John Lilburne

John Lilburne

John Lilburne, the brother of Robert Lilburne, was probably born at Sunderland in 1615. His father, Richard Lilburne, owned land in Durham. His mother, Margaret Lilburne, was the daughter of Thomas Hixon, the yeoman of the wardrobe to Charles I. (1)

Lilburne's mother died in 1619. His father took his three sons and daughter back to the family home in Thickley Punchardon. John studied at grammar schools in Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, on the completion of his education, was encouraged by his father to take up an apprenticeship in London. (2)

In 1630 he was apprenticed to the puritan Thomas Hewson, a wholesale clothier in Candlewick. He took a keen interest in religion and was deeply influenced by the writings of John Foxe. In 1637 he met John Bastwick, a Puritan preacher who had just had his ears cut off for writing a pamphlet attacking the religious views of the William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (3)

Lilburne offered to help Bastwick in his struggle with the Anglican Church. Bastwick, impressed by Lilburne's energy and intellect (though not by his lack of wealth and his country manners), instructed him in points of religious controversy and in matters of deportment, so as to make him "fit for all Gentlemans and Noble-men's society". (4)

John Lilburne - Publisher

Eventually it was agreed that Lilburne should go to the Netherlands to organise the printing of a book that Bastwick had written. In December 1637 Lilburne was arrested and charged with printing and circulating unlicensed books. He was given the opportunity to defend himself, first to the chief clerk of the attorney-general, then to the attorney-general, Sir John Bankes, and finally to the infamous prerogative court, the Star Chamber. (5)

John Lilburne refused to answer his examiner's questions. Henry N. Brailsford has pointed out: "Lilburne's chief purpose when he defied the Star Chamber was to establish a basic civil right - the right of an accused person to refuse to incriminate himself... The purpose of these courts was to secure a conviction by extracting a confession, rather than building up a case against him on the evidence of others. Wherever confession is regarded as the ideal form of proof which every officer of justice is bent on achieving, not all of them resist the temptation to use illegitimate forms of pressure, ranging from bullying and trickery to physical torture." (6)

On 13th February, 1638, he was found guilty and sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. The following month he was whipped from Fleet Prison to Old Palace Yard. It is estimated that Lilburne received 500 lashes along the way, making 1,500 stripes to his back during the two-mile walk. An eyewitness account claimed that his badly bruised shoulders "swelled almost as big as a penny loaf" and the wheals on his back were larger than "tobacco-pipes." (7)

When he was placed in the pillory he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick and was gagged. Lilburne's punishment turned into an anti-government demonstration, with cheering crowds encouraging and supporting him. While in prison Lilburne wrote about his punishments, in his pamphlet, The Work of the Beast (1638). He reported on how he was tied to the back of a cart and whipped with a knotted rope. (8)

In March 1640, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament for the first time in eleven years. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan member of the House of Commons, made a speech about Lilburne's case. "Cromwell spoke with a great passion, thumping the table before him, the blood rising to the face as he did so. To some he appeared to be magnifying the case beyond all proportion. But to Cromwell this was the essence of what he had come to put right: religious persecution by an arbitrary court." (8a)

After a debate on the issue in November, Parliament voted to release him from prison. He was now a famous figure and his portrait was engraved by George Glover. (9) Lilburne's supporters continued to protest about the way he had been treated and on 4th May 1641, Parliament resolved that the Star Chamber sentence against him had been "bloody, wicked, cruel, barbarous, and tyrannical", and voted him monetary reparations. (10) Four months later he married Elizabeth Dewell. (11)

John Lilburne continued to lead the attacks against the monarchy and the established church and on 27th December 1641 he was wounded in the New Palace Yard by musket fire when demonstrating (as he admitted) "with my sword in my hand" against bishops and "popish lords". (12)

