Laud, Liberty, and Levellers
Martyrdom of Archbishop Laud


On Calvinist "Liberty"

from Conrad Noel's Socialism in Church History, 1910.

Calvinism was making headway within the [Church of England], and became . . . an absolute Puritanism, developing its original doctrines in a more inhumane direction than had been the case in Germany. For instance, Calvin himself had been as free from Sabbatarian views as Luther, who boldly pronounced that if anyone wished to curtail a Christian man's liberty in the matter of the Sunday, then he would order them to dance on it, sing on it, ride on it, feast on it, to do anything to maintain the ancient liberty. This Puritanism was eagerly espoused by the land-stealing class, who urged on the Nonconformists against the bishops. The plutocrats often kept Nonconformist chaplains in their houses, compelling their tenants to attend their meetings and abstain from communion with the mixed assembly in their parish churches. These rich men were always preaching the benefits of holy poverty to the clergy. Archbishop Bancroft explains this to the people at Paul's Cross: 'They do greatly urge upon the ministry the apostolic poverty to the intent that they may obtain the prey . . . I doubt not it is manifest to you that covetousness hath thrust them into this schism.'

The monks at their worst had been better than their plutocratic successors. So says Prebendary Thomas Lever at Paul's Cross, and tells the people they are stark blind not to see it. Lever tells the king and the court that the miseries of the people are due to the robberies of the nobles, who have turned them from their holdings; 'so now old fathers, poor widows, and young lie begging in the mirey streets.'

For the time, the rising tide of Puritanism is stemmed by William Laud, the martyr archbishop, who in season and out of season preached the doctrine of equality before the law, against the Puritan theory of immunity in the case of courtiers and gentlemen. Heylin seems to have thought that his life might have been spared, if he had only been as willing as were the Nonconformists that the rich should fill themselves with good things, while the poor were sent empty away.

The Puritan lecturers and private chaplains of the plutocrats twitted the archbishop with the meanness of his birth. The Puritan Baxter sneers at Laud and has suffragans as upstarts who had sprung from the dregs of the people. These upstarts enraged the landlords by administering to the churchwardens of every parish in the dioceses the following oath: 'Swear that, all affection, favour, hatred, hope of reward, gain, displeasure of great men, malice, or other sinister respect set aside, you shall deal uprightly, truly, and justly, presenting all the truth and nothing but the truth, without partiality, having God before your eyes . . . Hath any neighboring great man encroached upon any part of the churchyard, enclosing it as his garden, etc.? Present him or them so transgressing . . . Is any maintenance given to free and public schools detained or inverted? By whom is it practised?' No wonder the Puritans complained: 'Many nobles and worthy gentlemen are curbed and tyrannised over by some base clergyman of mean parentage.' The archbishop compelled the worthy gentlemen to disgorge part of the plunder.

We have heard of the tyrannies of the High Commission Court. He had powerful landlords brought into that court for seizing almshouses, common lands, the endowments of free schools, portions of the common churchyards, and for 'walling up the ancient ways.' His enemy Fiennes charged him with being the foe 'of property and Puritanism.' Laud stood for the people of England. Cromwell stood for the people of God in England. 'Nothing angered Laud so much as the claim of a great man to escape a penalty which would fall on others. Nothing brought him into such disfavour with the great as his refusal to admit that the punishment which had raised no outcry when it was meted out to the weak and helpless should be spared in the case of he powerful and wealthy offender.'

When the people of Lancashire complained to the king that the Nonconformists were laying upon their shoulders burdens too heavy to be borne, to curtailing their ancient right of enjoyment on Sundays and holy days, it was by Archbishop Laud's orders that the English clergy were compelled to read that most Christian of documents from every pulpit, which proclaimed to the people their liberty of games and dancing on what the old Christian Fathers called the Day of the Sun. (The title Nonconformist is here used in its historic sense as meaning one who remains in the Church of England while refusing to conform to the Catholic faith.) The action the archbishop took in the matter seems to infuriate our Protestant historians almost as much as his opposition to plutocracy. They leave no stone unturned to blacken his character and to describe as martyrs the favorite preachers of the plutocrats, who were using the pulpits of the Christian Church to disseminate their anti-Christian theories of the Sabbath and of private property.

These champions of liberty, expelled from their cures for refusal to conform to the Christian doctrine, carry with them their gospel of freedom beyond the seas, and establish free Protestant States in whose constitution the private property rights of rich men are fully acknowledged, and their right in slaves is proclaimed to be a precept of the Gospel.

