Matthew Thomas

Modern democratic republicanism, in all its varieties, theoretical or realized, be they liberal, social democratic, or even anarchistic 1, took root in the events surrounding the English Revolution (1642-1652), and the establishment of that short-lived republic, the Commonwealth of England. The precedent set by this revolution was of great importance to the subsequent American and French revolutions because the absolutism of monarchial authority was not only questioned, but challenged, and ultimately overthrown.

Aside from religious strife and political revolution in England, 17th Century Europe was in the midst of a larger social transformation, politically and commercially, which might be reckoned the early emergence of “bourgeois society.” Additionally, many philosophers were challenging the belief systems which had prevailed, and finding expression in schools of thought called “rationalism,” and “empiricism.” This era was known as the Age of Reason. And the political philosophies which emerged from this age, and from the subsequent Enlightenment, form the basis of modern political thought and practice.

Following the English Civil Wars, two dominant worldviews came into being; one, from the modern perspective, radically conservative, and the other, radically liberal. Political parties emerged from these, the Tories and the Whigs. The first, that of radical conservatism, was expressed by Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1689). Fully aware of the bloodshed and grief engendered by civil strife, Hobbes believed that in a state of nature, man’s life was “brutish” and “short.” He believed that in order for men to live they needed to form a social contract, under which they would surrender themselves to a terrible sovereign, an absolute authority, the allegorical “Leviathan.” John Locke (1632 – 1704), however, championed “natural law,” believing that in a state of nature, human beings acted freely and rationally, and only chose to form a social contract to complement existing order. In this one sees liberalism’s roots.

Liberalism is the cornerstone upon which modern constitutional regimes are built. Liberal democracy — despite its rhetorical concern for individual rights and freedoms, its programs instituted by progressive and socialist legislators to ameliorate the evils of poverty, and so forth — despite all these — retains an unfortunate family resemblance with its near relative, “Leviathan.” All states, regardless of their constitutional peculiarities, are fundamentally the same, embracing as they do a certain legal principle known as imperium, that is, the right to “use force in maintaining law,” 2 all laws. The liberal democratic state is merely Leviathan’s refined and oftentimes mild-mannered brother, Behemoth. It is this observation which is central to the anarchist’s critique of political life.

True, the English Revolution had no self-styled anarchists of any significance 3, but Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676) was a forerunner of Christian communism, and the True Levellers (associates of Winstanley), in their actions, behaved in a manner very much befitting anarchists — these “squatters” reclaimed the commons and planted vegetables on the lands of the English gentry, declaring the free use of the Earth was man’s natural inheritance. For this, they became known as the “Diggers.”

The Roundheads and Cavaliers

The English Revolution has frequently been referred to as the Puritan Revolution, and with good reason. The Puritans feared the “High Anglicanism” of King Charles I was merely the platform upon which Catholicism would be restored in England. Their fears were heightened by the fact that his Queen, Maria Henrietta, was a French Catholic. And the English did not want to see an absolute Catholic monarchy established in England as existed elsewhere in Europe.

Charles I, like his father, James I, was a proponent of the notion that kings ruled by divine right. Charles I had, after all, ruled without an assembled Parliament for eleven years (“The Eleven Years’ Tyranny”). Parliament 4 was, therefore, justifiably distrustful of Charles I; they feared his arbitrary rule. They also worried he would unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, apply High Anglicanism throughout the Realm, and forever change the character of the English monarchy. But his religious reforms in Scotland, and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer there, led to outright rebellion, the Bishops’ War.

In 1640, Charles I had no choice but to call for the assembly of Parliament, for it was only they who could raise the taxes necessary to end the Scottish rebellion. John Pym 5, the leader of Parliament, used this opportunity to address grievances against the Crown. Charles I took great umbrage at being challenged and had Parliament dissolved three weeks after it was called. The dissolution of the so-called “Short Parliament” proved a disaster for Charles I, however. Without the support of Parliament and lacking funds, the king’s war was lost, and the Scots occupied Durham and Northumberland.

