be implied from the Australian Constitution.  You cannot have a true democracy without Magna Carta's guarantee of the rule of law”[12].

Chapter5: John Lilburne as a revolutionary leader (John Rees)

John Rees points out in this chapter that Lilburne was many things to many people.To say that he was a complex character would not be an overstatement.

As Rees brings out despite his many weaknesses he was a man of profound principles “I walk not, nor act, from accidents,” but from principles, and being thoroughly persuaded in my own soul they are just, righteous and honest, I will by God’s goodness never depart from them, though I perish in maintaining them.”

Rees is correct to call Lilburne a revolutionary leader of a what was a revolutionary movement or party. Rees believes that Lilburne far reacting to events in an empirical way had a strategic sense in that his writings and ideas were a guide to action, not the other way around.
Rees’s work in this chapter is an extension of his PhD thesis[13]. Rees has sought to oppose some prevailing views of the Levellers one such attitude is that Levellers had no history before the 1640s. This point has proved most controversial because up and till now there has been little evidence to counter this view.

Rees’s also counters some historians who have tried to present Lilburne as a leader of a free collection of radicals. Rees provides extensive evidence to the contrary. While not being a party in the modern sense they nonetheless were a well organised and firmly coherent group.
As Rees puts “by 1646, the group ‘both in the eyes of their opponents and in the internal ideological support they deliver to each other, is a functioning collective organisation’.
Perhaps Rees’s most salient point in the chapter is at the end when he points out that Lilburne had no revolutionary precedent for his actions.

Chapter 6: Print and principles: John Lilburne, civil war radicalism and the Low Countries (Jason Peacey)

Peacey has written extensively on the secret and not so secret printing world of the Levellers, and it is an area that requires a lot more work to give us an even more precise evaluation of the Levellers and their influence.

While ground-breaking is perhaps an overused word in the lexicon of English revolution studies, it is justified in Peacey’s case. In many ways, the study of the printing capabilities of the Levellers holds many secrets to their popularity and their influence.

Like many historians in this book Peacey has challenged many of the conceptions held by revisionist historians. Many of these revisionists have sought to downplay not only the radicalism of the Levellers but also influence as Dr David Magliocco points out in his review of Peacey’s Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution.

“Historians to have long been fascinated by the mid-century collision of print and revolutionary politics. Thus whilst acknowledging that this field has been ‘hotly contested’, Peacey boldly claims that it has, nonetheless, been ‘inadequately conceptualised’. At one level then this work is a counter-blast to the preceding claims of revisionism. Alongside their insistence that printed sources could not provide access to historical truth, revisionists questioned earlier assumptions about the social depth and geographical reach of early modern political culture. The print itself, and the revolutionary politics it had been associated with, were both written out of their accounts of the mid-17th century. Certainly, as Peacey recognises, revisionism itself now occupies an increasingly marginalised position. Social historians, for instance, have demolished the notion of an apolitical (but silently conservative) ‘country’. Similarly, post-revisionists have demonstrated the importance of print in fostering ideologically-engaged publics. While acknowledging these advances, Peacey takes both groups to task. Social historians, he claims, have failed to connect local and national contexts and to properly integrate print into their accounts. Post-revisionists, for their part, have been unwilling to tackle the issue of reception, while concentrating on explicitly ‘public’ genres within print”[14].

Peacey points to another area that needs to be studied, and that is Lilburne’s and the Levellers debt to the Dutch and their radical pamphleting culture. Lilburne drew a lot from the work of the Dutch.

Chapter 7: The resurrection of John Lilburne, Quaker (Ariel Hessayon)

There is no small degree of controversy surrounding Lilburne’s conversion to Quakerism.The historian Christopher Hill believes that after the defeat of the Levellers many former Levellers joined the Quakers.

As Hill says "The spread of Quakerism, emptying the churches of Anabaptists and separatists, witnessed both to the defeat of the political Levellers and to the continued existence and indeed an extension of radical ideas". Hessaayon beiieves Hill’s comments were an “overstatement.”
Hessayon believes that although Lilburne may have changed movements, Lilburne was still Honest John Changing one shirt for another.

Chapter 8 Reborn John? The eighteenth-century afterlife of John Lilburne.
As Christopher Hill correctly observes ‘Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe”.

The purpose of Ed’s chapter is to examine Lilburne’s political afterlife. He does a superb job. The fact that Lilburne and his work have endured down the centuries is not solely due to his personality or his undoubted courage and sacrifice.

Vallance is clear not to personalise his struggle but attempts to place it in a more objective light. “there is a danger that in emphasising the separateness of historical epochs, historians have undervalued the degree of intellectual sympathy and continuity between the radicalism of the seventeenth century and that of the eighteenth. We do not need to invest in a grand narrative of an English ‘radical tradition’ to acknowledge that the English revolution of the seventeenth century had both intellectual and practical consequences for the eighteenth century. A life which ended in political retreat in Eltham in 1657 was resurrected in the 1700s to take up the ‘temporal sword’ once more.


This collection will be of significant interest to academics, researchers, and readers with a general interest in the English Revolution and its radical political groups.

Hopefully, with the book being published in paperback, at a reasonable price it will get the wide readership it deserves.

As  AL Morton said “A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and was able to express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten”.

Further Reading

Blair Worden, ‘The Levellers and the Left’, pp. 316, 330.
Mike Braddick, ‘The Celebrity Radical’, BBC History Magazine 8: 10, October 2007, pp. 34–6.
Simon Morgan, ‘Celebrity: Academic “Pseudo-event” or a Useful Concept for Historians?’, Cultural and Social History 8: 1, 2011, pp. 95–114, at p. 98.

[1] The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution- Authors: Vernon, Elliot-Editors: Baker, P. (Ed.)
[2] The Historical Journal, vol 47 December 2004.
[3] The Magna Carta and democratic rights. By Richard Hoffman and Mike Head .15 June 2015.
[4] Evgeny Pashukanis-Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[5]Norah Carlin-The First English Revolution-First published by Socialists Unlimited for the Socialist Workers Party in April 1983. -(April 1983)

[6] A Declaration, or Representation from his Excellency, S. Tho. Fairfax, and of the Army under his Command.;view=fulltext
[7] Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980) From International Socialism 2: 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 106–128.
[8]   Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980) From International Socialism 2: 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 106–128.
[9] To the Supreme Authority of England, the Commons Assembled in Parliament. The Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamlets and Parts Adjacent. Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of Sept. 11, 1648. (May 5, 1649)
[10] Ibid., 11 1648. (May 5, 1649)
[11]Reborn John? The Eighteenth-century-Afterlife of John Lilburne-by Edward Vallance
[13] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution.