Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Courage and Betrayal in a Country Churchyard

ST.JOHN THE BAPTIST, BURFORD, west Oxfordshire, where the Levellers were held.

One of the detained soldiers left his name on the Font.

(postcard from rubbing by BC Boulter, copyright Friends of Burford Church).

On May 17. 1649, Sedley and his comrades had to watch as three of their fellows were shot in the churchyard.

PASSING through Banbury in Oxfordshire on a quiet Sunday afternoon last week I did not realise that this market town was once the starting point of dramatic events whose denouement, further west at Burford, will be commemorated this weekend.

With the execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649, Oliver Cromwell had defeated the Royalists and those within his own parliamentary side who would have had him compromise with the king and the old order. Now he would turn on those whose support he had needed for both these victories. Cromwell, "God's Own Englishman", intended a regime based on those whom the Almighty had rewarded with wealth and property.

But his New Model Army had mobilised common men and those who voiced their aspirations, such as those described as "Levellers" -a term once used for rural protesters who tore down enclosure fences, then extended to those who would allegedly bring all society down to one level. The so-called Levellers in Cromwell's army denied both the name given them and the aim attributed; but they did think all should have some share in the rights and kingdom for which they had fought, and began to accept the label bestowed upon them by their enemies as an honour.

An Agreement of the People drawn up and discussed among these soldiers had appeared before the Putney Debates of October and November 1647, and a final version, appended and issued in the names of prominent Levellers Lt. Col. John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince appeared in May 1649. It called for an extension of suffrage to include almost all the adult male population, electoral reform, a Parliament to be elected every two years, religious freedom, and an end to imprisonment for debt.

These Levellers wanted to get rid of corruption, make the law accessible to all, allow religious tolerance so anyone could pray their own way and discuss ideas, and have rights that were due them as human beings, not dependent on riches or inheritance. At the Putney Debates in 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough defended natural rights as coming from the law of God expressed in the Bible. Lilburne argued that the freeborn rights of Englishmen had been taken away by the 'Norman Yoke'. But whatever their historical views they would agree with Richard Overton that liberty was an innate property of every person.

The Levellers can be seen as establishing a continuity between age-old aspirations, such as were voiced in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the demands raised in Kett's revolt in Norfolk in 1549, and modern ideas of democracy and justice. In 1649, Lilburne, Walwyn, Prince, and Overton were imprisoned in the Tower of London by the Council of State. While they were held there they wrote a pamphlet entitled "An Agreement Of The Free People Of England" (written on May 1, 1649). It includes reforms that have since been made law in England, such as the right to silence, and others that have not been, such as an elected judiciary.

Shortly after this, Cromwell moved against the "Banbury mutineers", 400 troopers who supported the Levellers and who were commanded by Captain William Thompson. The mutiny was over pay the men were owed and badly needed, as well as their political demands. To defuse the pay issue, Cromwell acknowledged the soldiers' financial grievances and secured £10,000 from Parliament towards payment of arrears. But Captain Thompson and his men neither trusted the meagre promissory notes they were given, nor forgave the government its repression of the Levellers. On May 6, 1649, Thompson issued a rousing declaration, "England's Standard Advanced" (extracts:)

"Whereas it is notorious to the whole world, that neither the Faith of the Parliament, nor yet the Faith of the Army (formerly made to the People of this nation, in behalf of their Common Right, Freedom and safety) hath bin all observed, or made good, but both absolutely declined and broken, and the People only served with bare words and faire promising Papers, and left utterly destitute of all help or delivery : And that this hath principally bin by the prevalency and treachery of some prominent persons (now domineering over the People) is most evident.

Wherefore through an inavoydable necessity, no other means left under heaven, we are inforced to betake our selves to the Law of nature, to defend and preserve our selves and Native Rights, and therefore are resolved as one man (even to the hazard and expence of our lives and fortunes) to to endeavour the redemption of the Magistracy of England, from under the force of the Sword, to vindicate the Petition of Right, to set the unjustly imprisoned free, to relieve the poore, and settle this Common-wealth upon the grounds of Common Right, Freedom, and Safety.

Be it therefore known to all the free People of England, and to the whole world, that, (chusing rather to die for Freedom than to live as slaves) we are gathered and associated together upon the bare account of Englishmen, with our Swords in our hands, to redeem our selve and the Land of our Nativity, from slavery and oppression, to avenge the blood of War shed in the time of Peace, to have justice for the blood of M. Arnold shot to death at Ware, and for the blood of M. Robert Lockyer, and divers other who of late martial Law were murthered at London.

