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Jul 4, 2000

Agenda for Liberty: A Biography of John Lilburne

17th-century pamphleteer, organizer, and dissident John Lilburne was an important early voice for liberty, especially in matters of criminal justice.

A number of times throughout history, tyranny has stimulated breakthrough thinking about liberty. This was certainly the case in England with the mid-17th century era of repression, rebellion and civil war. There was a tremendous outpouring of political pamphlets and tracts. By far the most influential writings emerged from the pen of John Lilburne.

In more than 80 pamphlets written during the mid-17th century, he attacked intolerance, taxes, censorship, trade restrictions and military conscription. He championed private property, free trade, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a rule of law, a separation of powers and a written constitution to limit government power. Lilburne helped bring these dynamic ideas together for the first time in human history.

Moreover, he risked death to put them into action. Lilburne was the first person to challenge the legitimacy of the Star Chamber, the English royal court which had become a notorious instrument for suppressing dissent. He was the first to challenge Parliament’s prerogative as a law court for imprisoning adversaries. He was the first to challenge the prosecution tactic of extracting confessions until defendants incriminated themselves. He challenged the standard practice of imprisoning people without filing formal charges. He challenged judges who tried to intimidate juries. Four times he faced the death penalty. He endured brutal beatings. He was imprisoned most of his adult life.

“I walk not, nor act, from accidents,” Lilburne told a friend, “but from principles, and being thoroughly persuaded in my own soul they are just, righteous and honest, I will by God’s goodness never depart from them, though I perish in maintaining them.” 

Dubbed a “Leveller” by his adversaries, he won the hearts of people and helped discredit criminal justice proceedings which were a bulwark of oppression. “While others supported civil liberties to gain their own freedom and denied it to their enemies,” noted historian Leonard W. Levy, “Lilburne grew more and more consistent in his devotion to the fundamentals of liberty, and he was an incandescent advocate…he sacrificed everything in order to be free to attack injustice from any source…His entire career was a precedent for freedom…”

Lilburne looked like an ordinary man. Biographer M.A. Gibb described him, in his 20s, as “slightly built, with a delicacy of appearance which renders his powers of physical endurance the more remarkable. Plainly dressed, after the fashion of the Puritans, he wore his hair to the shoulder and was beardless; his long, oval face, with its high forehead, luminous, earnest eyes, and often melancholy expression, indicated the depth of the fanaticism which could fire his spirit, while the resolute mouth showed strength of purpose and courage to fulfil his aims.”    

As Levy acknowledged, “Such men as Lilburne who make civil disobedience a way of life are admirable but quite impossible. He was far too demanding and uncompromising, never yielding an inch to his ideals. He was ostreperous, fearless, indomitable, and cantankerous, one of the most flinty, contentious men who ever lived…No one in England could outtalk him, no one was a greater political pamphleteer…Had Lilburne been the creation of some novelist’s imagination, one might scoff at so far-fetched a character. He was, or became, a radical in everything — in religion, in politics, in economics, in social reform, in criminal justice…”

John Lilburne was born in Greenwich, England sometime in 1614 or 1615.  His parents, Richard and Margaret Lilburne, were minor officials in the royal court. In 1625, King Charles I issued a proclamation making it illegal to publish or import a book without a license from the Bishop of London William Laud or the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford or Cambridge. Licensed printers, who belonged to the Stationers Company guild, helped enforce the law against unlicensed competitors. Lilburne became friends with many unlicensed printers. He visited the Gatehouse where Presbyterian Dr. John Bastwick was imprisoned and had his ears cut off for criticizing Church of England officials. Through Dr. Bastwick, Lilburne met William Prynne, a Presbyterian lawyer who had published many attacks on the Church of England, for which he was fined, he was disbarred as a lawyer, he was condemned to life imprisonment in the Tower of London, his ears were hacked off, and his cheeks were branded with the initials “SL” (for seditious libeller). 

The government considered Lilburne a potential troublemaker for associating with these people, and in 1637 he went to Holland where free presses flourished. He seems to have spent his savings printing and distributing unlicensed pamphlets. He began with Letany by Dr. Bastwick. Betrayed by one of his collaborators, Lilburne was arrested after he returned to London in December 1637. He was imprisoned in the Gatehouse, and his case came before the Star Chamber. This was separate from the common law courts, and proceedings were based on interrogating defendants. Those who incriminated themselves were declared guilty and imprisoned. “It was a court of politicians enforcing a policy, not a court of judges administering a law,” noted constitutional historian F.W. Maitland.

Lilburne was grilled about his trip to Holland and his knowledge of unlicensed Puritan pamphlets. He attacked the Star Chamber because he had never been served with a sub poena or charged with any crime. He wouldn’t pay the court clerk’s fee. He wouldn’t agree to answer all questions. The Star Chamber fined Lilburne L500 and ordered that he be tied to a cart as it moved two miles from Fleet prison to Westminister Palace Yard. Every few steps, his bare back was lashed with a whip. Altogether he was lashed some 200 times, and the doctor who treated Lilburne reported that his wounds were “bigger than tobacco pipes.”  Then Lilburne was put in a pillary where he harangued all who would listen with attacks on the government and the Church of England. After several hours under a hot sun, Lilburne was taken back to Fleet prison and chained in a cold, damp, dark cell for four months. Member of Parliament Oliver Cromwell, who represented Cambridge, gave his first speech which declared that Lilburne’s Star Chamber sentence was “illegal and against the liberty of the subject.”  Soon he was released. Parliament passed a bill abolishing the Star Chamber, and King Charles I reluctantly agreed on July 5, 1641. 

Lilburne tried to resume his private life. He married one Elizabeth Dewell who was to raise four children on little money and to provide steadfast support during his subsequent imprisonment. The Merchant Adventurers guild excluded him from the woolen business which it monopolized, so he got a job working at his uncle’s brewery.  

Lilburne spent his spare time studying philosophy and law. In 1642, Lilburne obtained a copy of jurist Edward Coke’s Institutes. Coke (1552-1634) had championed common law over arbitrary royal edicts. With common law, local judges made decisions case by case, from which general rules evolved. These tended to be applied more predictably than statutes.

Lilburne was drawn into the struggle between king and Parliament. Named a captain in the Parliamentary Army, he was captured in 1642 and imprisoned at Oxford Castle. He refused a pardon in exchange for recanting his principles, so he was sentenced to death. Lilburne’s wife Elizabeth addressed the House of Commons and persuaded Members to execute captured royalists if any Parliamentary loyalists like Lilburne were executed. He was set free.

He quit the Parliamentary army when Oliver Cromwell, by this time a Lieutenant-General, ordered that everybody subscribe to the Scottish National (Presbyterian) Covenant which called for the suppression of religious dissidents. Lilburne declared he would “dig for carrots and turnips” before he would ever support compulsory religion. 

Lilburne was influenced by scholarly John Milton who had been charged with violating Parliament’s June 1643 law requiring that prior to publication written work must be licensed by a government censor and registered with the Stationers Company. Ordered to defend himself before Parliament, Milton gave a speech which became the famous pamphlet Areopagitica (1644). He maintained that truth tends to prevail when markets are open and the press is free.

In January 1645, Lilburne wrote A Copy of a Letter about the injustices he had suffered. He criticized Puritan William Prynne who, having suffered from intolerance by Charles I and Bishop Laud, wouldn’t tolerate others of differing views. Parliamentary officials found a printing press alleged to have produced Lilburne’s offending pamphlet, and one of Lilburne’s eyes was poked out with a pike.

