1649: Three Banbury mutineers at Burford church

Add comment May 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.

The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.

This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.

Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.

Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.

In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,

the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.

Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.

Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.

The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.


(cc) image from Kaihsu Tai.

On month’s end, Cromwell was certifying to Parliament that mutinous Levellers had all been pacified … and come August, he was ravaging Ireland as planned.

The Saturday nearest May 17th is marked each year in Burford as Levellers Day. (The next one as of this writing is Saturday, 20 May 2017.)

* The Biblical allusion was current in the culture; Cromwell invoked the same phrase a few years later when he dismissed the Rump Parliament.

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1649: Robert Lockyer, Leveller

2 comments April 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Robert Lockyer (or Lockier) was shot before the scenic backdrop of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral* for the Leveller-inspired Bishopsgate mutiny.

These weeks following the epochal execution of the late king Charles I were also the climax of a pivotal intra-party conflict among the triumphant Parliamentarians … one whose class dimensions map a lot more readily to a modern template. Levellers were, “in a small way, the precursors of the ‘Socialists’ of 1849″ in the words of this popular history.

The prosperous gentry represented by the Grandee faction were just fine with the whip hand they’d obtained in government by overturning the monarchy; against them were arrayed the more radical Levellers (or “Agitators”) who could not fail to notice that they had no say in electing the Parliament upheld by their victorious arms, and an oligarchy governing them that bore a suspicious resemblance to the supposedly defeated nobility.

So there was that.

Meanwhile, up in high statecraft, Oliver Cromwell was preparing to make his name accursed of Ireland by smashing up the island and the Grandees hit upon an arrangement as expedient for fiscal ambitions as for territorial: the soldiers assigned to this expedition would have the opportunity to opt out of it, for the low low price of forfeiting the substantial back pay they were due from those years of civil war — pay whose fulfillment was naturally a chief Leveller demand.

How did this cunning plan to pillage the soldiery’s pensions to conquer Ireland go over in the ranks? Reader, not well.

Since the same reason that shall subject them unto us in generall, or any of us singly, may subject us unto them or any other that shall subdue; now how contrary this is to the common interest of mankind let all the world judge, for a people that desire to live free, must almost equally with themselves, defend others from subjection, the reason is because the subjecting of others make(s) the subdued strive for Dominion over you, since that is the only way you have left them to acquire their common liberty.**

So there was that, on top of that.

Grumblings gave way to refusals to march, and the refusal by a regiment stationed in Bishopsgate to leave London lest it also leave its leverage soon became the eponymous mutiny of this post — the Bishopsgate Mutiny.

Grandees quelled this particular insubordination without need of bloodshed, but thought it meet to deliver a little anyway as proof in this fraught political environment against the next such affair. Six of the soldiers drew military death sentences; Cromwell pardoned five, but let known Leveller/Agitator firebrand Lockyer go to his death over the appeals of Leveller leaders like John Lilburne and Richard Overton.

The signal was unmistakable — certainly to the thousands who donned Leveller colors to follow Lockyer’s funeral procession through London.

In the days following Lockyer’s execution, several Leveller-inspired regiments would openly rise … what proved to be the movement’s last great stand, efficiently crushed by Cromwell.

*The Parliamentarians had twisted high church dogmatists by putting Old St. Paul’s Cathedral to profane use as a cavalry stable, which employment actually made it a sort-of suitable place for a military execution. (The current structure was rebuilt on the same site after the previous church succumbed to the Great Fire of London.)

** From Mercurius Militaris, quoted by Norah Carlin, “The Levellers and the Conquest of Ireland in 1649,” The Historical Journal, June 1987 — which, however, makes the case that while the Levellers were obviously not cool with the pay expropriation, their opinion on the Ireland conquest in the abstract was far from uniformly anti-imperial.

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