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From On the Fiddle 13 (Levellers Fan Club magazine)


Towards the end of 1993, I became interested in the idea of recording a set of songs, which, over the duration, would tell the story of a life. I wanted to use the voices of real and imagined witnesses to perform the songs and tell the story. I knew I needed a heroic and dramatic main character, somewhere between Robin Hood and the England 1966 World Cup squad. A friend introduced me to the story of John Lilburne and I was hooked.

Here was a truly dramatic and colourful character, the leader of the Levellers movement, the radical reformers of the seventeenth century. Known by the people as "Freeborn John", his whole life was spent in unflagging opposition to authority through a life-long struggle for liberty. His story is set against the backdrop of the English Civil War but has remained largely unknown and untold. Here indeed was a hero of the unsung variety.

My idea was to explore an essentially political story from the personal side. For here was a man whose political ideas shook the very fabric of his society, who also fathered ten children, many conceived on conjugal visits whilst in prison. Here was a man whose scant regard for his own safety and liberty damaged those he loved the most. Here was a man of huge integrity but no little contradiction.

After six months researching in all our major libraries, I started recording in the summer of 1994 in a studio in South Devon. A further two and a half years saw the completion of the recordings. Using up favours and begging others the cast was made up from a wide variety of musicians and vocalists.

I modestly took the part of Lilburne while Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span) became Elizabeth, my wife. The Levellers, naturally, played the Levellers mutineers, while Justin Sullivan (New Model Army) took the part of a parliamentary soldier. In a similar vein Rory McLeod became Vox Populi, the folk singing narrator, and producer and musical director Phil Johnstone became the executioner, Will O' The People. Eddy Reader played the radical Mary Overton, while the role of a drunken cavalier was ably interpreted by Simon Friend (The Levellers). Finally, saxophonist Harry S. Fulcher took the part of Cromwell himself.

It will become clear that many of the ideas we freely discuss today were first discussed by John Lilburne and the Levellers 350 years ago: A written bill of rights and the future of the monarchy. Freedom of worship and rights of employment. These ideas have all been passed down to us, so it is only fitting that the last word should come from Freeborn John himself:

"And posterity, we doubt not, shall reap the benefit of our endeavours, whatever shall become of us."


1998-2004 Stefanie Fröhlke
Last update 1 Sep 2002