“It may be of interest to recall that when the regular army was first raised in the seventeenth century ‘Suppression of the Irish’ was coupled with ‘Defence of the Protestant Religion’ as one of the two main reasons for its existence”.
Brigadier Frank Kitson ‘Low Intensity Operations’, 1971.
An army – the name is taken from the Latin ‘arma’ (arms or weapons) and old French ‘armée’ (armed) – is now usually known as the land-based fighting-force of a nation or state. Britain’s ‘professional army’ of today can be traced back to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army that emerged during the English Civil War (1642-1651). This was a period of religious and political revolt, but also saw a rejigging and consolidation of establishment rule.
For centuries before, in medieval Europe, the dominant social system was feudalism, in which the nobility held lands from the crown in exchange for their loyalty and military service. The vast majority of the population, as serfs, were forced to live on their lord’s lands to labour for, and pay homage to, their rulers. During times of conflict, the peasants were forced to take up arms in the interests of their masters.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings from Norway and Denmark had raided and colonised parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The conflict continued during struggles for domination between Viking factions and various indigenous leaders. The Vikings had also established themselves in north-west France and in 1066 William, the Duke of Normandy, pursued his claim to the English throne by landing at Hastings with a large army.
After defeating the English King Harold, the ‘Northmen’ (Normans) then set about establishing their control over all of England and dominating much of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Normans brought with them a superior type of feudalism that became the most efficient form of administration, jurisdiction and land tenure since the Romans. This system of overlords and vassals meant crushing slavery for the local peasants, while the barons and the monarchy consolidated their land holdings and ruthlessly enforced their dominance.
The Normans extinguished any opposition and absorbed or moulded the old order, which was already hierarchic, to this new class structure in England. The early Norman kings ruled with a curia regis (royal court), but they also found it helpful to have a council of the tenants-in-chief (landowners) and church leaders, which were often activated to approve and fund royal needs, aspirations and wars. Among the landowning barons, various ruling factions competed for the monarchy, they also often fought each other over land, or honour, and for, or against, the King’s rules, or interests.
In 1215, at Runnymede in Surrey, a group of rebel barons forced King John to sign the ‘Articles of the Barons’. This ‘Magna Carta’ (Great Charter), which committed the king to observe the barons’ privileges and consult with them about taxes, was one of the first cracks in the ‘divine rights’ of kings. Gradually, as the monarch’s authority was increasingly challenged, a parliament emerged, with a House of Lords and the House of Commons, which sat in the Palace of Westminster.
There were also frequent indigenous revolts against the feudal ‘Norman Yoke’. Especially against serfdom, excessive taxes, a corrupt judicial system and the dispossession of the poor from public land by an aristocracy who were intent on securing large estates for private profit. In England, the ancestral memory of this resistance has become embodied in folk legend heroes like Robin Hood.
In 1381 workers and peasants from Kent and Essex revolted against a new poll tax for the King’s wars in France. They formed armed bands and marched on London:
John Ball, a radical priest, questioned why there should be lords and vassals by asking: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ Ball then told the rebels:
“Good friends, matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves.”
Some tax collectors and nobles were assassinated, but the revolt was suppressed after its leader, Wat Tyler, was killed. John Ball was captured and hung, drawn and quartered, but the poll tax was removed.
From 1517 the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe as feudalism was on the wane and bourgeois capitalism was emerging. In many countries the Catholic Church had become a principal feudal force, forming a rich and corrupt part of the state apparatus. In the old order the ‘will of God’, which governed many aspects of people’s lives, was passed down through popes, monarchs and an apparatus of church placemen.
Their interpretation of God’s will, unsurprisingly, was often that the poor should accept their lot and obey their betters. But the idea, implicit in the new religion, that an individual could have a direct relationship with God and interpret the divine will for themselves, was a revolutionary one. In times of revolt it imperilled the rulers and for a time threatened to ‘turn the world upside down’.
