Elizabeth Dewell, the daughter of Henry Dewell, was born in about 1641. Her father was a merchant working in London. Little is known of her early life but she was associated with John Spilsbury and his Baptist congregation. In September 1641 she married John Lilburne. (1) Antonia Fraser has suggested that Elizabeth may have met Lilburne when she visited him in prison. (2)
Lilburne was a well-known supporter of religious tolerance. Three years previously he had been found guilty of publishing illegal pamphlets. 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." (3)
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. (4)
In November 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. After a debate on the issue. Parliament voted to release him from prison.
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". (5)
On 4 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. (6)
John 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". (7)
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. (8)
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. (9) Lilburne wrote that by her "wisdom, patience, diligence" Elizabeth had saved his life. (10)
John Lilburne returned to the army and Elizabeth settled in Boston, Lincolnshire. Lilburne served under 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. (11)
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." (12)
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. (13)
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. (14)
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. (15) 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. (16)
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.
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." (17) 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." (18)
The authorities became concerned about the circulation of Lilburne's pamphlets. Elizabeth 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." (19)
Elizabeth Lilburne, like her husband, was a committed member of the 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%. (20)
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." (21)
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." (22)
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. (23)
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. (24)
John Lilburne continued to campaign against the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Although he agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, he 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, John Lilburne 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". (25)
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. (26)
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!" (27)
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 Elizabeth Lilburne and Katherine Chidley, presented the petition to the House of Commons on 25th April, 1649. (28)
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." (29)
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?" (30)
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. (31)
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. (32)
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. (33)
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 July 1655 Elizabeth and her father-in-law petitioned unsuccessfully for John's release from prison out of pity for herself and her children, promising unsuccessfully that her husband would be "quiet and thankful". 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.
After the death of her husband Elizabeth Lilburne managed to persuade the government to lift the £7,000 fine imposed on Lilburne's estate in 1652. They also gave her a pension of 40s. per week for herself and her children. This came to an end when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Her biographer, Anne Hughes, has concluded that Elizabeth was "a brave and realistic radical woman, determined to preserve herself and her children in the most difficult public circumstances." (34)
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, 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?