In November, 1640, Charles I was again forced to call upon Parliament. His relationship with the “Long Parliament” was more difficult yet. Above voicing grievances, Parliament acted, according to its own authority, declaring that it must meet at least once every three years and the Crown could not dissolve it without its consent. Ireland then rebelled against English rule and, as a result, anti-Catholic sentiments flared again in England. Charles I came to believe his wife, the Queen, would be impeached by Parliament. And so, with these acts — seen as Parliament’s usurpation of the Crown’s royal prerogative — Charles I sought to arrest John Pym and four others.

The attempt to arrest the leaders of Parliament caused a schism in the government which could not be bridged. Parliament sent Charles I a list of nineteen demands which effectively would have left the Sovereign powerless. Parliament demanded the Crown relinquish command of the army and its right to appoint judges and ministers. It proposed the abolition of the Catholic Church, too. In response, Charles I raised an army. Parliament raised its own. On October 24, 1642, at Edgehill, the two armies met on the battlefield, and the First English Civil War began.

“Indeed the government of kings is a breeder of wars,” wrote Gerrard Winstanley to Oliver Cromwell nearly ten years later, “because men being put into the straits of poverty are moved to fight for liberty, and to take one another’s estates from them, and to obtain mastery. Look into all armies, and see what they do more, but make some poor, some rich; put some into freedom, and others into bondage. And is not this a plague among mankind?”

The struggle was not simply between Parliament and the Crown over issues of governmental prerogative, of course, but one which embroiled all of society, just as Winstanley had stated. There was turmoil not only in England, but in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland as well; it was a struggle of nations. Conflict between Catholics and Protestants (and between Protestant sects) divided the country. And there was a class struggle, too. A small merchant class sought to extend its political power. The peasants, landless, and impoverished desired better lives and greater freedom. And the aristocracy and gentry feared both these.

The Royalists lost the First Civil war and Charles I was surrendered to Parliament by the Scots in 1647. But the king found refuge in exile on the Isle of Wight. There he managed to negotiate with both the Parliamentarians and Scots. He reached an agreement with the Scots in December, 1647, and exploited rebellions in Kent and Wales. The Second English Civil War started in the Spring of 1648. This time when Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary “Roundheads” defeated the Royalist “Cavaliers,” further negotiations were futile. That faction within Parliament which did not fully support the army was expelled, leaving a “Rump Parliament” to govern. Charles I was charged with treason and executed (Jan. 30, 1649).

The Commonwealth

On May 19, 1649, Parliament established the English Commonwealth: “Be it declared and enacted by this present Parliament and by the Authoritie of the same That the People of England and of all the Dominions and Territoryes thereunto belonging are and shall be and are hereby constituted, made, established, and confirmed to be a Commonwealth and free State And shall from henceforth be Governed as a Commonwealth and Free State by the supreame Authoritie of this Nation, the Representatives of the People in Parliament and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as Officers and Ministers under them for the good of the People and that without any King or House of Lords.”

Despite the proclamation of the Commonwealth, Royalists fought on. The Third English Civil War effectively started and ended with the defeat of Charles II (who had been crowned King of the Scots) at the Battle of Worcester in September, 1651. Charles II then fled to France, and the Commonwealth went, more or less, unchallenged.

The government of the Commonwealth was riddled with problems, however, not the least of which was divisions between the classes. There were major and minor factions, including, among others: The Grandees, the landed gentry, and seniors officers in Cromwell’s New Model Army, which desired suffrage be granted only those men owning significant property; the Levellers, a faction which desired suffrage be expanded either to freemen or to men owning at least some property; various conservatives and remaining monarchists; the Presbyterians; the Fifth Monarchy Men, who believed the Fifth Monarchy, following allusions made in the Book of Daniel (Danl 2:31-45), would be the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ on Earth established in the year 1666; and the True Levellers, a radical Christian faction, who pronounced and elaborated a proto-democratic-communist platform in the interest of “universal liberty.”