In England, a more modest Protestantism gradually became established after King Henry VIII, who had his own reasons for rejecting the Papacy, turned his back on Rome in 1534 and made himself head of the Church of England. But Henry, fearful of the radicalism the new religion had exhibited elsewhere, ensured that the new moderate Anglican Church became an integral arm of the Tudor state. Mary Tudor threatened to reinstate the Catholic Church during her brief reign, but Protestantism was consolidated under the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).
As the new religion became dominant in England many ‘martyrs’ were created in bitter struggles for and against it. Patriotism was whipped up to combat ‘Popish plots’ and supporting Protestantism became synonymous with national security and the need for a strong state. Sir Francis Walsingham, an ardent Protestant, became the state spymaster, running many agents both at home and abroad, including the playwright Christopher Marlowe.
The Rise of the New Model Army
Politically, the centralised state that grew under the reign of the Tudors had helped English trade and expansionism to develop. With the merchant centre, London, as the capital, the entrepreneurs and financiers who stood behind this growing commerce gradually increased in power and influence. It was largely this new merchant class that forced Queen Elizabeth I to use her navy to help check Spain’s competing overseas enterprises.
While Elizabeth 1 had been successful in balancing the various ruling interests and factions during her reign, afterwards, differences started to deepen as the coming bourgeoisie gradually contested the dominance of the old feudal monarchy, aristocracy and church. In the 1640s a civil war started in England when these growing capitalist forces, allied with Parliament and some prominent Protestants, challenged the absolute power of Charles I and his nobles.
Oliver Cromwell, a minor landed gentleman, rose to prominence in the fight against the king by bringing organisation, discipline and training to the Parliamentary military forces. His victorious New Model Army was composed mainly of disciplined and determined Puritans. Often, they would sing psalms as they marched into battle.
Cromwell and his backers needed to mobilise the maximum support to defeat the Royalists and the New Model Army contained within its ranks many soldiers from the lower orders, who pursued objectives that were a great deal more radical than those sought by their leaders. Many were Levellers, who believed in the free interpretation of the scriptures and who opposed establishment control of the church. But they were also political – as well as religious – radicals, who advocated free schools and hospitals for all as well as a more equal society:
“Round about 1646, towards the end of the first Civil War, the Levellers emerged as an independent group. There had been peasant revolts in the past. The first claim of the Levellers to originality lay in this, that they organised as a modern party, run on democratic lines, a third force, drawn from the lower middle class, the skilled craftsmen and the small farmers. Their followers ranged from some well-to-do merchants to the weavers of Spitalfields and the lead-miners of Derbyshire.
… The Levellers were the first political party that dared to make complete religious toleration a chief plank in their platform. By 1647 they had behind them most of the rank and file of the New Model Army and many of its junior officers.”
[The Levellers and the English Revolution, by H. N. Brailsford, Spokesman Books 1976].
The Levellers, who got their name from levelling fences and hedges which enclosed former common land, also opposed primogeniture and great estates. They demanded that: ‘All grounds which anciently lay in common for the poor, [and are now enclosed], be laid open again to the free and common use and benefit of the poor’. Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of the Diggers, declared that: ‘In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury … but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’
The Diggers, or ‘True Levellers’, who got their name from their attempts to dig-up and plant crops on enclosed land, considered Charles I to be the ‘Norman Successor’ and that his execution would ensure that the ‘Norman Yoke’ had at last been cast off. The Diggers were hated by the rural landowners, as this song by Leon Rosselson shows:
Winstanley, an early environmentalist, who also attempted to organise the rural poor, left these words for those who would come after:
When these clay bodies are in grave
and children stand in place,
This shows we stood for truth
and peace and freedom in our days.
And true-born sons we shall appear
of England that’s our mother,
No priests’ nor lawyers’ wiles to embrace
their slavery we’ll discover.
