John Lilburne: The First English Libertarian
The year 2007 marked the 350th anniversary of the death of John Lilburne, a remarkable Englishman. He became known to his contemporaries as “Freeborn John.” He described himself as “a lover of his country and sufferer for the common liberty.”
His biographer Pauline Gregg concluded:
He could be called the first English Radical—a great-hearted Liberal—a militant Christian—even if the spirit of his teaching were taken fully into account, the first English democrat. But it is better to leave him without a label, enshrined in the words he spoke for his party: “And posterity we doubt not shall reap the benefit of our endeavours, what ever shall become of us.”
His courageous campaigns for liberty resulted in him spending much of his life in prisons. These included Fleet prison in London, Oxford Castle, the notorious Newgate prison also in London, the Tower of London, Mount Orgueil Castle in Jersey, and Dover Castle.
“Martyr, folk-hero and demagogue” as Professor Haller calls him, he was the prime driving force behind the Leveller movement and its undisputed leader.
The Levellers were a group of political activists in the 17th century, who campaigned for radical change, by writing and distributing pamphlets, petitions and manifestos; and by arranging meetings in taverns to spread their ideas. Among their leading writers and pamphleteers, besides John Lilburne, were Richard Overton, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince, and John Wildman.
Probably the most famous document compiled by the Levellers is one entitled An Agreement of the People. The demands listed included regular elections, religious freedom, equality before the law, an end to conscription for war service, equal electoral districts according to population, and universal manhood suffrage.
This is how Nicholas Reed summarized the Levellers’ legacy:
The Levellers’ extensive programme comprised some twenty points of reform… Sixteen have come about in the last two centuries. Only four remain. Those four are the reform of the House of Lords, reform of the government of the City of London, the adoption of a written constitution and the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. The first and last have been partially achieved in the last ten years, leaving only two points still to be enacted. For those, possibly the majority of people, who think all four reforms desirable, that means the Levellers were right about every one of their aims: 350 years before most of them came about. For radicals, it is highly encouraging to find a group of amateur reformers inventing a programme which has been amply justified by history, centuries later.
The reader, depending on when he or she is reading this, may need to update any further developments—e.g., on July 31, 2007, British troops officially stood down from active duty in Northern Ireland—but the point is well made I think.
When Lilburne was brought before the court of Star Chamber, he refused to take the oath. “It is this trial that has been cited by constitutional jurists and scholars in the United States of America as being the historical foundation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also cited within the 1966 majority opinion of Miranda v Arizona by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The late United States Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black, who often cited the works of John Lilburne in his opinions, wrote in an article for Encyclopaedia Britannica that he believed John Lilburne’s constitutional work of 1649 was the basis for the basic rights contained in the U.S. Constitution.
John Lilburne has the unusual distinction of being an Englishman who has been put on trial for his life twice and acquitted twice. During his lifetime he enjoyed huge popular support and in the mid-1600s was almost certainly the most popular man in the country.
Although many veterans of the libertarian movement (and some on the political Left such as Tony Benn), as well as scholars of political and legal history, and those with a particular interest in 17th-century English history, will all be well aware of John Lilburne, he is not widely known among the majority of the English populace. This is a great pity as he is truly one of England’s greatest sons. In this essay I will give a brief biography, chronicling the main events of his life, and conclude by giving reasons why I believe the modern term “libertarian” is an appropriate label to attach to “Freeborn John.”
John Lilburne’s mother, Margaret, was brought up in a royal palace. This was because her father, Thomas Hixon, was the Keeper of the Standing Wardrobe to Queen Elizabeth I at the ancient royal Palace of Greenwich, on the south bank of the Thames. The Hixon family lived within the palace precincts and Thomas was responsible for the care and maintenance of the royal carpets, furniture, and wall hangings.
In 1599, Margaret Hixon married Richard Lilburne of Durham, and Richard moved south to come and live with his wife. Richard’s family came from Thickley Punchardon, County Durham, in the North East of England. The family’s claim to fame was that Richard’s grandfather attended Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The ancient family of Lilburnes were merchants and landowners from the counties of Northumberland and Durham. Richard was the eldest son of a country gentleman and only 16 years old when he married Margaret.
When Richard’s father died in 1605, Richard and his wife moved to Thickley Punchardon, so that Richard, as the eldest son, could take over the family home. While living in the north, Richard and Margaret had three children: Elizabeth, Robert, and John. John Lilburne was born in Sunderland in 1615. He was just one year younger than his brother Robert, who later became famous to history as one of the regicides who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Later, the family moved back south, to Greenwich, where Richard and Margaret’s fourth child, Henry, was born in 1618.
In the following year, Richard’s father-in-law, Thomas Hixon, died. In the same year, only four months after the death of her father, Richard’s wife Margaret died. This means that John Lilburne was only about four years old when his mother died. Richard, now a widower, took his three sons and daughter back to the family home in Thickley Punchardon.
The young John Lilburne studied at grammar schools in Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, on the completion of his education, was encouraged by his father to take up an apprenticeship in London.
At 14 years of age John Lilburne was apprenticed to Thomas Hewson, a trader in woolen cloth in London. This apprenticeship was to last between 1630 and 1636. His master was a Puritan and it was he who introduced John to the physician Dr. John Bastwick, a Cambridge-educated intellectual, who had been imprisoned by the authorities for writing and publishing Puritan tracts in Latin, expressing opposition to the bishops. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, John would visit Bastwick regularly at Gatehouse prison in Westminster and the two men developed a mutual respect.
Puritan dissension was rife at this time. The word “Puritan” was a general term which included members of numerous groups, such as Calvinists, Independents, Presbyterians, and Brownists (followers of Robert Browne), as well as many others. What they all had in common was their rejection of the Anglican Church, which they associated with popish ceremonies and rituals; what they all embraced was a more individualistic approach to religious faith. They rejected the need for bishops, which they identified with the Catholic Church, and preferred to rely instead on their own interpretation of the scriptures. These trends were related to the fact that English translations of the Bible were now readily available, and were no doubt also helped by the expansion of the printing industry, which enabled the publication of numerous religious books and pamphlets. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was a popular book at this time and certainly one read by Lilburne.
Illegal Printing and Book Smuggling
A licensing law, enacted in 1586, existed to prevent the publication of seditious books and pamphlets; the authority for this rested with the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London. Once licensed, a book needed to be registered with the Stationers Company before being printed. The Stationers Company had the powers to seize unregistered stock and arrest offenders, who would then be brought before the court of Star Chamber for trial.
Many Puritan books and publications were unlicensed and therefore sold illegally by book dealers sympathetic to the cause. One such dealer was the elderly John Wharton, a Bow Lane bookseller, who approached John Bastwick to encourage him to write an antibishop text in English. Bastwick duly obliged by writing The Letany.
A few copies of The Letany were secretly circulated to interested parties. John Lilburne was so impressed with its contents that he came up with a plan to produce more copies by going to Holland, thus getting around the printing ban, and then smuggling copies back into England. Bastwick had reservations at first, because of the risks involved, but did eventually sanction the operation.
The enthusiastic young Lilburne set off for Holland and in 1637, before the first half of the year was over, thousands of copies were arriving in England—unfortunately large numbers of these were being seized at the ports by the authorities.
John Chilliburne, a servant of John Wharton, who had been given the job of receiving and distributing copies of The Letany in England, was promptly arrested and then subsequently released. This was followed by the arrest of John Bastwick, who was to be tried before the dreaded Star Chamber.
Three Puritan Martyrs
Two other prominent Puritans were on trial with John Bastwick on June 4, 1637. There was William Prynne, a lawyer, who was an opponent of the church policy of William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His writings attacked the Arminian High Church policies of the government. His most famous work, Histriomastix (1632), was a puritanical critique of theatre, masques, and dance. This led to the tips of his ears being cut off, and imprisonment, as Histriomastix was interpreted as a criticism of the queen, who liked masques and plays. He had continued to write what were perceived to be scurrilous tracts while still in prison—hence his appearance before the court of Star Chamber.
Also on trial was Dr. Henry Burton, a one-time tutor of the future Charles I, who was critical of William Laud’s policies and preached as much in his own parish church.
All three were found guilty and sentenced to have their ears cut off, to be fined £5,000 each and to suffer perpetual imprisonment. In addition Prynne was to have his cheeks branded with the letters ‘S’ and ‘L’ for “Seditious Libeller.”
On June 30, 1637, the punishments were to be carried out in New Palace Yard, Westminster, which was thronged with people who had come to watch. On seeing the three pillories, where the prisoners were to be clamped, Henry Burton famously said, “Me thinks I see Mount Calvary where the three Crosses … were pitched.” 
John Bastwick, who was the first to put his head in the pillory remarked, “Had I as many lives as I have haires on my head, or drops of blood in my veynes, I would give them up all for this Cause.”
When in the pillory, Prynne courageously cried out, “Come seere me, seere. Burn me, cut me, I fear not!”
And so it was that the three Puritan martyrs were pilloried and mutilated in public for stating their beliefs—persecuted for being against Episcopacy.
Whipped, Pilloried, and Imprisoned
Lilburne returned to London in December 1637. Betrayed by Chilliburne, Lilburne was arrested by the Stationers’ men, on suspicion of importing scandalous books from Holland.
He was imprisoned in Fleet and then brought before the Star Chamber, where he refused to take the oath. Wharton, who appeared before the same court, was equally obstructive. The court declared Lilburne and Wharton, “guilty of a very high contempt and offence of dangerous consequence, and evil example.”
As H.N. Brailsford explains:
But Lilburne’s chief purpose when he defied the Star Chamber was to establish a basic civil right—the right of an accused person to refuse to incriminate himself. It was characteristic of the so-called ‘prerogative courts’ that their procedure was based on the examination of the arrested person, who was required to take an oath even before he was charged. The purpose of these courts was to secure a conviction by extracting a confession, rather than building up a case against him on the evidence of others. Wherever confession is regarded as the ideal form of proof which every officer of justice is bent on achieving, not all of them resist the temptation to use illegitimate forms of pressure, ranging from bullying and trickery to physical torture.
Lilburne and Wharton were sentenced to be fined £500, and to be pilloried in New Palace Yard before being sent back to Fleet prison, where they were to be held until they conformed. Furthermore, Lilburne was to be whipped from Fleet to Westminster and this punishment was set to take place on April 18, 1638.
Lilburne was stripped to the waist and his hands were tied to the back of the cart. It was a very hot day and the sun was beating down. Starting from Fleet Bridge, the horse-drawn cart proceeded slowly down Fleet Street, through Temple Bar, into the Strand and on to Charing Cross. Throughout the journey, along the dusty streets, the executioner lashed the prisoner with his three-thonged, knotted whip. Supportive crowds lined the route. On went the cart, dragging the prisoner through King’s Gate, down King Street to New Palace Yard.
It is estimated that Lilburne received 500 lashes along the way, making 1,500 stripes to his back during the two-mile walk. Vivid descriptions from the period, paint a painful picture of this tortured man: his shoulders “swelled almost as big as a penny loafe with the bruses of the knotted Cords” and “for the wales in his back, made by his cruel whipping, were bigger than Tobacco-pipes.”
He was in this condition when he reached New Palace Yard and after he refused to admit to any error, his head was clamped in the pillory. Despite having been weakened by his ordeal, he spoke out. An enthusiastic crowd gathered around to listen to him describe the injustice of his arrest and to hear his explanation of why he refused the oath.
Bishops, declared Lilburne, derived their authority from the pope, who was the Beast of Revelation, who was the Antichrist or the Devil, and he challenged them to deny it.
He was then gagged so hard that he bled. Undeterred, he then pulled pamphlets from his pockets and distributed them among the excited crowd. He then stamped his feet in protest until his two-hour stint in the pillory was over.
He was escorted back to Fleet prison followed by enthusiastic crowds. It was not until he reached the prison that his wounds were dressed.
Lilburne spent the next two and a half years in Fleet prison and despite receiving harsh treatment, still managed to write several pamphlets including A Christian Mans Triall (a description of his trial at the Star Chamber), A Worke of the Beast (a brief account of the trial plus a full description of his punishment), and Come out of her my people (an explanation of why Puritans should not support the Church of England). When the Long Parliament was summoned in November 1640, the MP for Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell, made an impassioned speech in Lilburne’s favor in the House of Commons and Parliament was persuaded to order the prisoner’s release pending an enquiry.
Not long after his release, Lilburne was involved in a public demonstration, where he spoke out against the delay to the sentencing and execution of the Earl of Strafford, the king’s key advisor. “Black Tom Tyrant” as Strafford was known was reviled by the people. Lilburne used threatening language to suggest that if no action was taken against Strafford then the king must be forced to go. The angry crowd supported Lilburne’s view. Once more Lilburne was arrested.
