John Rees BOOKtalk


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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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forced to call Parliament. Parliament wanted control over how

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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being able to print pamphlets without censorship. As soon as

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Parliament were called in 1640, state censorship and religious

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

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

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petitions and mobilise crowds to come to Westminster and drive the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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pamphlets and Annunciation anything from Bibles to religious

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almanacs to astrological work and revolutionary pamphlets, the leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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embedded in the radical religious congregations, he has every word

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

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

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illegal presses, and around him grows this movement that wants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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himself under a government that does not have a

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

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

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democratic constitution model that this country has seen. Those Putney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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fantastically democratic instrument by the time we get to the Putney

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debates. Because the conservative elements on the parliamentarian

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

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

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

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

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

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they elect their own representatives, called agitators.

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

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

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

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

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stunned that some of these ordinarily soldiers are debating, he

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

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

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

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

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It was the progression of a widespread mood in London among

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certain social layers among apprentices, among the rank and file

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

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

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crystallised programmatic forum and a form of organisation which could

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fight for the programme it decided on through petitioning and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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on trial for treason. Saw the levellers were maintaining that

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transformation, but they wanted a democratic republic, and Cromwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New England naming their children Oliver after Oliver Cromwell in the

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American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was a distant descendant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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American Revolution moving back TV English Civil War and the French

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

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

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nevertheless descendant IDs spreading around the globe from the

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

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

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

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

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and the Prime Minister will be

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