English Civil War

On 4th January 1642, Charles I sent his soldiers to arrest John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, John Hampden, Denzil Holles and William Strode. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived. Members of Parliament no longer felt safe from Charles and decided to form their own army. After failing to arrest the Five Members, Charles fled from London and formed a Royalist Army (Cavaliers). His opponents established a Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) and it was the beginning of the English Civil War. The Roundheads immediately took control of London. (13)

Lilburne joined the Parliamentary army. Lilburne fought at Edgehill and at the battle at Brentford, he was the senior officer in charge. "At first the parliamentary troops, finding themselves insufficiently armed, took flight until Lilburne rallied his men with a rousing speech. Every soldier to a man, turned back to fight and they held their position for six hours, allowing the train of artillery to escape, an important military achievement. Many of Lilburne's men were killed, shot by Cavaliers, or drowned by the river Thames while trying to escape". (14)

Lilburne and about 500 of his men were captured on 12th November, 1642. Lilburne was taken to the Royalist headquarters in Oxford. He was charged with treason and "bearing arms against the king". He was due to be tried and executed on 20th December. His wife, Elizabeth Lilburne, who was pregnant at the time, managed to smuggle out a letter addressed to the House of Commons, proposing that they threaten to execute four royalist officers in retaliation, if the sentence was carried out. His suggestion was accepted and after the announcement was made, the Royalists cancelled the trial and in May 1643 Lilburne was exchanged by the royalists for prisoners in parliament's hands. (15) Lilburne wrote that by her "wisdom, patience, diligence" Elizabeth had saved his life. (16)

John Lilburne now joined the army led by the Edward Montagu and took part in the siege of Lincoln. He was a good soldier and in May 1644 was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. On 2nd July, 1644, he fought with distinction at the Battle of Marston Moor. Lilburne left the army on 30th April, 1645, after being told he could not join the New Model Army without taking the Solemn League and Covenant. This was an agreement with the Scots to preserve their Presbyterian religion and to remodel the English religion, in order to gain their military support. (17)

Radicals such as Lilburne were unhappy with the way that the war was being fought. Whereas he hoped the conflict would lead to political change, this was not true of most of the Parliamentary leaders. "The generals themselves members of the titled nobility, were ardently seeking a compromise with the King. They wavered in their prosecution of the war because they feared that a shattering victory over the King would create an irreparable breach in the old order of things that would ultimately be fatal to their own position." (18)

William Prynne, a leading Puritan critic of Charles I, became disillusioned with the increase of religious toleration during the English Civil War. In December, 1644, he published Truth Triumphing, a pamphlet that promoted church discipline. On 7th January, 1645, Lilburne wrote a letter to Prynne complaining about the intolerance of the Presbyterians and arguing for freedom of speech for the Independents. (19)

Lilburne's political activities were reported to Parliament. As a result, he was brought before the Committee of Examinations on 17th May, 1645, and warned about his future behaviour. Prynne and other leading Presbyterians, such as his old friend, John Bastwick, were concerned by Lilburne's radicalism. They joined a plot with Denzil Holles against Lilburne. He was arrested and charged with uttering slander against William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House of Commons. (20)

Elizabeth Lilburne joined her husband in Newgate Prison. She was pregnant at the time and their daughter Elizabeth was born in prison and was baptized, probably against her parents' wishes. Lilburne was released without charge on 14th October, 1645. (21) When they got home they discovered that officials had ransacked their house for seditious writings and had also stolen the childbed linen which was carefully stored there. (22)

John Bradshaw now brought Lilburne's case before the Star Chamber. He pointed out that Lilburne was still waiting for most of the pay he should have received while serving in the Parliamentary army. Lilburne was awarded £2,000 in compensation for his sufferings. However, Parliament refused to pay this money and Lilburne was once again arrested. Brought before the House of Lords Lilburne was sentenced to seven years and fined £4,000.

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
This picture of John Lilburne appeared on the
front-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.

