Today in radical history, 1658: Agitator, conspirator – Edward Sexby dies of a fever in the Tower of London

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes, Harlem)

“Shall we that would not endure a king 19 attempting tyranny, shall we suffer a professed tyrant? We that resisted the lion assailing us, shall we submit to the wolf tearing us?” (Killing No Murder, 1657)

The English Revolution of 1640-60 threw up ideas, dreams, programs, and actions in a turbulent ferment, like few eras before or since in this island’s history… Social, political and religious boundaries were pushed outward and in some cases broken, long-held mores dissolved, the tight bonds of social control and hierarchical respect shattered.

Some of this was temporary, of only affected a few; other changes took decades to make themselves obvious, some flames were lit that were quickly extinguished, but bore sparks that still float in the charged air centuries later… Some dreams have been achieved. Others still dance at the edge of our collective consciousness…

Thousands of individuals participated in radical social challenge to the existing order. Many we know the names of; for more we know nothing at all. Commemorating any individual from this era is to some extent illustrating a glimpse into the lives of many who remain anonymous.

Edward Sexby died of a fever, while a prisoner in the Tower of London, on 13th January 1658. Sexby was a former army agitator and Leveller sympathiser, who had been a sometime ally and officer under Oliver Cromwell, but had become disillusioned with the supreme power Cromwell had amassed, after the dissolution of Parliament by force in 1653. He had been arrested for plotting the assassination of the ‘Protector’ and distributing propaganda justifying the killing of such tyrants.

Sexby was born around 1616, and apprenticed to Edward Price of the Grocers Company in 1632. It is suggested that his father Marcus was a ‘gentleman’, though how well-off is not known. Though Edward Hide, Earl of Clarendon, who later met with Sexby, labelled him ‘illiterate’, and dismissed him as someone who spoke words he didn’t understand, this appears to be a snobbish libel. Sexby certainly read Latin and understood French and Spanish; quoted Machiavelli; he was not unlearned.

As an apprentice Sexby was exposed to both the harsh exploitation of work, and the collective cauldron of apprentice politics. Like many others, a baptism in apprenticeship led him into the radical upsurge of the English Civil War.

When the War finally broke out after its long simmering, Sexby joined Oliver Cromwell’s troop and fought in General Fairfax’s regiment of horse throughout the first Civil War.

He emerged as one of the leaders, or at least one of the more vocal spokesmen, of the New Model Army agitators, around 1647. (He is thought also to have been in contact with Leveller writer, theorist and activist John Lilburne early that year – Lilburne, then imprisoned in the Tower of London, related how he had been in touch with a trooper close to Cromwell, generally believed to be Sexby).

The parliamentarian side in the Civil war had always been an uneasy alliance, divided by class interests, religious differences and visions of what the war was actually being fought for. Moderate parliamentarians from the aristocracy and rich merchant classes may have chafed against the absolute rule of the king and the economic and religious stranglehold of his regime, which frustrated their ambitions; to defeat him they had to ally themselves with and enlist the fighting support of thousands from the lowers classes.

The moderate Parliamentarians wanted religious freedom, yes, but really only for mild presbyterianism, not the myriad sects and radical questioning of the independent churches; not the millenarianism of the puritans or the repressed desires of the mass of people, who had experienced a century of enclosures, upheaval in town and countryside, and for who hunger and poverty were the norm… To defeat the king, Parliament had to open the gates to this flood of ideas and aspirations, but most MPs never intended that all of these desires should be satisfied.

Even before the outbreak of war, the collapse of censorship and the relaxation of the tyranny of the episcopacy saw an explosion of religious expression, of social and political demands and proposals, a torrent of possibilities. This could not be put back in the box, and quite quickly in the course of the war, these tensions drove splits into the parliamentary alliance. The creation of the New Model Army, in effect a puritan fighting force, as much a theatre for religious and political debate as a military unit, scared many nominally on the same side, and as the war went on, the potential for things to get out of hand increased. Without the New Model the war may well not have been won – for some MPs the unleashing of the swirling radical forces and the arising of an armed wing of the independent sects was almost too high a price.

Victory in the Civil War was bound to bring these tensions to a head. Thousands of soldiers had not been paid for months or years; there were threats to close down the freedom of worship that had largely prevailed since 1640; many soldiers had come to the conclusion that they were fighting for the gains of others, and feared they would  see no beneficial change at all for themselves and their families.