Bloody Cromwell When the Puritan Party gets the upper hand in England, it demonstrates its love of liberty by boring the saintly John Naylor's tongue through with a red-hot iron, for daring to be a Quaker; abolishes the festivals of the English people, Christmas, Easter, and the like; makes Sunday recreation penal, and generally establishes that type of religion which has led a revolted country into something not very far from atheism. Meanwhile the Pilgrim Fathers in their newly formed colonies were passing laws which punished with flogging any man who should kiss his wife on Sunday, and which reserved the death penalty for those who walked too far or played games on Sunday afternoon. . .

The tendency of the Puritan age was to substitute sermons for the Catechism. There was no document in the Church of England that the innovators hated half so much, for it must be remembered that the Protestant Catechisms start with the assumption that only an elect few can be saved out of the vileness of common life, while the English Catechism starts with the assumption that all christened people are members of the one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. This could not but shock the Puritans who held that God had created most of them for damnation. They could not believe that God had cleansed the common folk; therefore they fought against 'the common creed, the common law, the common prayer, and the common sacraments of Christianity.' All these things were to them common and unclean.

One of the complaints of Laud's adversary Henry Burton against the Common Prayer was, 'it cut short sermons.' The worship that is social strikes at the individualism of the man in the pulpit; it is an apostolical reminder to him not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. The pulpit, the symbol of individualism, was the idol which they set up in place of the Eucharist, the symbol of social unity and community. It was held part of the right relation of Church and State both amongst the Noncomformists and Separatists that the civil magistrate ought to compel the 'mixed multitude,' as they called the one body in Christ, to 'hear' their sermons and lectures. . .
Since the days of the Commonwealth, Christ's poor have been ground between the upper and nether millstone of the landed aristocracy and the monied plutocracy. The Restoration under Charles II calls forth no such sturdy champions as Archbishop Laud, and not long after, the Puritanism which had triumphed outside the Church wins a more lasting victory by capturing its pulpits and its wealthy congregations.


Of Laud and Levellers

from Joseph Needham's "Laud, the Levellers, and the Virtuosi". In Christianity and the Social Revolution, London, 1935.


In Seventeenth-Century England, we have the fascinating picture of a balance trembling on a poise of equal weights -- Western religion having lost little of its ancient power, Western science having gained its first magnificent victories. Even within religion there was a moment of equal poise between the antagonists, before the medieval tradition, in the form of the Church of England, ceded the power to the Protestant and Puritan bodies. This contrast, like the former, was perhaps but an aspect of what was a more deep-seated one, namely, the passing of power from the feudal aristocracy and monastic system to the middle or bourgeois class arising out of the medieval town merchants. The civil war and the Commonwealth were the outward and visible signs of the victory of the new order. The abolition of the laws against usury; the "freeing" of trade from galling restrictions; the beginning of large-scaled industrial "ventures"; the great advances in technology backed by science; the complete removal, in a word, of mercantgile and economic life from theological control -- all signified the triumph of the middle class.


Of all the ages of the Church's history after the first two centuries there are few which can compare in brightness with the Church of England in the seventeenth century. Poets like George Herbert, Richard Cranshaw, Henry Vaughan, and, we might add, Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor; saints like Nicholas Ferrar and Thomas Ken; careful restorers of what was destroyed, like John Hacket, John Cosin, and Matthew Wren; scholars like the Cambridge Platonists and Lancelot Andrewes; statesmen like Laud -- all combined to give the period a charm and depth which can never be forgotten by those who have studied it. But while we usually think of these men in connection with their importance in the history of theology or philosophy, or with regard to the literary beauty, we forget that there was a significant economic aspect to their existence. This may be summarized by saying that they were the representatives of the old conceptions of social justice in economic affairs, and were opposed to the new aims of capitalist freedom in commerce.

Archbishop LaudWilliam Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, usually appears in history as the instrument of monarchical oppression, and not as the champion of popular agrarian rights. Yet there is no doubt that among the economic causes of the civil war and of Laud's own fall was the opposition which he aroused among land-owners by his agrarian policy. The problem of enclosures was by no means new in English economic life in the days of the Stuarts; it runs, indeed, like a continuing thread through all the economic life of the country from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Pasture was more of a business proposition than tillage; it was capitalist in its methods, and offered a better chance of big profits. Thus the social obligations of the feudal land-owner were forgotten; the peasant became a landless and insecure wage-worker, and the land came be looked upon solely as a source of profit.

