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'The maddest Christmas that ever I saw': The Levellers at Christmas

John Rees19 December 2016

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In this extract from The Leveller Revolution, John Rees describes one of the great popular mobilisation of the English Revolution over the Christmas of 1641. It was described by one eye-witness, Captain Robert Slyngsbie as ‘the maddest Christmas that ever I saw’

The Christmas of 1641 started well enough for Colonel Thomas Lunsford. King Charles had appointed him Lieutenant of the Tower of London. It was an important post giving him control of the fortress that dominated the eastern fringe of the capital. The Tower was also the home of the Mint and the depository of much of the City’s merchant wealth. The new role was apolitical appointment of considerable significance, at a time of heightened crisis. In the already highly charged political atmosphere of late 1641 Charles was determined to regain political control of London, and saw Lunsford’s appointment as an ideal opening gambit.

Charles had needed a dramatic change in his fortunes. The year had already been scarred by rebellion in Ireland, causing something close to political panic among both the political elite and the population across Britain. Tales of massacres of Protestants and imminent Catholic invasion circulated like wildfire. In January 1641 Charles’ key minister, the Earl of Strafford had been charged before the Commons and, later, convicted and executed as a traitor in front of a huge crowd at the Tower. In February charges of impeachment were brought against Archbishop Laud, the clerical mainstay of the Stuart government. He in turn had been imprisoned in the Tower. The Commons then dismantled the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission that had been used to enforce Laud’s regime of religious intolerance in July. In November the catalogue of Charles’ failures in the eyes of Parliament, the Grand Remonstrance, was passed and then, later, printed.

Even Charles’ one success, the ending of the Bishops’ Wars with Scotland, a disastrous product of the King’s attempt to impose a new church structure north of the border, had left demobbed soldiers, known as reformadoes, adrift in the streets of London looking for pay and employment in Ireland. Thomas Lunsford was one of them. At the same time the Tower remained the site of continual conflict throughout the year. When the Commons had imprisoned the Earl of Strafford in the Tower in May ahead of his execution the King sent soldiers to try and affect a rescue. But the then Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Balfour, had barred them from entering. Charles now aimed to strike a bold blow in the battle to control London by removing Balfour and putting the Tower in the hands of a figure of unquestioning loyalty.

Thomas Lunsford’s loyalty to the King was beyond question, but everything else about him was less impressive. Perhaps the only bad thing to have been said about Lunsford which was untrue was the accusation of cannibalism; even if he himself did claim that he was ‘fierce enough to eat children’. Lunsford was the very picture of a cavalier. Red haired and short tempered, even his own cousin, Lord Dorset, described Lunsford as ‘a young outlaw who neither fears God nor man, and who, having given himself over to all lewdness and dissoluteness, only studies to affront justice, [taking] glory to be esteemed... a swaggering ruffian’. In 1633 he made an attempt on the life of his Sussex neighbour Sir Thomas Pelham after Lunsford’s family were found guilty of poaching Pelham’s deer. Lunsford fired his pistol at Sir Thomas’ coach as it left East Hoathly church after Sunday morning service. The bullet passed through the coach and lodged in the church door. Lunsford was imprisoned in Newgate but escaped to France where he became a soldier of fortune and Colonel of a regiment of foot that he raised himself. Lunsford owed a fine of £8,000 imposed by order of the Court of Star Chamber. In 1639 Lunsford returned to England to offer his services to King Charles in the Bishops’ Wars. Consequently, Charles pardoned him and dismissed the fine. Lunsford was a loyal soldier and this further recommended him to the King, despite Lunsford’s claim to have killed two mutineers out of hand. So it was that on 22 December 1641 Charles appointed Lunsford to the Tower, apparently on the advice of one of his more irascible courtiers, Lord Digby.[1]