The Agitators were elected representatives of the rank and file of the New Model Army; they first appeared in petitions in March 1647, where soldiers asked General Fairfax and his officers for large arrears of pay owed them to be paid. These petitions made clear that the rank and file had few differences of opinion with their own officers over the resolution of this problem, and asked for their grievances to be laid before Parliament. Initially two representatives from each troop in the New Model Army were to take the petition to Parliament – this was soon scaled back to two reps per regiment. Eight cavalry regiments then stationed near London appointed ‘commissioners’ to ‘agitate on behalf of heir several regiments’ – these sixteen men signed a document, which Sexby, William Allen and Thomas Shepherd took to Westminster on 29th April 1647. This document was published a few days later as The Apologie of the Common Soldiers of Sir Thomas Fairfax’s Army. It listed six complaints – action of arrears of pay; provision for windows, orphans and the disabled; a guarantee against impressment for army service outside the kingdom; vindication of the office of the Army (which they asserted was being tarnished by being described as ‘enemies of state’); an act of indemnity, and justice for the ‘meanest subject’.

When this petition was put before Parliament, Sexby, Shepherd and Allen were called to be examined by Parliament. There they defended themselves robustly, asserting that the document was the work of all the men, not just themselves, but that no mutinous intent or plot had been involved. This defence enraged the moderate parliamentarians– Denzil Holles MP, a leading moderate, later wrote that if one of the the had been hanged immediately after this appearance, as a warning to the Army, much that happened alter could have been averted (However Sexby and his companions’ statements regarding the collective nature of the soldiers’ protest, which can largely shown to be true, illustrates Holles’ misreading of the political situation in the Army). Holles himself was to become a chief target of the Army’s growing suspicion and distrust of the moderate MPs, soon to be exposed as intriguing with the defeated king Charles to push back against any further social change and the power of the Army.

Sexby spent much of the next few months working to facilitate self-organisation and representation in the New Model Army, organising an appeal to the officers for money to allow the Army to set up its own printing press, to enable the soldiers to better put their case out publicly; he himself was paid for a number of journeys from regiment to regiment, carrying messages, spreading money around to various agitators. It seems that the senior officers in the Army thought supplying money and other resources to the Agitators would both keep them under the leadership’s control, and allow them to be used as a weapon against the vacillating Parliamentarians. This was a dangerous line to tread, and though it would reap some gains for the Army ‘Grandees’, such an alliance was bound to founder on the widely different interests and growing political divide between many of the rank and file and their commanders. At this time Oliver Cromwell was rising slowly but surely towards the position he would reach, first as effective head of the Army (although other officers were nominally above him), directing it as a weapon for achieving the aims of the puritan wing of the revolution, while attempting to restrict the more radical elements who were pressing for a widening of the vote, some addressing of social inequality, or, even more worryingly, broader democratic demands, and beyond that, the germs of what was later called communism. Cromwell was widely trusted by diverse strands of opinion in what can loosely be called the English Revolutionary ‘movement’  – from middle class puritan non-conformists who aspired towards their own religious freedom and economic liberty, to fifth monarchist ‘old testament’ insurgents, to levellers… He had the knack of appearing all things to all men, which was useful in the coalition that was the parliamentary side; he had fought with many of these men side by side through the war and won their respect. They considered him one of them. But he was a more shrewdly calculating pragmatist, and would jettison all of them if their ideologies threatened the puritan settlement he would build…

Army Agitators had seized control of king Charles in the summer of 1647, and the subsequent attempt of Holles’ Presbyterian faction to seize power led to the Army marching on London in August. Sexby, quartered at Hammersmith, along with the other Agitators, was heavily involved in the growing co-operation between the army radicals and the civilian levellers; visiting Leveller leader John Lilburne in the Tower of London, while still sitting on the Army Council. Around this time Lilburne complained that some of the original agitators had been bought off by the Army Grandees, and many regiments in fact elected new agents to replace them, who were not paid by the Army leaders. Sexby, however, despite being one of the original agitators, remained influential in the radical dealings all year, and had become very well known at this time as a man of some importance in this period of ferment.

He was a notable speaker in the Putney Debates in October-November 1647, where the Army leadership, Agitators and some civilian Levellers discussed and argued the future of the English Revolution. He was link between the civilian and military radicals, as well as introducing some of the other rank and file soldiers into the debate. Sexby is know to have made five contributions to the debate  – though others may have not been recorded under his name. He argued with Cromwell over the latter’s recent negotiations with the king and with parliament, saying the general’s reputation had suffered within the Army as a result. He also intervened in the debate about the right of those who had fought in the war to ‘a share in the kingdom’ – a say in the political settlement that would follow. Sexby asserted that if the common soldiers did not win the right to take part in decision-making, then for what had they been fighting: “Do not you think it were a sad and miserable condition that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here both great and small do think we fought for something.”

