Living in the 17th‐century, John Lilburne, or as he was more commonly known Freeborn John, was imprisoned at a young age for distributing a banned book. From this point on through the English Civil Wars and the turbulent days of the English republic, Lilburne was a fierce advocate of civil liberties, what he called the rights of freeborn men. He inspired the Leveller movement and colonial governments in America that followed his advice on the importance of free speech and the right to silence.
For the first half of the 17th‐century, England was, to put it lightly, a bit of a mess. By the midpoint of the century, England had seen two civil wars. In times of great chaos, the grip of tradition and custom loosens, and people start to think about how to do things differently. During the 17th‐century, there was no shortage of pamphleteers ready to spill gallons of ink, but few ever reached during their lives the enigmatic status of John Lilburne, or as he was commonly referred to, as Free Born John.
Throughout history, there have always been great men who stood as larger‐than‐life figures who seem almost inhuman in their character, drive, and sheer magnetism. The 16th‐century Englishman John Lilburne easily hits all the criteria for a person who almost seems like a character from a TV show or novel as opposed to an actual person who existed. Lilburne didn’t live a long life, but he did live an extremely eventful one. He seemingly rebelled against every authority he possibly could. Spending the majority of his adult life in jail did nothing to hamper Lilburne’s prolific writing of roughly 80 pamphlets attacking religious intolerance, arbitrary taxation, state monopolies, and censorship. Lilburne wanted a form of government that secured private property rights, free trade, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and most importantly, the rule of law.
But more impressive than his extensive pamphleteering was his uncompromising and unbreakable strength of will that both shocked and awed contemporaries. He was stubborn because he knew he was right about just one simple thing, all people are born free.
John Lilburne was born sometime between 1613 and 1615 and was the second son of a family of modest means. His father, Richard, was a country gentleman’s son and owned enough land to considered himself one the middling class. Weird tidbit, Lilburne’s father was the last man in England to settle a legal dispute through a trial by combat. A year after giving birth to her fourth child, Lilburne’s mother tragically passed away when he was only four years old. The now widowed Richard, alongside his children, traveled to the Lilburne family home located in Thickley Punchardon.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lilburne was fortunate enough to receive an education through grammar schools in Bishop Auckland and Newcastle upon‐Tyne.
After finishing his grammar school education at the usual age of fourteen or so, he began an apprenticeship under Thomas Hewson, a woolen cloth trader based in London. Hewson was called a Puritan, a religious minority composed of Independents, Calvinists, and Presbyterians. They wished to cleanse the Catholic and Anglican church of what they saw as an overreliance lavish yet empty ritual and superstition.
The King of England, James I, perceived Puritanism, not as a threat but an assault upon the established state religion of Anglicanism. For James, the church and state were one and the same, you couldn’t have one without the other. James expressed his views saying, “No bishop, no king.” James and his son, who succeeded him, Charles, dedicated their efforts towards stamping out the seditious Puritans. During Lilburne’s youth, there were few vigorous advocates of religious tolerance to counter the Puritans’ persecution.
Puritan ministers and laymen were often hauled to special ecclesiastical courts where judges vigorously questioned them about their beliefs. If a minister was deemed too Puritan, they would often lose their position. By 1625, King Charles I issued a proclamation making it illegal to publish or import a book without an approved license.
Puritans who wrote anything that challenged the religious orthodoxy often found themselves seized by authorities and dragged to the infamous Court of the Star Chamber. Originally the Star Chamber was established to prosecute particularly notable or prominent people. Though noble in its original intent, by Lilburne’s day, the Star Chamber had become a tool of political oppression. Verdicts reached by the Star Chamber were often extremely arbitrary and harsh. Many who wrote controversial works suffered harsh conditions in prison coupled with painful punishments such as being whipped, branded, or getting one’s ears cut off.