John Lilburne received support from other radicals. In July, 1946, Richard Overton, launched an attack on Parliament: "We are well assured, yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing you to be Parliament men, was to deliver us from all kind of Bondage, and to preserve the Commonwealth in Peace and Happiness: For effecting whereof, we possessed you with the same power that was in ourselves, to have done the same; For we might justly have done it ourselves without you, if we had thought it convenient; choosing you (as persons whom we thought qualified, and faithful) for avoiding some inconveniences." (23)

John Lilburne and the Levellers

While in Newgate Prison Lilburne used his time studying books on law and writing pamphlets. This included The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647) where he argued that "no man should be punished or persecuted... for preaching or publishing his opinion on religion". He also outlined his political philosophy: "All and every particular and individual man and woman, that ever breathed in the world, are by nature all equal and alike in their power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power one over or above another." (24) In another pamphlet, Rash Oaths (1647), he argued: "Every free man of England, poor as well as rich, should have a vote in choosing those that are to make the law." (25)

The authorities became concerned about the circulation of Lilburne's pamphlets. Elizabeth Lilburne was herself arrested and examined by a House of Commons committee for circulating John's books in February 1647. In court she protested about "unjust and unrighteous judges" and was eventually released. As Antonia Fraser, the author of The Weaker Vessel (1984) has pointed out: "It was a perfect example of the weak but protected role of the female at law: Lilburne secured Elizabeth's discharge on the grounds that he, as her husband, must be held responsible for what had happened." (26)

In 1647 people like John Lilburne and Richard Overton were described as Levellers. In September, 1647, William Walwyn, the leader of this group in London, organised a petition demanding reform. Their political programme included: voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%. (27)

The Levellers gained considerable influence in the New Model Army. In October, 1647, the Levellers published An Agreement of the People. As Barbara Bradford Taft has pointed out: "Under 1000 words overall, the substance of the Agreement was common to all Leveller penmen but the lucid phrasing of four concise articles and the eloquence of the preamble and conclusion leave little doubt that the final draft was Walwyn's work. Inflammatory demands were avoided and the first three articles concerned the redistribution of parliamentary seats, dissolution of the present parliament, and biennial elections. The heart of the Leveller programme was the final article, which enumerated five rights beyond the power of parliament: freedom of religion; freedom from conscription; freedom from questions about conduct during the war unless excepted by parliament; equality before the law; just laws, not destructive to the people's well-being." (28)

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
John Lilburne

The document advocated the granting of votes to all adult males except for those receiving wages. The wage-earning class, although perhaps numbering nearly half the population, were regarded as "servants" of the rich and would be under their influence and would vote for their employer's candidates. "Their exclusion from the franchise was thus regarded as necessary to prevent the employers from having undue influence, and there is reason to think that this judgement was correct." (29)

The authorities became concerned about the circulation of John Lilburne's pamphlets. Elizabeth Lilburne was herself arrested and examined by a House of Commons committee for circulating John's books in February 1647. Two years later Elizabeth and her three children were all dangerously ill with smallpox. Their two sons died but Elizabeth and her daughter recovered. In all some ten children were born during the Lilburnes' marriage, of whom only three reached adulthood. (30)

On 28th October, 1647, members of the New Model Army began to discuss their grievances at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, but moved to the nearby lodgings of Thomas Grosvenor, Quartermaster General of Foot, the following day. This became known as the Putney Debates. The speeches were taken down in shorthand and written up later. As one historian has pointed out: "They are perhaps the nearest we shall ever get to oral history of the seventeenth century and have that spontaneous quality of men speaking their minds about the things they hold dear, not for effect or for posterity, but to achieve immediate ends." (31)

Thomas Rainsborough, the most radical of the officers, argued: "I desire that those that had engaged in it should speak, for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly. Sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, in so much that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things." (32)

John Wildman supported Rainsborough and dated people's problems to the Norman Conquest: "Our case is to be considered thus, that we have been under slavery. That's acknowledged by all. Our very laws were made by our Conquerors... We are now engaged for our freedom. That's the end of Parliament, to legislate according to the just ends of government, not simply to maintain what is already established. Every person in England hath as clear a right to elect his Representative as the greatest person in England. I conceive that's the undeniable maxim of government: that all government is in the free consent of the people." (33)