In April 1653, Cromwell expelled the Rump Parliament and created the “Barebones Parliament,” or Nominated Assembly, modeled, roughly, on the ancient Judæan Sanhedrin at the request of the Fifth Monarchist Thomas Harrison (1606 – 1660). Harrison suggested the assembly have seventy members, but the Council of Officers raised its number to 140, allowing for representatives from Scotland and Ireland as well. This Parliament was not well respected, being one of men of lowly social station and lacking political expertise and experience.

When the “Barebones Parliament” was dissolved, Oliver Cromwell governed as Lord Protector until he died in 1658. This Protectorate resembled a military dictatorship in many respects, despite the occasional meetings of a Parliament. Thereafter, his son Richard ruled briefly as Lord Protector, but resigned in May, 1659. The government passed then to the Rump Parliament again.

Gerrard Winstanley and the “Diggers”

Because political life in England had been disrupted and the old social hierarchy upended, many Englishmen sought to reorder society upon a more level foundation. Perhaps the True Levellers were those with the greatest foresight.

The True Levellers settled on the commons of St. George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey in April, 1649, and there began to plant vegetables and to build common buildings. They issued a proclamation inviting peasants to join them in the reclamation of the commons and pull down all enclosures, not only at St. George’s Hill, but, ultimately, throughout England. The lord of the manor was alarmed by their activity, had them harassed and beaten, and finally called upon the New Model Army to intervene on his behalf. Thomas Fairfax, commander of the army, spoke to Gerrard Winstanley, and believing the “Diggers” posed no substantial threat, ordered the matter be settled in the courts.

The Diggers were not permitted to speak in their own defense before the court, and were ordered to vacate the land upon which they were squatting. Broken, they did so in August, 1649.

Other Digger communities were established at Little Heath, Cobham, Surrey; Willingborough, Northamptonshire; and Iver, Buckinghamshire. In all these places they were harassed and forced to abandon the communities they established. By 1651 the movement was undone, having no more than two hundred members at any one time.

Nevertheless, on November 5, 1651, Gerard Winstanley wrote to Oliver Cromwell, imploring him to consider the reorganization of the Commonwealth according to principles which might be called today “Christian socialism.” The Law of Freedom in a Platform was written in 1650, but it was not for another two years, when matters had settled some, that Winstanley believed the government might look favorably upon his proposal.

The egalitarian political program Winstanley advanced was justified by his belief that all of humanity was of a single essence, “members of one Family,” which “looking upon each other, as equals in the Creation,” were the sons and daughters of a benevolent “Maker.” This “great Creator Reason” was “no respecter of Persons, but equally loves his whole Creation, and hates nothing but the Serpent, which is Covetousness, branching forth into selvish Imagination, Pride, Envie, Hypocrisie, Uncleanness.” And he believed, from his reading of the Bible, a commonwealth such as the one he envisioned for England had existed in the land of Canaan before the Children of Israel had the prophet Samuel anoint a king, namely Saul, to lead them. The Israelites only “began to complain of oppression [when] kingly government rose up, which is the power of covetousness and pride.” And so it was in England under the reign of “that Norman power.”

Belief that the English labored under the “Norman Yoke” prevailed among many peasants and freeholders, and this notion figured prominently in Winstanley’s writings. The revolution against Charles I was, therefore, a revolution to free England from the legacy of William the Conqueror. For “[w]hen William Duke of Normandy had conquered England, he took possession of the earth for his freedom and disposed of our English ground to his friends as he pleased, and made the conquered English his servants, to plant the earth for him and his friends.” In order to rectify this ancient wrong, Winstanley argued the English people should “recover the freedom of our land again, from under that yoke and power,” because “[t]rue commonwealth’s freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.” Free occupancy, the land held in common, was the birthright of all English, to work, to use, to enjoy — the Earth was, in short, “a Common Treasury.”