While working in London, Lilburne was introduced to the imprisoned Cambridge educated John Bastwick, a man familiar with the authorities after being convicted for writing and publishing tracts in opposition to bishops who Puritans believed were unnecessary and dangerous. Lilburne began to visit Bastwick often. The two became firm friends with Bastwick making a strong impression on the young Lilburne inspiring his respect for religious toleration, an idea struggling to gain a foothold in England’s oppressive atmosphere.
When Lilburne completed his apprenticeship, he was in his early twenties. Despite the King’s best efforts to censor every Puritan piece of writing he could, the printing press made this quite the whack, a mole‐like task. Book dealers commonly sold unlicensed illegal books. A book dealer approached Bastwick and requested he composed an anti‐bishop argument in English. Bastwick complied and wrote the Litany, which was distributed clandestinely to small circles of dissenters. The young and wide‐eyed John read Litany and was so impressed he decided to take on it himself to produce more copies. John planned to sail to Holland, a rare bastion of free speech at the time. In Holland, he could print the books then sneakily smuggle them back into England.
John left for Holland in 1637. Within months, he quickly began sending thousands of copies of Bethany back to England, the gleeful John unaware the majority of books were being seized at English ports. When he returned to England towards the end of 1637, he was promptly detained and brought before the dreaded Star Court, which had cut the tips of Bastwick’s ears off as punishment.
The Star Chamber was not bound like regular courts to the dictates of common law. Instead, proceedings consisted of aggressively questioning the accused. Suspects were brought to court and forced to swear an oath on the Bible to answer any questions asked of them truthfully. This oath was a big problem for Puritans who had feared lying after swearing on the Bible itself would endanger their chances of reaching Heaven. If that wasn’t bad enough, the court was notorious for using torture in an attempt to force confessions. Even worse, the Star Chamber had a neat rule in its back pocket; anyone who refused to testify had in actuality confessed their guilt. The Star Chamber was a legal monster equipped with all of the trappings of complete and arbitrary power over the accused. The Star Chamber didn’t consist of honest judges enforcing a faithful adherence to the law and respect for freedom of religion. Instead, it resembled politicians enforcing their preferences for religious orthodoxy in line with the Anglican church.
The roughly 23‐year‐old Lilburne was staring at a legal monster that could swallow him whole. But when brought before the court, Lilburne refused to take the oath. Lilburne was then sentenced to be imprisoned, but only after he was tied to a cart and whipped through London’s streets and then locked in wooden stocks called pillories. Lilburne was brutally whipped hundreds of times as he struggled to keep pace with the carts while appalled onlookers gathered. Accounts this event describes his shoulders as “swelled almost as big as a penny loaf with the bruises of the knotted Cords” and that “the wales in his back, made by his cruel whipping, were bigger than Tobacco‐pipes.” When the procession finally arrived at the pillory, Lilburne was locked up after his brutal treatment. While locked in the pillory in complete agony, Lilburne began to speak and drew a supportive crowd. He explained how he refused to take any oaths because it was “absolutely against the Law of God, for that law required no man to accuse himself.” Lilburne pulled some of his smuggled pamphlets out of his pockets and threw them to the crowd, asking them to make up their own minds. After being gagged, Lilburne stomped on the platform for the rest of his time in the miserable pillory.
Lilburne was escorted back to prison by a sympathetic crowd following closely behind. For the next two years, Lilburne resided within Fleet prison walls, where he suffered harsh treatment. Something he would grow accustomed to as the years went on. But while in prison, Lilburne didn’t just twiddle his thumbs; he wrote three pamphlets, A Christian Man’s Trial describing his trial. A Work of the Beast, which recounts his trial. And lastly, Come out her, my people, a polemic about why Puritans shouldn’t support the Church of England. Thankfully by 1640, Parliament freed Lilburne from prison. His conviction was condemned as “illegal … bloody, wicked, cruel, barbarous and tyrannical.” Oliver Cromwell led to charge for Lilburne’s freedom delivering a passionate speech that swayed Parliament. Cromwell and Lilburne were, to an extent, kindred spirits. Both came from modest means and were devoted to their religion.
Lilburne returned from prison and began to attempt to settle back into everyday life. Still, Lilburne could not return to the woolen business because of monopolistic guilds that excluded him. Instead, Lilburne worked at his uncle’s brewery. Soon after he married Elizabeth Dowell, a daughter of a London merchant, they were a perfect rabble‐rousing match as Elizabeth had already been arrested like her husband for radical activities.
Lilburne’s life almost looked like it was about to revert to normality, but life isn’t so kind. All the way back in 1215, English barons had revolted against King John and implemented what is called Magna Carta, a legal document that formed the backbone of English common law. Magna Carta had guaranteed certain legal norms and rights, such as the idea that the King could only raise taxes with Parliament’s consent. For generations, this arrangement had allowed for a power‐sharing dynamic between Parliament and the King, but King Charles had no interest in sharing power. Charles largely ignored Parliament and started what was referred to as his personal reign. But without Parliament’s support, the King couldn’t raise taxes. However, one thing that is almost certain in life, dictators rarely abstain from inventing new and increasingly complex methods of bleeding their subdued subjects dry. And that is just what Charles did through unfair fines, selling monopolies and titles, and erecting customs duties, all without any say from Parliament.
Frustrated by the King, in November of 1641, Parliament passed the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances against the King and his conduct during his personal reign. On top of this damning indictment of Charles’s reign, five members of Parliament were suspected by Charles to have conspired with previous Scottish invaders. When the King arrived with soldiers to arrest these five members of Parliament in 1642, the rest of Parliament, who refused to disclose their comrades’ location, Charles left London in a rage. He quickly raised an army to stamp out the rebellious Parliament he had long despised.
Lilburne joined the Parliament’s side against the King and his loyalists as a captain in the Parliamentary army. Lilburne was enthusiastic but unlucky in his military career. At the first battle of the civil war at Edgehill, he fought an inconclusive battle with both sides announcing their victory. A few weeks later, Lilburne fought at the battle of Brentford. When parliamentary troops began to falter, Lilburne rallied them to his side and held their position for a grueling six hours to secure the retreating artillery train. After an extended battle, royalists defeated the Parliamentary forces, and five hundred prisoners were captured, including Lilburne, who was held prisoner in Oxford Castle. Lilburne was charged for treason and was to be executed on December twentieth. Lilburne managed to sneak out a letter intended for the house of commons, with Lilburne saying that four royalist officers ought to meet the same fate if he and his officers are executed. But the letter still had to arrive on time to save Lilburne’s life. During the dead of winter and three months pregnant, Lilburne’s wife Elizabeth galloped to the House of Commons and successfully saved her husband’s life.
Months later, Lilburne returned to London, where thousands celebrated his arrival. Lilburne rejoined the army and was promoted to lieutenant colonel of dragoons. Lilburne distinguished himself on the battlefield at Martson Moor in 1644. Shortly after, Marston Moor Lilburne was responsible for capturing a castle, but the Earl of Manchester stole the credit for his deeds.
The subsequent civil war was one of the most grueling and miserable conflicts the English people had ever seen. Estimates of total casualties vary, but perhaps one in ten English men were killed in the conflict, a higher proportion than in World War One based on the population at the time. By 1646, after four years, the war was brought to a close thanks to the energetic leadership of Oliver Cromwell and the reorganized parliamentarian army. Despite his successes, Lilburne left the military in 1645 when he refused to take a new loyalty oath, the Solemn League and Covenant.
By 1645, Lilburne’s views began to shift further from Orthodoxy. He began to alienate more conservative Parliamentarians and began to align himself alongside people such as Richard Overton, a staunch supporter of religious toleration. Lilburne was more and more willing to attack conservative opponents. By 1645 this landed Lilburne in hot water when he was called to the House of Lords to answer accusations of libel towards his former general, the Earl of Manchester. Having an astute legal mind, thanks to reading the esteemed judge Edward Coke Lilburne pointed out that Magna Carta guaranteed a trial by one’s peers, and since they were lords, they could not act as a jury for a commoner. As always, this landed him in jail yet again. While in prison, Lilburne kept pumping out his pamphlets.
