John Lilburne: Wikis


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John Lilburne

John Lilburne (1614 – 29 August 1657), also known as Freeborn John, was an English political agitator before, during and after English Civil Wars 1642-1650. He coined the term "freeborn rights", defining them as rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or human law. In his early life he was a Puritan, though towards the end of his life he became a Quaker. His works have been cited in opinions by the United States Supreme Court.


Early life

John Lilburne was a child of middle level, the exact date of whose birth is unknown; there is some dispute as to whether he was born in 1613 or 1614.He was probably born in Bishop Auckland[1] in County Durham, England where his uncle Richard Lilburne became one of the first members of Parliament to represent the County of Durham.[2] John's elder brother Robert Lilburne also later became active in the Parliamentary cause, but seems not to have shared John's Leveller beliefs. By his own account Lilburne received the first ten years' of his education in Newcastle, almost certainly at the Royal Free Grammar School.[2]

In the 1630s he was apprenticed to John Hewson who introduced him to the Puritan physician John Bastwick, an active pamphleteer against Episcopacy who was persecuted by Archbishop William Laud.

Unlicensed publishing

In 1638 at age 22, John Lilburne imported into England religious publications from Holland which were not licenced by The Stationers' Company (known after 1937 as the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers). At that time all printing presses were licenced as well as the publications that were produced on those presses.

"Freeborn John"

John Lilburne was arrested upon information by an informer acting for The Stationers' Company and brought before the Court of Star Chamber. Instead of being charged with an offense he was asked how he pleaded. John Lilburne demanded to be presented in English with the charges brought against him (much of the written legal work of the time was in Law French). The Court refused Lilburne's request. The court then threw him in prison and again brought him back to court and demanded a plea. Again, Lilburne demanded to know the charges brought against him.

The authorities then resorted to flogging him with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicenced literature to the crowds. He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned.

This began the first in a long series of trials that lasted throughout his life for what John Lilburne called his "freeborn rights". As a result of these trials a growing number of supporters began to call him "Freeborn John" and they even struck a medal in his honour to that effect. It is this trial that has been cited by constitutional jurists and scholars in the United States of America as being one of the historical foundations of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also cited within the 1966 majority opinion of Miranda v. Arizona by the U.S. Supreme Court. On his release, he married to Elizabeth Dewell (a London merchant's daughter) in September 1641. Lilburne’s agitation continued, the same year he led a group of armed citizens against a group of Royalist officers, forcing them to retreat.

English Civil War

In the First English Civil War he enlisted as a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment of foot in the Parliamentary army commanded by the Earl of Essex and fought at the Battle of Edgehill. He was a member of the Parliament's garrison at Brentford against Prince Rupert during the Battle of Brentford that took place on 12 November 1642 as the Royalist advance on London and after trying to escape by jumping in the Thames was taken as a prisoner to Oxford. As the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists intended to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal (see the Declaration of Lex Talionis), Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer.

He then joined the Eastern Association under the command of Earl of Manchester and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. He became friends with Oliver Cromwell, who was second in command, supporting him in his disputes with Manchester. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Shortly afterwards he asked permission to attack the Royalist stronghold at Tickhill Castle, because he had heard it was willing to surrender. Manchester refused, dismissing him as a madman. Taking that as a yes, he went and took the Castle without a shot being fired.

In April 1645, Lilburne resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion, namely members of the parliamentary army. Lilburne argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others. This was practically a treaty between England and Scotland for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, the reformation of religion in England and Ireland "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches," and the extirpation of popery and prelacy. The Scots, he maintained, were free to believe as they saw fit but not to bind anyone to the same faith if they did not share it.


John Lilburne then began in earnest his campaign of agitation for freeborn rights, the rights that all Englishmen are born with, which are different from privileges bestowed by a monarch or a government. He also advocated extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. His enemies branded him as a Leveller but Lilburne responded that he was a "Leveller so-called." To him it was a pejorative label which he did not like. He called his supporters "Agitators." It was feared that "Levellers" wanted to level property rights, but Lilburne wanted to level human basic rights which he called "freeborn rights"

At the same time that John Lilburne began his campaign, another group led by Gerrard Winstanley styling themselves True Levellers (and became known as Diggers), advocated equality in property as well as political rights.

Putney Debates

Lilburne was imprisoned from July to October 1645 for denouncing Members of Parliament who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for the Parliamentary cause. It was while he was incarcerated that he wrote his tract, England's Birthright Justified.