Edward Sexby was another who supported the idea of increasing the franchise: "We have engaged in this kingdom and ventured our lives, and it was all for this: to recover our birthrights and privileges as Englishmen - and by the arguments urged there is none. There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little property in this kingdom as to our estates, yet we had a birthright. But it seems now except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived. If we had not a right to the kingdom, we were mere mercenary soldiers. There are many in my condition, that have as good a condition, it may be little estate they have at present, and yet they have as much a right as those two (Cromwell and Ireton) who are their lawgivers, as any in this place. I shall tell you in a word my resolution. I am resolved to give my birthright to none. Whatsoever may come in the way, and be thought, I will give it to none. I think the poor and meaner of this kingdom (I speak as in that relation in which we are) have been the means of the preservation of this kingdom." (34)

These ideas were opposed by most of the senior officers in the New Model Army, who represented the interests of property owners. One of them, Henry Ireton, argued: "I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and indetermining or choosing those that determine what laws we shall be ruled by here - no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom... First, the thing itself (universal suffrage) were dangerous if it were settled to destroy property. But I say that the principle that leads to this is destructive to property; for by the same reason that you will alter this Constitution merely that there's a greater Constitution by nature - by the same reason, by the law of nature, there is a greater liberty to the use of other men's goods which that property bars you." (35)

A compromise was eventually agreed that the vote would be granted to all men except alms-takers and servants and the Putney Debates came to an end on 8th November, 1647. The agreement was never put before the House of Commons. Leaders of the Leveller movement, including John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, were arrested and their pamphlets were burnt in public. (36)

Although their leaders were in prison, the Levellers continued to publish leaflets. One claimed that the people were suffering from mass starvation: "Oh, Parliament men and soldiers! Necessity dissolves all law and government and hunger will break through stone walls... how our children cry, bread, bread, bread, and we with bleeding hearts cry once more to you, pity an enslaved, oppressed people; carry our cries in the large petition to the Parliament and tell them if they still be deaf, the tears of the oppressed will wash away the foundations of their houses." (37)

On 1st August, 1648, the House of Commons voted for Lilburne's release. The next day the House of Lords agreed and also remitted the fine imposed two years earlier. On his release Lilburne became involved in writing and distributing pamphlets on soldiers' rights. He pointed out that even though soldiers were fighting for Parliament, very few of them were allowed to vote for it. Lilburne argued that elections should take place every year. Lilburne, who believed that people were corrupted by power, argued that no members of the House of Commons should be allowed to serve for more than one year at a time.

The House of Commons was angry with Thomas Rainsborough for his support of democracy in the Putney Debates and General Thomas Fairfax was called before Parliament to answer for his behaviour. For a time Rainsborough was denied the right to take up his post as Vice Admiral. Eventually, after support from Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, Parliament voted 88 to 66 in favour of him going to sea.

As a supporter of the Levellers, Rainsborough was unpopular with his officers and he was refused permission to board his ship. Parliament now appointed the Earl of Warwick as Lord High Admiral and Rainsborough returned to the army. On 29th October, 1648, a party of Cavaliers attempted to kidnap Rainsborough while he was in Doncaster. During the struggle to capture him he was mortally wounded. At his funeral in London the crowd wore ribbons colored sea-green, which became the emblem for the Leveller movement. (38)

Oliver Cromwell made it very clear that he very much opposed to the idea that more people should be allowed to vote in elections and that the Levellers posed a serious threat to the upper classes: "What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces." (39)

Between July, 1648 and September, 1649, the Levellers published their own newspaper, Moderate Intelligencer. Edited by Richard Overton it included articles by John Lilburne, John Wildman and William Walwyn. The newspaper controversially encouraged soldiers in the New Model Army to revolt. In March 1649, Lilburne, Wildman, Overton and Walwyn were arrested and charged with advocating communism. After being brought before the Council of State they were sent to the Tower of London. (40)

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
This picture of John Lilburne appeared in a pamphlet published in 1649.

