Today in London’s rebel history: 1400 copies of call for Cromwell’s assassination seized, 1657

“There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes…”

“May it please your Highness,
How I have spent some hours of the leisure your Highness has been pleased to give me, this following paper will give your Highness an account. How you will please to interpret it I cannot tell; but I can with confidence say my intention in it is to procure your Highness that justice nobody yet does you, and to let the people see the longer they defer it, the greater injury they do both themselves and you. To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. ‘Tis then only, my Lord, the titles you now usurp will be truly yours. You will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted, and parliaments have those privileges
they have fought for.”
(from the introduction to
Killing No Murder)

‘Killing Noe Murder: Briefly Discourst In Three Quaestions‘ was a pamphlet distributed clandestinely in England, mainly in London, in 1657, setting out rationally the case for the assassination of then military dictator of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell.

Having risen to power through the 1640s, allying himself with the Levellers and army radicals when he needed their support, then denying their petitions for reform and crushing them; allying himself with the Fifth Monarchist millenarians later, then dashing their dreams of imminent second coming and repressing them… Old Noll had amassed a lot of enemies.

While claimed as the work of one William Allen, the authorship is often disputed, but at the time was attributed to one of three men (or a collaboration of two or more of them): Colonel Silius TitusEdward Sexby or William Allen.

Titus was a royalist plotter, opposing Cromwell on behalf of the exiled “Charles II” (later to become king). Sexby was a former army agitator and leveler sympathizer, who had been a sometime ally and officer under Cromwell, but had become disillusioned with the supreme power Noll had achieved after the dissolution of Parliament by force in 1653. Allen was another ex-New Model Army trooper and a republican plotter.

Sexby, for one, had been planning Cromwell’s death for a couple of years; he had encouraged another old soldier and Leveller, Miles Sindercombe, was arrested in 1657, having taken part in a number of abortive plots to off the dictator. Sexby, later arrested, admitted he had participated, though under coercion in the Tower of London.

However, Titus’ sarcastic style apparently bears strong resemblances to the writing in Killing No Murder (check out the cheeky address to Cromwell in the introduction: “To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it.”

At this point exiled royalists and disappointed ex-civil war radicals, out-manouvered by Cromwell in the late 1640s, were, quite unprincipledwise, ganging together to try to assassinate him. The politics of despair.

Killing No Murder was probably written where it was certainly printed, in the Netherlands. The pamphlet called on those now submitting quietly to Cromwell’s rule to rise up, especially those in the army who had been honest fighters in the civil war and opposed tyranny: “To all officers and soldiers of the army that remember their engagements and dare be honest… For you that were the champions of our liberty, and to that purpose were raised, are not you become the instruments of our slavery? And your hands that the people employed to take off the yoke from off our necks, are not those very hands they that now put it on? Do you remember that you were raised to defend the privileges of Parliament, and have sworn to do it; and will you be employed to force elections and dissolve Parliaments because they will not establish the tyrant’s iniquity, and our slavery, by a law? I beseech you think upon what you have promised and what you do, and give not posterity as well as your own generation the occasion to mention you with infamy…”

It goes on to discuss the rights and wrongs of doing away with tyrants, finding examples and justifications from the bible, from antiquity, and arguing reasonably for Cromwell’s death as a preventive cure for further oppression.

The pamphlet seems to have been smuggled into London by 18 May 1657. The Publick Intelligencer reported on that day that “divers abominable desperate pamphlets” had been scattered about the streets, including at Charing Cross and other places in the City.

Former Leveller John Sturgeon, once a member of Cromwell’s life guard, but now an opponent of the Protectorate) was arrested on 25 May with two bundles of copies on him – about 300 in all. On the 27th St Catherine’s Dock, just east of the Tower of London was searched, and seven parcels, 1,400 copies in all, of the pamphlet were discovered in the house of Samuel Rogers, a waterman. 140 more were found abandoned nearby, on the steps of a local house.

But although 2000 copies had been seized, an unknown number did get circulated. A copy even got thrown into Cromwell’s coach. Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, sent a copy to Henry Cromwell on 26 May:

“There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes. I have made search after it, but could not finde out the spring-head thereof. The last night there was one Sturgeon, formerly one of his highness’s life-guard, a great leveller, taken in the street, with two bundles of them under his arme. The same fellow had a hand in Syndercombe’s buissines, and fledd for it into Holland, and is now come over with these bookes. I have sent your lordship one of them, though the principles of them are soe abominable, that I am almost ashamed to venture the sendinge it to your lordship.”