In July 1646, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for denouncing his former commander the Earl of Manchester as a traitor and Royalist sympathiser. It was the campaign to free him from prison which spawned the political party called the Levellers. Lilburne called them "Levellers so-called" because he viewed himself as an agitator for freeborn rights.

The Levellers had a strong following in the New Model Army with whom his work was influential. When the Army held the Putney Debates[3] between 28 October and 11 November 1647, the debate centred upon a pamphlet influenced by the writings of John Lilburne called An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right.[4]The events of 1647, where rank and file soldiers organised themselves, under the leadership of the Agitators have been compared to the organisation of Soldiers Soviets during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Written Constitution

Lilburne was instrumental in the writing of two more editions of this famous document. The second was An Agreement of the People of England, and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety[5], was presented to Parliament on 11 September 1648 after amassing signatories including about a third of all Londoners.

Following the defeat of the Royalists and the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, England became a commonwealth in 1649 with the regicide of Charles I. It was while he was in the Tower of London that John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton wrote the third edition of An Agreement of the Free People of England. Tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation[6]. They hoped that this document would be signed like a referendum so that it would become a written constitution for the Commonwealth of England. The late United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who often cited the works of John Lilburne in his opinions, wrote in an article for Encyclopædia Britannica that he believed John Lilburne's constitutional work of 1649 was the basis for the basic rights contained in the US Constitution.

After his acquittal by Parliament on the charge of treason in 1649, Lilburne turned to other legal matters involving his extended family. This action resulted in his being arrested yet again. Following the abolition of the monarchy, Cromwell became increasingly powerful. He eventually became Head of State under the Protectorate, with the title Lord Protector. Lilburne was held in prison because Cromwell viewed him as a political threat.

During his trial, tickets were thrown about with the words...

And what, shall then honest John Lilburne die!
Three score thousand will know the reason why,[7]


Lilburne was held in the Tower until March 1654, then transferred to Jersey and finally, in October 1655, he was brought to Dover Castle. On parole at Dover, Lilburne met Luke Howard, a Quaker whose serenity impressed him and began the process of his own conversion. In 1656, he was allowed to leave the castle during the daytime to visit his wife and children, who had settled in Dover. Later he was permitted to stay away from prison for several days at a time and took to visiting Quaker congregations in Kent. In the last of his 83 pamphlets, The Resurrection of John Lilburne, he declared that he had given up political activism and become a Quaker. In the summer of 1657, whilst visiting his wife, who was expecting their tenth child, he caught a fever and died at Eltham, Kent, on 29 August 1657, aged 42.[8]

Fictional portrayal

Lilburne was portrayed by Tom Goodman-Hill in the 2008 television drama The Devil's Whore. In this apocryphal work, Lilburne is shown to have died in prison while being visited by his wife, Elizabeth.


  1. ^ Richards, Peter John Lilburne (1615-1657): English Libertarian (Libertarian Heritage No. 25) (2007) ISBN 9781856377485
  2. ^ a b Alan Myers. John Lilburne (c1614 - 1657), Retrieved 2008-12-10
  3. ^ The Putney Debates
  4. ^ The Agreement of the People as presented to the Council of the Army October 1647
  5. ^ Agreement of the People of England, as presented to Parliament in January 1649
  6. ^ An Agreement of the Free People of England, extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649
  7. ^ Thomas Bayly Howell, William Cobbett. A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Year 1783, with Notes and Other Illustrations, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1816. "The Trial of Mr. John Lilburn, at the Sessions of the Peace held for the City of London, at Justice-Hall in the Old Bailey, for returning into England, being banished by Act of Parliament* : б Charles II. A.d. 1653- [Written (the chief part) by the said John Lilburne.]" p. 408
  8. ^


  • Free Born John - Biography of John Lilburne, by Gregg, Pauline. Greenwood Press, London. 1960.
  • John Lilburne: Campaigner for Democracy by Nicholas Reed. Lilburne Press 2004 See
  • The World Turned Upside Down - Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill, Penguin,1991.
  • Aristocats, Plebians and Revolutiuon in England 1640- 1660, 1996 by Brian Manning, Pluto Press, 1996.
  • The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution by Christopher Hill, Penguin, 1993.