Inside the New Model Army the Levellers sought to bring an element of democracy to the military and give lower ranking soldiers a voice. To this end they organised to elect soldier representatives, called Agitators, who put forward the rank and file’s point of view. Two were elected from each regiment and they, with two officers from the same unit, would meet and debate with the senior officers (Grandees) on the Army Council:
“We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties. And so we took up arms in judgment and conscience to those ends.”
[Representation, a Leveller document addressed to Parliament].
The modern negative connotation of the word ‘agitator’ comes from the establishments fear and distaste for this early example of rank and file power. The Agitators were part of a Leveller movement who stood for the separation of church from state and for toleration and liberty of conscience among the people – including soldiers in the army.
Under feudalism, poor women had been the serfs of serfs and had no rights, with their lives often dependant on their husband’s goodwill. During the Civil War women became active in organisations like the Ranters, Baptists, Diggers, Levellers and Quakers, which were playing a prominent role in both political and religious aspects of the Revolution. Many women started to question the lack of education for females and discussed issues like polygamy and divorce and the Levellers included in their aims greater equality between men and women – that was to be enacted in law.
This was also a time, however, when fear and superstition, which were constant factors under the feudal system, still abounded and Matthew Hopkins was conducting his witch-hunts, which led to the brutal deaths of over 300 blameless women. Despite this, the Civil War, which brought forward these radical groups, also saw an upsurge in women seeking their rights, including equality in family life. Leveller women organised many protests and petitions addressed to parliament, calling for peace, an end to high taxes and the debt laws – and demanded that Leveller leaders, who’d been arrested, should be released.
One of their petitions asked a simple question:
“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land?”
The women were often met by armed force, or trampled by horses – and some were locked away in brutal jails. They were lampooned as ‘oyster wenches’ and ‘fishwives’ – and a male Parliament told them to go home and ‘meddle’ with their ‘huswifery’. Nevertheless, many women persevered, and one report claimed that: ‘Sometimes 5,000 women were swarming around Parliament’, with an MP complaining that:
“A multitude of women … came to the very doore of the House and there cryed … “Peace, Peace,” and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House and threatened violence to those members who were enemies of peace.”
Years later, in 1649, as the repression grew, a number of the Leveller leaders were arrested – including John Lilburne, popularly known as ‘Honest John’ – who were taken to the Tower of London. A group of 800 women, many wearing Leveller colour ‘sea-green’ dresses, marched in London to protest, which is celebrated in this song written by Rev Hammer:
The Putney Debates
In London, during the autumn of 1647, a significant Army Council meeting took place at St Mary’s Church in Putney. By then the Royalists had been defeated and Charles I captured and therefore the future way the country would be run was on the agenda. The Grandees favoured an accommodation with the king and aristocracy, while the Agitators and Levellers sought a parliament that would take its authority directly from the people – and be answerable to them.
At these ‘Putney Debates’ the arguments were often enunciated in fairly archaic biblical terms, but it was clear that the Agitators stood not only for the rights of soldiers, but also, with the Levellers, for those of the common people. They complained of ‘rotten parliaments’ and argued for ‘An Agreement of the People’ that included many of the Levellers’ demands. While Cromwell and the other Grandees made their stand for ‘The Heads of the Proposals’, which advocated the preservation of property rights and for the rich to retain their privileges and power:
The Army Council voted mainly in favour of the proposals of the Agitators and Levellers and for a general rendezvous of the army, where things could finally be settled. In the meantime, the king had escaped, telling his supporters that ‘A people called Levellers’ were planning to overthrow him. It was suspected that Charles I was planning a second civil war and the need for unity in the face of this threat became paramount.
The Grandees, moving from debate to repression, took advantage of this feeling and planned the army meeting well. The Agitators and Leveller soldiers turned up with a copy of the ‘An Agreement of the People’ in their hats, to show their allegiances. But while on parade Cromwell rode amongst them, snatching the copies of the ‘An Agreement of the People’ and tearing them up. A budding ‘mutiny’ was then firmly supressed and the leaders were court-martialled.
