Levellers

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The Levellers was a political movement during the English Civil Wars which emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, all of which were expressed in the manifesto "Agreement of the People". They came to prominence at the end of the First English Civil War and were most influential before the start of the Second Civil War. Leveller views and support were found in the populace of the City of London and in some regiments in the New Model Army.

The levellers were not a political party in the modern sense of the word, and did not all conform to a specific manifesto. They were organised at the national level, with offices in a number of London inns and taverns. They published a newspaper (The Moderate), and were pioneers in the use of petitions and pamphleteering to political ends.[1][2] They identified themselves by sea-green ribbons worn on their clothing. After Pride's Purge and the execution of Charles I, power lay in the hands of the Grandees in the Army (and to a lesser extent with the Rump Parliament). The Levellers, along with all other opposition groups, were marginalized by those in power and their influence waned. By 1650, they were no longer a serious threat to the established order.

Contents

Origin of name

The term 'leveller' had been used in 17th-century England as a term of abuse for rural rebels. In the Midland Revolt of 1607, the name was used to refer to those who 'levelled' hedges in enclosure riots.[3][4]

As a political movement, the term first referred to a faction of New Model Army Agitators and their London supporters who were allegedly plotting to assassinate the king. But the term was gradually attached to John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn and their 'faction'. Books published in 1647–1648 often reflect this terminological uncertainty. The public 'identification' was largely due to the aspersions by Marchamont Needham, the author of the newspaper Mercurius Pragmaticus. Lilburne, John Wildman and Richard Baxter later thought that Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton had applied the term to Lilburne's group during the Putney Debates of late 1647.[5] Lilburne considered the term pejorative and called his supporters "Levellers so-called" and preferred "Agitators".[citation needed] The term suggested that the "Levelers" aimed to bring all down to the lowest common level. The leaders vehemently denied the charge of "levelling", but adopted the name because it was how they were known to the majority of people. After their arrest and imprisonment in 1649, four of the 'Leveller' leaders — Walwyn, Overton, Lilburne and Thomas Prince — signed a manifesto in which they called themselves Levellers.

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