John Lilburne

John Lilburne

John Lilburne was the most well known member of the Levellers. Known as ‘Freeborn John’, Lilburne coined the term ‘freeborn rights’ - rights that every human being is born with.

Born in 1615, Lilburne grew up in a landowning family. In 1630, he moved to London and became an apprentice to Thomas Hewson, a wholesale clothier and Puritan. Lilburne remained with Hewson from around 1630 to 1636. In London, Lilburne started to grow interested in Puritanism. In 1636, he was introduced to John Bastwick - an influential Puritan who was imprisoned because of his controversial writings.

Lilburne was caught by the authorities when he attempted to get copies of Bostwick's banned ‘Letany’, which were secretly circulated to interested parties. In 1638 he was arrested and tried. At court, Lilburne gained a reputation for his masterful defence, whiich gained him support. However, the court did not take kindly to his approach and it ordered him to pay a fine of £500, and to be whipped and pilloried. He was also imprisoned until he promised to conform to the law, which he eventually did in 1640.

John Lilburne
John Lilburne

The English Civil War

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Lilburn fought for the Parliamentarians. On 23 October 1642, he fought at the battle of Edgehill, the first major military engagement of the First English Civil War.  Charles I commanded the Royalist troops.  His nephew, Prince Rupert, sometimes known as the Mad Cavalier, led the cavalry.  On the opposing side, the Earl of Essex, commanded the Parliamentary troops.

Lilburne was captured at the Battle of Brentford along with about 500 men who were taken to the King’s headquarters in Oxford.

Whilst being held prisoner in Oxford Castle, John Lilburne was charged with treason, along with three other officers.  His execution was organised for 20 December, but he managed to smuggle out a letter addressed to the House of Commons, care of his wife Elizabeth, proposing that the House threaten to execute four Royalist officers in retaliation, if the sentence was carried out.

It took another five months before a prisoner exchange was arranged and then John returned to London a hero.

The Levellers

After the war, Lilburne became involved with a group of men who campaigned for constitutional reform. These men would later be known as the Levellers, and Lilburn was  at the heart of their movement. He supported and advanced the radical views of the Levellers, which included extending suffrage and improving the electoral system.

Lilburne kept on writing the revolutionary pamphlets. A pamphlet entitled‘England’s Birthright Justified’ published in 1645 denounced monopolies, tithes and excise duty while also calling for freedom of speech, annual Parliaments and a rule of law.

The influence of Leveller pamphlets extended well beyond London and by March 1647 many thousands of people were persuaded to sign a mass petition demanding that all laws be translated into English and attacked imprisonment for debt.  It called for freedom to preach and publish opinion in religion and for the abolition of tithes.

End of the Second Civil War

Although Lilburne supported Parliament, he did not agree with the trial and execution of Charles I, which he saw as an unnecessary act. He was also critical of Oliver Cromwell, who he saw as replacing one regime with another.

After being imprisoned and sent to the Tower again in March 1649, Lilburne wrote ‘An Impeachment of High Treason’ - a harsh criticism of Cromwell. As a result, he was put on trial for high treason, but a jury found him not guilty - a decision that was welcomed by many Londoners.

However, this effectively ended his career as a reformer and activist. Cromwell tried to keep him as far away from London as possible by offering him land in Durham.

He was arrested again in 1653 when he returned to England without permission and was once again arrested. He was put on trial but again acquitted by a jury. However, the public’s show of support for Lilburne encouraged Parliament to keep his locked up. Instead, he was banished to a remote fortress – Mount Orgueil in Jersey.

By 1655, the government felt that it was safe to release Lilburne so he was brought back to Dover Castle.

John Lilburne died at Eltham in 1657.

See also: John Wildman

MLA Citation/Reference

"John Lilburne". 2015. Web.

Key facts

Name: John Lilburne
Birth Date: 1614
Death: 29 August 1657
Other Names: Freeborn John
Occupation: English political leveller