The king was recaptured and held in Carisbrook Castle, but his planned second civil war still took place in 1648. The New Model Army reunited to win the battle all over again, but this time ‘the Man of Blood’, Charles I, was put on trial. Cromwell deserves credit for his part in removing ‘the divine right of kings’ and, in 1649, a major step towards this was achieved with the execution of the king.
The main objective of Cromwell and his backers, however, was to open the way to a type of parliamentary rule that would be dominated by landed and commercial interests, while the Levellers wanted to leap from the old feudal-style system to a true democracy of the people. Attempts to suppress the Agitators, Levellers, Diggers and others had occurred before, but were now stepped up. Cromwell also ordered the New Model Army to prepare for a campaign in Ireland and some regiments refused.
Leveller soldiers produced a broadsheet warning that service in Ireland would suit the designs of the Grandees, which was to reduce the soldiers to ‘a mere mercenary and servile temper.’ Eight years before, one of the periodic revolts against English rule had occurred in Ireland. Thousands of settlers were killed and many more driven from land taken during the plantations. The ‘Protestant massacres’ were much exaggerated in England and Cromwell made great play of these events to work up anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings.
So strong was this propaganda that most of the Levellers believed it, especially after they heard that King Charles had made a pact with the ‘rebel’ Catholic Irish leaders. Yet many still stood against Cromwell’s re-conquest of Ireland and a popular Leveller leaflet asked a series of questions:
“Have we the right to deprive a people of the land God and nature has given them and impose laws without their consent?
How can the conquered be accounted rebels, if at any time they seek to free themselves and recover their own?
Whether Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, William Duke of Normandy or any other great conqueror of the world were any other than great lawless thieves, and whether it be not as unjust to take laws and liberties from our neighbours as to take goods from another of the same nation?
Whether those who pretend for freedom (as the English now) shall not make themselves altogether inexcusable in entrenching upon others’ freedoms, and whether it be not the character of a true patriot to endeavour the just freedom of all men as well as his own?
Whether the English would not do as the Irish have, if the Irish should dispossess and tyrannise over them?”
[Representation, a Leveller document addressed to Parliament].
The leaflet was denounced as ‘treasonous’ for inciting the army to disobedience. Cromwell’s supporters published a counter broadsheet, which said that the Irish were ‘more brutish than the Indians’ and it was the duty of the English to ‘tame such wild beasts’. Bribery was also tried, with Cromwell offering Irish land to soldiers who would fight for him in Ireland.
Mutinies, Executions and War Overseas
While Cromwell had played a dominant role in the struggle against the Royalists, he was strongly against trying to level ‘the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years.’ In April 1649 a leading Leveller, John Lilburne, heard Cromwell tell the Council of State that if the Levellers were not broken in pieces:
“They will break you; and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your heads and shoulders, and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry, toil and pains you have done.”
The evidence that Cromwell got his way still lies in three unmarked graves in Burford churchyard in Oxfordshire, which hold the bones of men who had been part of a Leveller regiment who had refused to fight in Ireland.
There were three major New Model Army mutinies in 1649, the first by 300 men in an infantry regiment, who stated that ‘they would not fight in Ireland until the Leveller’s programme had been realised’. The men were discharged from the army without arrears of pay. In the second, men of a regiment stationed in London at Bishopsgate, made similar demands and were ordered out of London – away from Leveller influence it was hoped.
The third and most serious was by 400 men stationed at Banbury and commanded by Captain Thompson. When they set off for Salisbury to discuss with other regiments their political demands, Cromwell offered to mediate and assured them that force would not be used against them. But then, under the cover of darkness, troops loyal to Cromwell launched an attack on the ‘mutineers’, killing several.
Captain Thompson and some of his troopers escaped, only for him to be killed a few days later by Cromwell’s men who had pursued them. The rest were captured and imprisoned in the church at Burford. Refusing to recant, three, including a junior officer who was Captain Thompson’s son, were selected and taken out and shot as an example, and a warning, to the others who watched from the roof of the church.