On July 19, 1645, Lilburne was imprisoned for criticizing the Speaker of the House of Commons. He refused to answer questions and demanded to know the charges against him. “I have as true a right to all the privileges that do belong to a free man as the greatest man in England,” he insisted. He was sent back to Newgate prison. There hewrote England’s Birthright Justified against all arbitrary usurpations, whether Regall or Parliamentary or under what Vizor soever (1645). He believed laws should be written in English so everybody could read them. He insisted that a trial would be proper only when formal charges are filed, when they refer to known laws and when the defendant can confront the accuser and have an adequate opportunity to present a defense. He denounced the government-granted monopoly on preaching. He attacked government-granted business monopolies.  He spoke out for free trade and a free press.  

Lilburne observed that the longer politicians remained in Parliament, the more corrupt they became. Lilburne called for annual Parliamentary elections and universal male suffrage. He urged people to do as much as they could to remedy wrongs through constitutional action, but he implied if this failed, people have a right to rebel.

Released from prison in October 1645, he wrote The Just Man’s Justification which spelled out his grievances against the House of Lords. On June 11, 1646, he was summoned to appear before the House of Lords and asked if he knew about this latest seditious pamphlet. He countered by demanding to know what, if any, charges were filed against him. He lashed out at the Lords, saying “All you intended when you set us a-fighting was merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, that so you might get up, and ride us in their stead.”  The Lords committed him to Newgate prison where he wrote another pamphlet, The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated. When the Keeper refused to let Elizabeth Lilburne visit him, he defied officials to cut out his tongue, and he threatened to set the House of Lords afire.

Lilburne’s friends again rallied to his defense. Elizabeth Lilburne organized groups of women who visited the House of Commons to offer her husband’s petition for justice. Printer Richard Overton wrote pamphlets defending Lilburne, for which he was sent to Newgate prison. There, in October, he wrote produced his brilliant pamphlet, An Arrow against all tyrants and tyranny, shot from the prison of Newgate into the Prerogative Bowels of the Arbitrary House of Lords. “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature,” he wrote, “not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one as he is himself, so he hath a self propriety, else could he not be himself…No man hath power over my rights and liberties and I over no man’s…For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…”  

As historian G.P. Gooch noted, “By its injudicious treatment of the most popular man in England, Parliament was arraying against itself a force which only awaited an opportunity to sweep it away.”  Lilburne’s ideas inspired Army radicals to draft the Agreement of the People, for a firme and present Peace, upon grounds of Common-Right. The forerunner of modern constitutions, it made clear that sovereignty rested with the people. It called for holding Parliamentary elections every two years. It specified that representation should be proportional to population. It provided freedom of religion. It barred military conscription. It envisioned a rule of law: “That in all Laws made, or to be made, every person may be bound alike, and that no Tenure, Estate, Charter, Degree, Birth or place, do confer any exemption from the ordinary Course of Legall proceedings, whereunto others are subjected.”

The Agreement of the People was the issue at the “Army debates” in Putney on October 28th and 29th, 1647, where ordinary people discussed the future of their country. Radical ideas threatened to undermine the harsh discipline which was a secret of Cromwell’s military success, so he broke up the debates. But  Agreement of the People was an historic achievement. Nowhere else had there such a serious effort to resolve fundamental issues through discussion.

Lilburne, granted time away from prison while still serving a term, began organizing the first political party. His supporters identified publicly themselves by wearing sea-green ribbons. As House of Lords informer George Masterson reported, Lilburne’s agents went “out into every city, town and parish (if they could possibly), of every county of the kingdom, to inform the people of their liberties and privileges, and not only to get their hands to the Petition.”   

In January 1648, tipped off by Masterson, Parliament ordered Lilburne to stand trial for sedition and treason — and he was again imprisoned. Lilburne reported that he was saved when his wife defiantly stood between him and soldiers brandishing their swords.  He churned out more pamphlets, including A Defiance to Tyrants (January 28), The people’s Prerogative (February 6), A Whip for the present House of Lords (February 27), The Out-cryes of oppressed Commons (with Richard Overton, February 28), The Prisoners Plea for a Habeas Corpus (April 4) and The Oppressed Mans Importunate and Mournfull Cryes to be brought to the Barre of Justice (April 7).

