The Art of the Levellers

In the course of putting together a multi-volume collection of over 300 Leveller Tracts I came across some very interesting title pages which used typography and occasionally woodcuts to add graphical force to the political and economic arguments being made by the authors. The pamphlets were published in their thousands during the 1640s and 1650s – the London bookseller George Thomason collected 23,000 of them over a period of twenty years and these comprise a major collection which is held by the British Library.

See The Art of the Levellers

One of my favourites is this one depicting John Lillburne in prison. I think of it as a 17th century attempt at “photoshopping” an image – here the prison bars have been added over an image of him dressed in quite formal clothes.

“The Liberty of the Freeborne English-Man, Conferred on him by the house of lords. June 1646.“ The medallion is surrounded by the words “John lilburne. At the age of 23. The Year 1641.” Made by G. Glo.

Beneath is a poem which states:

Gaze not upon this shaddow that is vaine,
But rather raise thy thoughts a higher straine,
To GOD (I meane) who set this young man free,
And in like straits, can eke (also) deliver thee.
Yea though the lords have him in bonds againe
LORD of lords will his just cause maintaine.

The tracts were published by dissidents who did not have much money to publish expensively produced material and so they were printed on cheap paper (which deteriorated quickly and made microfilming later very difficult), using printers who were often sloppy in their typesetting (which only added to the problems for the modern reader of anarchic 17th century spelling and punctuation), and any illustrations they used had to be cheaply done as well.

I have put online a sample of some of the main kinds of illustrations and decorations used in the pamphlet literature of the 1640s, such as the use of decorative borders, large fonts for emphasis, the sculpting of the type into interesting shapes, and the use of crude illustrations and even cartoons of key figures.

For example, some of my favourites include the following:

Anon., A Dialogue betwixt a Horse of Warre, and a Mill-Horse; Wherein the content and safety of an humble and painfull life, is preferred above all the Noyse, the Tumults, and Trophies of the Warre. Full of harmelesse Mirth, and variety. (2 January, 1644).

This is one of the more charming pamphlets in the collection. The title page shows a woodcut of two horses, one a large and aggressive looking “horse of war” (no doubt used by soldiers in both the King’s and the Parliament’s armies), and a smaller work horse which was used to turn a mill wheel to grind flour. In the pamphlet the two horses have a conversation about the merits of the work they have to do and in classic fashion the argument is made that the work of the war horse is destructive of both life and property, while the work of the mill horse is productive economic activity which benefits ordinary people. The typesetter has used a very different font for the dialog of each horse throughout the pamphlet (which actually makes it quite hard to read). Note also the war horse on the left is in a dominant position in the picture (higher and larger, with its head held high) while the work horse on the right is lower with its head slightly bowed.

Another is John Taylor, The World turned upside down: OR, A briefe description of the ridiculous Fashions of these distracted Times. By T. I. a well-willer to King, Parliament and Kingdom. (28 January, 1647).

For some people the civil wars, revolution, and then execution of King Charles, turned the world up-side down. Here we have a depiction of what an “up-side down world” might look like. There are churches in the sky, fish flying in the sky, rabbits and rats chasing cats, a man pushed by a wheel barrow and a cart by a horse. In the center there is a man standing on his hands, waving his legs like hands, and his head coming out of his groin. This is the physical equivalent of what the Leveller movement wanted to do politically to England.

Richard Overton wrote a series of pamphlets taking on the voice of “Martin Mar-Priest” , “mar” meaning scarred or disfigured, at least in the eyes of the intolerant Presbyterians whom Overton was attacking. This one is called:

[Overton or Lilburne], A Reall Persecution or, The Foundation of a general Toleration, Displaied and Portrayed by a proper Emblem, and adorned with the same Flowers wherewith the Scoffers of this last age have strowed their Libellous Pamphlets. Collected out of several books of the Sectaries to discover to world their wicked and abusive language against godly Presbyterian Ministers. (13 February, 1647).