The executed men proudly wore the sea-green ribbon of the Levellers on their chests and died upholding their rights as citizen-soldiers and for the liberties of their country. The events at Burford were one of the main steps, as Cromwell, allied to other conservative forces, gradually suppressed the Levellers, Agitators and other radical religious and political groups.
While much of the initial opposition to Cromwell’s Irish war was motivated by economic grievances, like soldiers’ pay and conditions, this was combined with political demands to push on with the revolution in England – and against being made the instrument by which the establishment imposed their will on another country by force.
Another Leveller leader, William Walwyn, was imprisoned in the Tower, from where he made many direct appeals to the conscience of soldiers in the army. One of these was ‘The English Soldier’s Standard, to repair to for Wisdom and Understanding, in these doleful, back-sliding Times: to be read by every honest officer to his soldiers and by the soldiers to one another’:
“‘It will be’, he declared, ‘no satisfaction to God’s justice to plead that you murdered men in obedience to your general.’ They would not be able to answer, as they might have done hitherto, that they had taken life ‘for those just ends, the rights and liberties of the people’. ‘Is there such haste?’ he asks, ‘If you are wise stay a little … Certainly before you go, it will be good for you to see those rights and liberties of the people, for which you took up arms in judgment and conscience, cleared and secured by Agreement of the People, and not to leave them at the mere arbitrary mercy of a Council of State or a packed Parliament’.
… ‘For consider, as things now stand, to what end you should hazard your lives against the Irish. Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder in order to make them [your officers] as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?
… It has come to a pretty pass with most of your great officers. They would have you to obey their commands, through to the killing and slaying of men, without asking a reason’.”
[The Levellers and the English Revolution, by H. N. Brailsford, Spokesman Books, 1976].
Cromwell pushed ahead with his war in Ireland and crushed the opposition to English rule in a brutal and bloody campaign. In garrisons like Drogheda, which refused to surrender, the inhabitants were massacred. The Irish population of nearly one and a half million was reduced to almost half. Over 600,000 perished by ‘sword and brand’ or the subsequent pestilence and famine.
Over 100,000 ‘captives’ were either forced to join foreign armies or were sold off as slaves to the West Indies and other colonies. Cromwell rewarded his troops with ‘tickets for land’ confiscated from the Irish (many soldiers complained that they were swindled out of ‘their land’ by the Grandees and the carpet-baggers who had followed Cromwell’s conquest).
The Path to Empire
Cromwell’s Army then campaigned to consolidate the whole of the British Isles for the new social order, which the army now represented. English troops also went to the West Indies and America, where their brutal methods of dealing with the Irish proved effective in winning empire. The soldiers, with their voices muted, either obeyed, or faced harsh punishments.
After Cromwell’s death, the Parliamentary forces made an agreement with the aristocracy and the monarchy was restored with Charles II becoming king. His brother James II succeeded him in 1685, but Parliament intervened once again because James was a Catholic and they favoured his Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, a fervent Protestant. The deposed James went to Ireland and raised an army there and William, who ironically had the blessing of – and financial help from – Pope Innocent XI, followed and defeated James at the battle of the Boyne.
During the Protestant Reformation a number of penal laws against Catholics were implemented in England, some of which remain, in modified form, on the statute books to this day. In Ireland, however, the Catholic Church retained the people’s allegiance and religion took on a special importance there in the conflict between the native Irish and the British invaders. From 1695 the onslaught against the Irish way of life was now also directed against the native religion, and a series of anti-Catholic Acts were implemented in Ireland.
These ‘Penal Laws’ were designed to keep the native Irish in a state of permanent subjection. Under these Acts:
- Catholics were not allowed to be armed and they could not own a horse worth more than £5.
- A reward of £5 was offered for the head of a priest (the same as offered for the head of a wolf).
