A hero to leftists, liberals, and democrats is about to be uncovered more than 350 years after his ignominious death at the hands of religious zealots. It was in April 1649 that Robert Lockyer was executed by a firing squad on the orders of English dictator Oliver Cromwell. Lockyer was a working-class activist in a political movement that sought universal suffrage for males, as well as a nascent form of tolerance for difference over religious creeds. Archeologists are hoping that excavations due to commence in March in central London may discover Lockyer’s last resting place.
They believe that more than 3,000 skeletons may be awaiting unearthing at a site known as the Bedlam burial grounds on Liverpool Street in the British capital. Currently, works are underway to prepare for the construction of the easternmost entrance of a new railway in London. Known as Crossrail, the building of the station complex necessitated the unearthing of the human remains.
Lockyer is believed to have been born in the nearby Bishopsgate neighborhood. It was during England’s Civil War, which pitted Royalist forces against the Parliamentarians led by Cromwell, that Lockyer joined the parliamentarian army in 1645 to fight against King Charles I. Subsequently, he joined the Leveller movement to represent soldiers in the ranks of the Parliamentarian forces. at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1645. He became a Leveller, and was elected as an ‘agitator’ – a representative of the rank and file soldiery.
When the Levellers, who demanded a broadening of religious toleration to encompass not only the established Anglican church but other forms of Protestant Christianity, along with virtually universal male suffrage and biennial parliamentary elections, they were then deemed opponents of Cromwell and his parliamentarian supremacy. Military leaders, called grandees – and probably Cromwell himself – order Lockyer and confreres to leave London. When Lockyer and his supporters refused, Cromwell arrived and had many of them arrested. Lockyer and five others were sentenced to death. However, only Lockyer’s sentence was actually carried out when he was shot by a firing squad in the churchyard of London’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral.
(Beheading of Charles I)
At his funeral, some four thousand mourners turned out. Many of them wore Leveller symbols, such as sprigs of rosemary in their hats, to indicate their allegiance. Lockyer was then buried at Bedlam cemetery. Less than one hundred years later, the graveyard was closed down and eventually built over with working-class housing during the mid-1700s. Later, in 1829 the houses were demolished and Liverpool street built over the site. The cemetery was forgotten.
Researchers are also hoping that the grave of John Lilburne – the most prominent of the Levellers – may also be found at the site. Known as ‘Freeborn John’ in tribute to insistence that humanity is born with inalienable natural rights that are not granted by a government, Lilburne died of natural causes in 1657. Because of his democratic principles, he was a scourge to both Charles I and Cromwell. The king had Lilburne flogged, pilloried, gagged and then imprisoned. Under Cromwell, Lilburne was tried for treason, exiled and imprisoned. While he eventually gained some freedom of movement, he eventually died and was buried in a new churchyard adjoining Bedlam.
Bedlam gets its name for Bethlem Royal Hospital, which for centuries has treated the mentally ill. The name ‘Bedlam’ became synonymous with the worst kinds of government institutions. The graveyard at Bedlam was used for the poverty-stricken residents of more than 70 parishes who could ill afford burial in their home parishes. Lead archaeologist Marit Leenstra and volunteers uncovered church records of 5323 of the 20,000 people buried at Bedlam. Approximately 21 percent of these may have been victims of bubonic plaque, while 19 percent were prisoners. Bone analysis of the human remains is hoped to reveal more details about life in early London.