It is in the form of a broad-sheet which contains this amusing illustration:

Title:”The Picture of an English Persecutor or, a Foole Ridden-slave) : Presbeterian Sectary”
The Rider’s Speech Bubble: I should ??
The Ridden’s Speech Bubble: My cursed speeches against Presbetry declares unto the world my foolery.
Page in Book: Martin’s Eccho ?? ?? Martin ?? Mar- Preist

Caption below cartoon: For opposing Authority, Reviling the Assembly, Slandering the Governmnet by Presbytry and disturbing the ministers at the time of their publique exersis by giveing up bills in mockery calling the ministers preistsrideing slaves, horse leeches Cormorants gorbellyd Idoll consistory of devills etc : hath not this discoverd Ishmaels carnell Spirits persecuting godly Isaaks.

This pamphlet is in the form of a broad-sheet which lists the supposed crimes committed and the criticisms made by the opponents of tithes. The sheet includes an illustration of a tithe-paying “slave” being ridden by a Presbyterian who is mockingly described as “holy humble gentle”. The person being ridden has the ears of a donkey and is possibly Martin Mar-Priest or one of his supporters as he has in his hands Overton’s pamphlet “Martin’s Eccho”. His speech bubble contains the words “My cursed speeches against Presbetry declares unto the world my foolery”. The Presbyterian seems to be wearing a fool’s cap (so he is the fool not the person being ridden) and the words in his speech bubble are unfortunately illegible.

Interestingly Overton compares the Ordinance giving only state sanctioned priests the right to run churches and provide religious services to the monopoly given to some politically well-connected individuals to produce soap: “59. The Ordinance permitting none to Preach but such as are Ordained, is a Patten of the Spirit worse then the Monopoly of Soap.” In another phrase he tellingly describes the state-privileged religion of the Presbyterians as “56. Their Religion moves upon the wheel of the State”, who expect the people to willingly submit to being ridden by “a Tithe divouring Priest” and (1.) “stand still gaping with your mouths open, and quietly bow down your backs whilst you are bridled and sadled, and let the holy humble gentle Presbyterians get up and ride” all the way “to the Devil” (2.).

Richard Overton on Tyrants

About Richard Overton

Richard Overton (c. 1599–1664) is one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Levellers during the English Revolution. Little is known about his early life although he probably graduated from Queens College, Cambridge and worked as an actor before becoming involved in political pamphleteering at which he excelled. He wrote dozens of pamphlets in the early 1640s in which he attacked Catholicism and the Anglican establishment. He may have been imprisoned for debt in 1642 which kept him silent for a while but he returned to the fray with a popular tract “Mans Mortalitie” (1643) in which he argued that man’s soul died with him and was not resurrected until Judgement Day. Overton became close friends with William Walwyn and John Lilburne who co-authored many tracts with him.

Gradually his concerns moved from the religious to more political and philosophical matters as he developed more general theories about the equality of all men under the law, the need for Parliament to represent the interests of all citizens, the need to replace the Monarch with a republican form of government, and opposition to the system of class and political privilege which governed the British state. In addition to many individual pamphlets he also wrote editorials for the Leveller weekly journal The Moderate.

As a leader of the Leveller movement he was often singled out and imprisoned in Newgate and The Tower between 1846-47 from which he continued to write and protest, most notable of these is his “An Arrow against all Tyrants and Tyrany” (Oct. 1646) written or “fired” (as he put it) from the Newgate prison; and then again in 1649. After Cromwell crushed the Leveller movement in 1649 Overton sought exile in Holland and little is known about his activities after that date.

“An Arrow against all Tyrants and Tyrany” is his best known pamphlet and it shows both Overton’s satirical and hard-hitting style of writing and the radicalism of his ideas. It begins with a typical long title which neatly summarizes his arguments, contains a mocking and irreverent place of publication in order to deceive the censors, and supporting documents to bolster his case for appeal. It then has an eloquent defence of the idea of the natural rights to liberty and property which all men have, regardless of their station in life, and is followed by two specific grievances against the growing encroachments on liberty by the House of Lords and the Presbyterian clergy, before closing with some veiled threats against what might happen to “England’s Bloody Parliament” if these grievances are not remedied.

About “An Arrow against all Tyrants and Tyrany”

See the whole pamphlet.

As he says, Richard Overton fired this arrow “against all tyrants” while he was in Newgate prison in October 1646. He was imprisoned there for lengthy periods between August 1646 and September 1647; and then again in the Tower of London with the other Levellers John Lilburne, William Walwyn, and Thomas Prince during the crackdown on the movement by Cromwell between March and November 1649. In spite of this he was able to write about 40 pamphlets in which he expressed some of the most radical and consistent political views of the Leveller movement. His ideas were strongly democratic (urging the right to vote of ordinary working men) and republican (thus breaking with the more moderate Parliamentarians who wanted to create a constitutional monarchy) and were based upon the following ideas.