- Catholics were not allowed to vote and consequently were totally unrepresented in the Irish Parliament.
- Catholics were barred from public office.
- Catholics were not allowed to maintain schools and their children were not allowed to go abroad to be educated.
- Catholics were not allowed to buy land and restrictions were put on them leasing it.
In 1603 Catholics owned 90% of the land in Ireland, by 1778 they owned less than 10%. At the same time Protestant land ownership rose from 10% to over 90%, forming the ‘Ascendancy’ landlord class. Irish agriculture and industry were strictly controlled to service British interests and subsequently famine was endemic in rural areas. The Penal Laws were designed in part to rid Ireland of Catholics, but mainly was meant to reduce them to poverty and ensure they no longer posed a political threat.
The Irish peasantry, cowed and often starving, could then be exploited in feudal-style servitude. In 1776, the English agricultural reformer, Arthur Young, visited Ireland and observed that:
“A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse to execute. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security…”
By then Ireland was crisscrossed with military garrisons and, as the British Army perfected its techniques and polished its expertise, Ireland became the training ground for the use of soldiers in colonial conflicts. The great expansion of empire that came after had much to do with the lessons learned in that land just across the water. And Ireland’s history became one of repression and resistance, which continues to the present day.
The Soldier’s Catechism
A ‘Soldier’s Catechism’ was produced in 1644 with a printed copy being issued to every New Model Army soldier that fought against the king. It was ‘Written for the Encouragement and Instruction of all that have taken up Arms in this Cause of God and his People; especially the common Soldiers’. Like most texts of the period it was couched mainly in strident theological terms, but it was written to inspire a citizen army – albeit one motivated by a Protestant religious zeal.
In the following centuries, inside what had now become a standard Imperial Army, most British soldiers came from the poor and dispossessed. Ironically, many who filled the ranks were from Ireland and Scotland, as during both the Highland clearances in Scotland and the famine in Ireland recruitment drives were undertaken. Scottish Highland soldiers, whose forbears had been hunted down for wearing their native tartan, now wore a new British military tartan to serve the Empire.
At one time over half of the soldiers in the British Army were Irish, recruited from a population often hostile to British occupation. After the famine (1845–1849) the Fenians began a clandestine armed struggle against British rule and the movement began the task of secretly recruiting serving British soldiers. John Devoy, who led this work, claimed great success: ‘There were in Ireland in 1865 about 26,000 British regular troops. Of these … 8,000 were sworn Fenians.’ In his ‘Recollections of an Irish Rebel’, Devoy went on to state:
“Not less than sixty per cent of the rank and file of the entire British forces were Irish, including those of immediate Irish ancestry born in England and Scotland. … In the British military establishment stationed outside of Ireland, we had 7,000 IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) men.”
Over the centuries there were many revolts, both large and small, by soldiers and other service personnel. Often about wages and conditions, also sometimes about Imperial assignments, these mutinies often involved ethnic troops, such as Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Indian or other soldiers recruited from colonies. Sometimes, soldiers’ revolts took the form of friendly interaction with their officers’ enemies:
“In 1867, many Scots supported the Irish Fenian movement on the grounds of a common Gaelic identity. The 73rd Foot stationed near Cahirciveen in Co. Kerry were a mainly Scottish Gaelic-speaking regiment. It is on record that when they moved into action against Colonel O’Connor’s Fenian troops in Kerry, they formed picket lines, having surrounded the Irish, and began conversations with the Irish through the medium of Gaelic. Discovering they had more in common with the Irish than with their English officers, they let the Irish slip through their lines and escape. This was not an isolated incident.”
[The Celtic Dawn, by Peter Berresford Ellis, Constable, 1993].
Most of the British troops were now active abroad and some soldiers became disaffected by issues like pay, conditions and equipment. Sometimes, the alienation spread to conflict, as armed force was used to expand the Empire. Invariably, open mutinies were savagely suppressed, by execution, imprisonment and flogging as the officer-class reasserted their control and authority.