Further reading

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JOHN LILBURNE (c. 1614-1657), English political agitator, was the younger son of a gentleman of good family in the county of Durham. At the age of twelve he was apprenticed to a clothier in London, but he appears to have early addicted himself to the "contention, novelties, opposition of government, and I The Span. lilac, Fr. lilac, mod. lilas, are adapted from Arab. lilak, Pers. lilak, variant of nilak, of a blue colour, nil, blue, the indigo-plant.

violent and bitter expressions" for which he afterwards became so conspicuous as to provoke the saying of Harry Marten (the regicide) that, "if the world was emptied of all but John Lilburn, Lilburn would quarrel with John, and John with Lilburn." He appears at one time to have been law-clerk to William Prynne. In February 1638, for the part he had taken in importing and circulating The Litany and other publications of John Bastwick and Prynne, offensive to the bishops, he was sentenced by the Star Chamber to be publicly whipped from the Fleet prison to Palace Yard, Westminster, there to stand for two hours in the pillory, and afterwards to be kept in gaol until a fine of Soo had been paid. He devoted his enforced leisure to his favourite form of literary activity, and did not regain his liberty until November 1640, one of the earliest recorded speeches of Oliver Cromwell being made in support of his petition to the House of Commons (Nov. 9, 1640). In 1641 he received an indemnity of 3000. He now entered the army, and in 1642 was taken prisoner at Brentford and tried for his life; sentence would no doubt have been executed had not the parliament by threatening reprisals forced his exchange. He soon rose to the rank of lieutenantcolonel, but in April 1645, having become dissatisfied with the predominance of Presbyterianism, and refusing to take the covenant, he resigned his commission, presenting at the same time to the Commons a petition for considerable arrears of pay. His violent language in Westminster Hall about the speaker and other public men led in the following July to his arrest and committal to Newgate, whence he was discharged, however, without trial, by order of the House, in October. In January 1647 he was committed to the Tower for accusations against Cromwell, but was again set at liberty in time to become a disappointed spectator of the failure of the "Levellers" or ultrademocratic party in the army at the Ware rendezvous in the following November. The scene produced a deep impression on his mind, and in February 1649 he along with other petitioners presented to the House of Commons a paper entitled The Serious Apprehensions of a part of the People on behalf of the Commonwealth, which he followed up with a pamphlet, England's New Chains Discovered, criticizing Ireton, and another exposing the conduct of Cromwell, Ireton and other leaders of the army since June 1647 (The Hunting of the Foxes from Newmarket and Triploe Heath to Whitehall by Five Small Beagles, the "beagles" being Lilburne. Richard Overton, William Walwyn, Prince and another). Finally, the Second Part of England's New Chains Discovered, a violent outburst against "the dominion of a council of state, and a constitution of a new and unexperienced nature," became the subject of discussion in the House, and led anew to the imprisonment of its author in the Tower on the 11th of April. His trial in the following October, on a charge of seditious and scandalous practices against the state, resulted in his unanimous acquittal, followed by his release in November. In 1650 he was advocating the release of trade from the restrictions of chartered companies and monopolists.

In January 1652, for printing and publishing a petition against Sir Arthur Hesilrige and the Haberdashers' Hall for what he conceived to have been an injury done to his uncle George Lilburne in 1649, he was sentenced to pay fines amounting to 7000, and to be banished the Commonwealth, with prohibition of return under the pain of death. In June 1653 he nevertheless came back from the Low Countries, where he had busied himself in pamphleteering and such other agitation as was possible, and was immediately arrested; the trial, which was protracted from the 13th of July to the 10th of August, issued in his acquittal, to the great joy of London, but it was nevertheless thought proper to keep him in captivity for "the peace of the nation." He was detained successively in the Tower, in Jersey, in Guernsey and in Dover Castle. At Dover he came under Quaker influence, and signified his readiness at last to be done with "carnal sword fightings and fleshly bustlings and contests"; and in 1655, on giving security for his good behaviour, he was set free. He now settled at Eltham in Kent, frequently preaching at Quaker meetings in the neighbourhood during the brief remainder of his troubled life. He died on the 29th of August 1657.

His brother, Colonel Robert Lilburne, was among those who signed the death-warrant of Charles I. In 1656 he was M.P. for the East Riding of Yorkshire, and at the restoration was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment.

See D. Masson, Life of Milton (iv. 120); Clement Walker (History of Independency, ii. 247); W. Godwin (Commonwealth, iii. 163-177), and Robert Bisset (Omitted Chapters of the History of England, 191-251).

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