The Levellers represented an important attempt to create a tolerant and democratic system in England. Although they failed in the long term, they did have an important influence on events - particularly in building an alliance to oppose the Presbyterian majority in Parliament which would otherwise have negotiated a quite different settlement with the King than was otherwise achieved. Although not truly democratic in modern terms (the movement as such did not, for example demand votes for women - although elements within the Levellers did believe in equality between man and women), the Levellers are seen as one of the early inspirations of what was later known as socialism.
This sect originated in Germany in the early 16th century and faced widespread persecution. The name derived from an insult by their opponents. Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and were therefore termed re-baptisers or ana-baptists by their enemies (or alternatively 'Particular Baptists'). They believed that the Old Testament had been superseded by the New Testament and based their faith on the latter. Their beliefs were radical and were seen as a threat to the established order of the 16th and 17th centuries. They opposed the idea of a state church in favour of religious toleration and did not have a system of professional ministers but instead relied on their members to lead worship. Men and women always wore head coverings and, because they believed in equality, would neither remove their hats nor bow as a sign of submission to any man. The first congregation of the sect was established in England around 1611.
The Anabaptists believed in equality of rank, property and wealth and opposed the death penalty. They also practiced equality between men and women and originally refused to serve as magistrates because they believed judgment was a matter to be dealt with only by God. The early Anabaptists were pacifists although on the continent some would take up arms to defend themselves and in what they saw as hastening the final day of judgment.
During the English Civil Wars their numbers multiplied rapidly. Many served in the New Model Army and also took a part in the administration of the law. Three generals (Fleetwood, Harrison and Ludlow) and at least seven colonels were believed to be Anabaptists. They became firm supporters of the Levellers and played a key role in developing the political programme of the latter.
The term Independent encompassed a number of different religious sects who all, however, rejected the national power structure of Presbyterianism, instead stressing the decentralized authority of local congregations. They were mainly Congregationalists and Baptists, and also included the more radical Fifth Monarchists (who believed in the imminent rule on earth of King Jesus). They saw themselves as spiritual elite - the 'Saints'. Independents dominated the New Model Army and defended it against disbandment in 1647.
Politically, the Independents were the most enthusiastic for war and the least convinced of the need for a deal with the King and an alliance with the Presbyterian Scots. They were more strongly represented in the New Model Army than in Parliament. Despite being more amenable than the Presbyterians, the Levellers regarded them as being without principle '...the broken reeds of Egypt...', because they did not necessarily agree with their more extreme political programme of equality. They did, however, support a widening of the electoral franchise and an abolition of monopolies of the London trading companies.
The Presbyterians were the most powerful grouping amongst the puritans. They rejected the hierarchical structure of the episcopal churches of Rome and England, calling for the removal of bishops. At the same time they rejected the looser structure of the Independent churches and required a centralized organisation of elected national and local councils (synods) with professional ministers and a retention of the system of tithes. They therefore opposed the greater degree of religious toleration professed by the Independents.
The official church of Scotland was Presbyterian and many of the English parliamentary opposition originally wanted to imitate it in their own country (via the Solemn League and Covenant). By the later 1640s, however, many regarded a Presbyterian church settlement as a barrier against the sort of social revolution demanded by radical Independents in the army.
Politically, the Presbyterians were conservative, naturally keen on an alliance with the Scots and during 1646-8 were in favour of a negotiated peace with the King.
The Leveller movement had a large female following. 10,000 women signed the second 'Women's Petition' of May 1649, carrying it to Parliament wearing the Leveller sea-green ribbons pinned to their bodies.
Although the Levellers encouraged their women folk to take an active part in politics (following the Anabaptist creed that all were '...made in the image of God...') they met a suspicious and even hostile response from other soldiers and especially from the Presbyterian Parliament. In Spring 1648, mass demonstrations by women began in London based on the demands of Agreement of the People. But alongside calls for the removal of the King, the right of all men to the vote and for religious toleration they also called for equal rights for women.
The second women's petition of 1649 declared: '...Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionate share in the freedoms of the 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 honourable 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 good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us, no more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?...'
The author of the petition was probably Katherine Chidley. She was in her 40s or early 50s at the start of the war and was a well-known publisher of pamphlets and speeches. She was also the principal supplier of hose to the New Model Army. But this was not simply a passive movement. With echoes of the later suffragettes, the Leveller women were often dragged away by soldiers after trying to thrust petitions into the hands of MPs entering Parliament. Hundreds even tried to storm the gates of Parliament. As a result, common women were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle class women such as Chidley fared better and were simply escorted away by the soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work'.
In order to give a flavour of the movement, at Witley in June 2003 the Fairfax Battalia portrayed a scenario incorporating real events that actually occurred during 1648.