Under iron discipline and frightened of harsh punishments, most soldiers obeyed orders and tried to retain some dignity and honour in the battles they were thrust into. While most serving soldiers carried out ‘their duty’, however, there was always an undercurrent of resentment and opposition. This was apparent in this satire on army life called ‘The Soldier’s Catechism’:
Question. What is your name?
Q. Who gave you that name?
A. The recruiting-sergeant, when I received the enlisting shilling, whereby I was made a recruit of bayonets, bullets, and death.
Q. What did the recruiting-sergeant promise then for you?
A. He did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce all idea of liberty, and all such nonsense. Secondly, that I should be well harassed with drill. And, thirdly, that I should stand up to be shot at whenever called upon so to do …
Q. Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief.
A. I believe in the Colonel most mighty, maker of Sergeants and Corporals; and in his deputy the Major, who is an officer by commission, … and sitteth on the right hand of the Colonel, from whence he will come to superintend the good from the bad. I believe in the Adjutant; the punishment of the guardroom; the stopping of grog; the flogging with cats; and the certainty of these things lasting. Amen.
Q. What is your duty towards your Colonel?
A. My duty towards my Colonel is to believe in him, to fear him, to obey all his orders, and all that are put in authority under him, with all my heart; to appear before him as a soldier all the days of my life; to salute him, to submit to him in all respects whatever; to put my whole trust in him, to give him thanks when he promotes me, to honour him and his commission, and to serve him as a soldier. Amen. …
[The Rambling Soldier, by Roy Palmer, Penguin Books Ltd 1977].
This text bitterly described the realities of life for a soldier and sullenly poked fun at the way the army was structured. It was clearly written, however, from a position of fear and weakness by soldiers who had no voice in what was happening.
Contrast that with the first Soldier’s Catechism, which was produced in 1644 for the New Model Army that fought against the king. This was ‘Written for the Encouragement and Instruction of all that have taken up Arms in this Cause of God and his People; especially the common Soldiers’. Unlike the sarcastic later version, the original 1644 Soldier’s Catechism was written to inspire a zealous citizen army – and the soldiers fighting for a cause they had a voice in and considered just.
The Agitators’ Legacy
Britain’s ‘professional army’ of today can be traced back to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army that emerged during the English Civil War. There had been no permanent army in England before then, because in the past the ruling King, or Queen, had raised armies to fight specific wars – after which these forces were then disbanded. A permanent professional standing army, funded and controlled by Parliament, gradually emerged from the period of the Civil War and William’s ‘Glorious Revolution’, which followed.
Now, every year in mid-May, crowds gather at Burford Church, in Oxfordshire, where there is a memorial dedicated to the three Levellers – Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church – who, on 17th May 1649, were executed for opposing Cromwell and refusing to fight in Ireland. This short film shows members of Veterans For Peace at the Levellers Day event in Burford on Saturday 20 May 2017:
These annual commemorations are organised by the Workers’ Educational Association and in May 1976 Tony Benn addressed the crowd:
“The Levellers grew out of the conditions of their own time. They represented the aspirations of working people who suffered under the persecution of Kings, landowners and the priestly class and they spoke for those who experienced the hardships of poverty and deprivation.
The Levellers developed and campaigned, first with Cromwell and then against him, for a political and constitutional settlement of the Civil War which would embody principles of political freedom that anticipated by a century and a half the main ideas of the American and French Revolutions.
The ideas of the Levellers were thought to be so dangerous because of their popularity then, that, as now, the establishment wanted to silence them …
But the elimination of the Levellers as an organised political movement could not obliterate the ideas which they had propagated. From that day to this the same principles of religious and political freedom and equality have reappeared again and again in the history of the Labour movement and throughout the world.”
[The International Significance of THE LEVELLERS and the English Democratic Tradition, a Spokesman Pamphlet – No.92, May 2000].
