A Battle of Writs: The Role of Leveller Propaganda during the English Civil War

 

In today’s society discontent, disenfranchisement and disaffection with contemporary politics has become an increasingly popular attitude of the political discourse. Growing disengagement, dissatisfaction and political idleness has plagued the interest, popularity and attraction of politics. Committed mass political activism continues to become increasingly ignored as it diminishes as a respected method of social change. Decaying political party memberships has seen political activism soften to a click of a computer mouse or a forwarding of an email. This attitude towards politics has transpired into the electoral system. Decreases in voter participation and concerns over the notion of one vote one value, a keystone of representative government, has led to many taking their right to vote and exercise democracy for granted.

 

 

However, over 350 years ago during the mid seventeenth century the push for political engagement and political change was ardently pursued. Amongst the social upheaval and chaos of the English Civil War, political activism was rife. Campaigns were led by many different social groups that attempted to engage and corral the political support of the English people. Most notably, the Leveller movement was a prominent organisation that was continually active in calling for political reform. They pushed for a fairer and equitable political system. Led by John Lilburne, William Walwyn and Richard Overton, the Levellers released a series of relentless propaganda campaigns that outlined the political motives and goals. The three were ardent political activists and rampant propagandists. From 1638, Lilburne compiled a number of minor pamphlets signaling the beginning of his unrelenting and persuasive propaganda schemes. Some of these pamphlets include A Christian mans Triall, A worke of the beast and A poore mans cry. The following year, Lilburne released A Cry for Justice. From the sensitive and dramatic titles of these pamphlets, Lilburne’s beliefs, ego and his own moral duty to engage in this type of discourse is overtly obvious. Leveller Historian Joseph Frank on Lilburne states that… “Lilburne, in short, has also developed in his writing the knack which he first displayed on the pillory of consciously dramatizing himself as the focal point of a broader issue.”

 

 

Walwyn had previously maintained a stable and family oriented career before his involvement with the Levellers. Walwyn’s outlook on political activism made him a key companion to Lilburne. There like-mindedness on politics saw them become influential and valuable assets, along with Richard Overton, to the viability and success of the Leveller cause. Frank states that… “For the Leveller movement to be more than a series of hopeful visions and sporadic efforts, Walwyn needed both Lilburne and Overton in order for his ideals to achieve a greater degree of historical reality.”

 

 

Richard Overton, the final member of the Leveller leadership group also shared similar attitudes to that of Lilburne and Walwyn. He was influential to the leveler propaganda campaigns of the English Civil War. Overton had previously published pamphlets that had reinforced similar views to that of Lilburne and Walwyn on political reform.  He was a rampant printer of pamphlets. Historian David Adams in “The Secret Publishing Career of Richard Overton the Leveller, 1644 – 1646,” (2010), claimed that Overton’s pre-Leveller printing behaviour consisted of “secret printing operations” that “had issued a stream of tracts striking both for their style and their radical political content” and that these pamphlets “demanded a crackdown on parliamentary corruption and far-reaching reforms in church and state.”

 

 

In 1647, the Levellers published perhaps, their most notable doctrine. The First Agreement of the People became a defining piece of work for the Leveller organization. Eliot Vernon and Philip Baker note that the pamphlet highlighted an “alternative settlement for the nation and one that represented a fundamental challenge to existing constitutional arrangements.” It presented political ideas that the Levellers had tirelessly campaigned for throughout the latter half of the 1640s. The pamphlet “consisted of a list of ‘reserved powers’ which the people retained to themselves: freedom of conscience in matters of religion; freedom from impressment; legal equality before the law; and indemnity for anything said or done during the Civil War.”[1]  The groundbreaking document echoed previous calls for political mechanisms that perhaps are today taken for granted today. this included “the election of their representatives in parliament “ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of the inhabitants: the circumstances whereof, for number, place, and manner, are to be set down before the end of this parliament” and that “the people do of course choose themselves a parliament once in two years.” This piece of propaganda became a hopeful blueprint for widespread political reform in England after the schisms caused by the English Civil War. It was circulated throughout England in the hope of stimulating people into political action. The Levellers were fixated on increasing political participation. By appealing directly to the masses through propaganda, the Levellers had promised to empower the English people with political rights that in today’s world may appear to be underappreciated.

 


 

 

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One comment on “A Battle of Writs: The Role of Leveller Propaganda during the English Civil War

  1. bmccrum says:

    This is a really interesting topic. Politics is always at the forefront of news and media, and your argument about contemporary political activism grabbed my attention. The concept of looking back at the impacts of a campaign to increase political interest juxtaposed against the waning interest of today which is definitely taken for granted by many people leads to a really good point, and leads to solid argument. Great read!

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