John Lilburne: the rebel they couldn’t gag

John Lilburne was whipped, pilloried, imprisoned and exiled, yet still the authorities couldn’t silence him. Mike Braddick charts one man’s extraordinary fight for the rights of the freeborn Englishman in the 17th century Complements the 10-part BBC Radio 4 series The Battles That Won Our Freedoms

A 1646 engraving of John Lilburne behind bars. The outspoken critic of successive governments spent half his life imprisoned or in exile. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Dragged from bed at 6am on 11 June 1646, John Lilburne was taken by armed men to the House of Lords. That day, and twice more in June and July, he refused to hear the charge against him because the Lords were, he declared, not his peers – to acknowledge their right to charge him would be to surrender all the freedoms guaranteed in Magna Carta. Lilburne went further, saying the Lords wanted “to tread [Magna Carta] under their feet”, and that he was determined to resist them “to the last drop of my blood”. To make his point, he refused to kneel or to remove his hat in the house, and while the charge was being read he ostentatiously put his fingers in his ears. He could tell the man had finished, he later claimed, only because he could see that his lips had stopped moving.

If any incident captures the essence of John Lilburne, then his performance in the House of Lords is surely it. His gift for political theatre and the finely calibrated insult made him a truly formidable political campaigner.

Today, Lilburne (1615–57) is primarily associated with the Levellers, the small but vocal band of activists who emerged in the wake of the Civil War, calling for extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious toleration. His links with the Levellers, however, tell only half the story of a remarkable life. In fact, he had a much longer career as an activist, campaigning relentlessly for what he regarded as the rights of every freeborn Englishman – the right to remain silent and the right to trial by one’s peers among them. He was perhaps the inventor of the term ‘freeborn Englishman’, and refused to be gagged by the authorities. In taking on these battles, he blazed a trail for those in the future who opposed government attempts to use the courts to silence their critics.

Draconian response

Born into a gentry family in Greenwich in 1615, Lilburne was in his early 20s when he first fell foul of the law. He was charged with importing seditious books into England, but refused to offer a plea. The authorities’ response to this contempt of court was draconian: Lilburne was whipped through the streets of London, pilloried, gagged and then thrown into prison.

Released three years later, he soon found himself in hot water again – this time accused of treason after fulminating against the Earl of Strafford, one of King Charles I’s key ministers and a man suspected of planning to raise an army to intimidate parliament.

Lilburne signed up unhesitatingly for the parliamentary armies on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642 and fought with distinction, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. But an alliance with the Scots in 1643 – in which it was agreed that the Scots would preserve their Presbyterian religion and the English religion would be remodelled – drove a wedge between Lilburne and some elements of the army leadership. He argued that it was a betrayal of the cause for which he and others had signed up to fight; some of his commanders disagreed. By the end of 1645, he had quit the army.

He came to believe that the real war was not between king and parliament but between the people and tyranny

It was now that Lilburne’s journey from committed supporter of the parliamentary cause to vociferous critic began in earnest. He soon came to the conclusion that the new parliamentary regime could be just as dictatorial as that of Charles I, and that the real war was not between king and parliament, but between the people and tyranny. The regime’s repeated attempts to stop him publishing and to muzzle the presses only reinforced this conviction.

During 1645 he was detained five times by a parliamentary committee for publishing pamphlets that they considered beyond the pale. The following year, he denounced the Earl of Manchester, the commander of the Eastern Association army under whom he had served, as a traitor. The earl’s head “had stood it seemes too long upon his shoulders”, Lilburne declared.

When he was called to answer for this, his ostentatious and inflammatory refusal to acknowledge the Lords’ jurisdiction led to a seven-year sentence in the Tower (he served just over two years). There he would be joined by his long-suffering and equally remarkable wife, Elizabeth – the couple would name their next child ‘Tower’.

In 1649, Lilburne found himself charged with treason again, accused of inciting army mutiny in pamphlets highly critical of the tyrannical instincts of the republican regime. He was acquitted in a very public trial, and afterwards seems to have tried to settle down to a quiet life.

Two years later, though, he published a petition accusing Sir Arthur Hesilrige, a war hero and prominent MP, of corrupt use of his power. Lilburne had a point – Hesilrige showed no little ruthlessness in pursuing his personal interests – but that didn’t stop Lilburne being exiled for life for his accusations. In 1653 he breached his exile, and was again put on trial for his life. He was acquitted by the jury once more, in another very public trial.

Absence of humility?