Like Colonel Thomas Rainborough, Sexby said that the electoral franchise should not be limited to men of property:

“I think there are as many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom of their choice [ie the right to vote for an MP to represent them] as any that have great estates.”

Cromwell criticised Sexby for the vehemence of his speech, accusing him of ‘self-will’. Sexby apologised for the forthrightness of his manor but not the sentiment…

On Monday 1st November, the third day of the debate, Sexby spoke out again on the subject of the issue of the monarchy and the king. Where Cromwell cautioned against radical acts that could lose the Army support, Sexby thought that the time had come to dispose of monarchs: “we have gone about to heal Babylon when she would not [be healed]. We have gone about to wash a blackamoor, to wash him white, which he will not.” Meaning that the king would not change, become pliable and accept social change, but would continue to plot to restore himself to supreme power.

Despite winning some concessions at Putney, the radicals were quickly out-manoeuvered by the grandees, the Generals paying off many agitators and dispatching bland assurances to most regiments. As a result, few joined the brief mutiny at Ware which followed the debates, and it was swiftly faced down.

Sexby seems to have played no part in the mutiny, and remained in London meeting with Levellers and others rather than fighting in the Second Civil War, which  broke out in 1648. The Army leadership was caught between a revived rising climate of dissent in parts of the Army, and the plots hatched between king and elements of parliament on the other hand, and had to tread a narrow path…Victory in the Second Civil War, though inevitably gave them confidence to move against the Parliamentary moderates, and Cromwell deliberately cosied up again to the Levellers and the remnants of the agitators’ organisation, to bolster support for the political struggle to come. Sexby played a part here, acting as messenger between Cromwell and Lilburne. This alliance was shaky and mistrustful, and only lasted as long as Cromwell needed radial support for the purge of Parliament and to launch a trial of the king.

But around this time Sexby began to gravitate away from the radical milieu and towards the orbit of Cromwell. To be fair, many among the agitators, levellers and ‘grandee’s tended to see themselves as on the same side, or at least sharing a common set of principles – up to a point. The levellers and agitators certainly saw Cromwell as a comrade for a long time, and the arguments within the Army and around it as being disagreements in policy within a movement they all saw as having greater beliefs in common than their differences. How much of this was genuinely felt on Cromwell and other grandees part, and how much he cynically exploited when needed, is still debated. He certainly played to the radicals when it was politically expedient, and then shafted the Levellers and the Army rank and file when their support was no longer vital.

Cromwell must have taken note of Sexby, at Putney if not before, and marked him as a capable organiser who was worth winning to his side. Generous commissions were pushed Sexby’s way to win his support, as Cromwell and his allies ensured the purge of parliament (in effect a military coup), the execution of the king and the inauguration of the Commonwealth  – a republic, but with no further concessions to the Levellers or the demands of the Army rank and file. Sexby played no part in the doomed Leveller agitations of 1649 or the mutinies of that year, but was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, acted an intelligence officer and governor of Portland in Dorset, and given command of a regiment which fought in under General Monck in Scotland and prepared to embark for Ireland. However, in 1651, he was forced out of this command due to infighting within Monck’s army. Cromwell’s Council of State employed him in an intelligence post, in which role he played a part attempting to foment a republican uprising in Bordeaux in France – this included drawing up a proposed program for the insurgents that was based on what looked very like the Agitators’ Agreement of the People (definitely not what Cromwell had in mind, I would guess – Sexby was still playing a cunning game which may have involved skullduggery against his boss…). This plan for a Bordeaux republic failed however, partly foundering on Cromwell’s ambivalence towards the project; and another proposal of Sexby’s, for England to ally with Spain in a war on France, was also blocked by Cromwell. Sexby returned to England in 1653. He continued to work for Cromwell for another year, but was obviously disillusioned by the whole affair.

By 1654 Sexby was plotting against Cromwell. Whether he had gradually come to doubt the ‘Lord Protector’, or had subsumed his earlier radical views in his own self interest, but finally come to a point of ‘no further’, or was consumed with bitterness over Cromwell’s failure to back his French adventures – it’s not certain. Maybe a mix of all the above… Sexby had followed Cromwell when other old Leveller/agitator comrades had gone to jail or into exile, or even been shot for mutiny (Sexby had introduced Robert Lockyer to the company at the Putney Debates). Either way, in February 1655, Sexby was implicated in a petition uncovered by Cromwell’s intelligence service, calling for reforms to be added to a new constitution. A number of military figures were also said to be involved, linked to what Cromwell’s spy chief Thurloe called ‘the vile Levelling party’. Sexby fled to the west country and then to the Netherlands (Fellow conspirator Leveller John Wildman ended up in the Tower).

