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From the Freeborn John booklet and On the Fiddle 11 (Levellers Fan Club magazine). A slightly different version of this biography can be found in the NMAFC (New Model Army Fan Club) Neswletter of November 1996.


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 accused.

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 side.

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 dictatorship.

John Lilburne had been busy with Thomas Prince, William Walvyn and Richard Overton preparing the Leveller manifesto "The 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 captivity.

"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.

 M o r e   I n f o   o n   J o h n   L i l b u r n e

John Lilburne and the Levellers
"England's Birth-Right Justified" by John Lilburne
"England's New Chains Discovered" by John Lilburne
"England's New Chains Discovered 2" by John Lilburne


© 1998-2013 Stefanie Fröhlke
Last update 20 Oct 2013