The class tensions thrown up on the Parliamentarian side during the English Civil War came to a head in 1649. The political and religious radicalism that had bubbled up had become a threat to the leaders of the puritan revolution. As ever, the radical bourgeoisie had aroused the aspirations of the lower orders to persuade them to fight for them, but wanted to cut short the relationship when they had achieved their limited ends (it’s not you its me – we just don’t want the same thing any more). Cromwell and the army ‘grandees’ (senior officers) had made alliances with the Levellers, the army agitators, needing their support first against king Charles I and then against the moderate Parliamentarians. But they were determined to keep a lid on the demands from below for a wider voting franchise, and an increased share in both the products of their labour and of control over their own destinies… Many were also sick of the fighting, and opposed the intention of Cromwell and Army leaders to ship more regiments to Ireland to defeat rebellion against English rule there.
The Army leaders began to impose measures to hamstring the radicals.
In February they banned petitions to Parliament by soldiers. In March 1649, John Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested and held in the Tower of London. Also in March eight Leveller troopers went to the Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, Lord Thomas Fairfax, and demand the restoration of the right to petition. Five of them were cashiered out of the army.
In opposing the invasion, the mutinous soldiers reclaimed the constitutional liberties outlined in the Leveller engagements at New Market, Triploe Heath, and the 1647 Putney Debates. Although a good number of mutineers vowed that they would fight if given their arrears, many others sided with a comrade who asked, “Will you go on still to kill, slay and murder men, to make them (the grandees) as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England?” Another author, a soldier who had joined the Levellers, foresaw the same carnage and concluded, “We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent, Christian blood.” The invasion of Ireland would proceed, but not before the government made violently clear that the days of army democracy were over.
In April 1649, lots were drawn to select regiments for service in Ireland. The soldiers were told that they would not be compelled to go, but any who chose to remain in England would be dismissed from the Army. Three hundred infantrymen of Colonel Hewson’s regiment threw down their weapons and declared that they would not go to Ireland unless the Leveller demands were granted. They were promptly cashiered without arrears of pay. Discontent at their treatment spread rapidly through the Army.
On 24 April 1649, around 30 troopers under Captain John Savage, in Colonel Whalley’s regiment, refused orders to leave the City of London for a rendezvous at Mile End Green. They felt this order was in order to remove them from Leveller agitation in central London; their anger reached fever pitch. Whalley’s regiment were known for their independent character and often took up their grievances with parliament; Whalley was no Leveller, but he fully supported his men. (Whalley would become one of the ‘regicides’who signed the death warrant of Charles I).
The mutineers seized the regimental colours, took over the Bull Inn at Bishopsgate, then on the City of London’s northern edge, and refused to obey their officers’ orders, including those of Colonel Whalley himself. It was not until Fairfax and Cromwell arrived on the scene the following day that they finally backed down. Fifteen soldiers were arrested and court-martialled, of whom five were to be cashiered after riding the wooden horse. This was a common military punishment, basically a straight, narrow, horizontal pole, twelve feet long, sometimes with a sharpened upper edge to intensify the cruelty. The soldier was set astride this board, with his hands tied behind his back. Often a heavy weight was tied to each foot, as was jocularly said, “to stop his horse from throwing him.” There are reports of punishments lasting three days.
Six soldiers were sentenced to death. In a gesture of reconciliation, Cromwell pleaded for mercy and all were pardoned except for Robert Lockier (or Lockyer), a former Agitator within the regiment, who was believed to be the ringleader of the mutiny.
Lockyer had joined the New Model Army in 1642 and served with Edward Whalley’s regiment. As such it is very likely that he served at some very important battles such as Edgehill, Gainsborough, Marston Moor and Naseby; and helped to capture both Bristol and Banbury. He was known as one of the Agitators, the radicals elements who had made alliances with the Levellers, and fought for the English Revolution to bring real social change to the lower orders.
Lockier was executed by firing squad in front of St Paul’s Cathedral on 27 April 1649. Like the funeral of Colonel Rainsborough the previous year, Lockier’s funeral occasioned a massive Leveller-led demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing ribbons of sea-green — the Levellers’ colours — and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats. This was the largest political demonstration of the civil war years.
Another mutiny followed almost immediately at Burford, also quickly put down with force and executions. The months of April and May 1649 marked the climax of radical influence, but also the beginning of the decline of real possibility, the end of the prospect of the english revolution being pushed further.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online