In a bizarre twist, typical of the sad reversal of the times, on the run in Holland, Sexby soon met and began to co-operate with Cromwell’s other enemies – exiled royalists. On the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Sexby met with various Royalists, representatives of the would-be king Charles II, and involved himself in a series of plots, which were mainly aimed at offing Cromwell, without whom the Commonwealth would fall apart. The royalists guessed this would de-stabilise the hated republic – Sexby’s motives are less clear. A combination of the genuinely held radical sentiments that he undoubtedly still retained, a sense of personal betrayal and disillusionment… Sexby was by all accounts suffering from severe mood swings at this point, angry, bitter, cynical… How long he had been suppressing these emotions while working for Cromwell but keeping it hidden, is anyone’s guess…

Sexby, his new royalist allies and what other Levellers and republicans would work with them launched a series of assassination plots aimed at the protector. Sexby’s republican principles he put to one side, even attempting to enlist the Spanish commander in the Netherlands in the plans. The royalists he dealt with were wary of him, however, sensing that his alliance with them was shaky and based on little real common ground, and that his personal grievances against ‘Old Noll’ were in danger of unbalancing his judgment.

The schemes to knock off Cromwell varied from plans to shoot him as he rode to Parliament, or to Hampton Court, where he spent most weekends, or to ride in Hyde park – to a plan to blow up Whitehall palace. Sexby’s agent on the ground for much of this conspiring was Miles Sindercombe, an old republican soldier, a leader of the mutinies in 1649 who had managed to escape punishment. He had met Sexby in the Netherlands and then returned in secret to England. The plans kept foundering on small changes of plan by the Protector, or when those charged to do the actual shooting bottled out, or had second thoughts. Sindercombe was caught in January 1657, after the Whitehall plot was revealed to Thurloe by John Toope, a plotter who had a change of heart. Sindercombe gave up nothing under questioning, was convicted of high treason, sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but poisoned himself in the Tower the night before his execution.

Sexby is generally thought to have written, or co-written Killing No Murder, a pamphlet justifying the assassination of tyrants and the Protector in especial, which was clandestinely distributed around London in May 1657. Though it emerged under the name of William Allen (Sexby’s old agitator confederate), and after the Restoration one of Sexby’s royalist confederates from this time, Colonel Silius Titus, (another ex-civil war parliamentarian officer) claimed to be the author (thus snaffling a juicy pension from Charles II), clues in the text suggest Sexby at least hand a hand in it. Later commentators rubbished this, because of Clarendon’s jibe that Sexby was illiterate – however this was, as related above, snobbish cobblers. I would guess that it was written by more than one writer – perhaps two or more texts jammed together. There are tips to royalism in it that may come from Titus, but other sections that read like an ex-leveller agitator. What partisan of Charles II would state that government only comes from the people? – but then what leveller would suggest they’d rather have Charles I back than Cromwell in power?

Can we get a handle on what drove Sexby at heart? He clearly burned with anger, and fought for what he saw as justice for the common soldiery (and by implication a wider ‘class’ from which much of it came); in 1653 as much as in 1647 he can be seen trying to widen the political power of disenfranchised strata. But he was obviously extremely pragmatic, a realist and a practical organiser. When tensions within the Leveller/Grandee alliance came to a head, more than once he stepped aside or withdrew from direct conflict. At some times he can be seen attacking Cromwell and the Grandees, at others he clearly suppressed doubts and accepted pay, rank and promotion instead of holding out for what (by then) were looking like lost causes. How did he feel about the defeat of the mutinies of 1649, the lost chance for the revolution to press on into deep social change to the benefit of the people he had spoken out out for at Putney?

