In recognition of the 365th Anniversary of the Leveller Debates at the end of the First English Civil War Occupy London held a series of events inspired by the seventeenth century Levellers and Diggers: two radical forward thinking groups that were to grow out of the forment of revolutionary ideas spawned by the momentous events of the English Civil Wars. The collective title under which these discussions were to be promoted across the internet, both on WordPress, Facebook and elsewhere, was ‘The New Putney Debates’: a name that was to be inspired by the original venue where the Levellers themselves were to participate in a series of discussions of their own, at the Church of St. Mary, in what was at that time the village of Putney.
As well as attempting to redress certain grievances then prevalent among the rank and file of the Army, in relation to pay, conditions, and the crimes and atrocities that they themselves had been ordered to carry out, often under duress, during the course of the War, by their superiors, the purpose of the original Putney Debates was as a forum of discussion in relation to a number of key issues centred on political reform. These were to include the introduction of universal sufferage, something that we ourselves view as one of our principal democratic rights in our present day society, but which in the seventeenth century was an idea totally at odds with the then Established Order of Monarchy, National Church and House of Lords. The three pillars of Seventeenth Century English Society.
In addition to the Monarchy, which many of the Levellers wanted to see abolished, in view of the King’s role in the series of events that were to bring about the Civil War in the first place, another key issue was that of land rights in relation to Common Land, as well as the re-establishment of Custom Law and Common Right; as it had existed before the Norman Conquest. This particular issue was possibly one of the most contentious under discussion during the course of the original Putney Debates which took place in Putney Church between the Levellers, their representatives, and prominent members of the Parliamentary Army Council generally referred to as ‘the Grandees’.
The idea that some primitive form of democracy had existed in England before the Norman Conquest did not just filter down to the Levellers, but appears in the writings of Milton. It can also be found in Langland’s ‘Piers Ploughman’, a major influence upon the leaders of the Fourteenth Century Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The surviving transcript of the supposed negotiations between King Richard II and Wat Tyler, leader of the Kentish Rebels, which took place in London’s Smithfield shortly before the latter’s death at the hands of Sir William de Walworth, at that time Lord Mayor of London, makes direct reference to a series of early legal tracts; referred to by Tyler himself as ‘The Laws of Winchester’.
According to one set of traditions, these so called ‘Laws of Winchester’ were based on the original Pre-Roman Druidic Laws of the Dark Age Welsh Kings; who had succeeded Arthur and his Knights as the inheritors of an even earlier legal system which can be traced right the way back into the misty primordial roots of Prehistoric Civilization. It is fact that many ancient Mediaeval Welsh legal tracts, which date from a time when much of Wales was still a distinct and independent principality free of the domination of the English Crown, are generally referred to as constituting the fragmentary remnants of just such a system. It is also fact that King Alfred the Great, whose capital was at Winchester and who is himself accredited with codifying these so called ‘Laws of Winchester’ into the form in which they are referred to by Tyler, was possessed of a Welsh mentor and adviser; in the person of Asser, his biographer.
We can therefore conclude from this that there was indeed some legal basis for the assertions made by both the Levellers themselves and their Mediaeval predecessors alike; that some sort of primitive democracy did exist before the advent of the Norman Conquest. And, from the sources that are still available to us, these ancient customs are known to have been the primordial antecendents of what are generally referred to as Mediaeval Folk Moots. Gatherings of local dignitaries, and others, before assemblies of the Common People.
Besides ‘Choir Gavr’, or Stonehenge, one of the principal traditional places where such gatherings are believed to have taken place is on Kennnington Common. And, it was to be here, on a long since demolished, but undoubtedly prehistoric, earthwork, or Moot Hill, in 1848, that the leader of the Chartists, O’Connor, addressed his assembled supporters; before their historic march on Parliament in the pursuit of political reform. In a future posting we shall look at the implications of this event in relation to our own present democracy and its possible influence on events that are to come…..