Levellers’ Day

Over Easter, myself and Mrs B went off to Oxfordshire for a ‘mini-break’ (cut short due to an errant list officer) and had a visit to Burford Church in Burford, a very picturesque town in the countryside. It masquerades as a quaint English village where nothing much would happen, but it plays an important part in our history, sadly not a part that is taught in our schools.

The 17th Century was a pretty exciting time; plague, fire, regicide, and that’s just for starters. The English Civil War(s) saw a fantastic outpouring of political activity and the arguments that were had there (political, religious, and of course, legal) still resonate today.

One of the most significant groups were the Levellers, a faction of the New Model Army who stood for a platform of near universal (male) suffrage, the protection of ‘natural born rights’, equality before the law and an adherence to the rule of law. They have a good claim to being our first democrats, a view that they put forward in the Putney Debates; the original Constitutional Convention. They proposed various documents, two of the most important being – An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right and freedom and An Agreement of the Free People of England, the latter particularly being an embryonic constitution. It never made it, which is a great pity, as it would have been an excellent starting point for our (first) Republic. I certainly think that all lawyers should have read them (and really should read the Putney Debates).

I think it clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government

ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government

–        Thomas Rainsborough (at the Putney Debates)

Anyway. Shortly after the last of the Agreements was published on 1st May 1649 (by Levellers then imprisoned in the tower) there was a Leveller mutiny in the army, partly over arrears of pay, but also over politics. They sacked their officers and elected new ones. Despite being promised by Cromwell and Fairfax that they would be listened to and not subject to force, they were rounded up and imprisoned in the church. Early in the morning of 17th May, three of the organisers of the Banbury Mutiny; James Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private John Church were taken outside and shot for mutiny.

This being England, it took until 1975 for this to be commemorated, but at least now every year on the Saturday there is a Levellers’ Day celebration. The Levellers view of the world was not accepted at the time (and it is difficult to know how close they were) and the less radical views of the ‘Grandees’ had prevailed by the time of the mutiny (although with the trial and execution of the King, it may have felt that anything was possible). Cromwell secured his grip on power and the rest is history. Cromwell followed a sort of ‘third way’, preferable to what came before, but it could have been so much better…

Heartily recommend Burford, beautiful countryside, lots of sheep, quaint English pubs and a big dollop of radical English history.

I won’t be there on Saturday, as I’m off for another holiday where they do constitutions properly and have a proper respect for our history!

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