If he did write or part-write Killing No Murder, does this offer clues to his thinking at this time? The pamphlet sparkle with sarcastic bitterness, with what seems like some personal barbs against Cromwell and the civil war veterans who still supported him, “from one that was once one amongst you: and will be so again when you dare be so as you were” – which could fit Titus, Allen or Sexby, though the tone suggests the latter two more…

The text upbraids Cromwell for setting up as a dictator, and blasts others, clearly meaning the writer/s’ old army comrades, for backing the ‘Lord Protector’. On the on hand it asserts that government can only legitimately come from the will of the people, or from God, and if not they have no right to govern. It links Cromwell to the tyrants of the Greek classical era, who often arose as supposed champions of the common people against aristocracy but ended as dictators. The feeling of betrayal, of denouncing someone who was once trusted and admired, runs through it like a strand of barbed wire: “ourselves, that have fought, however unfortunately, for our liberties under this tyrant; and in the end, cozened by his oaths and tears, have purchased nothing but our slavery with the price of our blood.”

And it goes to great length to reason out that a ruler who seizes power, puts themself above the law, (which the writer/s identify as the only thing that binds communities together in justice), then they out themselves outside the law, and are fair game to the assassin: “First, therefore, a usurper that by only force possesses himself of government, and by force only keeps it, is yet in the state of war with every man, says the learned Grotius; and therefore everything is lawful against him that is lawful against an open enemy, whom every private man has a right to kill.”

It is a duty to kill the tyrant, who not only usurps power from the commonwealth, but by people’s obedience to his rule, corrupts them as well… Consent to tyranny turns those who give it into contemptible figures – again, a sharp jab at those who had swallowed radical principles they had fought for. However, you can’t help feeling that if Sexby had a hand in this text, he is angry first of all with himself, as of course he had done exactly that, followed Cromwell, for five years after the repression of the radicals… Sometimes the darkest fear and hatred comes from your resentment towards your own actions you regret…

Large numbers of copies Killing No Murder were smuggled into England, being scattered in the streets on several occasions; many more were seized by the authorities. For, as with much of the republican plots of this era and the restoration years, the conspiracies were penetrated by Thurloe’s spies, both in England and on the continent, and most of their discussions and plans were soon well known to the authorities.

“Expect another sheet or two of paper of this subject if I escape the tyrant’s hands”… Sexby did not escape the tyrant’s hands. The spies and betrayals, the bitter double-dealing of the times, was to be the death of Sexby. In summer 1657 he came to England in disguise, still trying to stir up a successful plot against Cromwell. He had some contact with his old comrade John Wildman, recently released from the Tower, but this may have been a serious mistake, as Sexby was arrested on 24th July as he was embarking back to Holland, ‘in a very mean habit, with an overgrown beard’ – possibly betrayed by Wildman, whose information against him may have been the price of his liberty. (Though nothing was ever proved, Wildman was a sharp opportunist, happy to act as a double agent, playing both sides against he middle for his own gain.)

Conveyed to the Tower, Sexby was questioned, including a short interview with Cromwell, which must have been a fun meeting… While being held in the Tower of London he allegedly confessed that he had written Killing No Murder, co-operated with ‘Charles Stuart’s’ partisans, and had backed up Sindercombe’s plots, but refused to divulge any more information or name any more of his cohorts. The confession may have been coerced out of him or invented, but just as likely Sexby really did own up to his own part in actions he felt were justified.

Sexby became ill in the Tower, and died there in January 1658. The government’s official organ, Mercurius Politicus, said he had become ‘stark mad’. Though they would say that, wouldn’t they, it is also possible that the hopes and disappointments of Sexby’s life over the previous fifteen years had left him angry and depressed. Many others of his civil war comrades retreated into quietist religion, individual subversive libertinism or utopian dreams, (that is if they weren’t in prison or exile) in response to the dashing of the beautiful visions that had animated them, or betrayed the ‘Good Old Cause’ for their own advancement, seizing opportunities to profit by their adhering to the right side, at least until the Restoration (when many were jailed and regicides were executed). Sexby remained a man of action, whether in radical agitation, swallowing his doubts to work for the Protectorate, or plotting to bring it down. His death is just one of many sad personal ends to the postponed paradise the English Revolution promised.

Killing No Murder can be read for free here

The original pamphlet is online at:

Click to access KillingNoMurderSexby.pdf

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

For more on the radicals of the English Revolution and the circles Sexby moved in, you could do worse than read

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the Engilsh Revolution, Christopher Hill

The Levellers and the English Revolution, HN Brailsford

Forlorn Hope, Soldier Radicals of the 17th Century, Antonia Southern.

Freeborn John, (biography of John Lilburne), Pauline Gregg.

The Experience of Defeat, Christopher Hill, (This has some interesting writings on how individuals who experienced the English Revolution reacted to its betrayal and collapse… Worth a read for anyone who participates in social struggles…)


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.