He believed that under natural law all men were equal, that there existed a social contract which was the only legitimate foundation of society, that the traditional liberties of Englishmen had been crushed by the invading Normans who placed them under a “yoke” of tyranny, but that successive agreements made with the monarchs who followed (such as Magna Carta) had created a system of “fundamental laws” guaranteeing individual liberty which all monarchs and parliaments were obliged to uphold and defend, that ultimately the people were the sovereign power (not the King) and all representatives of the people were accountable to them.

In this justly famous pamphlet Overton begins by providing a clear and passionate defence of the idea of “self-ownership” (or “self propriety” as he called it) upon which rested all other claims to liberty by an individual. The opening paragraph of the pamphlet states:

TO every Individuall in nature, is given an individuall property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himselfe, so he hath a selfe propriety, else could he not be himselfe, and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature, and of the Rules of equity and justice between man and man; mine and thine cannot be, except this be: No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans; I may be but an Individuall, enjoy *my selfe* and my selfe propriety, and may write my selfe no more then my selfe, or presume any further; if I doe, I am an encroacher & an invader upon an other mans Right, to which I have no *Right.* For by naturall birth, all men are equally and alike borne to like propriety, liberty and freedome, and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a naturall, innate freedome and propriety (as it were writ in the table of every mans heart, never to be obliterated) even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his Birth-right and priviledge; even all whereof God by nature hath made him free.

And by individual, he meant all male individuals, not just the wealthy or privileged. According to Overton “by nature we are the sons of Adam” (the daughters of Adam would have to wait a few more centuries – although Mary Chidley and Margaret Fell might beg to disagree with him) from whom we have derived our natural rights to property and liberty. These natural rights belonged to everybody, and as he admonished a member of Parliament:

Be you therefore impartiall, and just, active and resolute care neither for favours nor smiles, and be no respector of persons, let not the *greatest Peers* in the Land, be more respected with you, then so many *old Bellowes-menders, Broom men, Coblers, Tinkers or Chimney-sweepers,* who are all equally *Free borne;* with the hudgest men, and *loftiest Anachims* in the Land.

However, these natural rights of “Free borne Englishmen” were violated by power hungry and ambitious “opportunity Politicians” and intolerant and oppressive Presbyterian Clergymen who behaved like so many “ravening wolves, even as roaring Lyons wanting their pray, going up and down, seeking whom they may devour.”

The true radicalism of Overton’s political views can be found in his comparison of the government to a school master privately employed by a father to teach his children and who can be removed at will if he does not not perform his job satisfactorily:

So that such so deputed, are to the *Generall* no otherwise, then as a Schoole-master to a particular, to this or that mans familie, for as such an ones Mastership, ordering and regulating power, is but by deputation, and that *ad bene placitum,* and may be removed at the parents or Head masters pleasure, upon neglect or abuse thereof, and be confer’d upon another (no parents ever giving such an absolute unlimited power to such over their children, as to doe to them as they list, and not to be retracted, controuled, or restrained in their exorbitances) Even so and no otherwise is it, with you our Deputies in respect of the Generall, it is in vaine for you to thinke you have power over us, to save us or destroy us at your pleasure, to doe with us as you list, be it for our weale, or be it for our wo …

After 1649 little is known of Overton’s movements. He spent some time in exile in the Netherlands only to resurface briefly in the mid-1650s when he became involved in Sexby’s plots to overthrow and perhaps even assassinate Cromwell (see his Killing no Murder (Sept. 1657)). He was arrested again in 1659 and may have spent time in prison. He seems to have completely disappeared from view by the end of 1662 and the place and date of his death are unknown.

A final thing to note is Overton’s hallmark insertion of a contemptuous and also fake statement about the name and location of the pamphlet’s publisher:

Printed at the backside of the Cyclopian Mountains, by Martin Claw-Clergy, Printer to the reverend Assembly of Divines, and are to be sould at the signe of the Subjects Liberty, right opposite to persecuting Court. 1646.

