John Lilburne was one of the most prominent Levellers. The Levellers campaigned for a radical shake-up of England’s political system and Lilburne was the movement’s most famous member. To his supporters, John Lilburne was ‘Free-born John’.
John Lilburne was born in 1615. His family were reasonably well off and were from the lesser gentry. In 1630, Lilburne was sent to London were he was apprenticed to a clothier. In the capital, Lilburne quickly became enthused with Puritanism. In 16136, he met John Bastwick at the prison where Bastwick was serving a sentence for his attacks on the bishops. Lilburne worked on getting copies of Bastwick’s scurrilous ‘Letany’ printed in Holland before being smuggled into England. In 1638, he was caught by the authorities and tried by the Star Chamber. Lilburne effectively refused to recognise the court and even refused to take the oath. He defended himself with vigour and used cutting humour aimed at the court to get his point across. Such an approach won him a great deal of support from those who watched from the public gallery and his reputation in London quickly spread. However, this did not get him off the charges and he was sentenced to be whipped and pilloried and fined £500. He was also sentenced to prison until he would give a promise of conforming to the law – which he did in 1640.
Lilburne was only released in 1640 when the Long Parliament sat and Oliver Cromwell petitioned for his release. In poor health from his time in the Fleet Prison, Lilburne used his release to write pamphlets about his trial and Puritanism.
In 1641 and 1642, Lilburne took to the streets of London to celebrate the Bill of Attainder issued against Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford.
When the civil war broke out Lilburne went to fight for Parliament. He was given a commission in Lord Brooke’s regiment of infantry and held the rank of captain. He fought at the Battle of Edgehill and Brentford. At Brentford, he was taken prisoner and sent to Oxford. After an exchange of prisoners, Lilburne was released and joined the Eastern Association where he was a lieutenant colonel in charge of dragoons. Serving under the Earl of Manchester, Lilburne fought at the Battle of Marston Moor. He left the army in 1645.
Lilburne then became involved with a group of men who became known as the Levellers – though this was not a name that they gave to themselves. As a leading light of the Levellers, Lilburne showed his true colours. He did not just want the end of monarchical power to be simply replaced with Parliamentary power. Lilburne wanted a fundamental reform of the whole way England and Wales were governed. In every sense he was a radical. At a time when women played a very secondary part in society and no part in politics, Lilburne saw no reason why they should not speak out about what they saw as their future role in England and Wales – though he was less clear on what he actually thought should happen to their position in society. Lilburne also wanted politicians far more responsive and responsible to those they represented. With his past experiences with ‘Letany’ in mind, he was also a champion of freedom of conscience and freedom of the press.
Such views brought him into conflict with Parliament and he was sent to Newgate Prison for two months in 1645. By taking on the system, he attracted a great deal of support from the general public in London. He defended both his approach and his views by using the Magna Carta and other constitutional documents to support his views. Lilburne continued to write pamphlets and in 1645 he produced ‘England’s Birthright Justified’, which denounced tithes, monopolies and excise duty at the same time as demanding freedom of speech, annual Parliaments and a rule of law. This pamphlet was to form the basis of the Levellers programme – though Lilburne was by no means a political organiser and it was more adopted by others than foist onto the movement by Lilburne.
Lilburne continued to take on what he considered to be bastions of privilege and power. In 1646, he was brought before the House of Lords on a charge of libelling the Earl of Manchester. Lilburne refused to kneel before the assembled Lords and put his fingers in his ears when they started to question him. He was duly sent to the Tower of London. In February 1647 he managed to persuade the House of Commons to question him in committee. But he insisted that this was done in front of the public.
It was at this time that Lilburne realised that his views were finding support among the rank and file in the army. The army already faced a problem over the government’s failure to pay soldiers and Lilburne hooked into this. He wrote to Oliver Cromwell that he and the army were being led by two “earthworms" – the less than flattering reference to Sir Henry Vane and Oliver St. John. It is known that Lilburne was in touch with the Agitators in the army but when the army entered London in August 1647, they did not release him from the Tower. As a result, Lilburne did not take part in the Putney debates. Lilburne was only released in August 1648 once victory in the Second Civil War had been effectively assured.
He opposed the trial and execution of Charles I, as he did not believe that either would better life for the everyday person. His stance on what happened after the Second Civil War was also bound to bring him into conflict with leaders of the Republic. He believed that England was replacing one form of tyranny with another – the army commanders led by Cromwell. A pamphlet titled ‘England’s New Chains’ was a blunt appraisal of how he viewed England’s future.
In March 1649, Lilburne was arrested again and sent to the Tower. The very-short lived Leveller mutiny at Burford led to Cromwell sending a special force of soldiers loyal to the army to the Tower to guard Lilburne and ensure that he did not escape.
In August 1649, Lilburne was put on trial for high treason after the publication of his pamphlet ‘An Impeachment of High Treason’, which was a bitter attack on Cromwell and other army leaders. However, a jury found him not guilty – much to the delight of Londoners.
This was to all intents the end of his ‘career’ as a radical spokesman for the Common Man. He became a soap-boiler and Cromwell arranged for him to get land in Durham – many miles away from London. He helped to defend others who were on trial. But while engaged in one such case, he libelled Sir Arthur Hasilrige, a leading Parliamentarian. Parliament banished him in December 1651 and in the following year he went to Amsterdam and then to Bruges. Here he held court with banished Royalists.
In 1653, he returned to England without permission and was once again arrested. He was put on trial but again acquitted by a jury. His victory provoked an outpouring of support among Londoners and this so alarmed Parliament that they did not release him. Lilburne was instead sent to a remote fortress – Mount Orgueil in Jersey. Here he had no opportunity to stir up the crowds.
In 1655, Lilburne was brought back to Dover Castle but was a broken man. The government felt sufficiently comfortable to release him on parole a good deal.
John Lilburne died at Eltham in 1657.