The Socialist 15 May 2019 |
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May 1649 - the Last Stand of the Levellers
A rubbing of the inscription made by Anthony Sedley before the execution of the leading Levellers (Click to enlarge)
In the latter part of the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, the hopes of those who wanted the war against the king and the great landowners to bring fundamental change for the mass of ordinary people were being dashed.
Some groups took direct action - such as the Diggers, who planted food on common land, and argued for common ownership, prefacing later developments of more concrete socialist ideas.
Rank and file soldiers, who had fought for the parlimentary 'Roundheads' against the King's armies, wanted an end to enclosures of previously common land, religious tolerance, an end to church taxes and for democratic rights such as extended suffrage. But the class nature of society was still reflected in the New Model Army.
As Geoff Jones introduction to the classic Dudley Edwards pamphlet 'The Last Stand of the Levellers'. explains: "While army leaders were doing very well out of the war, buying up land of defeated Royalists and raising rents, common soldiers who fought the battles weren't getting paid."
Burford Church, where the executions took place, photo by Dave S/CC (Click to enlarge)
This led to the mutiny of several regiments, who became known as the Levellers - not a term that all would have used to describe themselves, but more used "by country squires and London merchants" as a term of abuse.
The mutinies were defeated and their leaders were shot, imprisoned or exiled. The last mutiny, of two cavalry regiments based in Salisbury, set out on a march to Burford in Oxfordshire.
Cromwell's forces caught up with the 1,500 mutineers, engaged, captured 340 and imprisoned them in Burford Church, where one of the troopers carved his name on the font - 'ANTHONY SEDLEY 1649 PRISNER' - and it's still there today.
Cromwell executed three of the leaders on 17 May, and their names are commemorated on a plaque on the church wall, unveiled by the late Tony Benn.
The detail of the mutiny, it's defeat and lessons for the modern working class, as one of the episodes in our history of militant struggle against exploitation, are contained in Dudley's pamphlet.
The classic pamphlet was written 70 years ago to commemorate the 300th anniversary by Oxford engineering worker, Dudley Edwards, and can be viewed online at http://bit.ly/LastStandLevellers
The original inscription made on the font lead by Anthony Sedley before the execution of the leading Levellers, photo by Dave Nellist (Click to enlarge)