The Leveller Tracts Collection: Chronology of Events for 1647


The year 1647 was a very important one for the Levellers as it brought their demands for political reforms to a head. In March William Walwyn wrote the “Petition of March” (The Large Petition) (T.92) which presented the main demands of the Levellers within the Army. This was followed in October by a more radical list of demands called “An Agreement of the People” (First Agreement) (T.115) which provoked a lengthy series of discussion within the Army known as “The Putney Debates” (T.111) throughout October and November. The Levellers’ demands were rejected by the Parliament, Oliver Cromwell, and King Charles and some of the Leveller petitoners were arrested as a result.

This chronology will eventually be part of volume 4 of the OLL online collection of Leveller Tracts, a working draft of which can be found here.



Jan. Westminster Assembly of Divines begins preparing the new Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the reformed Church of England

30 Jan. The Scots surrender the King to Parliament.

6 Jan. Lilburne, “Regall Tyrannie discovered” (T.85)

Feb. A Parliamentary Committee is appointed to suppress pamphlets

16 Feb. Parliamentary commissioners accompany the King to Holmby (Holdenby) House, Northamptonshire.

18 Feb. Presbyterian MPs propose plan to disband Army

13 Feb. Lilburne/Overton, “A Reall Persecution” (T.91)

March. Parliament begins plans to reduce the size of the New Model Army and to send men to Ireland

4 March. House of Lords votes against raising taxes to pay the Army

6 March. House of Lords forbids Fairfax from quartering troops in Eastern Association

15 March Walwyn submits “Petition of March” (The Large Petition) to Parliament

19 March. Supporters of the Large Petition Nicholas Tew and Major Tulidah arrested and imprisoned

22 March. Army officers refuse to serve in Ireland until their grievances are addressed.

29 March. Parliament’s “Declaration of Dislike” condemning the Petitioners’ demands

15 March Walwyn, “Petition of March” (The Large Petition) (T.92)

15 April. Westminster Assembly of Divines begins debating drafts of new Catechism.

16 April. Parliament grants City of London power to appoint a new Militia Committee which is dominated by Presbyterians.

25-27 April. Growing opposition among soldiers to being sent to fight in Ireland.

28-30 Apr. Agitators (Sexby, Allen, Shepherd).present Army grievances to Fairfax and then Parliament which promises to pay arrears.

28 April.  Sexby, Allen, Shepherd, “For our Faithfull and ever Honored Commanders” (T.96)

4 May. Parliament appoints Presbyterian MPs to Militia Committee giving them control over London’s militias.

16 May. Over 200 officers sign “A Declaration or Representation of the Army” setting out their grievances. Presbyterian MPs continue plans to disband Army and ignore its grievances.

23 May. Presbyterian MPS begin negotiations to send Kind to Scotland and to bring a Scottish Army into England

25-28 May. Parliament proposes immediate disbanding of Army and payment of arrears only after disbandment.

31 May. Lilburne, “Rash oaths unwarrantable” (T.97)

June. Army organises a series of “Rendezvous” near London

4 Jun. Cornet Joyce arrests the King for the New Model Army and takes him to Hampton Court.

5 June. Second Army Rendezvous at Kentford Heath (Haymarket). “A Solemn Engagement” calls for Council of the Army made up of officers and 2 private soldiers representing each regiment.

8 June. Parliament votes to abolish Holy Days (Christmas, Easter)

10 June. Geeral Rendezvous of Army at Triploe Heath (Cambridge). Rejects Parliament’s terms.

12 June. Army marches towards London.

14 June. “A Declaration or Representation of the Army” presented to Parliament which refuses to discuss it.

5 June. “A Solemne Engagement of the Army” (T.98)

14 June. (Rushwoirth, Ireton) “A Declaration or Representation of the Army” (T.100)

14 June. Walwyn, “Gold tried in the Fire” (T.101)

July-August. The New Model Army threatens London and Parliament. Fairfax made Commander-in-Chief of the Army

16-28 July. First General Council of the Army. Agitators call for Army to march on London unless their grievances are addressed

26 July. Presbyterians in Commons regain control of Militia Committee; pass resolution inviting King to return to London.

27 July. 58 Independent MPs and Peers flee Parliament and seek refuge with Army. “Heads of Proposals” formally presented to King who rejects them.