Riots and protests broke out in London where the Levellers had a strong following. Ten thousand signatures were collected in a few days to a petition demanding the release of John Lilburne. This was soon followed by a second petition signed and presented entirely by women. There were also disturbances in the army and it was decided to send the most disgruntled regiments to Ireland. (41)

A petition of well over 8,000 signatures, calling for Lilburne to be released, was presented to the House of Commons. Sir John Maynard, the MP for Totnes, led the campaign to have Lilburne set free. Maynard was a great supporter of religious freedom and Lilburne described him as a "true friend and faithful and courageous fellow-sufferer" for his beliefs. Maynard told fellow members about "what this brave invincible Spirit hath suffered and done for you." As a result of the debate in August, 1648, the House of Lords cancelled Lilburne's sentence. (42)

Soldiers continued to protest against the government. The most serious rebellion took place in London. Troops commanded by Colonel Edward Whalley were ordered from the capital to Essex. A group of soldiers led by Robert Lockyer, refused to go and barricaded themselves in The Bull Inn near Bishopsgate, a radical meeting place. A large number of troops were sent to the scene and the men were forced to surrender. The commander-in-chief, General Thomas Fairfax, ordered Lockyer to be executed.

Lockyer's funeral on Sunday 29th April, 1649, proved to be a dramatic reminder of the strength of the Leveller organization in London. "Starting from Smithfield in the afternoon, the procession wound slowly through the heart of the City, and then back to Moorfields for the interment in New Churchyard. Led by six trumpeters, about 4000 people reportedly accompanied the corpse. Many wore ribbons - black for mourning and sea-green to publicize their Leveller allegiance. A company of women brought up the rear, testimony to the active female involvement in the Leveller movement. If the reports can be believed there were more mourners for Trooper Lockyer than there had been for the martyred Colonel Thomas Rainsborough the previous autumn." (43)

Gerrard Winstanley

The ideas of John Lilburne and the Levellers had an impact on a wide variety of different radicals. In April, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, and a small group of about 30 or 40 men and women started digging and sowing vegetables on the wasteland of St George's Hill in the parish of Walton. Research shows that new people joined the community over the next few months. Most of these were local inhabitants. This group became known as the Diggers. (44)

Winstanley announced his intentions in a manifesto entitled The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). It opened with the words: "In the beginning of time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another." (45)

Winstanley argued for a society without money or wages: "The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money." (46)

Gerrard Winstanley
The Diggers (1649)

Digger groups also took over land in Kent (Cox Hill), Buckinghamshire (Iver) and Northamptonshire (Wellingborough). A. L. Morton has argued that Winstanley and his followers used the argument that William the Conqueror had "turned the English out of their birthrights; and compelled them for necessity to be servants to him and to his Norman soldiers." Winstanley responded to this situation by advocating what Morton describes as "primitive communism". (47)

Winstanley's writings suggested that he shared the view held by the Anabaptists that all institutions were by their nature corrupt: "nature tells us that if water stands long it corrupts; whereas running water keeps sweet and is fit for common use". To prevent power corrupting individuals he advocated that all officials should be elected every year. "When public officers remain long in place of judicature they will degenerate from the bounds of humility, honesty and tender care of brethren, in regard the heart of man is so subject to be overspread with the clouds of covetousness, pride, vain glory." (48)

John Lilburne became critical of Winstanley and rejected the idea that he was the father of "all the erroneous tenants of the poor Diggers at George Hill". Like other Levellers he defended property rights against those who threatened them. However, he had mixed feelings on the subject: "Community of property was in itself neither a good nor a bad thing; the primitive Christians were believed to have practised it, so it could obviously not be condemned out of hand." (49)

