PETER FROST wore a sprig of rosemary in Burford churchyard on Saturday to celebrate three working class martyrs.
Last Saturday, in Burford, Oxfordshire, the annual Levellers’ Day Celebration took place. Melissa Benn, daughter of Tony Benn was among those who laid a posy of wild flowers on the spot in the churchyard where in 1649 three rebellious soldiers of Cromwell’s New Model Army were shot.
The three men, Private John Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornet James Thompson were Levellers, members of one of the first political movements that involved the common people of England.
The English Revolution better known as the English Civil War of the 1640s was fought between an arrogant king who believed in his divine right to govern – don’t we have one of those waiting in the wings today – and a Parliament which didn’t really represent all of the people. Strange we have one of those too.
It was in an attempt to broaden the democracy of Parliament that the radical Levellers’ movement grew. They ultimately fell out with Cromwell (below) because, although he shared some of their concerns, he regarded them as a challenge to his authority.
The Levellers’ radicalism and their refusal to fight in Ireland angered Cromwell. As Leveller influence in the army grew commanders Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell were so worried they decided to impose their own army’s manifesto.
Levellers objected and were arrested. One of the leaders, Private Richard Arnold, was executed. A Leveller petition to parliament was signed by over a third of Londoners.
On October 30, 1648, Leveller and MP, Thomas Rainsborough was killed. Cromwell was implicated in his death. His funeral in London became a huge demonstration. Thousands of mourners wore the Levellers’ sea-green ribbons and sprigs of rosemary in their hats.
Early in 1649 Cromwell attacked what he called the Banbury mutineers, troopers who supported the Levellers. In May 1649 Cromwell ordered over 300 Levellers to be imprisoned in Burford church. Three of them were taken out into the churchyard to be shot.
Levellers believed in the sovereignty of the people, religious toleration, and universal suffrage (including briefly in votes for women although this was quickly dropped).
They established partial democratic control of the military, electing representatives who became known as Agitators.
The Levellers’ message was spelled out in ‘An Agreement of the Free People of England’ which outlined a new and democratic constitution for Britain.
It was published on 1 May 1649 while the leaders of the Levellers were imprisoned in the Tower of London. It spelt out some amazing demands,
“We, the free people of England, agree to ascertain our government to abolish all arbitrary power and to set bounds and limits both to our supreme and all subordinate authority and remove all known grievances.”
Other demands well ahead of their time were for universal state schools and hospitals to be provided at public expense.
A good number of the hundreds of visitors to Burford churchyard last Saturday carried or wore their rosemary not just for remembrance but as a direct link to the Levellers who wore a sprig of rosemary in their hatbands.
A pub in Islington where Levellers held their early meetings became known as the Rosemary Branch tavern. Today it is a gastro-pub and a theatre.
Like so many proud titles adopted by those involved in struggle the name Levellers started as an insult by class enemies. The term leveller had been a term of abuse for rural rebels. The name was a reference to those who levelled hedges in enclosure riots.
Since 1975, people from all over Britain and indeed the world have come to Burford to reclaim and celebrate an important piece of our working class history. On the nearest Saturday to May 17 they meet in remembrance of the three martyred Leveller soldiers.
The Sea Green Singers a socialist choir bring music and pithy songs to Leveller’s Day. This year’s hit was their version of the Platter’s song The Great Pretender with new lyrics declaring George Osborne as the greatest pretender of all.
Tony Benn was always a regular speaker at these events and in 1979 he unveiled a plaque to the three Levellers. Each year a march, a debate and music celebrate the Levellers and the important part they played in ideals of justice and democracy that many of us are still fighting for today.
It is ironic that Burford is just ten miles up the road from Chipping Norton where David Cameron and his excruciating friends are doing all they can to make our society as un-level as they can.
Cameron and Osborne are making the rich much richer and the poor poorer still; Jeremy Clarkson is demonstrating that beating the servants is perfectly acceptable if you are sufficiently rich and powerful; Rebekah Brooks and various of Rupert Murdoch’s offspring are proving that if you have enough money and sufficient expensive lawyers you can even affect the future of parliaments.
So it was great to see the well used and slightly battle torn Chipping Norton Labour Party banner on the Leveller’s March among the colourful flags and banners of trades councils, trades union branches, other labour parties, communists, CND and the Woodcraft Folk.
The real people of Chipping Norton and indeed all of Britain after over 350 years of working class struggle clearly aren’t going to be discouraged by a little thing like Cameron and his Tory millionaire backers winning an election.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 18 May 2015