John Lilburne

John Lilburne

John Lilburne, the brother of Robert Lilburne, was born in Thickley Puncherdon, in 1615. His father, Richard Lilburne, owned land in Durham. His mother, Margaret Lilburne, was the daughter of Thomas Hixon, the yeoman of the wardrobe to Elizabeth I.

Lilburne's mother died soon after he was born. He was educated at schools in Newcastle and Auckland. At the age of fifteen he sent by his father to London where he become an apprentice in the cloth trade.

In 1637 Lilburne met John Bastwick, a Puritan preacher who had just had his ears cut off for writing a pamphlet attacking the religious views of the William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lilburne was shocked that someone could be so severely punished for expressing their religious beliefs. Lilburne offered to help Bastwick in his struggle with the Anglican Church. Eventually it was agreed that Lilburne should go to Holland to organise the printing of a book that Bastwick had written.

In December 1637 Lilburne was arrested and charged with printing and circulating unlicensed books. On 13th February, 1638, he was found guilty and sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. The following month he was whipped from Fleet Prison to Palace Yard. When he was placed in the pillory he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick and was gagged.

While in prison Lilburne wrote about his punishments, The Work of the Beast (1638) and an attack on the Anglican Church, Come Out of Her, My People (1639).

In November 1640, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament for the first time in eleven years. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan member of the House of Commons, made a speech about Lilburne's case. After a debate on the issue. Parliament voted to release him from prison.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Lilburne immediately joined the Parliamentary army. Lilburne fought at Edgehill but was captured at Brentford on 12th November, 1642. Charged with "bearing arms against the king" he was put on trial at Oxford. Lilburne was in danger of losing his life until Parliament announced on 17th December, 1642, that it would carry out immediate reprisals if he was executed.

In 1643 Lilburne was released during an exchange of prisoners. He now joined the army led by the Edward Montagu and took part in the siege of Lincoln. He was a good soldier and in May 1644 was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. However, in April 1645 he left the army after being told he could not join the New Model Army without taking the covenant.

On 7th January, 1645, Lilburne wrote a letter to William Prynne complaining about the intolerance of the Presbyterians and arguing for freedom of speech for the Independents. Prynne was furious with Lilburne for making this comments and he was reported to the House of Commons. As a result, he was brought before the Committee of Examinations on 17th May, 1645, and warned about his future behaviour.

Lilburne was once again called to appear before the Committee of Examinations on 18th June, 1645. For the second time he was let off with a caution. William Prynne was unhappy with this verdict and arranged for the publication of two pamphlets about Lilburne, A Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering Stars and Firebrands and The Liar Confounded. Lilburne replied with Innocency and Truth Justified.

In July 1645 Lilburne's old friend, John Bastwick, reported Lilburne to the House of Commons, claiming he had made critical comments about the Speaker, William Lenthall. Lilburne was arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. While in captivity wrote a pamphlet where he repeated the charges against Lenthall and other members of Parliament. Lilburne was released without charge on 14th October, 1645.

John Bradshaw now brought Lilburne's case before the Star Chamber. He pointed out that Lilburne was still waiting for most of the pay he should have received while serving in the Parliamentary army. Lilburne was awarded £2,000 in compensation for his sufferings. However, Parliament refused to pay this money and Lilburne was once again arrested. Brought before the House of Lords Lilburne was sentenced to seven years and fined £4,000.

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
This picture of John Lilburne appeared on the
front-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.

While in prison Lilburne wrote several pamphlets. This included Anatomy of the Lords' Tyranny (1646), Regal Tyranny Discovered (1647), The Oppressed Man's Opinions Declared (1647) and London's Liberty in Chains Discovered (1648). He also wrote A Remonstrance of Many Thousands Citizens with his friend Richard Overton.

On 1st August, 1648, the House of Commons voted for Lilburne's release. The next day the House of Lords agreed and also remitted the fine imposed two years earlier.

On his release Lilburne became involved in writing and distributing pamphlets on soldiers' rights. He pointed out that even though soldiers were fighting for Parliament, very few of them were allowed to vote for it. Lilburne argued that all adult males should have the vote and that these elections should take place every year. Lilburne, who believed that people were corrupted by power, argued that no members of the House of Commons should be allowed to serve for more than one year at a time.

Lilburne and his friends, including John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, formed a new political party called the Levellers. The Levellers' political programme included: voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%.

The Levellers started publishing their own newspaper, The Moderate. They also organised meetings where they persuaded people to sign a Petition supporting their policies. His wife, Elizabeth Lilburne, was also active in this campaign.

When these reforms were opposed by officers in the New Model Army, the Levellers called for the soldiers to revolt. In March 1649, Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn were arrested and charged with advocating communism. After being brought before the Council of State they were sent to the Tower of London.

Lilburne was tried first and after a jury refused to convict him Lilburne and the other Levellers were released on 8th November. Lilburne was granted £3,000 in compensation for his sufferings and was granted estates in Durham.

Oliver Cromwell agreed with some of the Leveller's policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. However, he refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections. Lilburne now began writing pamphlets attacking Cromwell's government. Cromwell responded by having Lilburne arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Over 10,000 people signed a petition calling for Lilburne's release but Cromwell refused to let him go.

