John Lilburne and the Levellers (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: John Lilburne and the Levellers

Q1: Study sources, 1, 5 and 10. Which one was used to argue for freedom of speech?

A1: Source 5 shows John Lilburne in prison. It was an attempt to let people know that imprisonment would not stop Lilburne from writing pamphlets.

Q2: Select information from this unit that suggests that Elizabeth Lilburne supported her husband's political campaigns?

A2: Elizabeth Lilburne was arrested and examined by a House of Commons committee for circulating John's books in February 1647. Two years later she published A Petition of Women (source 6) where she argues for political equality and the release from prison of her husband and other Levellers.

Q3: Who was Robert Lockyer? Why was his funeral an important event in the history of the Leveller movement?

A3: Robert Lockyer led a Leveller rebellion in April, 1649. He was executed and his funeral proved to be a dramatic reminder of the strength of the Leveller organization. Ian J. Gentles (source 9) reports that about 4,000 people accompanied the corpse wearing Leveller ribbons.

Q4: In 1640 John Lilburne was a strong supporter of Oliver Cromwell. In 1650 Lilburne strongly opposed Cromwell. Why did Lilburne change his mind about Cromwell?

A4: In 1640 Cromwell shared Lilburne beliefs on religious freedom and played an important role in his release from prison. However, when Cromwell became leader of the country he changed his mind on certain issues. Cromwell now disagreed with Lilburne about the need for political and religious freedom. For example, in source 8, Cromwell shows he is opposed to Lilburne's views on democracy. By 1650 the two men were bitter enemies.

Q5: Explain why John Lilburne is considered to have played an important role in the development of the parliamentary government that we use in Britain today.

A5: John Lilburne was one of the first people in England to argue that most adult males should be allowed to vote in elections. Government persecution of Lilburne and other Levellers meant that the movement was eventually destroyed. However, many of Lilburne's pamphlets survived. For the next 250 years his political ideas inspired others to fight for the right to vote. Eventually, in 1918 all adult males were given the vote.

Q6: Describe John Lilburne's beliefs. Explain why he held these beliefs.

A6: John Lilburne thought it was unfair that the vast majority of the population had no say in how the country was ruled. Lilburne argued that a much larger number of adult males should be allowed to elect the government. As A. L. Morton (source 13) points out Lilburne argued for parliamentary elections every two years by "all males over the age of twenty-one with the exception of those receiving wages". The reason for this was the "wage-earning class... were regarded as servants of the rich, who would be under their influence and would vote at their dictation".

Lilburne was also a supporter of religious toleration. He believed that people should be free to preach or publish their religious beliefs without the fear of punishment or persecution. The first time he got into trouble with the government was when he began smuggling religious books into England.

Lilburne wanted freedom for all religious groups, whereas most people were only interested in freedom for their own particular group. At first Lilburne supported the Presbyterians when they were persecuted by the Anglicans. However, when the Presbyterians controlled the government they persecuted other groups like the Anabaptists. This made Lilburne very angry and he always supported religious groups that were persecuted.