While imprisoned, Lilburne began to realize that his ideals of free speech and religious toleration ideas parliament were not as keen as they had once made themselves out to be. He wrote that Parliament fought in the civil war under the pretense of freedom, but in reality, all that they were doing was, as Lilbure explained, “merely to unhorse and dismount our old riders and tyrants, that so you might get up, and ride us in their stead.”
While imprisoned, he wrote England Birth‐right justified where he attacked the injustices of government‐granted monopolies in preaching and business. Lilburne also added that for a trial to be valid, every person ought to be guaranteed that formal charges are filed for known laws and that the defendant was allowed to present a robust defense. Lastly, from experience, Lilburne observed the longer men are in power, the more corrupt they became. Lilburne’s solution was to hold annual elections with a system of universal male suffrage. A man with a loose tongue and of strong religious convictions, Lilburne believed free speech and religious toleration were not just pleasant privileges but rights that ought to be guaranteed; he explained that the “insufferable, unjust and tyrannical Monopoly of Printing” suppressed “just Rights and Liberties of the free‐borne people of this Nation.
Like‐minded individuals Walwyn and Overton organized petitions to release or at least give Lilburne a proper trial. The campaign to free Lilburne spawned a group known as the Levellers, a political movement made up of in Lilburne’s words, “the middle sort of people” and “the hobnails, clouted shoes, the private soldiers, the leather and woolen aprons and the laborious and industrious people of England.” They pushed for legal reforms that would secure the rule of law and almost universal male suffrage. The levellers, like many political terms, started as an insult, leveller denoting someone who wished to equalize property ownership. Of course, the truth is a survey of leveller thought reveals they often saw the necessity and natural right of private property.
The budding Levellers organized a petition with the intention of freeing Lilburne from his newest of many prison sentences. With over two thousand signatures, Lilburne was subsequently released on bail by November 1647. Lilburne spent his time sharpening the Levellers into a more organized group with regular meetings, an elected central committee, and even agents who traveled the country holding meetings to spread the leveller ideals. At a meeting in 1648, Lilburne was arrested when a spy reported his activities.
In 1649 while Lilburne was behind bars, King Charles was imprisoned yet again for trying to start a second civil war. Parliament could no longer install Charles as a monarch with limited powers; he had proven time and time again he was an untrustworthy and devious person who would do anything to see himself back in power. The war parliament had waged was about upholding Magna Carta and a commitment to the law over the will of kings, lex before rex. Lilburne did not object to putting the King on trial but objected to establishing a special and separate procedure for the King. Lilburne wanted the King to go through the same system as everyone else. When prosecuting royalists, Lilburne advised that they be given the same trial as anyone else to stop bad legal precedents. He warned, “what is done to any one, may be done to every one.” Regardless, the King was executed, and England became a republic for the first time, but this was not to last.
Though England was a republic, in reality, it was a de‐facto monarchy with Oliver Cromwell at the very top. After the King’s execution, the Rump Parliament abolished the House of Lords and established the council of the state with 41 members, with Cromwell as chairman. When the council banned petitions to Parliament, Lilburne wrote England’s New Chains Discovered, where he condemned in no unclear terms the abuses of arbitrary power. When Lilburne read aloud the second part of his pamphlet and presented it to the house of Commons, he was arrested by a small army of a hundred soldiers outside of his home. When Lilburne stood trial, judges interrogated him on whether or not he was the author of the seditious pamphlet. Lilburne, as always, upheld the right against self‐incrimination and refused to answer. Even with only a day to organize his defense, the jury was convinced, and after an hour of discussion, all charges were dropped on Lilburne, this is an example of what we today call jury nullification. During the trial, Lilburne expressed a novel legal innovation, that the jury was the final judge of the law.