The history books tell us that Cromwell was the victor in the English Civil War, but he was also responsible for making sure that the religious and political revolutions were stopped halfway. This ensured that the new establishment kept control of both. Cromwell had turned his back on many of those who had fought with him to defeat the king, helping conservative forces, allied to the City of London, to take control.
The country’s permanent army was then financed by, and became subordinate to, this new state power. After its democratic tradition was overturned for the iron rule of the officer class, the British Army did, then and over the following centuries, undertake colonial expeditions and wars in the interests of its new masters. They are still doing the same thing today, but the Agitators and Levellers, by taking a stand against fighting in Ireland, had shown us that there are distinct divisions between establishment interests and those of the ordinary people on issues like this.
In 1649 William Walwyn had stated this clearly:
“The cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms … was the very same with our cause here.”
[Reformation to Industrial Revolution, by Christopher Hill, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967].
In his book, ‘The Levellers and the English Revolution’, H. N. Brailsford concluded his introduction with these words:
“The record of the Levellers is one of failure and defeat. But if history still takes account of moral values, it may rate higher than Cromwell’s victories at Drogheda and Wexford the daring of men who risked their lives to prevent the re-conquest of Ireland. The day when a group of Englishmen first publicly asked the question: By what right are we preparing to appropriate the lands and suppress the religion of the Irish? – That day, in the late summer of 1649, deserves to be remembered in our annals.”
In most democratic countries today, the people are citizens who elect all the houses of their parliaments and their own heads of state. In Britain, where we are classed as subjects, not citizens, we get to elect one house of our parliament, while only those appointed, or with hereditary rights, can occupy the Throne and the Lords. All MPs, peers, judges, bishops and even soldiers and the police have to swear their allegiance, not to the people or parliament, but to the reigning monarch.
The decision to go to war can still be a ‘Royal Prerogative’ and Parliament, never mind the people, does not even have to be consulted. The Prime Minister, who makes the actual decision, is not elected to that position by the public, but is given immense and unaccountable political power. Control then is concentrated among the few at the top, while war, after it is declared, is fought mainly by the many at the bottom.
So, when all the paraphernalia of state power is laid bare – including The Crown, the Lords and the Honours List – we can see the important part it plays in preserving the status quo and why we still get ‘rotten parliaments’. The privileges of the powerful are both guaranteed and protected, while subtle ensuring that we, ‘the lower orders’, are all kept in our place. At the Putney Debates the Levellers and Agitators had advocated a single elected representative assembly, under a sovereign people, to be voted in every two years, which could have put England on the path towards a true democratic parliament, so that the power of vested interests would have been destroyed and a country run by the people, for all the people, created.
Instead, three hundred and sixty years ago, the Agitators, Levellers and others were broken by coercion and intrigue, which was highlighted by the executions at Burford and continued during the New Model Army’s bloody campaign in Ireland. This first national army then became totally undemocratic and the voice, views and interests of the ordinary soldiers, and the people of the country, were stilled and muted to this day. It was the suppression of the Diggers, Levellers and Agitators that made the exploitation of the people – in Ireland, other colonies and at home – possible.
Their ideas could not be killed off, however, and have lived on to our own time. The greatest tribute we can pay them is to continue their struggle for a genuine democratic army and country – and raise our voices to demand truth, peace and freedom for all the people of the world.
Postscript: Help Make the UK a Neutral Country
Veterans For Peace UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in conflicts from WW2 through to Afghanistan.
As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’. We are not a pacifist organisation, however, as we accept the inherent right of self-defence in response to an armed attack.
VFP works to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK, for the larger purpose of world peace. We are working to restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations.
In order to achieve this goal, we are seeking support, across the political spectrum, for the UK to become a permanently neutral country.
Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who joined-up aged 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop:
In Burford every year in May there is usually a Levellers’ Day event:
In Wigan, Gerrard Winstanley’s home town, in September there is usually a Wigan Diggers’ Festival: