essays

Mar 1, 1981

Levellers: Historical Continuity & Rights

“In sum, the Levellers made peace with the English Middle Ages and their continuity with the common law.”

R.B. Seaberg
State University of New York, Binghamton

“The Norman Conquest and the Common Law: The Levellers and the Argument from Continuity.” The Historical Journal (England) 24, 4 (1981): 791–806.

J.G.A. Pocock, Christopher Hill, and Quentin Skinner have contributed to the theory that the Levellers, 17th-century revolutionary advocates of natural rights, viewed common law as a yoke imposed by the Norman conquest, which ruptured the historical continuity with the earlier righteous customs and laws of the Anglo-Saxons. Hill contrasted the ideological camp of Sir Edward Coke who (rejecting a disruptive ‘conquest’) adhered to the common law theory of continuity with the camp of the Levellers who saw the Norman conquest as the end of the rule of just law. Quentin Skinner has further contrasted the two groups, asserting that the Levellers’ view of the Norman conquest as a ‘fatal breach’ in the continuity of English law moved them away from history and common law for their political justification towards natural rights theory as the groundwork of their political platform.

This composite interpretation, however, suffers from two fatal fallacies. “First it depends on the mistaken assumption that the Levellers perceived all existing rule as an alien yoke dating back to 1066. In point of fact, the leaders adopted a particular view of English law, based on their reading of historians and legists, which allowed them to turn the law against itself while always using the law as a yardstick by which to measure arbitrariness.” Second, the Levellers sense of historical and legal continuity was “no simple belief in unchanging law, but represented a more complex view of a basic rhythm in English history.”

By studying the Leveller tracts and the historians and chroniclers whom the Levellers drew upon for their interpretation of English history and law, we note that the Levellers were animated by a sense of continuity with the ancient constitution and liberties which were not fatally breached by the Norman conquest. They saw themselves as actors in a recurrent drama of reasserting rule by law and preserving neglected rights and laws. The Levellers’ favorite historians—Raphael Hollinshed, Samuel Daniel, John Speed, and William Martyn—did indeed view the Norman conquest as an administrative yoke of thraldom; but one that did not totally destroy England’s substantive connection with her more righteous common law heritage. Overton and other Levellers could view the post-Norman Magna Carta as a pledge of true liberties; likewise Lilburne and Walwyn adopted Coke’s version (against the chroniclers) of trial by jury as no Norman import but a living relic of pre-Norman justice. Lilburne and Wildman also robbed the Norman conquest of its ‘fatality’ by recognizing how William the Conqueror submitted to the historic continuity of the coronation oaths, which asserted the peoples ‘historic rights’ and ‘ancient customs.’

In sum, the Levellers made peace with the English Middle Ages and their continuity with the common law. In their political theory the Levellers conceived of themselves as heirs of the unbroken English tradition of right reason imbedded in law. Their view of natural rights was defined in such a way as to be identical with the best parts of the common law tradition.