John Lilburne

John Lilburne

John Lilburne

"Freeborn John" Lilburne, born 1615, was never directly involved in government and was only elected to public office on one occasion. Yet he was a hugely successful self-publicist and political maverick with a rare talent for offending both his enemies and his erstwhile friends. He was imprisoned by both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. At times he was hugely popular and the radical ideas expressed in his many pamphlets greatly influenced the development of English political thought.

During his apprenticeship to a London clothier, he immersed himself in the bible, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and other Puritan writings. In 1636 he was introduced to John Bastwick, a Puritan pamphleteer who was campaigning against episcopacy. Lilburne became involved in the printing and distribution of unlicensed puritan books and pamphlets in London. Arrested in December 1637, he was eventually brought before the Star Chamber Court, when he refused to take the oath, claiming that his prosecution was unlawful. He was whipped, placed in the pillory and then imprisoned.

On his release from prison in 1640 his uncle helped establish him as a brewer, and in 1641 he married Elizabeth Dewell. They had ten children, seven of whom died young, and no grandchildren.

Lilburne enlisted as a captain of foot in Lord Brooke’s regiment in July 1642 and fought at Edgehill in October. He was captured by the royalists at Brentford in November and was taken to Oxford as a prisoner. He later wrote an account of his part in the battle and his efforts to rally fleeing troops. The royalists initially planned to try him for treason and execute him, but changed their minds when Parliament threatened reciprocal action. He was exchanged for royalist prisoners in May 1643.

He took a commission in the Earl of Manchester’s army and was promoted in 1644 to lieutenant colonel of dragoons in the earl’s own regiment. He fought at Marston Moor. In April 1645 he resigned from the army rather than sign the Solemn League and Covenant, a requirement for all officers in the New Model Army.

From July to October 1645 he was imprisoned for denouncing MPs who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died. He was sent to the Tower in July 1646 for denouncing his former commander, the Earl of Manchester, as a traitor and royalist sympathiser. In the Tower, he produced a stream of inflammatory pamphlets that were smuggled out and published by his supporters.

Lilburne's writings were popular and circulated widely. He described the many injustices he had suffered and drew attention to examples of hypocrisy, corruption and profiteering wherever he saw them. His central political demand was that an entirely new form of government, answerable to the people, should be constituted.

During his long imprisonment he became alienated from his former allies in Parliament, the City of London and the army. He emerged as a leader of the Leveller movement.  He was released on bail in November 1647 but rearrested in January 1648 and was charged with sedition after he criticised the House of Lords at a Leveller meeting. His unconditional release from the Tower was, however, later secured by John Maynard, a Presbyterian MP, who hoped (in vain) to secure his support for a scheme to impeach Cromwell.

In December 1648 he urged the acceptance of the manifesto he had expounded in Agreement of the People so that the trial of the king could be based on a legitimate constitution. His demands were ignored and he left London during the king's trial and execution, but soon returned, attacking the new republican government in England's New Chains Discovered, in which he appealed to soldiers and citizens to unite in rejecting the unconstitutional rule.

Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested in March 1649. He was brought to trial in October 1649, charged with high treason and with inciting the Leveller mutinies in the army. He raised objections to all aspects of the prosecution and the jury found him not guilty. He withdrew into private life for a time, setting up as a soap-boiler and re-establishing friendly personal relations with Cromwell.

In 1650 he acted as legal adviser to fen-men whose land had been enclosed by speculators. In January 1652, he was again on trial, this time for criminal libel arising from a property dispute with Sir Arthur Haselrig MP. He was fined heavily and banished from England, on pain of death if he returned. He spent the last six years of his life either in exile or in prison (or on parole).  He died at Eltham in Kent on 29th August 1657.