Every element of the Parliamentary opposition to Charles, and their wider circles of support across the City, reacted with fierce disapproval to Lunsford’s appointment. The City complained and petitioned the Commons demanding Lunsford be removed. Future Leveller leader Richard Overton was one of the signatures on the City petition which described Lunsford as ‘a man outlawed and most notorious for outrages’ who was ‘fit for any dangerous Attempt’ and who had put the City in the ‘Height of Fear’.[2] The majority in the Commons agreed and demanded that the Lords join them in protesting at the appointment. The Lords refused on the grounds that it was ‘in his Majesty’s power to make choyce of his own Officers’. The Commons insisted that Lunsford was ‘of a decayed and desperate fortune’ and of a ‘desperate condition’ and could not be trusted with the Mint or the merchants’ money. They recalled his attack on Sir Thomas Pelham and added to it Lunsford’s threat to a Captain Buller that he would ‘cut his throat’. In debate the Commons heard that when on the continent Lunsford was so ‘given to drinking and quarrelling that all civill and sober men avoided his company’, that he had fled the Low Countries to escape debt, that he had stolen money from his own troops, and that he was ‘debauched’ and unfit to control the Tower. Respectable citizens and less respectable apprentices came to the doors of Westminster demanding that Lunsford be dismissed. Republican MP and future Leveller ally Henry Marten was instructed to seize the arms of Lunsford’s supporters. London, particularly the City, was now arming itself. One newsletter from the capital issued this call the day after Lunsford’s appointment: ‘I say still, provide weapons, get muskets, powder and shot. Let not the Popish party surprise us with a riding rod only in our hands’. The cry was not in vain: ‘There is a great ado made for arms…there is not any muskets or other guns to be bought, not iron to make them of, so great is the fears of the people here, especially about the Tower’. Even late on Christmas Day ‘there were hundreds watching voluntarily to prevent some income of the soldiers, the Lieutenant being sworn and in. All the merchants have taken out their bullion out of the Tower which was to be coined’. The outcry was so great that on Sunday 26 December the Lord Mayor visited Charles in Whitehall on two occasions to tell him of the ‘tumultuous rising of the Prentices and other inferior persons of London’ who had warned that if Lunsford were not removed there would be ‘some further inconvenience happen upon it’. This ‘further inconvenience’, the Commons heard, would be ‘an attempt on the Tower’ to force Lunsford out. This did the trick and later the same day the King retreated and removed Lunsford. But this proved to be too small a retreat, too late.[3]

The crowds still swarmed to Westminster Yard outside Parliament on the following day, Monday 27 December. The news of Lunsford’s removal, far from pacifying the crowd, seemed to ‘increase the uproare’. Some of the crowd were armed with clubs and they called out to the members of both Houses ‘No Bishops, No Popish Lords!’. But the citizens weren’t the only ones to arrive at Westminster that day. So did the freshly humiliated Colonel Lunsford with about 30 or 40 supporters. Neither he, nor they, were in an even temper. In fact Lunsford was ‘resolved to be revenged upon those which first went about to withstand him’.[4]

Lunsford and his supporters swaggered into Westminster Hall and began abusing the London citizens gathered there. They repeatedly taunted the people asking ‘I wonder which of you dare speake against Bishops’. One ‘country gentleman’ stepped forward and told them that ‘my conscience doth tell me that Bishops are no law full’. Swords were drawn but the crowd intervened and parted them. In another incident Captain David Hide, a demobilised soldier from the army, drew his sword and said he would ‘cut the throats of those Round headed Dogs that bawl against the Bishops’. It was the first time that ‘roundhead’ was used as a term of abuse. In the midst of this was a figure already familiar to radical Londoners. This was the future leader of the Levellers, John Lilburne. Lilburne was leading a crowd of apprentices and sailors who confronted Hide. With his own sword drawn Lilburne disarmed Hide ‘and brought both him & his sword up to the House of Commons door’. Astoundingly Hide was immediately released and rejoined Lunsford in Westminster Hall. Then Lunsford’s party ‘all drew their swords and Rapiers, and fell upon the people with great violence’. Lilburne recorded that the cavaliers ‘fell to slashing and cutting’ the crowd driving them in panic ‘up the very Parliament staire’. Some fled into the adjacent Court of Wards and some up the stairs to the Court of Requests. There they found parliamentarian stalwart Sir Richard Wiseman who ‘perceiving how it went, spoke most bravely to animate them to return with such weapons as they had’. Lilburne recalled ‘Sir Richard Wiseman, my selfe, and divers other Citizens with our swords in our hands freely adventured our lives’ to drive back Lunsford’s cavaliers. Wiseman fought two or three of Lunsford’s gang, breaking the rapier of one into two pieces. He was joined by some sailors with clubs. But they were outnumbered until more apprentices and sailors arrived and began to fight back using tiles prised from the floor or walls. A running fight was now in process across Westminster Hall.