Thurloe’s assistant Samuel Morland wrote to John Pell at the start of June that:

“There has been the most dangerous pamphlet lately thrown about the streets that ever has been printed in these times. I have sent you the preface, which is more light, but, believe me, the body of it is more solid; I mean as to showing the author’s learning, though the greatest rancour, malice, and wickedness that ever man could show – nay, I think the devil himself could not have shown more.”

Killing No Murder was in great demand, however, whether because of Cromwell’s undoubted unpopularity, or for novelty value. 5 shillings was the going rate for a copy at one point. Copies were scattered in the streets, left in churches, and passed secretly hand to hand.

As modern blogger Mercurius Politicus relates, the pamphlet was an ideal format for distributing clandestinely, being small, cheap, easy to conceal and fold. “So how did Sexby and his accomplices achieve this? The first step was maximise the numbers who could have read Killing Noe Murder had. The pamphlet is 16 pages of quarto, and hence made up of two sheets of paper. Each set of 8 pages would have been printed as follows: the numbers represent page numbers in the final book.

It was printed on cheap paper – possibly ‘pot paper’, which in the 1620s had sold for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, so one ream would have supplied 250 copies of the book. The 2,000 copies confiscated by the authorities would hence have cost at least £1 for Sexby and his accomplices to commission. Of course this does not include printer’s costs: by way of comparison, in 1655 Sturgeon had paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40 shillings for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. This was 8 pages long so a work double the size might have cost 80 shillings, or £4, for 1,000 copies. Assuming on top of the 2,000 confiscated copies that perhaps another 1,000 or 2,000 copies did survive and go into circulation, the whole enterprise might have cost Sexby £12 to £16.

Parcels of the pamphlet would then have been shipped across to London. Thurloe ordered a search of Dutch boats but had no luck in finding which skipper had shipped them over. It seems likely that John Sturgeon was Sexby’s London agent when it came to receiving and distributing copies. He had fled to the Netherlands after being involved in Miles Sindercombe’s failed plot to kill Cromwell earlier in 1657, so probably accompanied the pamphlets over to England from Amsterdam.

When it came to scattering copies about London’s streets, it’s impossible to know exactly how Sturgeon achieved this. However, it seems likely that he drew on radical political and religious communities within London. Sturgeon was a member of the Baptist church of Edmund Chillenden, which met at St Paul’s. In the 1630s, Chillenden had been involved with John Lilburne in distributing subversive puritan literature, and had subsequently been involved in army politics with Sexby. It seems plausible that his church was the centre for a number of London-based Levellers and Baptists whom Sturgeon may have mobilised to help. Someone else arrested along with Sturgeon was Edward Wroughton, a haberdasher who was a member of Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist congregation at Coleman Street. Members of this church were mostly young men and apprentices, who would be likely candidates for dispersing the pamphlet during the middle of the night.  So it’s possible too that a network of congregations played a part in helping Sexby.”

We will never know how many copies of Killing No Murder did get through, but it did have a huge impact. It’s worth remembering that many people would have been illiterate, but one literate person could relate a pamphlet’s contents to many others who couldn’t read. The diatribe became a major talking point and the Protectorate made a strenuous effort to prevent it circulating, and to round up anyone involved with writing, smuggling or distributing it. Sexby was arrested on his clandestine return to London in June 1657, having arrived to try to firm up further plans to send Cromwell to the puritan heaven he so justly deserved. While being held in the Tower of London he confessed that he had written Killing No Murder. He died there in January 1658.

The plots against Cromwell all failed. Moderate opinion had long ago fallen into support for him as a bulwark against dangerous radicalism, and further war or unrest. But Cromwell survived Sexby by barely eight months. After his death the Commonwealth, politically bankrupt and unstable, collapsed into military faction fighting, ended only with the return of the monarchy in 1660. Many of the civil war radicals who had taken part in, or supported, the plots to do away with Cromwell, would go on to intrigue for a republic for decades to come…

Killing No Murder can be read for free here

And the original pamphlet is online here

Mercurius Politicus blog about civil war publishing and more is also well worth checking out.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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