The new radicalism of the 17th century

Words: Daisy Church

The mid-seventeenth century was a tumultuous time for England. A series of conflicts between King Charles I and his parliaments had descended into civil war, aggravated by rebellions in Scotland and Ireland. By the spring of 1649, the king had been executed and a republic established in what has come to be known as the ‘English Revolution.’ 

But this period wasn’t just about Crown v Cromwell. Unprecedented levels of public discussion emerged. The loftiest of political discourse was, for perhaps the first time, accessible to the common man.

Nearly every element of society was touched by the English Civil Wars. It has been suggested that, at points, there were up to 140,000 men in arms. Proportionally, more Englishmen died in the First Civil War than World War One.

In the face of this upheaval, people began to question the world around them. There was a deep-rooted idea that something was fundamentally wrong. Beliefs and institutions that were once taken for granted were scrutinised. State censorship had collapsed, leaving people free to debate what was previously restricted. Even established tenets of the Christian faith like the existence of the soul were doubted.

These questions were symbolic of new anxieties, and particularly, a fear that the disruption to normal life was permanent. Chaos provided fertile ground for radical political thought: if the world truly was turned upside down, anything was possible.

This radicalism was bolstered by the rise of an innovative technology: the printing press. It had previously been the preserve of the court, but new developments led to the ability to print cheaply and quickly. In the 1640s, the number of print shops doubled, and thousands of pamphlets were published, opening printed materials up to the working classes. Issues discussed included religion and the constitution, and materials were distributed even to remote places. 

Literacy rates in England were low (30% for adult men, and less for women), but this didn’t restrict the spread of information. Pamphlets were read aloud, and some contained images that could convey their message to the illiterate. In London, there was a notable growth in popular participation – mainly petitioning and demonstrations – following this development. The London mobs became a force to be reckoned with, and contributed to the king abandoning the city – a move that potentially cost him victory in the wars to come.

The rise of popular politics was perhaps most pronounced in the New Model Army (which was under Parliament’s control). Social mobility was a key element of the Army’s structure – it was more representative than the House of Commons, with officers drawn from the working classes – and in the period 1646-48, it was left without a war to fight, effectively becoming a political organisation. Rank and file soldiers presented both political and military petitions to their officers, organising from below. 

It was in these circumstances that the Leveller movement emerged. The Levellers were a group that called for an extension of the vote to all men (except servants and beggars – it was the 1600s), and for the establishment of a genuine democracy. None of these demands were present in public discourse before the Civil Wars.

The movement wasn’t confined to the Army alone. In 1649, there was a ‘digging’ of St. George’s Hill in London by a group of poor men. They established a farming commune as a protest against enclosure (the privatisation of land previously open to all) and became known as the ‘Diggers’, or the ‘True Levellers’. Their philosophy differed from those in the Army – it revolved around common ownership, and their commune on St. George’s Hill was a reclamation. 

The Leveller movement published a manifesto entitled the Agreement of the People in 1647, which was presented by the rank and file soldiers to the Army Council for consideration. It was radical for its time, calling for the people to be able to ‘choose themselves a Parliament once in two years’ and for equal distribution of Members of Parliament based on population. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act has ensured an election is held at least every five years only since 2011; constituencies continue to vary widely in terms of population today.

The Leveller movement had such strength that the Council of the Army felt the need to address it. On the 28th of October 1647, at St. Mary’s Church in Putney, the Council gathered to discuss the recently-presented Agreement. Those who opposed the Levellers were conservative officers known as Grandees, and they included Oliver Cromwell. They believed that political matters should be reserved for those with property, prompting a lively discourse over who deserved the vote.

The Putney Debates were an extraordinary event in which the common men of the country were deeply involved. For the first time, the people of England had a voice at the highest of political platforms, and they used it to argue for extensive franchise, for religious tolerance, and for equality under the law.

But their demands were rejected. The Grandees re-asserted their dominance over the Army and violently suppressed the Leveller movement. Some leaders were arrested. One was executed. 

Many of the liberal freedoms we enjoy today were officially established in later centuries – but the 17th stands out as the first time they became part of the popular political tapestry.  The focus on Charles and Parliament neglects this aspect of the English Civil Wars and frames it as a revolution enacted by the elite: instead, it should be noted as a time of new radicalism, of discussion, and of a people who were just as significant as the kings and politicians who ruled them.

learn more

  • PODCAST: Revolutions – Mike Duncan
  • BOOK: The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill
  • VIDEO: Professor Justin Champion on the Putney Debates

Daisy Church is a literature and history student at the University of East Anglia. Follow her on Twitter.