Turbulent Londoners: Robert Lockyer, 1625/6–1649

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The fourth Turbulent Londoner is Robert Lockyer, a 17th Century Leveller and parliamentarian who became a martyr for his cause.

Illustration from the 1649 title page of The Declaration and Standard of the Levellers of England (Source: Wikimedia).

Since 2009, Crossrail has been burrowing its way beneath central London. Considering London has over 2000 years of history, it is not surprising that Crossrail is engaged in one of the largest archaeological projects the UK has ever seen. Excavation is soon to begin on the Bedlam burial ground under Liverpool Street Station, which was used in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and is the location of the final resting place of Robert Lockyer, Leveller and parliamentarian.

Robert Lockyer was alive several hundred years before any of the Londoners I have featured so far, and he was not a member of the aristocracy, so relatively little is known about his life. He would have faded into obscurity if not for the dramatic circumstances of his death when he was just 25. Lockyer was probably born in Bishopsgate, London, and joined the parliamentarian army in 1642, the year in which civil war broke out between King Charles I and the Long Parliament.

Lockyer was a Leveller, a group that was considered radical even in the English republic established after the execution of Charles I in 1649. They were the first democratic movement in Britain, demanding universal manhood suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. Their ideas were influential in the American and French revolutions, and they continue to inspire activists.

London was politically volatile after Charles’ execution, and some units of the army were moved outside the city to separate them from Leveller influence. Lockyer’s regiment was already restless, and when the order was given to move to Essex on the 26th April 1649 Lockyer and the other men under Captain John Savage refused to leave. They took the troop’s colours and barricaded themselves in The Bull Inn, a well-known radical meeting place. Captain Savage found them and ordered them back, but they refused unless they were paid a fortnight’s wages with arrears. Lockyer was singled out with a direct order to obey, but still he refused.

Eventually the Commander-in-chief of the Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and Oliver Cromwell himself arrived, and everyone was arrested. The 6 ringleaders, including Lockyer, were sentenced to death. Lockyer was the only one who was executed though, by firing squad in St Paul’s Churchyard the next day. He became a martyr for the Leveller cause, and his funeral was attended by 4000 Londoners wearing black and sea green (the colour of the Levellers) ribbons, a powerful show of force for the Leveller cause.

Robert Lockyer was not rich, famous, or politically powerful. Yet as a result of his actions he is still remembered nearly four centuries later, and out of the 3000 skeletons expected to be dug up during the Crossrail excavation, his is the one causing excitement. Neither Lockyer nor the Levellers managed to achieve their goals, and he and many others suffered a great deal for their beliefs. However he proved an inspiration for many activists and campaigners since, and it is impossible to tell how many successful campaigns his story played a role in motivating.

Sources and Further Reading

Benn, Tony. ‘The Levellers and the Tradition of Dissent.’ BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 9th February 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/benn_levellers_01.shtml

Gentles, Ian J. ‘Lockyer, Robert (1625/6–1649)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 2004, accessed 9th February 2015 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/47102

Keys, David. ‘Could Crossrail have uncovered the last resting place of Britain’s left-wing martyr in Bedlam burial ground under Liverpool Street station?’ Independent. Published February 9th 2015, accessed February 9th 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/news/could-crossrail-have-uncovered-the-last-resting-place-of-britains-leftwing-martyr-in-bedlam-burial-ground-under-liverpool-street-station-10032619.html

Sea Green Society, The. ‘For the Liberties of England…’ The Sea Green Society. Last modified 18th August 2009, accessed 9th February 2015. https://seagreensociety.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/for-the-liberties-of-england/ 

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