Christopher Hill’s 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, argues that there were two English revolutions in the 1640s and 1650s. The first benefited the gentry and the merchants by establishing “the sacred rights of property” and the sovereignty of Parliament. The second, that failed, might have established universal suffrage, democratic socialism, and religious toleration.
Contemporary observers feared the common people might become a third party in addition to factions of royalists and parliamentarians. Even before the execution of Charles I in 1649, the rank and file in the parliamentary army called for sweeping changes in the political system. In the spring of 1647 they elected representatives called agitators from each regiment and marched on Parliament to present their demands for back wages and religious toleration.
A proposal to establish universal suffrage was put forward by John Lilburne and other Levellers in The Agreement of the People, discussed in the Putney Debates of October 1647. Ireton, representing the Grandees, rejected the proposals of the rank and file for universal suffrage, and offered instead a compromise, The Heads of the Proposals, that would confine the vote to rate payers (those property owners who had a vested interest in the future of the country). The Levellers thought of property quite differently. They defined freedom as the right to the property in a man’s own labor. A Leveller mutiny that broke out in Burford in May 1649 was put down by Cromwell.
In April 1649 the True Levellers or Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, began to dig and plant the common land on St. George Hill in Surrey. In 1650 the Diggers demanded that the government turn over confiscated royalist lands to the poor. Cromwell sent soldiers to disband the group.
The gentry and merchants who dominated Parliament were generally not democrats, but individuals interested in protecting their property from the arbitrary actions of a monarch and from the tyranny of the “mob” (read common people).
Religious toleration of all
Protestants led to a proliferation of religious sects: Baptists, Ranters,
Seekers, Quakers, Antinomians, and Fifth Monarchy Men. Many of these individuals
believed that the execution of King Charles I prepared the way for King
Jesus and the Second Coming. The Fifth Monarchists called upon the elect
to remove hindrances to Christ’s rule immediately, and this included existing
rulers. Such advice was not, in Cromwell’s opinion, encompassed in promises
of religious toleration, and he used the army to put down Fifth Monarchist