Somewhat later than than what I would have liked but here is my second look at the Radical History of East London's past.
This week we take a little peep at The English Revolution which usually is described for its constitutional struggles between the King and Parliament, but the truth is that it also fetched to the surface important economic class struggles and religious battles for freedom of worship, and from that arose new religious, political and social ideas.
Take the Levellers
As Parliament fought the King in the interests of the rising bourgeoisie and progressive landowners, new political programmes arose; but the basic argument of the Levellers was that no Parliament had no right to make laws to direct people’s behaviour unless all those people had a free say in choosing that Parliament.
The Levellers grew from the grassroots Parliamentary army and purtan activists like John Lilburne; and demanding a broader form of franchise and “arresting sovereignty as coming from the people not the King” (though still excluding most of the poor and of course all the women. D’oh!) and religious freedom. Their popularity meant for a while that army grandees like Cromwell had to work with them, but later Leveller leaders were jailed; and army supporters mutinied three times in 1647-1649, but were put down with summary (conducted without the customary legal formalities of the day) executions. The Levellers were eventually defeated by government repression.
Leveller ideas gained them support in poor areas like Spitalfields and Wapping. In Stepney in 1674, Katherine Chidley, writer, Leveller leader and woman preacher, (a novelty, almost a heresy) attacked local independant preachers for using old Anglican churches, saying they should move out from these corrupt buildings.
Levellers held mass meetings in East London; Well yard’, Wapping, in January 1648, leaders John Lilburne and John Wildman addressed a crowd: the next day they were nicked for ‘treasonable and seditious practices’. The militia was ordered to break up Leveller meetings in the City and Tower Hamlets.
Wapping was also the birthplace and home of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, an army radical and agitator, who was murdered by loyalists in 1648.
Just going to pause for a moment and look at what Paul Foot said about Rainsborough and the Levellers in his book The Vote: Rainsborough’s basic point was: “that no government is legitimate or can command the loyalty of the governed unless it has been freely elected by all the governed.” However Foot say’s: that the Levellers were not sure about universal male suffrage, he also informs the reader that the Levellers were not drawn from the ranks of the very poor. they were mainly the ‘middling sort of people’ who had a little property of their own. They stood up for the rights of the poor, and often belaboured the rich; but that was not the same thing as expropriating the rich says Foot.
Foot gives us an example that seems to have become repetitive down the years to the present day of leaders, that have had access to a relatively better upbringing than most in terms of education and a degree of wealth but fall far short of the mark because they also either own property or have a vested interest in part; in some of the status quo and existing state of affairs.
But lets not take away what the Levellers contributed; they ran underground printing presses, producing numerous radical pamphlets and manifestos. In March 1646 a Levellers press in a farmhouse in Goodman’s Fields (around Leman Street, Whitechapel) was raided by the the authorities; the printers escaped from an upstairs window, but lost the press. But another was soon up and running.
As for Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who was and as I have already said murdered by loyalists; his coffin was followed by 1000s to Wapping’s St Johns Church and then after the service anti-royalist rioting followed.
Then take the Ranters
Later in the 1640s, more extreme groups like the Diggers and the Ranters emerged, these groups taking the Levelling program from the political into the social and economic sphere. The Ranters best described as mystical anarchists, in the late 1640/early 50s. Many like the Levellers were ex-army; some were ex-Levellers disillusioned with its political activity. They held that God dwelt in all, religious perfection came from within and no saviour was needed to redeem men. Many went on to reject the idea of sin, law and property, claiming all acts were holy, and to question religion itself. Some inferred that drunkenness, promiscuity and swearing became not only not sinful but holy themselves.
Ranters were accused of every kind of debauched behaviour: to the ruling Puritans their ideas were heretical, their behaviour deeply immoral. Ranter writings were burned, many were arrested and forced to recant.
Ranters met in Whitechapel in 1650; possibly in Rood Lane where or near Ranter Lawrence Clarkson lodged at the time at one such meeting they were surprised and all arrested. William Rainsborough ( brother of the Leveller Colonel) and other Ranters also held meetings in Ilford; interestingly this was where John Saltmarsh lived, widely respected preacher to the New Model Army, a rebel against puritanism and influential Leveller sympathiser, had lived his last few months and died in 1647. His doctrine of ‘free grace’, that all would be forgiven their sins, foreshadowed many Ranter ideas.
Then take the Fifth Monarchists
Fifth Monarchists, another offshoot of the Revolutionary years, were active in Stepney, Mile End, Aldgate and Shoreditch. A strange mix of strict biblical adherence and insurrectionary violence, they believed there had been throughout history four great oppressive earthly Monarchies; the Fifth Monarchy would be the 1000-year reign of King Jesus. Some advocated Old Testament values, others denounced all man-made hierarchies and tried to bring in the Millennium by an armed uprising in 1657 (they had gathered on Mile End Fields, where they were arrested and their arms and manifestoes seized) and another in 1661, which was quickly defeated. Obstinate Fifth Monarchists were involved in plotting against King Charles for decades.