Lilburne’s many brushes with the law arose mainly from what he said – as opposed to what he did – and many contemporaries thought he could have avoided trouble by keeping his mouth shut. His enemies argued that this so-called champion of the Englishman’s liberties was in fact perpetually angling for a fight. Even Henry Marten, an old friend and ally, thought that “if there none living but himself, John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John”.

Put the other way, though, Lilburne’s many trials amounted to a defence of his right to speak his mind. Lilburne was engaged in a battle for the common freedom of the English people. The enemy was tyranny, but he experienced this primarily in the many attempts to punish him for what he published, so that his sufferings came to resonate with later campaigns for a free press.

Prior to 1640, printing had been a monopoly of the Stationers’ Company, and anything published in England required their licence – in principle a powerful form of pre-publication censorship. This collapsed in the early 1640s because monopolies of all kinds were abolished, along with the two courts that had enforced the Stationers’ monopoly.

The result was a flood of short, polemical pamphlets and newsbooks, creating a chaotic public debate. Political writer Cuthbert Sydenham saw in the writings of Lilburne and his ilk one of the “exorbitancies” of the age, which “stained the glory of this nation”. The “multitude of licentious and abusive pamphlets” turned the press into “a common strumpet to conceive and bring forth the froth of every idle and wanton fancy”. Books, reason and judgment had been displaced by “Pasquils [lampoons] and Libels, stuft with… rancour and rage”.

In 1763, on the eve of his trial for criticising George III, the MP John Wilkes was presented with one of Lilburne’s pamphlets

The parliamentary regime tried to reintroduce press control in the face of this anarchic public debate and its Committee of Examinations regularly heard cases relating to seditious or offensive publication: it was this committee that arrested and detained Lilburne so often in 1645. Almost as much as anything else, the use of this committee by his political enemies within the parliamentary coalition convinced Lilburne that the new regime might be just as tyrannous as the old.

Lilburne’s activism may have appalled the likes of Cuthbert Sydenham, but to later advocates of freedom of expression it was an inspiration. For example, in 1763 the radical journalist and MP John Wilkes was prosecuted for seditious libel after writing an article criticising a parliamentary speech given in the name of King George III. On the eve of his trial, Wilkes was presented with one of Lilburne’s pamphlets and a medal struck to celebrate his acquittal in 1649.

Thirty years later, Jeremiah Joyce, a Unitarian minister, was arrested at a meeting of the London Corresponding Society and charged with treasonable practices. He took a bound copy of Lilburne’s tracts to his arraignment at the Old Bailey, where he refused to answer questions without a lawyer present. Joyce spent four months in prison before the charges were dropped.

Joyce’s collection of Lilburne pamphlets later passed into the hands of William Hone, a radical bookseller who had first read one of Lilburne’s publications at the age of 11. Hone himself stood trial in 1817 in the tense aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. He modelled his courtroom performance on Lilburne, pouring scorn on the government’s charges and securing acquittal by the jury. In doing so he helped to discredit the seditious libel laws as a tool of repression.

The associations between the rights of the freeborn Englishman and the freedom to speak are captured in a c1790s portrayal (shown left) of a bedraggled man dressed in rags and clasped in chains, with his lips padlocked. Accompanying the image are the scathingly ironic words: “A freeborn Englishman: the admiration of the world, the envy of surrounding nations.”

John Lilburne did not campaign explicitly for a free press. But he did claim that he wanted to combat his political enemies on equal terms, “namely that the presse might be as open for us as for you”. He thought of his battle more broadly, as the fight to protect Englishmen from all corrupt and political uses of the law. He opposed the Stationers’ monopoly on the same grounds that he opposed the clergy monopoly on religious teaching or the Merchant Adventurers’ control over the cloth trade. These were all invented powers infringing on the rights of the Englishman. “I have been in the field with my sword in my hand,” he wrote, “to venter my life and my blood (against Tyrants) for the preservation of my Freedome.”

Lilburne did fight, and bravely too. Stubborn and daring, he staked his claim to the common freedom of the people at enormous personal cost (he would die on parole in 1657, while visiting his wife). In doing so, he made a significant contribution to the longer struggle for a free press, and struck a blow against the governments that would gag it.

Mike Braddick is professor of history at the University of Sheffield. His books include The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution (OUP, 2018)

The 10-part series The Battles That Won Our Freedoms, exploring the roots of British liberties, airs on BBC Radio 4 from 7 January

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Complements the 10-part BBC Radio 4 series The Battles That Won Our Freedoms