To whom were the peasants to turn for redress? Not to the justices of the peace, for these were of the land-owning class; not to Parliament, where the same interests reigned. They most commonly appealed to the King's Ministers, the Privy Council, and the Church. Laud strove by every means in his power to prevent such enclosures as depopulated the countryside, and, by heading the Commission of Depopulation, infuriated the capitalistic land-owners whose interests were aligning themselves with the industrial capitalists of the towns. Laud had no respect for persons, and would allow no man, however powerful, to transgress the common law of Christ, binding upon man as man. Peter Heylyn, his chaplain and biographer, seems to have thought that Laud could have kept his place and saved his life if he had paid adulation to the great enclosers, but "he failed in so many necessary civilities to the nobility and gentry" that it was clear he was their enemy and the peasants' friend. His visitation articles, in particular, questioned the churchwardens closely concerning enclosures, detentions, inversions, and so on. To put such questions to common men -- as a writer complained a few months before Laud's death, when the Archbishop was safely in the Tower -- was a "vassaldrie to the gentry of England," who, from the time of the Tudors, had been impropriating wholesale the common property of the people in their common Church, their common lands, and their common free schools. "Many noble and worthy gentlemen," said the complainant, "are curbed and tyrannised over by some base clergy of mean parentage." As Clarendon says, "The shame, which they called an insolent triumph over their degree and quality, and a levelling them with the common people, was never forgotten, and they watched for revenge".

A final instance: from among his injunctions to the Dean and Chapter of Chichester -- "Use some means with Mr. Peter Cox [a land-grabbing alderman of that city] that the piece of ground called Campus now in his possession be laid open again, that the scholars may have liberty to play there, as formerly they had. An if he shall refuse, give us notice, or our vicar-general, upon what reason and ground he does it."

But if some bishops were fighting on the agrarian front, others were leading the struggle against usury. Lancelot Andrewes, the admirable diocesan of Winchester, preached incessantly against it. He made short work of the settlement of 1571, which had legalised the taking of 10 per cent. Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, and George Downam ("the hammer of usurers"), Bishop of Derry, were all prominent in this work. But the merchants persisted ever that "it is not in simple divines to saye what contract is lawfull, and what is not."

In the end these controversies were not settled except by force of arms. In the civil war, the industrial and commercial cities were on the parliamentary side; the agricultural parts of the country, except the Eastern Counties, where puritanism was so strongly entrenched, we royalist. It was no coincidence that the chaplains of the volunteer regiments of London were Presbyterian, as opposed to the Anglican influence on the other side. The golden age of seventeenth-century Anglicanism stood, in fact, on its economic side, for a scarcely altered version of medieval collectivism. The bishops were "medieval clerks," determined to control the market-place. The victories of Cromwell opened the door for the era of capitalist enterprise, and, when the Church of England regained its possessions at the Restoration, it was at the price of most of its militant spirit. In 1692, when one David Jones was so indiscreet as to preach at St. Mary Woolnoth, in Lombard Street, a sermon against usury, his career in London was brought to an abrupt conclusion.


Let us now cross over to the other side in the civil war in order to trace another movement of great interest -- that of the Levellers. If we regard, as we must, the civil war as England's "bourgeois revolution," we should expect to find a certain number of true Socialists on the left wing of the revolutionary party -- men who would not be content with the political equality which the Cromwellian system would give, but would demand economic equality as well. This is indeed exactly what happened, and from 1684 onwards the parliamentary side was split into two portions, the main body quite satisfied with the defeat of everything that the royalist and Anglican forces had stood for, and a smaller body desirous of pushing on towards what we would now call a socialist State. The fortunes of the smaller portion, the Levellers, varied considerably; at one time they were sufficiently strong to take the field against Cromwell's own forces in a short campaign which receives little or no mention in orthodox history books, while towards the end of the Commonwealth they were mostly in exile, reduced to plottllig in company with the exiled royalists.