Oliver Cromwell

John Lilburne continued to campaign against the rule of Oliver Cromwell. According to a Royalist newspaper at the time: "He (Cromwell) and the Levellers can as soon combine as fire and water... The Levellers aim being at pure democracy.... and the design of Cromwell and his grandees for an oligarchy in the hands of himself." (50)

Lilburne argued that Cromwell's government was mounting a propaganda campaign against the Levellers and to prevent them from replying their writings were censored: "To prevent the opportunity to lay open their treacheries and hypocrisies... the stop the press... They blast us with all the scandals and false reports their wit or malice could invent against us... By these arts are they now fastened in their powers." (51)

David Petegorsky, the author of Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) has pointed out: "The Levellers clearly saw, that equality must replace privilege as the dominant theme of social relationships; for a State that is divided into rich and poor, or a system that excludes certain classes from privileges it confers on others, violates that equality to which every individual has a natural claim." (52)

Although he agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, Cromwell refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections. Lilburne attacked Cromwell's suppression of Roman Catholics in Ireland and Parliament's persecution of Royalists in England and the decision to execute Charles I.

In February, 1649, he published England's New Chains Discovered. "He appealed to the army and the provinces as well as Londoners to join him in rejecting the rule of the military junta, the council of state, and their ‘puppet’ parliament. Leveller agitation, inspired by his example, revived. He was soon in the Tower again for the suspected authorship of a book which parliament had declared treasonable". (53)

In another pamphlet Lilburne described Cromwell as the "new King." On 24th March, Lilburne read his latest pamphlet, out loud to a crowd outside Winchester House, where he was living at the time, and then presented it to the House of Commons later that same day. It was condemned as "false, scandalous, and reproachful" as well as "highly seditious" and on 28th March he was arrested at his home. (54)

Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince, were also taken into custody and all were brought before the Council of State in the afternoon. Lilburne later claimed that while he was being held prisoner in an adjacent room, he heard Cromwell thumping his fist upon the Council table and shouting that the only "way to deal with these men is to break them in pieces … if you do not break them, they will break you!" (55)

In March, 1649, Lilburne, Overton and Prince, published, England's New Chains Discovered. They attacked the government of Oliver Cromwell pointed out that: "They may talk of freedom, but what freedom indeed is there so long as they stop the Press, which is indeed and hath been so accounted in all free Nations, the most essential part thereof.. What freedom is there left, when honest and worthy Soldiers are sentenced and enforced to ride the horse with their faces reverst, and their swords broken over their heads for but petitioning and presenting a letter in justification of their liberty therein?" (56)

The supporters of the Leveller movement called for the release of Lilburne. This included Britain's first ever all-women petition, that was supported by over 10,000 signatures. This group, led by John's wife, Elizabeth Lilburne, and Katherine Chidley, presented the petition to the House of Commons on 25th April, 1649. (57)

MPs reacted intolerantly, telling the women that "it was not for women to petition; they might stay home and wash their dishes... you are desired to go home, and look after your own business, and meddle with your housewifery". One woman replied: "Sir, we have scarce any dishes left us to wash, and those we have not sure to keep." When another MP said it was strange for women to petition Parliament one replied: "It was strange that you cut off the King's head, yet I suppose you will justify it." (58)

The following month Elizabeth Lilburne produced another petition: "That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families?" (59)

In 1649 Elizabeth Lilburne and her three children all became dangerously ill with smallpox. Their two sons died but Elizabeth and her daughter recovered. In all some ten children were born during the Lilburnes' marriage, of whom only three reached adulthood. (60)

On 24th October, 1649, Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne was charged with high treason. The trial began the following day. The prosecution read out extracts from Lilburne's pamphlets but the jury was not convinced and he was found not guilty. There were great celebrations outside the court and his acquittal was marked with bonfires. A medal was struck in his honour, inscribed with the words: "John Lilburne saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury who are judge of law as well of fact". On 8th November, all four men were released. (61)