And while state authority was rightly perceived by Winstanley — “[f]or do we not see that the laws of a king, while a king, had the power of life and death in them?” — he failed to make a deeper criticism of state power, and a condemnation of this “power of life and death.” Much less did he suggest imperium, the death penalty, and the state itself should go the way of the Charles I and his “Norman” tyranny. He stated simply: “Government is a wise and free ordering of the earth and the manners of mankind by observation of particular laws or rules, so that all the inhabitants may live peaceably in plenty and freedom in the land where they are born and bred.” Even so, he believed the laws of a commonwealth should be “short and pithy” so as to be readily understood by the public. Tyranny was, he reasoned, facilitated by the public’s general ignorance of law. “Kingly law” was often written in French or Latin for precisely this reason, to maintain ignorance, to incite contention amongst the commoners, and thus protect the privilege of the gentry and nobility. “But now if the laws were few and short, and often read, it would prevent those evils;” Winstanley wrote, “and everyone, knowing when they did well and when ill, would be very cautious of their words and actions; and this would escape the lawyers’ craft.”

The legal regimen was to step away from English Common Law and establish Civil and Statute Law in its place. Common law was arbitrary, literally and figuratively, and “in many courts and cases of law the will of a judge and lawyer rules above the letter of the law.” But Statute Law was entirely just because it was enacted with the public’s consent and according to their understanding. “The bare letter of the law established by act of Parliament shall be the rule for officer and people, and the chief judge of all actions.” It was thus not subject to, and dependent upon, a judge’s interpretation, or precedents set in a similar fashion.

The second pillar upon which monarchial authority rested, following the judicial system, lawyers, judges, and all those officers who advanced “kingly law,” was the church and clergy, who advanced “divinity.” While Gerrard Winstanley’s desire was to see the “Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of universal Community and Freedom is risen” until “the Well Springs of Life and Liberty to the whole Creation, do over-run” and “drown those banks of Bondage, Curse and Slavery,” and his philosophy was firmly grounded in Christian sentiments, the clergy were viewed with particular distrust. “[T]heir work was to persuade the multitude of people to let [the heirs of] William the Conqueror alone with a quiet possession and government of the earth, and to call it his and not theirs, and so not to rebel against him” by means of “divine doctrine” which is “not to advance knowledge, but to destroy the true knowledge of God.”

He believed the clergy were guilty of contriving such abstractions which merely “blind the reason of man.” Invariably one who loses himself in the clergy’s sophistry while he “strives and stretches his brains to find out the depth of that doctrine and cannot attain to it: for indeed it is not knowledge but imagination.” Winstanley continued, “For my own part, my spirit hath waded deep to find the bottom of this divining spiritual doctrine: and the more I searched, the more I was at a loss; and I never came to quiet rest, and to know God in my spirit, till I came to the knowledge of the things in this book [The Law of Freedom],” as knowledge was to be gained in the thoughtful observation of Creation itself.

Tyranny had to be entirely uprooted; “kingly law” and the church, as a state institution, were to be disestablished, for if these remained, albeit behind a republican façade, monarchy would surely reemerge, and the people of England would find themselves no longer free, but subjects once more. In order to achieve “common freedom,“ it was necessary that the economy, and not just government, be reorganized. For it was all and good that the law should be remade, but man, being a material being, required material means in order to maintain and improve his existence.

“True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth,” Winstanley wrote. “For as man is compounded of the four materials of the creation, fire, water, earth and air; so is he preserved by the compounded bodies of these four, which are the fruits of the earth; and he cannot live without them. For take away the free use of these and the body languishes, the spirit is brought into bondage and at length departs, and ceaseth his motional action in the body.”

In order to combat the thralldom inherent in want, the True Levellers proposed that every unattached individual and every family had a common right to occupy the land, to use and work it in common, but that each should own their own home and have their own livestock and goods, though such goods be acquired from a “common store-house.” The family, although patriarchal, was the basic social unit in the democratic community they envisioned; it was the essential working-group in the social production of goods.

