John Rees BOOKtalk

John Rees

Mark D'Arcy in discussion with John Rees on his book The Leveller Revolution.

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17th-century England gave birth to all different sects and movements.


There were ranters and Quakers, and my guest today traces the influence


of the levellers, who many see as a proto- socialist revolutionary party


in the peoples that saw them going to war, then set up Oliver Cromwell


as a dictator and... This was an era when politics was really bubbling,


there was a huge amount going on, and all kinds of groups were


agitating, but by the agitation -- why was it agitation? Because the


monarchy of Charles the first was breaking down as an effective form


of government. He had to disband and rule for the living years without a


revolution. The only thing that got him to call one was that... And the


kind of church he thought was appropriate in England, he tried to


impose this on the Scots, so there was a war with the Scots, and he was


forced to call Parliament. Parliament wanted control over how


the money was spent. So there was a religious argument, and a financial


crisis for the regime, and a crisis because views about how the


government should develop and how it should be doing had been sharply


polarised in the 16 30s. One of the things that gave this a real edge


was a new technology that allowed people to express their opinions and


disburse them more widely in terms of printing, and portable so people


could set up a machine and start printing pamphlets, which kept the


pot nicely boiling. Yes, it was less that the technology itself was new,


the printing press had been around for 150 years. What was new was


being able to print pamphlets without censorship. As soon as


Parliament were called in 1640, state censorship and religious


censorship broke down. The presses which had been printing some illegal


material -- legal material, suddenly struggled to produce pamphlets and


petitions and mobilise crowds to come to Westminster and drive the


king from his capital in 1652. He left London after huge


demonstrations and was afraid for himself and his family, and he never


returned until he was executed in 1649. Right at the beginning of the


period of the book, you describe an England where the bishops had the


power of censorship, not even the government, the bishops as pillar of


the state could suddenly decide that a pamphlet was heretical and arrest


the water and bring the men. We need to think of the church in a


different way than the role it plays in modern society. Bennett played


the role of the church, civil service, education, the mass media,


and it collected taxes on its own you were legally obliged to be in


the Church of England, not just nationally, in your parish. If you


did not go to parish church, you could be found, imprisoned, and what


the leader of the levellers were doing, importing material, you could


had his ears sliced off, and the had his ears sliced off, and the


letters F L for siliceous libel printed. There were a lot of


pamphlets and Annunciation anything from Bibles to religious


almanacs to astrological work and revolutionary pamphlets, the leader


collected as many as he could, I do not know what he did with them, but


20,000 ended up in the British Library, and the other massive


resource for anyone studying now. Is there any undiscovered material?


