Travel Britain: The Cotswold coup

Rob Stepney
Friday 15 May 1998 23:02 BST

Mellow stone walls, teashops, postcard-pretty houses - that's Burford. And it's also the birthplace of Britain's first socialist movement, celebrated today, writes Rob Stepney

Let it only be whispered in the Cotswold cream teashops of Burford High Street, but this prosperous town that now lies so peacefully in the valley of the Windrush was once the centre of a bloody insurrection that might have changed the history of England.

The revolt of dissident "Leveller" troops from Oliver Cromwell's victorious army aimed to push the government into reforms that would have transformed post-Civil War society. The radical democrat rebellion in fact ended in imprisonment and death. But the places associated with the events of three-and-a-half centuries ago add unexpected interest to this mellow, wisteria-walled town. They also provide the focus for an unusual annual celebration by groups who feel the Levellers' impetus towards radical change has not yet been exhausted.

It was on a May evening in 1649. The scene by the church was much as today (except for the distant dazzle of the rape fields). Overlooked by the dogtoothed Norman tower and massive spire, the watermeadows across the mill stream were probably bright with buttercups and cow parsley. Then there came the sound of men on horses, almost a thousand of them, as Burford was overwhelmed by mutinous troops.

For years, the people of the town had experienced the ebb and flow of Royalist and Parliamentarian forces, cowering from occasional firefights that left dead in the streets, but more typically enduring the casual oppressions of what seemed like an occupying force, from whichever side it came. That said, the Civil War was over, King Charles already dead. And not many Burford inhabitants would have understood why soldiers were once again in their streets.

Arrears of pay had eroded loyalty. But what led these Cromwellian troopers to outright mutiny was an ideal of democracy that was more than a century ahead of its time, and would not be countenanced by those the Civil War brought to power. Leveller beliefs eventually found lasting expression in the declarations that accompanied the American Revolution. But for the rank and file rebels that spring night, the future held only imprisonment and, for three of their leaders, the firing squad.

Thinking they were safe from pursuit in Burford, the mutineers posted few guards. Troops loyal to Cromwell surprised them during the night. There was skirmishing, and one attacker was killed by rebels defending the Crown high-street pharmacy. But those who did not escape in the darkness soon surrendered.

On the lead-lined font of Burford church is an inscription, worn but legible. It reads "Anthony Sedley, 1649, Prisner", with the "n"s reversed, painstakingly etched with the tip of a knife during three days of incarceration. Sedley survived. But on 17 May three leaders of the Levellers were executed by Cromwell's muskets. The likely place was against the high part of the churchyard wall, though the holes notionally made by musket balls should not be trusted.

Today, wreaths will be laid at the memorial on the church, and "The Red Flag" will be sung. This is only a part of the day's commemoration, organised by the Levellers' Day Committee of the Oxford Workers' Educational Association. There will also be speeches in the old church hall, a procession down the high street, Morris dancing, family picnics, and the possibility of adjournment to a good pub, of which there are several. But the question remains: why "The Red Flag"? Twenty-five years ago, after centuries of neglect, the memory of the Levellers was renewed by Oxford socialists. Tony Benn is unofficial patron of Levellers' Day, and Ken Livingstone has been a speaker at the annual event.

Such celebration has not always found favour with some sections of the Burford community. There was a time in the Eighties when a rival booking of the church hall was planned to frustrate the organisers of Levellers' Day, and when the singing of "The Red Flag" was countered by a rendering of "Rule, Britannia". Happily, the animosity of those days has disappeared. "Relations with Burford town council are now friendly. The only issue is where we should park," says David Lewis, who has for many years helped organise Levellers' Day. "The police, too, are understanding. They treat the brief interruption to traffic caused by our high-street parade as a slow-moving vehicle.

"In remembering people in the past who fought and suffered for their beliefs, we can provide others with inspiration," he continues. "The message is that you're not alone."

But the question of who should really inherit the spirit of the Levellers is still a live local issue. The Burford historian Raymond Moody argues that the executed soldiers Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church would turn in their unmarked graves at those who come to lay their wreaths.

"With the Levellers' emphasis on the sanctity of private property and resistance to state interference, I can't understand why they should have become a left-wing icon," he says. "Simply because they were on the side of the underdog did not mean that they were the forerunners of socialism." It was their faith in God and not the class struggle that gave these men the courage to bare their chests to the firing party that May morning, he argues.

What did the mutinous rebel soldiers who marched on Burford in fact demand? The Levellers' "Agreement of the Free People of England", smuggled out of prison earlier that month, called for the right to vote for all men who worked independently for a living; free trade; the abolition of the House of Lords; elected judges; and secure title to land for small farmers. Despite the "Leveller" name coined by their political enemies, there was no hint in their programme of the common ownership of property or means of production.

Raymond Moody continues: "The Levellers' beliefs also sprang from the view that the problems of England derived from pernicious laws imposed on the people by foreigners - the `Norman Yoke' - and it is an irony that Levellers' Day this year will be addressed by someone from the European Parliament."

Moody also finds it intriguing that men whose political ideals were so firmly linked with a non-conformist Christian conscience should be celebrated by a movement with an essentially atheist ideology.

Burford beauties

Apart from Levellers' Day, the attractions of this picture-postcard town include the high street, the little Tolsey Museum (open Mon-Thurs, 2pm-5pm; Fri, Sat and Sun, 11am-5pm, adults 50p, children 10p) which gives a lively insight into local history, and Sheep Street with its fine 15th- and 16th-century houses built with money from the wool trade. However, in summer it is essential to get to Burford early in the day, before the crowds descend.

Those with children in tow could then escape the throng and make for the Cotswold Wildlife Safari Park (open daily, 10am-5pm; adults pounds 5.50, children 3-15, pounds 3.50) just south of Burford. Slightly further afield, near Witney, is the wonderful Victorian farm and manor house, Cogges Manor Farm (Tues-Fri, 10.30am-4.30pm, Sat and Sun, 12pm-4.30pm; adults pounds 3.25, children 3-16 pounds 1.75).

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