And that all the world may know particularly what we intend, and wherein we will particularly center and acquiesce for ever, not to recede or exceed the least punctillio, we declare from the integrity of our hearts that by the help and might of God we will endeavor the absolute settlement of this distracted Nation, upon that forme and Method by way of an Agreement of the People, tendered as a Peace-offering by Leiut. Col. John Lilburn, M. Will. Walwyn, M. Thomas Prince, and M. Richard Overton, bearing date May 1. 1649. the which we have annexed to this our Declaration as the Standard of our Engagement, thereby owning every part and particular of the Premisses of the said Agreement, Promising and Resolving, to the utmost hazard of our Lives and Abilities, to persue the speedy and full Accomplishment thereof, and to our power, to protect and defend all such as shall Assent or Adhere thereunto :

And that till such time as by Gods Assistance we have procured to this Nation the Declared purpose of this our Engagement, we will not Divide nor Disband, nor suffer our selves to be Divided nor Disbanded, resolving with soberness and civility to behave our selves to the Country, to wrong nor abuse any man, to protect all to our power from violence and oppression in all places where we come; resolving to stop the Paiment of all Taxes or Sesments whatsoever, as of Excise, Tythes, and the Tax of ninety thousand pounds per Mensem. &c.

And having once obtained a New Representative, according to the said Agreement, upon such Terms and Limitations therein expressed; We shall then freely lay down our Arms, and return to our several Habitations and Callings.

Signed by me William Thompson, at our Randez-vouz in Oxfordshire, neer Banbury, in behalf of my Self, and the Rest Engaged with me, May 6. 1649.

Further south, Colonel Scrope's regiment of horse, selected for service in Ireland, had been marched as far as Salisbury, but Leveller-inspired soldiers seized the regimental colours and elected new officers. An attempt by Scrope to pacify the mutineers was rejected, with only 80 officers and men remaining loyal. The mutinous troops issued a declaration stating their refusal to leave England, or to be disbanded until their grievances over arrears of pay were settled. They demanded a political settlement in line with the Levellers' Agreement of the People and the restoration of the elected Army Council of 1647.

William Thompson set off from Banbury with 400 men, intending to meet up with the Salisbury mutineers and make common cause. To avoid a clash with troops sent to hold a bridge against them, they waded a river and crossed swampy ground.

A Major White was sent by Cromwell and the army commander Fairfax to mediate with Thompson's troops and give them assurances that force would not be used against them.

Meanwhile security was strengthened at the Tower, where Lilburne and his friends were held, and loyal troops and cavalry were reviewed by Cromwell and Fairfax in Hyde Park, ready to move against the mutineers. Cromwell had on occasion assured his soldiers that he sympathised with their radical hopes, as against the monarchy, but he had also told friends that the Levellers, and the Diggers who sought peacefully to work the land in common, threatened property and privilege.

"What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces."

Mutineers from Salisbury and Aylesbury had joined forces at Abingdon. Manoeuvring swiftly to keep the rebel forces apart, Fairfax succeeded in surrounding the main body at Burford. He ordered a surprise night attack which was led by Cromwell himself. After a few shots were exchanged, most of the mutineers surrendered. Several hundred were taken prisoner and locked in Burford Church for several days, after which three of them were taken out as ringleaders, and executed by firing squad in the churchyard. The rest were pardoned by Fairfax.

Meanwhile, William Thompson, with two troops of horse, had escaped the Burford ambush and been pursued into Northamptonshire by a force led by Colonel Reynolds. Refusing to surrender, Captain Thompson killed two of his pursuers before being killed himself in a skirmish, near to Wellingborough where he may have been trying to reach a Digger community.

His brother, Cornet James Thompson, was one of the three men shot in Burford churchyard, on May 17, 1649, the others being Corporal Perkins and John Church.

Thus the Levellers were crushed, and England's first revolution rendered safe for the owners of property and wealth. Within the year, the Diggers or "True Levellers" too, followers of Gerard Winstanley and their agrarian communes, were also broken up. Not till the rise of the working class and a series of bitter struggles lasting into the 20th century was the vote extended to all, and today behind the facade of parliamentary democracy we see wealth and property grasped in the ever tighter hands of a privileged few, while even rights we thought we'd long attained are being taken away.

So let us honour the courage of those betrayed heroes and keep the light they lit aflame.

IN 1975 a group of people from the Workers Educational Association went to Burford to commemorate the Levellers, and a plaque honouring those executed was unveiled by Tony Benn. Since then the annual commemoration event has grown, and this Saturday, May 19, we are promised speakers from UK Uncut and 38 Degrees, both concerned with cuts and issues of social justice, as well as the RMT's new president Alex Gordon. Oxford and District trades union council is mounting an exhibition, there'll be stalls, and entertainment including the Sea Green Singers (named after the Levellers' favourite colour) and The Original Rabbit's Foot Spasm Band.

Oh yeah, and as an added bonus, all this is happening in David Cameron's backyard!

Once again, as in previous years, I won't be able to go (previously it was Palestinian demonstrations in London, this year the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils has its meeting which was postponed because of last weekend's trades councils conference in Coventry). No peace for the wicked. But for those of you who are able to go to Burford on Saturday, I recommend it, and wish everyone a good time and a successful event.



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