Winstanley believed in the fundamental equality of humanity, and between the sexes, stating it was unreasonable that “one branch of mankind should rule over another,” being that “[e]very single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe.” In education, marriage and in the enjoyment of the fruits of labor, men and women were held to be equals. “Every man and woman shall have the free liberty to marry whom they love, if they can obtain the love and liking of that party whom they would marry; and neither birth nor portion shall hinder the match, for we are all of one blood, mankind; and for portion, the common store-houses are every man and maid’s portion, as free to one as to another.”

The common store-houses were to be open to all, to be supplied for by every member of the community, and in which there would be neither buying nor selling, but free trade as a kind of indirect barter. There were to be stores from which personal goods might be obtained: Foodstuffs, clothing, shoes, gloves, furniture, etc. And there were to be stores from which supplies might be taken for the producers themselves: Leather and awls for shoemakers; lathes and saws for carpenters; bolts of cloth for tailors; stores of wood, hammers, and nails for builders; raw materials, etc. There were to be stores in every village, town, and shire, each for its given purpose, and finally national stores to facilitate trade between England and the other nations of the world.

In this common right to occupy and use the earth, there was lacking any notion that the earth should be state property, or property of any kind for that matter, but only that its occupation should be established reasonably so as to see it well-used and not despoiled. Institutionally, if anything, this free use of the earth might be likened, loosely, to usufruct, for one had every right to enjoy the fruits of the earth and one’s labor. Such a formulation regarding common rights in occupancy, use, possession, and the in creation and maintenance of a community of goods, would be seen again in the writings of the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin as he expounded upon the values of “Free Communism” two-hundred-fifty years later.

Gold and silver should be used primarily in the creation of ornaments, cups, utensils, etc., for it was not to be stamped coinage, except in the case of foreign trade where it was to be stamped with the Coat of Arms of the Commonwealth so that foreign traders might have access to English common stores, and the English to foreign markets, where direct barter was not feasible. It was never to be used traded domestically, for it was believed such buying and selling would signal the reintroduction of “kingly government,” tyranny, bondage, and class-rule.

The Commonwealth was to be centralized in that Parliament would be vested with the authority to legislate all national laws, but that each community should be autonomous in the execution of the law, and particularly in the ordering of production. Further, each town and city should send “two or three” representative to Parliament. And each shire should have it own “senate.” Adult male suffrage was to be universal, but the franchise should be divided. The first half of that division was the right to choose officers and representatives. In this, all men over the age of twenty should have the right to choose. However, in the second portion of the political franchise, that of being eligible to run for office, it was extended to men over forty, because “youths” were deemed “wanton.” Nevertheless, a young man of noteworthy industriousness and/or moderation might be deemed worthy of office-holding should his fellows so agree to elect him.

Of particular interest was the office which Winstanley called the “overseer.” The overseer was a village or town official who oversaw the various family industries for the sake of economic efficiency and proper land stewardship, to offer professional advice, and according to his own expertise. In each village there would be several overseers. The overseer was also to see to it that youths were well-employed and that their creative impulses should not be stifled, particularly with those showing genius. These overseers were also to act as a peacemakers, to arbitrate and resolve disputes, so as to avoid the courts whenever possible.

All officers, from judges, overseers, and clergymen, to members of parliament, were to hold office for only one year. “When public officers remain long in place of judicature,” wrote Winstanley, “they will degenerate from the bounds of humility, honesty and tender care of brethren, in regard the heart of man is so subject to be overspread with the clouds of covetousness, pride and vain-glory: for though at the first entrance into places of rule they be of public spirits, seeking the freedom of others as their own; yet continuing long in such a place where honours and greatness is coming in, they become selfish, seeking themselves and not common freedom; as experience proves it true in these days, according to this common proverb.”

Above all, and in common with modern anarchists, the True Levellers valued self-government, democracy’s foundation, as can be seen when Winstanley wrote: “the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him”. In other words, Winstanley believed humanity had within itself certain innate moral and social instincts, each sufficient in reason, to allow for self-government and participation in public deliberation.