Lilburne was eventually charged with treason. It was claimed that the pamphlets that he had written had encouraged people to rebel against Cromwell's government. However, the jury at Lilburne's trial found him not guilty. As soon as he was released Lilburne returned to writing pamphlets. He attacked Cromwell's suppression of Roman Catholics in Ireland, Parliament's persecution of Royalists in England and the decision to execute Charles I.

Once again Lilburne was arrested. This time Oliver Cromwell banished him from England. For four months Lilburne lived in Holland, but in June 1653 he was caught trying to get back into England. Once again Lilburne was imprisoned and charged with treason. This result was also the same; the jury found him not guilty. However, this time Cromwell was unwilling to release him.

On 16th March, 1654, Lilburne was transferred to Elizabeth Castle, Guernsey. Colonel Robert Gibbon, the governor of the island, later complained that Lilburne gave him more trouble than "ten cavaliers". In October, 1655, he was moved to Dover Castle. While he was in prison Lilburne continued writing pamphlets including one that explained why he had joined the Quakers.

In 1656 Oliver Cromwell agreed to release Lilburne. John Lilburne's years of struggle with the government had worn him out and on 29th August, 1657, at the age of 43, he died at his home at Eltham.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) John Lilburne, Leveller pamphlet (March, 1647)

No man should be punished or persecuted... for preaching or publishing his opinion on religion.

(2) John Lilburne, The Free Man's Freedom Vindicated (1647)

All and every particular and individual man and woman, that ever breathed in the world, are by nature all equal and alike in their power, dignity, authority and majesty, none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power one over or above another.

(3) John Lilburne, Rash Oaths (May, 1647)

Every free man of England, poor as well as rich, should have a vote in choosing those that are to make the law.

(4) Letter sent by John Lilburne to supporters of the Leveller movement in Kent (1648)

This is the method we have used in London. We have appointed several men in every ward to form a committee... they arrange for the Petition (list of policies supported by the Levellers) to be read at meetings and to take subscriptions.

(5) In 1649 John Lilburne wrote a pamphlet attacking the execution of Charles I.

I refused to be one of his (Charles I) judges... they were no better than murders in taking away the King's life even though he was guilty of the crimes he was charged with... it is murder because it was done by a hand that had no authority to do it.

(6) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Prince, Englands New Chains Discovered (March, 1649)

If our hearts were not over-charged with the sense of the present miseries and approaching dangers of the Nation, your small regard to our late serious apprehensions, would have kept us silent; but the misery, danger, and bondage threatened is so great, imminent, and apparent that whilst we have breath, and are not violently restrained, we cannot but speak, and even cry aloud, until you hear us, or God be pleased otherwise to relieve us.

Removing the King, the taking away the House of Lords, the overawing the House, and reducing it to that pass, that it is become but the Channel, through which is conveyed all the Decrees and Determinations of a private Council of some few Officers, the erecting of their Court of Justice, and their Council of State, The Voting of the People of Supreme Power, and this House the Supreme Authority: all these particulars, (though many of them in order to good ends, have been desired by well-affected people) are yet become, (as they have managed them) of sole conducement to their ends and intents, either by removing such as stood in the way between them and power, wealth or command of the Commonwealth; or by actually possessing and investing them in the same.

They may talk of freedom, but what freedom indeed is there so long as they stop the Press, which is indeed and hath been so accounted in all free Nations, the most essential part thereof, employing an Apostate Judas for executioner therein who hath been twice burnt in the hand a wretched fellow, that even the Bishops and Star Chamber would have

shamed to own. What freedom is there left, when honest and worthy Soldiers are sentenced and enforced to ride the horse with their faces reverst, and their swords broken over their heads for but petitioning and presenting a letter in justification of their liberty therein? If this be not a new way of breaking the spirits of the English, which Strafford and Canterbury never dreamt of, we know no difference of things.

(7) Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)

That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defences of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families? Are not our husbands, our selves, our daughters and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they?

Nay, shall such valiant, religious men as Mr. Robert Lockyer be liable to court martial, and to be judged by his adversaries, and most inhumanly shot to death? Shall the blood of war be shed in time of peace? Doth not the word of God expressly condemn it? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affection, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?

(8) John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, Preamble to the third draft of The Agreement of the People (1st May, 1649)

We, the free People of England, to whom God hath given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to his praise and glory; Agree to ascertain our Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to set bounds and limits - both to our Supreme, and all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances. And accordingly do declare and publish to all the world, that we are agreed as followeth.

That the Supreme Authority of England and the Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and reside henceforth in a Representative of the people consisting of four hundred persons, but no more; in the choice of whom (according to natural right) all men of the age of one and twenty years and upwards (not being servants, or receiving alms, or having served the late King in Arms or voluntary Contributions), shall have their votes.

(9) Bulstrode Whitelock, Memorials of English Affairs (c. 1660)

The Women Petitioners again attended at the door of the House for an answer to their Petition concerning Lilburne and the rest. The House sent them this answer by the Sergeant: 'That the Matter they petitioned about was of an higher concernment than they understood, that the House gave an answer to their husbands, and therefore desired them to go home, and look after their own business, and meddle with their housewifery.