On May 4, 1641, Lilburne came before the House of Lords charged with high treason. Because the witnesses could not agree, the lords dismissed the case and Lilburne was free to go.
On the very same day the House of Commons Committee, reviewing Lilburne’s original case, decided that the sentence passed had been “illegal … bloody, wicked, cruel, barbarous and tyrannical” and he was granted reparations.
Eight days later Strafford was beheaded.
Storm Clouds Gathering
Lilburne appeared to settle down for a while, as he set himself up in business as a brewer in London and then shortly afterwards got married to Elizabeth Dewell, affectionately known as Bess.
By contrast, the country was not settled. Trouble had been brewing for several years. Much of the north, west, and southwest of the country supported the king. Parliament’s support came largely from the south, southeast, and the midlands. Despite the regional differences, families were often split, pitching father against son, and brother against brother. Forty-three percent of the members of the Long Parliament were backing the king, whereas 55% of its members were for Parliament.
During 1641, The Long Parliament had taken a number of actions to settle grievances. These included abolishing the hated courts of High Commission and Star Chamber, the imprisonment of Archbishop William Laud and the passing of the Triennial Act (which assured the summoning of parliament every three years) and the Dissolution Act (which allowed only the Long Parliament to consent to its own dissolution). But still, discontent persisted. Then came the Grand Remonstrance, a long list of grievances against King Charles I’s government of Church and State, and of recommended reforms, and this was passed by the House of Commons on December 1, 1641 by 159 votes to 148.
The king rejected the Grand Remonstrance and set out with 400 soldiers to arrest the ringleaders, five MPs led by John Pym, for treason, believing too that these men had in 1640 conspired with the invading Scots. Charles’s Catholic wife, fearful of her own impeachment, had set him in motion. “Go you coward!” Henrietta Maria shouted at him, “and pull those rogues out by the ears, or never see my face more.” When Charles I entered the House of Commons on January 4, 1642, and took the speaker’s chair, he realized that the five MPs; Pym, Hampden, Holles, Hazelrigg, and Strode, had fled. When William Lenthall, Speaker of the House, was challenged as to where they were, he replied, “I have only eyes to see and ears to hear as the House may direct.” The king then famously said, “I see that the birds are flown.”
King Charles took the decision to leave London, taking royalist supporters with him. In Nottingham on August 22, 1642, the king raised his standard: this marked the beginning of the First English Civil War.
John Lilburne, an Anabaptist, naturally supported Parliament’s side and enlisted as Captain in Lord Brooke’s troop of foot when the war broke out.
The Battle of Edgehill
On Sunday October 23, 1642, John Lilburne fought with distinction and valor 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.
The inconclusive result of this battle led to both sides claiming victory.
Skirmish at Brentford
The early morning mist had not yet cleared when Prince Rupert’s cavalry attacked Brentford on November 12, 1642. Colonel Holles’s regiment of redcoats posted on the outskirts of the town suffered heavy losses. Lilburne, in the absence of Lord Brooke, was the senior officer in charge of soldiers stationed at Brentford to prevent royalist troops crossing the Thames and marching on London. At first the parliamentary troops, finding themselves insufficiently armed, took flight until Lilburne rallied his men with a rousing speech. Every soldier to a man, turned back to fight and they held their position for six hours, allowing the train of artillery to escape, an important military achievement. Many of Lilburne’s men were killed, shot by Cavaliers, or drowned by the river Thames while trying to escape. About 500 men, including Lilburne, were captured and taken to the king’s headquarters in Oxford.
Bess gallops to Oxford Castle
While being held prisoner in Oxford Castle, John Lilburne was charged with treason, along with three other officers. He was due to be tried and executed on Tuesday, December 20. 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.
Bess delivered the letter personally to the House of Commons on Friday December 16. The requested reply was published on the following day and permission was granted for Elizabeth to deliver the document herself. This left two clear days before the trial for the reply to be delivered. It was mid-winter and Bess was three months pregnant when she undertook the difficult and dangerous journey on horseback to Oxford. She galloped overnight, as fast as she could and made it just in time; the trial was called off and her husband’s life was saved.
It took another five months before a prisoner exchange was arr
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