They first appear about the year 1646, at which time the victorious army was dividing into the two sections above mentioned, the "gentlemen-independents" or "Grandees" being opposed to the "honest substantive soldiers" and their elected "Agitators" or leaders. In the following year there appeared one of the numerous pamphlets of the time, The Agreement of the People, in which a programme of reforms "to take away all known and burdensome grievances: was set forth. One of the authors was the indefatigable Lieut.-Col. John Lilburne ("freedom John"). At this time, the Levellers numbered among them many interesting and important pioneers, such as Richard Overton and William Walwyn, from whose writings it is impossible not to quote: "the world will never be well till all things be in common." It would not by any means be "such difficulty as men make it to be to alter the course of the world in this thing; a very few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down if they observe the seasons and shall with life and courage engage accordingly." To the objection that this would upset all and every Government, he answered that "there would then be less need of government, for then there would be no thieves, no covetous persons, no deceiving and abuse of one another, and so no need of government. If any difference do fall out, take a cobbler from his seat, or any other tradesman that is an honest and just man, and let him hear the case and determine the same, and then betake hyimself to his work again." There is a remarkably modern ring to these sentiments. They form a contrast indeed to the attitude of Cromwell, who was always protesting that he was a "gentleman born."

Perhaps the most remarkable pamphlet of the Levellers was The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which laid down what "honest people desire: -- (1) a just portion for each man to live by, so that none need to beg or steal for want, but everyone may live comfortable; (2) a just rule for each man to go by, which rule is to be found in Scripture"; (3) equal rights; (4) government judges elected by all the people; (5) a commonwealth "after the pattern of the Bible." Here the land was expressly stated to be the property of the whole people, and, as we should say, its "nationalisation" asked for.

DiggerIn April 1649, while Lilburne and other Levellers were confined in the Tower, there suddenly appeared at Cobham in Surrey a number of men, armed with spades, who commenced to dig up uncultivated land at the side of St. George's Hill, with the intention of growing corn and other produce. They proposed to prove "it was an indeniable equity that the common people ought to dig, plow, plant, and dwell on the commons without hiring them or paying rent to any." A fortnight later they were arrested by two troops of horse, sent down by Cromwell, and their leaders, William Everard and Gerrard Winstanley, brought before him. The examination showed that these "true Levellers," as they called themselves, were in reality trying to found what we should now call a "collective farm." and their conviction was that, when men began to see the success of their venture, they would join it, and so establish in course of time a widespread co-operative system. The beginning was to be on common-land, for which they asked no permission, since from of old it had been the common property of the English people.

Of course, these beginnings were not allowed to proceed and the "true Levellers" gradually joined other later movements, such as the Quakers, which were not (or not so strongly) persecuted. Winstanley produced a pamphlet, however (The Law of Freedom on a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored, 1651), which unfolded the real principles of the agitation without any concealment, and propounded a complete social system based on Communist principles. Particularly interesting here is his treatment of social prestige in a classless society: "As a man goes through offices he rises to title of Honour, till he comes to the highest Nobility, to be a faithful commonwealth man in a Parliament House. Likewise he who finds out any secret in Nature, shall have a title of Honour given him, though he be a young man. But no man shall have any title of Honour till he win it by industry or come to it by age or office-bearing. Every man this is above 60 years of age shall have respect as a man of Honour by all others that are younger, as is shewed hereafter."

Winstanley is irresistible. Here is one of his most arresting passages from A New Year's Gift for the Parliament and the Army, 1654: "At this very day poor people are forced to work for 4d. a day, and corn is dear. And the tithing-priest stops their mouth, and tells them that 'inward satisfaction of mind' was meant by the declaration, 'The poor shall inherit the earth.' I tell you, the scripture is to be really and materially fulfilled. You jeer at the name 'Leveller'; I tell you, Jesus Christ is the head Leveller." Or take this example from another of his writings: "This Divining Doctrine, which you call 'spiritual and heavenly things' is the thief and robber that comes to spoil the vineyard of a man's peace, and does not enter at the door, but climbs up another way. They who preach this divining doctrine are the murderers of many a poor heart, who is bashful and simple, and cannot speak for himself, but keeps his thoughts to himself. This divining spiritual doctrine is a cheat; for while men are gazing up to heaven, imagining happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, and they see not what is their birthright, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living. This is the filthy dramer and the cloud without rain. And indeed the subtle clergy do know that if they can but charm the people by their divining doctrine to look after heavenly riches and glory after they are dead, then they shall easily be the inheritors of the earth, and have the deceived people to be their servants."

