John Lilburne

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John Lilburne

John Lilburne (1615-1657), known as "Free-born John," was an English political activist and pamphleteer. He was a radical Puritan in the forefront of the Leveller movement against established institutions and in favor of egalitarian democracy.

John Lilburne grew up in Durham in the North Country, close to Scottish reformist influences. At an early age he was undoubtedly impressed by scenes of the suppression of Puritan preachers who attacked the doctrine and ceremonies of the Church of England as being too popish. While still in his teens he moved to London, where he was an apprentice to a cloth merchant until 1637. In 1638 he was tried and convicted in the Court of Star Chamber for printing and circulating scurrilous literature. He was whipped, pilloried, and then imprisoned until released by the sympathetic Long Parliament in 1641. This marked the beginning of a long career of persecution and imprisonment.

Lilburne served the parliamentary cause against King Charles I from 1642 to 1645, when he gave up his commission in protest against signing the Covenant of the Presbyterians. He then became a leading pamphleteer in the cause of the Independents and later its more radical offshoot, the Leveller movement. Appealing to individual conscience in religion and extreme democracy in government, he soon openly defied the more conservative Puritan elements and in 1646 was imprisoned and fined a large sum.

Again released, Lilburne achieved perhaps the acme of his power in 1647 in the document that bears the stamp of his influence, An Agreement of the People. This statement of army radicals and Levellers called for representative government through guaranteeing the rights of Parliament and extending suffrage. Once again he was jailed, this time by authority of Parliament, and eventually brought to trial in 1649. He conducted his own defense superbly; he was acquitted by a jury and released in November of 1649 amid much popular jubilation.

Lilburne's pamphleteering then took a new direction as he struck out against trade monopolies of all sorts, and he championed the cause of some dispossessed tenants. A climax was soon reached with Lilburne's vituperative attacks against Sir Arthur Hesilrige, one of the leaders in Parliament. Lilburne was found guilty of slanderous accusations, was fined and required to pay damages, and finally was banished from England for life by act of Parliament in January 1652. His exile, chiefly in Holland, was restless and troubled.

In 1653 Lilburne defiantly returned to England and was promptly jailed. Though he was acquitted by the jury, Oliver Cromwell's government considered him too dangerous to be let loose, and he was imprisoned until released— now a convert to Quakerism—by special permission of the Lord Protector. He lived only another year.

Lilburne once described himself as "an honest, truebred, free-born Englishman, that never in his life loved a tyrant nor feared an oppressor." He paid heavily for his pamphleteering, much of which was beyond the realm of decency and fairness, though he was never happier than as a center of contention and defiance.

Further Reading

The best book on Lilburne is Pauline Gregg, Free-born John: A Biography of John Lilburne (1961). It places Lilburne's tumultuous life in perspective with the Leveller movement. Also interesting is Mildred A. Gibb, John Lilburne, the Leveller: A Christian Democrat (1947). An essential work, and the best for understanding the Levellers, is Theodore Calvin Pease, The Leveller Movement: A Study in the History and Political Theory of the English Great Civil War (1916; repr. 1965).

Additional Sources

Barg, M. A., The English Revolution of the 17th century through portraits of its leading figures, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990.

Gregg, Pauline, Free-born John; a biography of John Lilburn, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press 1974, 1961. □

Lilburne, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

Lilburne, John (1615–57). Leveller leader. Of minor Durham gentry stock, he was apprenticed to a London clothier. In 1638 he was hauled before Star Chamber, flogged, pilloried, and imprisoned for distributing illegal anti-episcopal literature. Cromwell secured his release in 1640, and he rose to lieutenant-colonel in Cromwell's Eastern Association cavalry, but left the service in 1645. Thenceforth he was in and out of prison, offending both Lords and Commons with his voluminous, unlicensed pamphlets and his claims for the rights of free-born Englishmen. Combative, indomitable, and self-dramatizing, he was the leading spirit of the Leveller movement from 1647 onward, and broke with Cromwell. In 1649 he denounced the newly established Commonwealth in Englands New Chains Discovered, fostered a serious army mutiny, and publicly demanded Cromwell's impeachment. A London jury acquitted him of treason, but the Rump banished him in December 1651. He returned without leave in 1653 to a life of captivity, which was eased latterly. He died a quaker.

Austin Woolrych

Lilburne, John

views updated May 21 2018

Lilburne, John (1614–57) English republican, leader of the Levellers. Imprisoned (1638–40) under Charles I, he fought for Parliament during the Civil War (1642–45). Captured, he escaped execution by the Royalists when Parliament arranged an exchange of prisoners. Lilburne left the army in 1645, refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. Demanding greater equality and religious freedom, he led protests against the government of Oliver Cromwell. Often imprisoned, he spent his last years among Quakers.

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John Lilburne

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