John Lilburne and the Levellers (Classroom Activity)

In December 1637 John Lilburne was arrested and charged with printing and circulating unlicensed books. 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."

Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan member of the House of Commons, made a speech about Lilburne's case in March, 1640. "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." After a debate on the issue in November, 1640, Parliament voted to release him from prison.

Lilburne joined the Parliamentary army at the start of the English Civil War. 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. However, he still campaigned for religious freedom and in 1645 he was arrested and charged with slander and 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."

People like John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince 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%.

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: "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."

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.

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. 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.

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. "The mass of the population was totally unsophisticated politically, very much under the influence of landlords and parsons: to give such men the vote (with no secret ballot, since most of them were illiterate) would be to strengthen rather than to weaken the power of the conservatives."

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.

Primary Sources

John Lilburne
(Source 1) John Lilburne


(Source 2) 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.

(Source 3) John Lilburne, The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647)

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.

(Source 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.

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
(Source 5) This picture of John Lilburne appeared on the
front-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.


(Source 6) 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....

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?

(Source 7) 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".

(Source 8) Oliver Cromwell, letter (4th September, 1654)

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.

(Source 9) Ian J. Gentles, Robert Lockyer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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.

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
(Source 10) This picture of John Lilburne appeared in a pamphlet published in 1649.

(Source 11) David Petegorsky, Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940)

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.

(Source 12) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, England's New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

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?

(Source 13) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938)

In 1648 The Agreement of the People was reissued in a somewhat modified form by a committee consisting of Lilburne and three other leaders of the Levellers, four high officers of the army and four Independent members of parliament... It demanded the election every two years of a parliament chosen freely by all males over the age of twenty-one with the exception of those receiving wages...

The wage-earning class... were regarded as servants of the rich, who would be under their influence and would vote at their dictation. Their exclusion from the franchise thus regarded as necessary to prevent the employers from having undue influence, and there is reason to think that this judgement was correct. Complete religious toleration, democratic control of the army, whose regiments were to be raised in appointed districts with officers chosen by the votes of the inhabitants, the abolition of tithes and of all other taxes except a tax on property were the other main points of The Agreement of the People.

(Source 14) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

A good deal of attention has been paid to the Levellers in recent years. They have been lauded as pioneers of modern democracy and anticipators of the American constitution. There has been argument as to their social origins and doubt expressed whether their democratic programme for the franchise included servants and wage labour (it certainly excluded women). The extent of their support among the rank-and-file has also been questioned; and it has been pointed out that the Levellers originated outside the army, among London artisans, and drew many of their ideas from John Lilburne. Nevertheless, with all these qualifications the Levellers stand out as a unique expression of ideas from the ranks of the parliamentary army which was their stronghold. Once again we have one of those rare moments when we can hear the voices of those who are normally inarticulate. We do not know (and in a sense it is of secondary importance) whether they were typical or representative of a majority of the rank-and-file. The significant point is that sentiments of equality and perceptions of conflict in society should have been made in the 1640s - as they had been in the Peasants' Revolt and were to be again later in the Chartist movement.

Questions for Students

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

Question 2: Select information from this unit that suggests that Elizabeth Lilburne supported her husband's political campaigns?

Question 3: Who was Robert Lockyer? Why was his funeral an important event in the history of the Leveller movement?

Question 4: 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?

Question 5: 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.

Question 6: Describe John Lilburne's beliefs. Explain why he held these beliefs.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.