John Lilburne was born in Sunderland in 1615,
one of four children brought up in the Puritan household of
Richard and Margaret Lilburne. The Family were small landowners
in Thickley Punchardon in County Durham.
At the age of fourteen he arrived in London
to begin work as an apprentice to Thomas Hewson, a wool and
cloth dealer. The London of this time was a hot bed of Puritanism
and free thought. The Puritans themselves were a loose alliance
of Presbyterians, independents and other sects who closed
ranks on the King and the Anglican Church and believed in
free interpretation of the scripts. Lilburne took readily
to this Puritan cause.
On completion of his apprenticeship he became
involved with the illegal printing and publishing of pamphlets
critical of the church and the abuse of its' power.
On June 4th 1637, he witnessed the pillory
punishment of three leading Puritan activists; Dr. John Bastwick,
William Prynne and Dr. Henry Burton. These men were condemned
to the pillory in New Palace Yard, to lose their ears, to
be fined £5,000 each and to suffer perpetual imprisonment.
In addition Prynne was branded in the cheeks with the letters
'S' and 'L' for "seditious libeller". Lilburne had himself
arranged the printing of Bastwick's "Letany" and in December
1637 was arrested in Soper Lane by agents of the stationers
company. Once brought before the Star Chamber Court he refused
to answer any questions until he knew of what he had been
This was perhaps the earliest recorded example
of defence by the Right
to Silence. He stood his ground as a freeborn Englishman
and questioned the very authority of the court. It was the
first on many such stands and London was soon busy with talk
of a new peoples champion, they called him Freeborn John.
Lilburne was held in Fleet Prison until April 18th 1638 when
he was stripped and tied to the cart tail and whipped from
Fleet to Westminster. On arrival at New Palace Yard he was
placed in the pillory and gagged until he bled. He still succeeded
in throwing pamphlets into the waiting crowd! John Lilburne
was to spend the next two and a half years in prison while
outside the country moved towards civil war. Lilburne's eventual
release came through Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, and when
King Charles raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642
it was natural for Freeborn John to take the Parliamentarian
He held the rank of Captain when after an heroic defence
of the town of Brentford he was captured by the Royalist side
led by Prince Rupert of the Rhein in the November and imprisoned
in Oxford Castle. Here he was charged with High Treason for
raising arms against the King. He faced certain execution.
His life was saved by his wife Elizabeth. She obtained from
Parliament a written threat of retaliation against Royalists
who were held prisoner and although heavily pregnant, she
rode overnight from London to Oxford, across enemy lines to
present this letter and save her beloved husband.
Lilburne was eventually freed after a prisoner exchange and
returned to London a Parliamentarian hero.
He had become a
Lieutenant-Colonel before he left the army on April 30th 1645,
nine months after Marston Moor and two months before the decisive
victory at Naseby by Cromwell's well disciplined New Model
Army. King Charles was Parliament's prisoner but Lilburne's
uncompromising nature soon landed him in trouble when through
many pamphlets and speeches he accused the new ruling assembly
of as much tyranny and abuse as had been known under the King
and Anglican church. "A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens"
was published in July 1646 and resulted in Lilburne's imprisonment
by the House of Commons. It was at this time with the leadership
of Lilburne, that the Leveller Party was born. They proposed
manhood suffrage, an idea of political democracy so far ahead
of its' time that it was not realised until 1884. The Levellers
were fierce individualists, their "rights" as Freeborn Englishmen
were paramount. They demanded freedom of work, freedom of
worship and freedom in the choice of government. Freedom meant
powers and rights as well as an absence of coercion. The constantly
expressed the need to check the strong and protect the weak.
Encouraged by Leveller activists the army moved to impeach
Parliament. Soldiers were unhappy at the huge arrears in their
pay. By December 1648 the army had purged Parliament of all
those hostile to it. The country was now run by a military
John Lilburne had been busy with Thomas
Prince, William Walvyn and Richard Overton preparing the Leveller
Agreement of the People" but in March 1649, two months
after the execution of Charles I, after a brief spell of liberty,
he and the three were arrested and taken to the Tower of London.
Lilburne asked, "We were ruled by King, Lords and Commons;
now by a General, a Court Martial and a House of Commons,
and we pray you what is the difference?" Thousands signed
petitions for their release organised by Mary Overton, wife
of Richard, but accused of High Treason in his writings, John
Lilburne was again on trial for his life.
Whilst their leader sat incarcerated in
the Tower there was a Leveller inspired mutiny amongst the
army in Burford, Oxfordshire. Oliver Cromwell eventually placed
just under four hundred men under arrest in Burford church.
They all believed they would be shot at dawn but the next
day only three were executed as an example. Along with Robert
Lockier, a Leveller soldier who was executed for his beliefs
a month earlier in London, these men died as martyrs for the
liberties of their country, wearing the sea-green emblem of
the Levellers on their chests.
Lilburne's trial climaxed in October 1649
when he was found not guilty on High Treason by a jury of
peers. A medal was struck to commemorate his acquittal.
Now John Lilburne, a free man worked as a soap boiler to
provide for his family. His life so far had left him penniless.
His wife Elizabeth had struggled to keep the
family going throughout their married life, six of their ten
children were to die as infants. Lilburne took extra work
as unofficial solicitor and expert on law and for two years
the family were united for their longest period. It was as
a result of a private case in 1651 that Lilburne, unhappy
at a legal ruling by the Committee of Haberdasher's Hall published
a document couched in his old style.
He accused the committee of corruption.
Parliament treated his pamphlet as libellous and imposed the
monstrous fine of £7,000. They also took the opportunity
to rid themselves of Freeborn John for good by exiling him
on pain of death should he return. The punishment was so severe
that few could believe it, Lilburne was stunned. He left Dover
on December 31st and sailed for Holland. He spent the next
two and a half years in exile in the low countries while away
across the sea his wife and children were sick with poverty.
In desperation, in June 1653, he sailed from Calais back to
England to risk death, to stand defiant one last time, centre
stage as Freeborn John.
Oliver Cromwell was now running the country,
he had expelled what was left of Parliament and needed no
further disruption from Lilburne who was brought to trial
at the Old Bailey on July 13th 1653. The trial proved long
and hard, thousands flocked to see and hear Freeborn John
defend himself against the might of Cromwell and the court.
Lilburne's defence was stout. He played to the people with
an abandon he had never before displayed. The crowd cheered
everything he said. He knew it would be his last public stand.
The jury returned the verdict of "not guilty of any crime
worthy of death!" The crowds were ecstatic, "Long live Lilburne!''
was the cry from most every corner of the land.
Lilburne's triumph spelt not liberty but
renewed imprisonment. He was removed to the Tower of London
for "the peace of the nation!" Later he was moved away from
the mainland altogether and imprisoned in Mount Orgueil Castle,
a Norman fortress on the island of Jersey.
In 1656 the firebrand Leveller announced
his acceptance of the Quaker faith and this marked the end
of his political activity.
Cromwell had been made Lord Protector in
1653 and although attempts were made to gain mercy for Lilburne
from his old military commander, liberty never again came
to Freeborn John. He was eventually taken to Dover Castle
and it was whilst on a brief parole to visit his wife as their
tenth child was being born that he died aged forty two. He
died on August 29th 1657, the very day he was due back in
"His impatient spirit, wearied out with
long and sore afflictions," turned away from the prison cell,
and he breathed his last in the arms of the women who had
loved him with faith and devotion, who had served him with
courage and a conviction that yielded only to his own, and
knew no greater pride that that of being "John Lilburne's
wife." Oliver Cromwell died one year later.