For a time Lilburne withdrew from politics and made a living as a soap-boiler. However, in 1650 he joined with John Wildman in acting for the tenants of the manor of Epworth on the Isle of Axholme, who had a long-standing claim as fenmen to common lands. His enemies have characterized the episode as part of an attempt by him to spread Leveller doctrines. He was arrested and sent into exile. When he attempted to return in June, 1653, he was arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. (62)

Although once again he was found not guilty of treason. Cromwell refused to release him. On 16th March, 1654, Lilburne was transferred to Elizabeth Castle, Guernsey. Colonel Robert Gibbon, the governor of the island, later complained that Lilburne gave him more trouble than "ten cavaliers". In October, 1655, he was moved to Dover Castle. While he was in prison Lilburne continued writing pamphlets including one that explained why he had joined the Quakers.

In 1656 Cromwell agreed to release Lilburne. However, his years of struggle with the government had worn him out and on 29th August, 1657, at the age of 43, he died at his home at Eltham.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961)

Lilburne's chief purpose when he defied the Star Chamber was to establish a basic civil right - the right of an accused person to refuse to incriminate himself. It was characteristic of the so-called "prerogative courts" that their procedure was based on the examination of the arrested person, who was required to take an oath even before he was charged. The purpose of these courts was to secure a conviction by extracting a confession, rather than building up a case against him on the evidence of others. Wherever confession is regarded as the ideal form of proof which every officer of justice is bent on achieving, not all of them resist the temptation to use illegitimate forms of pressure, ranging from bullying and trickery to physical torture.

(2) John Lilburne, The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647)

No man should be punished or persecuted... for preaching or publishing his opinion on religion.... All and every particular and individual man and woman, that ever breathed in the world, are by nature all equal and alike in their power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power one over or above another.

(3) John Lilburne, Rash Oaths (1647)

Every free man of England, poor as well as rich, should have a vote in choosing those that are to make the law.

(4) Letter sent by John Lilburne to supporters of the Leveller movement in Kent (1648)

This is the method we have used in London. We have appointed several men in every ward to form a committee... they arrange for the Petition (list of policies supported by the Levellers) to be read at meetings and to take subscriptions.

(5) In 1649 John Lilburne wrote a pamphlet attacking the execution of Charles I.

I refused to be one of his (Charles I) judges... they were no better than murders in taking away the King's life even though he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with... it is murder because it was done by a hand that had no authority to do it.

(6) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, England's New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

If our hearts were not over-charged with the sense of the present miseries and approaching dangers of the Nation, your small regard to our late serious apprehensions, would have kept us silent; but the misery, danger, and bondage threatened is so great, imminent, and apparent that whilst we have breath, and are not violently restrained, we cannot but speak, and even cry aloud, until you hear us, or God be pleased otherwise to relieve us.

Removing the King, the taking away the House of Lords, the overawing the House, and reducing it to that pass, that it is become but the Channel, through which is conveyed all the Decrees and Determinations of a private Council of some few Officers, the erecting of their Court of Justice, and their Council of State, The Voting of the People of Supreme Power, and this House the Supreme Authority: all these particulars, (though many of them in order to good ends, have been desired by well-affected people) are yet become, (as they have managed them) of sole conducement to their ends and intents, either by removing such as stood in the way between them and power, wealth or command of the Commonwealth; or by actually possessing and investing them in the same.

They may talk of freedom, but what freedom indeed is there so long as they stop the Press, which is indeed and hath been so accounted in all free Nations, the most essential part thereof, employing an Apostate Judas for executioner therein who hath been twice burnt in the hand a wretched fellow, that even the Bishops and Star Chamber would have shamed to own. What freedom is there left, when honest and worthy Soldiers are sentenced and enforced to ride the horse with their faces reverst, and their swords broken over their heads for but petitioning and presenting a letter in justification of their liberty therein? If this be not a new way of breaking the spirits of the English, which Strafford and Canterbury never dreamt of, we know no difference of things.