After his release, the leveller movement had lost momentum, Lilburne ran for the position of alderman in the city of London and won, but Parliament voided the election. For the most part, Lilburne’s life was quiet politically, and for his beleaguered wife Elizabeth with ten children, it must have been a happier time than previous years. But Lilburne, in 1651, found himself in hot water over a feud with Sir Arthur Hesilrige, who Lilburne had viciously criticized. Lilburne lost his case and had to pay a large amount to compensate Hesilrige, but most egregiously, he was sentenced to exile. Parliament threatened he was to be killed if he ever stepped foot in England again.
By 1652, Lilburne had to leave his wife and children yet again for the umpteenth time. He spent his exile in the Netherlands, where he continued to criticize the English government. After the Rump Parliament’s expulsion that passed the treason acts that Lilburne was convicted of, he hoped he could return to England and applied for a pass to return, and when one was not granted, he returned regardless. When Cromwell asked for him to promise to keep quiet, he refused. Lilburne contested every single step of the trial and was acquitted to the cheers of huge crowds crying Long live John Lilburne.
But Lilburne was not truly free. Cromwell feared Lilburne’s rebellious spirit and thought he was in contact with royalists who conspired to overthrow the fragile republic. Lilburne was first brought to the Tower of London but then transferred to a castle in Jersey before being moved to Gorey Bay, where the local governor would disregard habeas corpus. After petitions from his wife and father, fearing for his health, Lilburne was transferred to Dover, where he stayed in a castle. While here, Lilburne converted to Quakerism. Lilburne was permitted to visit his wife, who moved closer to Dover along with their children. The prison’s poor conditions caused Lilburne to catch gaol fever, which is thought to have been typhus. His health declined, and while visiting his wife, he died in her arms in 1657. The English republic collapsed quickly after his death, only lasting eleven years, and the monarchy was reinstated. Though the Stuart monarchy returned, it was not the same as before. In 1660, the new King found Charles II found himself lacking the arbitrary power his forbearers had wielded unopposed.
In his life, Lilburne was a soldier, an activist, an enemy of the state. He lived over half of his adult life in various prisons for his fearless and constant criticism of those who would compromise on the issue of freedom. Lilburne was also a rockstar in his day, easily being one of the most popular figures of the day thanks to his public persona that resembled a sort of Christian martyr suffering for his people’s liberty, a very convincing message for a deeply religious populous. But his contemporaries also joked he was so argumentative that if he was the last person on the planet, he would find a way to argue with himself. He had no qualms with saying his mind, and this enraged people in high places. One contemporary said Lilburne enraged those in power because of “the freeness of his tongue against all kinds of injustice.”
Lilburne’s popularity faded, and the 19th‐century Victorians preferred the so‐called great man Cromwell over the spoil Lilburne who was a thorn in his side. Thankfully, his popularity was not confined to England by any means. Lilburne was most appreciated after his death in the American colonies, where his name lived on as a hero of free speech and an advocate of juries’ rights. The fifth amendment in the American Constitution might not have existed without Free‐born John. In fact, in Colonial America, Lilburne was cited in relation to court cases relating to free speech, freedom of religion, and the rights of juries. One of his trials was even cited in the majority opinion for the 1966 Supreme Court Case Miranda Vs. Arizona.
As an advocate of free speech, religious toleration, and constitutionally limited power, Lilburne might be one of the first English libertarians, but I will leave that for scholars to argue. Regardless of the political label we paste on his life, while his fellow civil war veterans turned away from civil liberties, Lilburne only became more consistent as time passed, dedicating his wealth, health, and freedom for the rights of not some people here and there, but all people. Lilburne took it upon himself to make civil disobedience a way of life. He was one of the greatest troublemakers who has graced history. As new challenges to civil liberties emerge, it is never a bad idea to return to first principles and examine the life and thought of trailblazers and upstarts like Free Born John.