Edward Sexby (1618-1658) – A comrade-in-arms

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The ‘agitator’ Edward Sexby was one of the most vocal critics of the army ‘Grandees’ at the Putney Debates and a significant figure behind many of the publications arising from the ‘new agents’. The details of his early life are sketchy – he was probably the son of Marcus Saxbie, a gentleman of London. In 1632 an Edward Sexby was apprenticed to Edward Price of the Grocer’s Company. Sexby began his military career in 1643 as part of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’, his famous Cavalry force. By the time of the creation of the New Model Army in 1645, he was a trooper in Fairfax’s regiment of horse.

Sexby first attracted political notoriety as the alleged author of An Apologie for the Common Soldiers, the first manifesto produced by the ‘Agitators’. He was questioned at the bar of the House of Commons for his participation in the drafting, printing and circulation of the pamphlet. In the text, the soldiers made clear that they would refuse to serve in Ireland until their grievances were addressed. It also pre-empted the same blunt language that Sexby would use against Cromwell and Ireton at Putney in warning the army’s leadership that they would be accounted ‘traitors’ if they did not stand with the common soldiery. Sexby seems to have avoided punishment for his involvement in producing this pamphlet and, despite the threats contained within it, he was entrusted by the senior officers with funds to purchase a printing press for the army. Sexby was also one of the twelve soldiers tasked by Fairfax with laying charges before Parliament against the eleven leading Presbyterian MPs in July of 1647.

Over the remainder of the summer and early autumn, Sexby appears to have been an important intermediary between the officers, the Agitators and the ‘new agents’ that emerged in the Cavalry regiments. Historians have speculated that this may indicate the degree to which Sexby was embedded in influential London radical networks. His fellow Putney debater, Maximilian Petty, was his contemporary in the London Grocer’s Company. It was Sexby who introduced Petty and Wildman at the Putney Debates. Correspondence also suggests that Sexby and the MP Henry Marten who appears to have been central to these radical networks, knew each other in the late 1640s.

Historians have also identified Sexby as the principal author of the pamphlet which initiated the debates, The Case of the Armie Truly Stated. Certainly, at Putney Sexby was noticeably less vocal in his support for the plan of settlement mapped out in the Agreement of the People, instead insisting vehemently on the demand for manhood suffrage explicitly made in the Case of the Armie, claiming it was the ‘ground that wee took uppe armes.’ From the outset, Sexby made clear in his contributions to the debates that he viewed the King as the greatest threat to the army’s security. Although we know relatively little about Sexby’s religious outlook, he also seems to have shared William Goffe’s apocalyptic view that to re-establish the king’s authority would be to deny the providence of God. After the conclusion of the debates, Sexby was signatory to a printed letter calling on the regiments of the army to reject the order to meet at three separate rendezvous, though neither he nor his own regiment took part in the mutiny at Ware.

Sexby seems to have left the army soon after the debates, though his political career was far from over. Like John Wildman, he seems to have had no problem acting in the service of the newly established English Republic. Under the Commonwealth, Sexby returned to military service and continued to associate with other former Agitators: In July of 1649, he was co-signatory, along with other former agents, to a letter which bemoaned ‘unprofitable disputations’ and urged fellow soldiers to reflect whether they had neglected God’s grace by becoming overtaken by these ‘Carnal divisions.’ Sexby rose to the rank of Colonel and his forces took part in the campaign in Scotland, laying siege to Tantallon Castle in February 1651. Soon after, though, Sexby would be dismissed from the army following charges that he had raised false musters, (meaning that he made inflated the numbers of troops he had recruited and pocketed the extra pay).

Sexby nonetheless continued in the service of the Commonwealth, this time on the continent. He was dispatched to France by the Council of State as an unofficial representative of the new regime to the Frondeurs – the rebels against the government of Louis XIV and his chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. Sexby made his base in Bordeaux but was viewed with suspicion by the mostly aristocratic led Frondeurs. However, he was able to gain some support among the more radical republican Ormée faction, assisting in the production of two translated texts aimed at the French rebels. One of these was a French-language version of the Agreement of the People. The ideas of the Agreement were not a terribly good fit with the Frondeurs’ demands and it doesn’t appear to have gained much traction with the Bordelais rebels. Nonetheless, an accompanying Manifeste, tailored more to the concerns of the French rebels, ended with a stirring final paragraph that resurrected the vision of popular democracy articulated at Putney:

‘No man is born a slave…The peasant is as free as the prince, for he wore neither sabots on his feet nor a saddle on his back when he came into the world, nor does the king’s son bear a crown on his head. We are all by birth equally free, and because we are so, have the power to choose the government by which we will be governed.’

With the crushing of the revolt in August 1653, Sexby returned back to England and spent much time trying to recover the debts that he had incurred in the service of the state in France.  Overall, historians have been puzzled by the Council of State’s motivations in sending Sexby on this mission. One theory, advanced by the nineteenth-century philosopher and biographer Victor Cousin, was that Cromwell was using Sexby simply to stir up trouble for the government of Louis XIV, thereby hopeing to increase his leverage over the French government.

Like Wildman, Sexby clearly came to view the prospect of working with the Cromwellian Protectorate very differently from cooperating with the Commonwealth. Orders were made for Sexby’s arrest in February 1655 but he managed to escape to the continent, thanks in part to assistance from the authorities in Portland, Dorset, who instead arrested the soldiers sent to detain him on the grounds that they were ‘attempting to deprive an Englishman of his liberty’ without a warrant.

Again, like Wildman, Sexby now made common cause with exiled Royalists in the Netherlands. He was involved in plans to secure Spanish assistance for a rising in England that would see Cromwell assassinated and lead to the Restoration of Charles II. The plot was made known to Cromwell who dramatically revealed its details before his second Parliament in 1656, denouncing Sexby as a ‘wretched creature, an apostate from religion and all honesty’. Although this plan was foiled, Sexby continued to argue for Cromwell’s death in print, penning the tract Killing Noe Murder in 1657 under the pseudonym of his old agitator comrade, William Allen. The pamphlet compared Cromwell with classical tyrants such as Caligula and Nero and argued that his assassination would not be murder as tyrannical rule effectively suspended the law. By June of the same year, Sexby himself had crossed back into England, seeking to put words into action. However, he was arrested on 24 July while trying to return to Flanders and was incarcerated in the Tower. In prison Sexby confessed to authoring Killing Noe Murder. Sexby was by now gravely ill in body and mind – ‘stark mad’ according to the newsbook Mercurius Politicus. He died in the Tower on 13 January 1658.