(7) Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)

That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defences of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners (John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, John Wildman), our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families? Are not our husbands, our selves, our daughters and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they?

Nay, shall such valiant, religious men as Mr. Robert Lockyer be liable to court martial, and to be judged by his adversaries, and most inhumanly shot to death? Shall the blood of war be shed in time of peace? Doth not the word of God expressly condemn it? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affection, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?

(8) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, Preamble to the third draft of The Agreement of the People (1st May, 1649)

We, the free People of England, to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits - both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances. And accordingly do declare and publish to all the world, that we are agreed as followeth.

That the Supreme Authority of England and the Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and reside henceforth in a Representative of the people consisting of four hundred persons, but no more; in the choice of whom (according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants, or receiving alms, or having served the late King in Arms or voluntary Contributions), shall have their votes.

(9) Bulstrode Whitelock, Memorials of English Affairs (c. 1660)

The Women Petitioners again attended at the door of the House for an answer to their Petition concerning Lilburne and the rest. The House sent them this answer by the Sergeant: 'That the Matter they petitioned about was of an higher concernment than they understood, that the House gave an answer to their husbands, and therefore desired them to go home, and look after their own business, and meddle with their housewifery.

Student Activities

John Lilburne and Parliamentary Reform (Answer Commentary)

The Diggers and Oliver Cromwell (Answer Commentary)

Military Tactics in the Civil War (Answer Commentary)

Women in the Civil War (Answer Commentary)

Portraits of Oliver Cromwell (Answer Commentary)

Execution of King Charles I (Answer Commentary)

References

 

(1) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Peter Richards, John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian (2008)

(3) Frances Condick, John Bastwick: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 48

(5) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Henry N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (1961) page 82

(7) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 65

(8) David Plant, Biography of John Lilburne (2012)

(8a) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) page 56

(9) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 87

(11) Anne Hughes, Elizabeth Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 256

(14) Peter Richards, John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian (2008)

(15) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (1984) page 236

(17) David Plant, Biography of John Lilburne (2012)

(18) David Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) page 54

(19) John Lilburne, letter to William Prynne (7th January, 1645)

(20) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Anne Hughes, Elizabeth Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (1984) page 237

(23) Richard Overton, A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (July, 1646)

(24) John Lilburne, The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647)

(25) John Lilburne, Rash Oaths (1647)

(26) Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (1984) page 237

(27) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 198

(28) Barbara Bradford Taft, William Walwyn: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(29) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 217

(30) Anne Hughes, Elizabeth Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(31) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 195

(32) Thomas Rainsborough, speech (28th October, 1647)

(33) John Wildman, speech (28th October, 1647)

(34) Edward Sexby, speech (28th October, 1647)

(35) Henry Ireton , speech (28th October, 1647)

(36) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 216

(37) The Mournfull Cries of Many Thousands Poor Tradesmen (January, 1648)

(38) Ian J. Gentles, Thomas Rainsborough : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(39) Oliver Cromwell, letter (4th September, 1654) quoted by Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: Volume II (1886) page 90

(40) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(41) Chris Harman, A People's History of the World (2008) page 215

(42) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 245

(43) Ian J. Gentles, Robert Lockyer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(44) John Gurney, Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution (2013) page 128

(45) Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649)

(46) Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness (1649)

(47) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 217

(48) Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness (1649)

(49) John Gurney, Gerrard Winstanley (2013) page 62

(50) Mercurius Pragmaticus (19th December, 1648)

(51) John Lilburne, The Second Part of England's New Chains Discovered (March, 1949)

(52) David Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940) page 54

(53) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(54) Peter Richards, John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian (2008)

(55) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 270

(56) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, England's New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

(57) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 508

(58) Mercurius Militaris (22nd April 1649)

(59) Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)

(60) Anne Hughes, Elizabeth Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(61) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 301

(62) Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)