News of this was abroad in the City and hundreds of apprentices arrived at Westminster armed with swords and staves. As Lilburne later recalled, ‘I fought with C. Lunsford, and divers others at Westminster (who drew first) with my sword in my hand, to save the Parliament men throats from being cut’. The ‘citizens… fought like enraged lions’ and Lilburne and his supporters got the better of Lunsford and ‘his crue of ruffians’, as they were later to refer describe them. Half the gentlemen ran away at the first volley of stones and, eventually, all the gentlemen of the court scattered or were ‘beat down’. Lunsford himself had to escape the crowd by wading into the Thames until the water came over the tops of his boots in order to make his getaway in a boat.[5]

[1] B Morgan, ‘Sir Thomas Lunsford’, ODNB. HMC, De L’Isle and Dudley Manuscripts, Vol. VI, 1626-1698 (London, HMSO, 1966) p. 192.

[2] House of Lords MS, HP/PO/JO/1/18. F. 268-269. I agree with Robert Brenner that the final name on this manuscript copy of the Londoner’s petition appears to be ‘Rich. Overton’. The transcribed copy in the LJ has this as ‘Ric. Turner’. See R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Cambridge, CUP, 1993) pp. 398, 364 and LJ, Vol. 4, 23 December 1641 (London, 1767-1830), pp. 486-488. I do not however follow Brenner in seeing Overton as a signature of the following day’s London petition.

[3] CJ, Vol. 2, 1640-1643, 23 December 1641. J Rushworth, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, Vol. 4, 1640-42 (London, 1721) pp. 436-471. Diurnal Occurences of the heads of Severall proceedings in both Houses of Parliament, 20 December 1641-27 December 1641 (London, 1641) E201[4]. Diurnal Occurences of the heads of Severall proceedings in both Houses of Parliament, 27 December 1641-3 January 1642 (London, 1641) E201[5]. W H Coates (ed.), The Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes (Hamden, Archon Books, 1970) pp. 336, 345. HMC, Montague MS (1900) p. 137.

[4] The Scots Loyaltie (London, 1641). E181[16]. Diurnal Occurences of the heads of Severall proceedings in both Houses of Parliament, 27 December 1641-3 January 1642 (London, 1641) E201[5]. HMC, Montague MS (1900) p. 137.

[5] A Bloody Masacre (London, 1641). E181[9]. The Scots Loyaltie (London, 1641). E181[16]. Diurnal Occurences of the heads of Severall proceedings in both Houses of Parliament, 27 December 1641-3 January 1642 (London, 1641) E201[5]. J Rushworth, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, Vol. 4, 1640-42 (London, 1721) pp. 436-471. J Lilburne, Innocency and Truth Justified (London, 1645) pp. 14-15. E314[22]. J Lilburne, The Legal Fundamental Liberties (London, 1649) p. 22. E560[14]. J Lilburne, The Copy of a Letter sent by Lieutenant Colonell John Lilburne to a friend (London, 1645) pp. 3-4. E296[5]. England’s Weeping Spectacle (1648) p. 3. E450[7]. J Lilburne, Liberty Vindicated Against Slavery (London, 1646) pp. 18-19. E351[2]. S Chidley, The Dissembling Scot (London, 1652) p. 5. E652[13]. HMC, Montague MS (1900) p. 138.

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