Levellers and the Army

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or 'Wee still find the Nation oppressed with grievances of the same destructive nature...' (Leveller Large Petition)

Part 5 of a series on religion in the Civil Wars by Simon Frame

ORIGINS

The growing disquiet in the country over the continuing cost of the army, maintained ironically by some of the taxes over which Parliament had opposed the monarchy, was the impetus for the Presbyterian dominated Parliament to propose the disbandment of the army and its replacement by a Trained Bands based organisation, free of Independency, and a settlement with Charles Stuart. The army was alarmed by this, as it was owed a vast amount in unpaid wages and some were worried that under a new regime they could be tried for acts committed during the war (not unlike East Germany and South Africa in the 1990's). This opposition became bound up with ideological ideas, mainly put forward by radicals from within the army, who were assured of protection due to the tolerant religious views of many of the army's senior officers, and by radical contacts in London.

On 18th Feb 1647 Parliament voted to reduce the horse and dragoons (who at the end of April voted to appoint agitators) and on 8th March decreed that MP's and Presbyterians were banned from being officers in the army. The negotiations at Saffron Walden in March and April only produced a Parliamentary response that the army petition of 21st March was treasonable, that Skippon and Devereux's old boss Massey should lead the army in Ireland and Independents were to be removed from the London Trained Bands. In May Charles Stuart agreed a basis for negotiations with the Commons, which included introducing Presbyterianism for 3 years and allowing Parliament to control the militia for 10 years. The Commons now decided that the infantry could be disbanded (25th May) and Fairfax concentrated the army at Newmarket. On 2nd June Cornet Joyce ‘liberated’ Charles Stuart from his Parliamentary guards and took him to Newmarket. The resulting debates and occupation of London are well-covered elsewhere in practically any edition of the Devereux's Soldiers Standard.

THE LEVELLERS

The Levellers are named from those wishing to 'level men's estates' and were a political rather than religious group, included here because their views were linked with religious tolerance (Independency) and radicalism. They were a republican and democratic party who saw the grace of God in Christ as having implications for democracy. The Army Council, which the Levellers forced the generals to accept to be made up of rank-and-file as well as officers debated various documents including 'An Agreement of the People' and 'The Heads of the Proposals'. These documents covered legislative power as a trusteeship from the people and civil and religious freedom (except of course, for Catholics).

Charles escaped from Hampton Court (with the connivance of senior army officers including Cromwell?; discuss) on 11 November, conveniently ending the arguments within the army, and went off to conclude an engagement with the Scots and to promise to introduce Scottish Presbyterianism for 3 years. The general apathy towards Parliament generated by high taxes etc. and a wish for many to see order and the old ways restored, helped to foment the 1648 war, and the Scots upheld their part of the bargain with Charles by getting thrashed at Preston. Reconciliation was now the mood of the country and Parliamentary negotiations with Charles were to recommence.

Ireton was not happy with this and on 6th December Colonel Pride (whose regiment included at least one company of ex-Devereux's - hurrah!) and Lord Grey stood at the doors of the Commons to exclude about 110 largely Presbyterian MP's. Some 260 decided to retire from the scene voluntarily. The job of ensuring that Charles Stuart never had to worry about banging his head on low doorways any more could begin in earnest......