Yes, there is. You find amazing things happening. For instance, the


Putney debates which were at the centre of this whole explosion where


the levellers confront the leaders, debate and you constitution, demand


new rates, they were taken down in shorthand by a man called William


Clark, who took it down in shorthand because the Puritans landed as they


thought it was important to write down what the priest said and look


at it later. He dumped all the notes which lay undiscovered from the 16


60s through to the 1890s, when a historian discovered them. Some of


them, the Putney ones, where -- were in shorthand, and codebreakers had


to decipher them. Things like that are still coming up. Let us get into


the personalities. We have this group, it focuses round John


Milburn. It is a picture of him. Here's a disciple of the so-called


puritan maters, importing legal tragic way religious material. He is


put in Fleet prison, he defies the chamber, demands he should be tried


by a jury, he -- and for this defiance he was tied to the back of


size of penny loaves. At this moment every step of the way


size of penny loaves. At this moment he is a hero for defying the


government. He is at the heart of the demonstrations that drove the


King from London. He sword fighting in Westminster Hall, as the King's


supporters tried to drive protesters out of it. He fights at the first


battle of the Civil War, at the battle of Marston Moor, he is


embedded in the radical religious congregations, he has every word


here is, one of his critics says, whatever he says tonight is in print


and on the streets tomorrow morning, so he is closely allied with the


illegal presses, and around him grows this movement that wants


democratic change and outcome. This is one of the most interesting


moments, that the revolution overthrows the king, he is a


prisoner of Parliament. But it is not clear what anyone wants to do


next, and there are quite different visions of how a country should be


governed. Lots of people want to bring the king to heal and others


want an aristocratic republic. The Levellers are... They make


fabulously Gaelic TV and statements. Yes, and he says no man should put


himself under a government that does not have a


This was a vastly tended suffrage -- extended suffrage. The Levellers put


forward their views in the Putney debates, and it is the first


democratic constitution model that this country has seen. Those Putney


debates is fascinating, in the middle of it all was not a debate


involving parliamentarians, it was a debate with the new model Army that


had been treated by Cromwell to fight Charles and his cavaliers,


beat them eventually, and became on its own right political force, then


had to decide what it wanted to do with the powdered inherited. One of


the things it did was purge Parliament. Well, it was a


fantastically democratic instrument by the time we get to the Putney


debates. Because the conservative elements on the parliamentarian


said, the people who wanted to bring the King back for the throne, had


tried at the end of the first Civil War to disband the army or send it


to Ireland because they realised it was a radical force. At this moment


the revolution moves to the left because first the cavalry, then the


infantry, regiment after Regiment do something now army had done before,


they elect their own representatives, called agitators.


Perhaps it is the advent of the modern... These were people of


Putney. They were standing and facing down the leaders of the new


model Army, Fairfax, Cromwell, and debating whether or not there should


be democracy in England. William Clark who is taking it down is so


stunned that some of these ordinarily soldiers are debating, he


does not know their names, so he just writes down buff coat, which is


the thick leather coat they were awaiting. We later learned years


Robert Everard, one of the supporters in the revolution, so it


is an incredible moment. How far were the Levellers I hate all this?


It was the progression of a widespread mood in London among


certain social layers among apprentices, among the rank and file


in the new model Army certainly, but although it was more widespread than


the levellers, the levellers were the people that gave it a


crystallised programmatic forum and a form of organisation which could


fight for the programme it decided on through petitioning and


pamphlets. But what they got was a pseudo- monarchy, Oliver Cromwell


put on the crown and became the monarch. And under him they got the


King back, albeit a more intelligent version. They have succeeded in half


failed. Without the Levellers, the king might have returned in the late


16 40s and there would never have been a Republican this country.


Cromwell was vacillating until the last moment. It was a huge campaign


in London that pushed them finally to declare a Republican put the King


on trial for treason. Saw the levellers were maintaining that


transformation, but they wanted a democratic republic, and Cromwell


was happy to have addict Oriel Republic -- a dictatorial republic.


Cromwell suppressed the Levellers, putting them down in a series of


mutinies. They did not get the revolution they wanted, but the


revolution did happen and would not have happened without them. In the


end the ideas that they were pushing for, the idea of a wider franchise,


maybe not everyone having a right to vote, but more people having the


right to vote for parliamentarians, those ideas resurface again in a


couple of hundred years. They do pass over the Atlantic and


inform the American Revolution. There are women in the backwoods of


New England naming their children Oliver after Oliver Cromwell in the


American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was a distant descendant


of John Lilburn and there was was a child in the Jefferson family whose


name was Lilburn. One of the soldiers on the scaffold when


Charles the first was executed was called Charles and he was later


executed all so for a plot. He said no man comes into the world with a


saddle on his back and no man booted and spurred to ride him. They are


the last word in Thomas Jeppesen's diary. We see things from the


American Revolution moving back TV English Civil War and the French


Revolution. Robert Sadiq, before he becomes an- Tory, he writing a poem


in phrase of Henry Martyn. You have this peculiar kind of disjointed but


nevertheless descendant IDs spreading around the globe from the


English Revolution. John Rees, complicated history. Thank you very


much. Book talk will be back again soon. Thank you very much.


Order! The Speaker of the House of Commons demands order as things get


a little rowdy in the Chamber. The honourable gentleman will be heard


and the Prime Minister will be


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