English Civil War Documents – The Radicals

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After Elizabeth I’s death, her predecessors inherited a kingdom stewing with the discontent of political, religious, and socio-economic factions all wanting a voice in the government. The following monarchs, however, were tyrannical and repressed their people instead of listening to their complaints. Englishmen continued to be taxed without the consent of Parliament, forced to quarter soldiers, and the king completely ignored the Great Charter of the Liberties of England.

While James I had tried to secure the favor of the landed nobility, his son alienated even the elite by extracting forced loans and imprisoning five knights who refused to pay. (5) Charles found that both the Royalists and Parliamentarians were preparing for civil war; the anti-monarch sentiment boiled over and the people, overlooking the divine right of kings, executed Charles I. The era of the English Civil War was one of radical change and political movement that would reshape British history and plant the seeds for future political and economic revolutions through the world.

Yet the country’s unity against Charles ended with the severing of the monarch’s head. After his execution, the country was still in turmoil over the rights of the different classes. The elite maintained that they were entitled to greater power in the country, because they had a greater invested interest in it. (4) They were usually more educated and thus could make more informed decisions for the rest of the country who wouldn’t understand the complex workings of the country.

Also, the landed nobility had more to lose or gain that the poor. In their eyes, to give their power to the lowly masses would be ruinous, because experience had not taught them enough to responsibly act for the good of the whole. They thought that it was their duty to look after the best interests of the lower classes living on their land and working for them by voting for them. (4) In 1649, a group of radicals called the “Levellers” wrote a Leveller Constitution: The Agreement of the Free People of England.

Their main argument was, “The people’s sovereign rights were only loaned to Parliament, which should be elected on a wide popular franchise. ” (1) This middle caste had the same basic ideas as the elite: that the destitute, wage laborers, servants, and women should not vote themselves, but rely upon their superiors, who should have their best interests at heart. However, they wanted an extended vote. These men were usually apprentices, artisans, shopkeepers, or soldiers; individuals in society but not wealthy or landowners.

They felt that they had a significant invested interest in the country both as workers who owned businesses and would be affected by economic changes, and as soldiers who had just fought in the civil war. (4) While the rich men started the fighting and reaped the benefits of Charles’ elimination, the common soldiers who took the greatest risk and paid the most were given nothing for carrying out the war. The Levellers were in an awkward situation, balanced between the elite and the destitute, and were attacked on all sides.

The nobles resented the fact that upstart peasantry considered themselves politically equal, even though they were economically inferior. The destitute resented the fact that although the Levellers claimed that “the relation of Master and Servant has no ground,” (1) they were disinclined to include them in their struggle for equality. After fighting with Oliver Cromwell and the Independents against King Charles, they found themselves attacked by him because of their threat to his power, and by the 1650’s they were suppressed.

Although the Leveller’s purpose was not to create a political democracy, they initiated the beginnings of a sketchy constitutional monarchy. And though Cromwell eventually suppressed the Levellers, their socialist movement would inspire men a century later in both the French and American revolutions. (1) Unlike the Levellers, whose goals were for political equality, an even more radical group called the “Diggers” or “True Levellers” believed that political and economic reforms were inseparable. These people practiced an early form of Communism.

They were the most extreme faction, and the most sympathetic to the women’s rights movement. (1) They were also the smallest faction, of only fifty people at most. Their arguments for economic and political equality were mostly based in the scripture, declaring a future American sentiment of all men being created equally under God and in His image. (3) The Diggers lived their dream for equality by assuming residence on St. George’s Hill in Surry, cultivating the land, and sharing amongst themselves.

They were for the dissolving of the nobles’ estates for distribution amongst all Englishmen to use, because they believed that no one could truly own the land. (3) However, they being of the lower class, and mostly uneducated, could not see that this would be disastrous for the overall stability of the country. For example, if everyone was given and equal portion of the land, they couldn’t cultivate and farm those little pieces of land to produce a decent sized harvest.

If people decided to combine their land and work together, eventually the hierarchy would develop again, because communism is too idealistic to work in actuality. The Digger community was greatly offensive and the army was sent to crush them a year after they had taken residence upon St. George’s Hill. However, the idea of communism is universal to most cultures, and experiments with it have been attempted even into modern times.

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