Should the Law of Freedom in Platform be enacted, Winstanley believed that, in time, the English Commonwealth would be a “lily among the nations of the earth,” and the law of “perfect freedom” would “go forth from England to all the nations of the world,” so in the place of monarchies, commonwealths would arise, and peaceable relations between all peoples would flourish.

Following the English Revolution, unfortunately, the Commonwealth was too unsteady and divided to fulfill its promise. To keep the conquests made its earlier kings, England invaded Scotland and Ireland. And the Commonwealth’s government degenerated into that of the Cromwell’s Protectorate. Under such circumstances, it can be no surprise that Winstanley’s proposal should go unheeded.

Gerrard Winstanley became a Quaker in 1654, and he and his first wife, Susan, accepted a gift of land, near Cobham, from his father-in-law. Throughout, he remained a Christian universalist, believing all men would be saved, “though some at the last hour.”

The Restoration, Glorious Revolution, and Beyond

In all, republicanism was short-lived in England, and the monarchy was reinstituted with the ascension of Charles II in 1660. The Restoration saw the final suppression of the revolutionists with the arrest and execution of the theocratic Fifth Monarchy Men, some of which they termed regicides, because Thomas Harrison, one of their number, signed the death warrant for Charles I. But the absolutism of the English monarchy died with Charles I. For when the avowed Catholic James II, the son of Charles II, took the throne, the English feared, once more, the rise of an absolute Catholic monarchy. In 1688, Parliamentarians of both parties, the Whigs and Tories, sought out William III of Orange to sit upon the English throne with Mary II, daughter of James II. In a bloodless coup d’état, James II was displaced.

In 1689, the English Bill of Rights was passed, thus consolidating anew many of the gains Parliament had earlier made under the republican Commonwealth government.

Gerrard Winstanley had written to Oliver Cromwell, in preface of his The Law of Freedom: “There is no middle path between these two [republic and monarchy], for a man must either be a free and true commonwealth’s man, or a monarchical tyrannical royalist.” It is ironic perhaps then that the English got just that, a “middle path,” following the Glorious Revolution and the enactment of the Bill of Rights, in the creation of the quasi-democratic6 constitutional monarchy in existence today.

Republicanism is not a dead letter in the United Kingdom, however. Laborite Tony Benn, an active socialist politician, presented a bill before Parliament first in 1991, and several times again until his retirement in 2001, called the “Commonwealth of Britain Bill.” It would, in effect, create a democratic, federal, and secular republic in Britain, with separate parliaments for England, Wales, and Scotland, the abolition of the monarchy, the creation of a presidential office, the disestablishment of the Church of England, and an end to British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

Gerrard Winstanley died in 1676; his ideals persist.


  1. Republic, from Latin res publica, means the “public matter.” In the larger sense an anarchy would still be a republic, but one of a peculiar sort — a stateless democratic and socialist republic. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin referred to anarchy in two ways: the “Republic-Commune” and “Republic-Federation,” depending on the scale of its influence.
  2. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2000, IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., Foster City, California.
  3. Sir Robert Filmer (1588 – 1653), a Royalist, expressed the idea in his writings that any check on the absolute authority of a monarch was to invite “anarchy.” In this way, Royalists regarded all “Commonwealth Men,” that is, republicans, simply anarchists. The “Ranters” were particularly regarded as such, and charged especially with being sexual libertines. Neveretheless, the Ranters — provided they were not a figment of that age’s conservative propaganda — were “anarchistic” only in the sense that they were antinomial, believing they communed with God directly, without any need to obey church authority or observe holy writ or law.
  4. Parliament legally consists of the Crown, House of Lords, and House of Commons, but common usage has left it to mean the House of Commons.
  5. John Pym (1584 – 1643), an English Puritan, was the leader of Parliament during its struggle with King Charles I. His shrewd management allowed Parliament to finance their war against the Royalists, and, ultimately, overcome the Crown.
  6. I say quasi-democratic because the United Kingdom is a monarchial state, the Crown is legally sovereign, the people have very little say in the actual formulation of state policy, and the method by which representatives are elected yields skewed results where mere electoral pluralities lead to governing majorities.