Facing the prospect of renewed civil war, the House of Commons needed support from the Levellers who had presented petitions with over 8,000 signatures, demanding Lilburne’s release. On April 18th, it voted to drop charges against him. Parliament voted him L3,000 as compensation for his wrongful imprisonment’s, but Lilburne wouldn’t accept taxpayer money.

By November 1648, Cromwell had crushed the King’s forces, and many in the Army wanted to execute the king. Lilburne, however, declared that liberty depended on checks and balances because he observed that the king, Parliament and army were all pursuing their interests at the expense of everybody else. By contrast, John Milton favored hanging the king, which took place on January 30, 1649, and Milton rushed into print with a pamphlet defending the deed. Milton worked as a secretary in Cromwell’s military dictatorship.

On March 28th, Army officers dispatched about a hundred soldiers to seize Lilburne and Overton on suspicion of writing radical pamphlets. Cromwell reportedly thundered: “I tel you, Sir, you have no other Way to deale with these men, but to break them in pieces.”  Sentenced to the Tower of London, they issued a new Agreement of the People.

Levellers circulated petitions for “honest John o’ the Tower,” signed by some 40,000 people. They held rallies where people displayed their sea-green ribbons. People sang about “the bonny Besses in the sea-green dresses.”  Cromwell fumed that “the Kingdome could never be setled so long as Lilburne was alive…”   Cromwell crushed the Levellers at Burford, May 1649. Cromwell seems to have feared there might be a dangerous backlash if Lilburne were executed.

Cromwell moved to suppress the Irish who had been revolting against English rule since 1641. In Drogheda and Wexford, on Ireland’s east coast, Cromwell ordered a massacre which Irish rebels would never forget. He transferred title for vast Irish lands to English owners. Historian George Macaulay Trevelyan observed: “In Ireland as Oliver left it and as it long remained, the persecuted priests were the only leaders of the people because the English had destroyed the class of native gentry. The Cromwellian settlement rendered the Irish for centuries the most priest-led population in Europe.”

As Lilburne’s two sons were dying of smallpox, he issued another pamphlet from the Tower of London, The Legal Fundamentall Liberties (June 1649). This attacked Army officers for ruling “over us arbitrarily, without declared Laws, as a conquered people.” Out on bail to visit his family, Lilburne escalated attacks in his pamphlet An Impeachment of High Treason against Oliver Cromwell (July 1649). Lilburne warned that with Cromwell there would be “nothing…but Wars, and the cutting of throats year after year.”     

On September 14th, Attorney-General Edmund Prideaux demanded to know if Lilburne had written An Outcry of the Young Apprentices of London, but Lilburne denied the government’s right to question him. A warrant for his arrest was issued five days later, and at the Guildhall, London, he was charged with high treason. Biographer Pauline Gregg reported, “There was nothing at first glance to indicate the struggle he had been through. It was apparent, however, that strife over the years had coarsened his features, that the delicacy of the young man’s face had gone. The disfigurement caused by his eye injury many years before gave his face in repose a slightly saturnine look. He no longer curled his hair back from his ears, as he had done as a young man, but let it hang to his shoulders, slightly grizzled and somewhat unkempt… It was perhaps in the eyes and the mouth that the greatest difference showed. At twenty-three Lilburne held the simple belief that the demonstration of an injustice led to its abrogation. Seven years later disillusionment and bitter struggle had left their mark in the set of his mouth and the challenge in his eyes.”

As always, Lilburne handled his own defense. Despite the judge’s objections, he repeatedly told the jury that they were empowered to issue a verdict on laws as well as the facts in his case. This doctrine became known as jury “nullification,” meaning that an independent jury should acquit an individual guilty of breaking a law, if the law is unjust — a response to the terrible things governments do that are perfectly legal. Lilburne won a stunning acquittal on October 26, 1649.