29 July. Army under Fairfax marches on London

30 July.The Presbyterian Eleven Members attempt to mobilise London against the Army.

17 July. Overton, “An Appeal from the degenerate Representative Body” (T.103)

28 July. Ireton, “The Heads of Proposals” (T.294)

31 July. King Charles, “The King’s Answer” (T.295)

6 Aug. The Army occupies London.

14 Aug. Army Agitators call for purging Parliament of Presbyterian MPs.

20 Aug. Cromwell and officers who are MPs attend Parliament. Passage of “Null and Void Ordinance” nullifying acts of Parliament while Independents were absent.

26 Aug. Army HQ set up at Putney.

11 Aug. Anon., “Vox militaris” (T.105)

21 Aug. Anon., “A Remonstrance of the Shee-Citizens of London” (T.108)

6 Sept. Cromwell visits Lilburne in Tower but is denounced as hypocrite.

9 Sept. King announces his preference for “Heads of Proposals” as basis of settlement

16 Sept. Overton released from prison

13 Sept. Lilburne, “Two Letters Writ” (T.109)

28 Sept. Lilburne, “The Juglers discovered” (T.110)

13-14 Oct. Parliaments votes for Presbyterianism and against Catholic toleration

18 Oct. Wildman’s “The Case of the Armie truly stated” is presented to Gen. Fairfax

20 Oct. Cromwell gives speech in Parliament attacking Levellers and supporting Monarchy

23 Oct. Robert Lilburne’s regiment marches to Ware

28 Oct. – 9 Nov. General Council of the Army meets at Putney (the Putney Debates) under presidency of Cromwell. Debates between the Levellers and the army Grandees.

15 Oct. Wildman, “The Case of the Armie truly stated” (T.112)

28 Oct. “An Agreement of the People” (First Agreement) (T.115)

28 Oct. to 11 Nov. “The Putney Debates” (T.111)

4 Nov. Army Council at Putney votes in favour of manhood suffrage

9 Nov. House of Commons denounces “Agreement of the People”. Lilburne released on bail from prison.

11 Nov. The King escapes from Hampton Court to the Isle of Wight.

15 Nov. Fairfax and Cromwell suppress a threatened mutiny at the army rendezvous at Corkbush Field in Hertfordshire (Ware).

25 Nov. Arrest of 5 Leveller petitioners.

4 Nov. Anon., “Observations upon Quartering” (T.116)

11 Nov. Sexby, “A Copy of a Letter to all the Souldiers” (T.118)

23 Nov. “The Petition of November” (T.120)

24 Dec. Parliaments presents “Four Bills” to King Charles where he would agree to give Parliament control of the military. He rejects these on 28 Dec.

24 Dec. Both Houses vote to raise money to pay Army.

25 Dec. Riots in London, Ipswich and Canterbury against Parliament’s suppression of Christmas celebrations.

26 Dec. The King signs the Engagement with the Scots for military assistance.

31 Dec. Both Houses vote to keep king in custody at Carisbrooke Castle (Isle of Wight)

14 Dec. Lilburne, “Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights” (T.123)

30 Dec. Wildman and Walwyn, “Putney Projects” (T.124)

Leveller Tracts vol. 7 (1650-1660)


The uncorrected HTML of volume 7 of the Leveller Tracts (1650-60) is now online at the OLL. There are 42 pamphlets which have a total of 1,055 illegible words and characters which need to be corrected before it will go into the main OLL library. It covers the period of the Commonwealth, the rise of Cromwell’s Protectorate, and the gradual defeat and dispersal of the Leveller movement.

Highlights include more tracts on economic matters (such as taxes and free trade), Sexby’s notorious pamphlet advocating the killing of Cromwell as a tyrant, and the pamphlet by Margaret Fell Fox advocating the right of women to speak in Church:

  • Mary Stiff, The good Womens Cryes against the Excise of all their Commodities (4 January 1650)
  • Anon., The Soap-makers Complaint for the losse of their Trade (24 September 1650)
  • William Walwyn, Walwyns Conceptions; for a Free Trade (May 1652)
  • William Prynne, A Declaration and Protestation against New Taxes (18 October, 1653)
  • James Freize, A Moderate Inspection into the Corruption of the Common Law of England (17 June, 1656)
  • Edward Sexby, Killing, No Murder (21 September, 1657)
  • Margaret Fell Fox, Womens Speaking Justified (c. 1666)

Continue reading