The Levellers' crisis came in 1649. In January the King was executed, in February the Council of State deliberated measures for the suppression of "disturbers of peace" in the army. Soldiers who attempted to incite the army to mutiny were hanged. Lilburne immediately published a pamphlet, England's New Chains Discover'd, against the Council of State. In March, the army itself, stationed at Newmarket, protested, in a "Letter to General Fairfax and his officers," signed by eight soldiers, who demanded acceptance of the Levellers' "Agreement," and who were a few days later, after a short trial, expelled from the army. Twenty days later, the army Levellers published a pamphlet with perhaps the most remarkable title of all, The Hunting of the Foxes from Newmarket and Thriplow Heath to Whitehall by five small beagles late of the Armie; or, the Grandee Deceivers Unmasked. The "foxes," of course, were Cromwell, Ireton, and the rest; and their ambitious subterfuges were here exposed. A few days later there was a mutiny in London in Colonel Whalley's cavalry regiment, and, though quickly suppressed, it gave rise to a unique manifestation of popular feeling at the funeral of one of the Levellers, Robert Lockyer. I quote the account from Whitelocke's Memorials:

Apr. 29th, 1649.

Mr. Lockier a trooper who was shot to death by Sentence of the Court Martial, was buried in this manner.

About one thousand went before the Corps, and five or six in a File, the Corps then brought, with six Trumpets sounding a Soldier's Knell, then the Troopers house came clothed all over in mourning and led by a foot man.

The Corps was adorned with Bundles of Rosemary, one half stained in Blood, and the Sword of the deceased with them.

Some thousands followed in Ranks and Files, all had Sea-green and black Ribbon tied on their Hats (the Levellers colours), and the women brought up the rear.

At the new Church-Yard in Westminster some thousands of the better sort met them, who thought it not fit to march through the City. Many looked on this funeral as an affront to the Parliament and the Army; others called them Levellers; but they took no notice of any of them.

Ten days afterward the struggle began in earnest. New came that the troops at Banbury, Wantage, Salisbury, etc., had cast off allegiance to Cromwell, and were preparing to enforce the Levellers' principles. After a good deal of marching and counter-marching by the Levellers and the Cromwellians, the former were surprised at Burford in Oxfordshire, and a fight in the streets of that town ended the chances of a second revolution. Early in June the great merchants of the City of London, who had often enough execrated Cromwell, and held tight the purse-strings in the face of the financial requirements of the parliamentary army, celebrated the overthrow of the Leveller by a splendid banquet given at Grocers' Hall in honour of Cromwell and Fairfax, the saviours of sacred property.

Joseph Needham, who died in 1995 at the age of 94, has been described as "the last Renaissance man". Eminent biochemist, historian of science, China scholar, red-hot Marxist, Morris Dancer, "honorary Taoist", and Anglo-Catholic, he was a friend of Conrad Noel's and long associated with Thaxted Parish Church. His was a generous catholic spirit, which allowed him to see the common ground between radical dissent and conservative Anglican divines, and to claim both as important parts of his heritage. -- Ted M.


Gathering Together the Outcasts

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus ecce minaciter, imminet arbiter, ille supremus.

The times are very evil, the judge is at the gate; it is the duty of the Christian to join his forces with all who are seeking to bring in the new world order, the Kingdom on earth, regnum dei . . .

This change is hardly more likely to be achieved without tumult and civil commotion that it was likely that the middle class could peacefully overthrow the paternal-feudal system existing in 1600. But the harshness of the days that lie before us is somewhat mitigated for the reflective mind by a clear picture of the course that history has taken. These troubles did not begin in our time; others before us have perished that the Kingdom might come . . .

In the Preces Private of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester in 1618, there are the following words, where he prays in the manner of the orthodox litanies for the people of England, that they may be "subject unto rule, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake; to husbandmen and graziers, good seasons; to the fleet and the fishermen, fair weather; to merchants, to work lawfully at their occupations; to tradesmen, not to over-reach one another." And in another place, where he is rehearsing the atributes of God, he writes, under the heading "Munificent": "Opening the eyes of the blind, clothing the naked, upholding such as fall, gathering together the outcasts, giving food to the hungry, bringing down the haughty, delivering the captives, loosing the prisoners, lifting up those that are down, healing the sick, quickening the dead, lifting up the lowly, helping in time of trouble." Does not this catalogue of the divine actions curiously resemble the communist programme? In Lancelot Andrewes we link up the theocratic collectivism of the past with the proletarian socialism of the future.

-- Joseph Needham (1935)


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