But in December 1751, Parliament ordered that Lilburne be fined L7,000, banished from England and threatened with execution if he ever returned. He crossed the English Channel on June 14, 1653, was captured by sheriffs and brought to Newgate prison. Awaiting a likely trial, he wrote another pamphlet, Plea in Law. He harangued the court about his right to see the indictment and challenged the legitimacy of the law which was the basis for it. Jury verdict: “John Lilburne is not guilty of any crime worthy of death.”  He was returned to the Tower of London, then to the Castle Orgueil on the Isle of Jersey and later to Dover Castle. At Dover Castle Lilburne gained some peace of mind by talking with Quakers — followers of George Fox, a shoemaker’s apprentice who had become convinced that divine revelation (“inner light”) could come without preacher, prayer book or ceremony.

During August 1657, he was on parole in Eltham, visiting his wife. His health began to fail. On August 29th, the day he was due back at Dover Castle, he died in her arms. He was only about 43. “I shall leave this Testimony behind me,” he had remarked, “that I died for the Laws and Liberties of this nation.”  Some 400 people followed his plain wood casket for burial in a Bethlehem churchyard near Bishopsgate.

Although the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II didn’t regain all the obnoxious powers that his father had possessed. Royal prerogative courts like the Star Chamber never came back. Parliament, not the king, controlled taxation. This was part of John Lilburne’s lasting legacy. Many of his daring demands for criminal justice reform came true, too. Historian George Macaulay Trevelyan observed, “the Puritan Revolution had enlarged the liberty of the accused subject against the prosecuting Government, as the trials of John Lilburne had shown…Questions of law as well as of fact were now left to the Jury, who were free to acquit without fear of consequences; the witnesses for the prosecution were now always brought into court and made to look on the prisoner as they spoke; witnesses for the defense might at least be summoned to appear; and the accused might no longer be interpellated by the King’s Counsel, entangled in a rigorous inquisition, and forced to give evidence against himself. Slowly, through blood and tears, justice and freedom had been advancing.”  Added historian H. N. Brailsford: “thanks to the daring of this stripling, English law does not aim from the first to last at the extraction of confessions. To Americans this right appeared so fundamental that they embodied it by the Fifth Amendment in the constitution of the United States.”

But Lilburne became a forgotten man. His pamphlets were unsigned and easily lost. His many stirring lines were buried amidst voluminous prose about specific legal cases which later generations didn’t care about. The next thinker to develop a bold vision of liberty was the philosopher John Locke, but Oxford University scholar Peter Laslett concluded that it was “from conversation and casual contact, not from documentary acquaintance, that Locke inherited the fruit of the radical writings of the Civil War.” 

In 1679, the Earl of Shaftsbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Algernon Sidney, Richard Rumbold and their compatriots in London’s Green Ribbon Club — the name recalled Leveller days — contemplated a general insurrection against tyrannical King Charles II. Shaftsury fled to Holland, but other Green Ribbon rebels were caught at Rumbold’s Rye House and condemned to die. In his scaffold speech, Rumbold, who had been a Leveller, affirmed Leveller principles. “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another,” he declared, “for none comes into the world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”   

Thomas Jefferson adapted Rumbold’s phrasing in one of his last letters, June 24, 1826: “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

English historian John Richard Green was among the few 19th century authors to recognize the crucial importance of the Levellers. “For the last two hundred years,” he wrote, “England has been doing little more than carrying out in a slow and tentative way the schemes of political and religious reforms which the army propounded at the close of the Civil War.”

Behind many of our most fundamental civil liberties there stood John Lilburne, a mere apprentice who helped develop a bold new vision of liberty, took a principled stand, risked his life, defied tyrants and got his story out. He suffered that we might be free.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.