This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Born into a wealthy family in the north-east of England, Lilburne became a Puritan as a young man and campaigned for the rights of individuals against the state. His writings proved controversial, earning him a prison sentence during the reign of Charles I. Following his release, Lilburne fought against the king in the Civil War but his independent views were not easily accepted by parliament either and he found himself imprisoned again for a time. In 1647 he became a leader of the radical group known as the Levellers, who advocated greater reforms than Cromwell was prepared to contemplate. Once more his views landed him in jail (and exile), and by the time of his death in 1657 – after years of imprisonment – Lilburne was a broken man. His intellectual legacy, however, remains profound.
When did you first hear about John Lilburne?
I studied history at school and university and, through the books of the historian Christopher Hill, ended up with a pretty healthy obsession with the Civil War. It’s a topic I’ve read about widely since. Initially I was fascinated with the Diggers [a group of Protestant ‘agrarian communists’ led by Gerrard Winstanley] but as I’ve grown older it’s Lilburne who resonates with me the most.
What kind of person was he?
Lilburne was, by all accounts, not perhaps the nicest of people. He was certainly cantankerous, held grudges and was generally a prickly character. The flip side was that he was dedicated, tenacious and sincere about his commitment to the freedom of the people.
What made Lilburne a hero?
He was very much ahead of his time in his dedication to liberty as a concept – including in religion and democracy. He was more than prepared to suffer arrest, imprisonment and physical punishment for his beliefs, and he never backed down. He was a tireless advocate of ideals like universal suffrage, equality before the law, and what came to be the 5th Amendment of the US constitution (the right not to incriminate oneself in court). A lot of his ideas have found their best formulation on the other side of the Atlantic, as he was a big influence on the Founding Fathers. He stands as a towering icon of the liberal tradition.
What was his finest hour?
Probably the Putney Debates of 1647 [where members of Cromwell’s New Model Army, including Levellers, discussed the make-up of the English constitution]. These were largely based on a pamphlet he wrote, called An Agreement of the People. At a time of victory for the parliamentarians after the First Civil War, he didn’t lose sight of his larger goals and resisted Cromwell’s creeping authoritarianism, arguing for a liberal constitution for the people of England and freedom from religious persecution.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
He was something of an egomaniac and had a tendency to fall out violently with most people in his life, pursuing grudges through the courts well beyond the point of common sense.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
I consider Lilburne to be something of a political hero. He was known as ‘Freeborn John’ and in tribute I have ‘Free Born’ tattooed on my knuckles. But I’m lucky enough to live in a society that has, to some degree, taken many of his ideas on board – something that I think we could all do with being reminded of, and something that we should be proud of. I’ve not had to fight for basic ideals like universal suffrage or legal equality because previous generations have fought for them already, inspired by Lilburne’s ideas.
If you could meet John Lilburne what would you ask him?
I think it would be interesting to show him the society we live in today, and in particular the American constitution, and ask him what he thought about it, and how far it lived up to the ideals that he fought for. I like to think he’d be pleasantly surprised.
Frank Turner is an acclaimed folk/punk singer-songwriter