John Lilburne: Founder of Freeborn Rights

John Lilburne was a pioneer of freedoms and activism during the English Civil War Period, coining the term Freeborn Rights,

Lilburne’s Freeborn Rights were the defining rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or human law.

To date he also the only person to be accused of treason by both the King and Parliament.

Before the Civil War Period

Lilburne’s mother died soon after he was born. He was educated at schools in Newcastle and Auckland. At the age of fifteen he sent by his father to London where he become an apprentice in the cloth trade.

In 1637 Lilburne met John Bastwick, a Puritan preacher who had just had his ears cut off for writing a pamphlet attacking the religious views of the William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lilburne was shocked that someone could be so severely punished for expressing their religious beliefs. Lilburne offered to help Bastwick in his struggle with the Anglican Church. Eventually it was agreed that Lilburne should go to Holland to organise the printing of a book that Bastwick had written.

In December 1637 Lilburne was arrested and charged with printing and circulating unlicensed books. On 13th February, 1638, he was found guilty and sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. The following month he was whipped from Fleet Prison to Palace Yard. When he was placed in the pillory he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick and was gagged.

While in prison Lilburne wrote about his punishments, The Work of the Beast (1638) and an attack on the Anglican Church, Come Out of Her, My People (1639).

In November 1640, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament for the first time in eleven years. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan member of the House of Commons, made a speech about Lilburne’s case. After a debate on the issue. Parliament voted to release him from prison.

During the Civil War Period

When civil war broke out in 1642, Lilburne immediately joined the Parliamentary army. He fought at Edgehill but was captured at Brentford on 12th November, 1642. Charged with ‘bearing arms against the king’ he was put on trial at Oxford. Lilburne was in danger of losing his life until Parliament announced on 17th December, 1642, that it would carry out immediate reprisals if he was executed.

In 1643 Lilburne was released during an exchange of prisoners. He now joined the army led by the Edward Montagu and took part in the siege of Lincoln. He was seen as a good soldier and in May 1644 was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. However, in April 1645 he left the army after being told he could not join the New Model Army without taking the covenant.

On 7th January, 1645, Lilburne wrote a letter to William Prynne complaining about the intolerance of the Presbyterians and arguing for freedom of speech for the Independents. Prynne was furious with Lilburne for making this comments and he was reported to the House of Commons. As a result, he was brought before the Committee of Examinations on 17th May, 1645, and warned about his future behaviour.

Lilburne was once again called to appear before the Committee of Examinations on 18th June, 1645. For the second time he was let off with a caution. William Prynne was unhappy with this verdict and arranged for the publication of two pamphlets about Lilburne, A Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering Stars and Firebrands and The Liar Confounded. Lilburne replied with his own pamphlet, Innocency and Truth Justified.

In July 1645 Lilburne’s old friend, John Bastwick, reported Lilburne to the House of Commons, claiming he had made critical comments about the Speaker, William Lenthall. Lilburne was arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. While in captivity wrote another pamphlet where he repeated the charges against Lenthall and other members of Parliament. Lilburne was released without charge on 14th October, 1645.

John Bradshaw now brought Lilburne’s case before the Star Chamber, a religious court. He pointed out that Lilburne was still waiting for most of the pay he should have received while serving in the Parliamentary army. Lilburne was awarded £2,000 in compensation for his sufferings. However, Parliament refused to pay this money and Lilburne was once again arrested. Brought before the House of Lords, Lilburne was sentenced to seven years and fined £4,000.

While in prison Lilburne wrote several more pamphlets. These included Anatomy of the Lords’ Tyranny (1646), Regal Tyranny Discovered (1647), The Oppressed Man’s Opinions Declared (1647) and London’s Liberty in Chains Discovered (1648). He also wrote A Remonstrance of Many Thousands Citizens with his friend Richard Overton.

On 1st August, 1648, the House of Commons voted for Lilburne’s release. The next day the House of Lords agreed and also remitted the fine imposed two years earlier.

On his release Lilburne became involved in writing and distributing pamphlets on soldiers’ rights. He pointed out that even though soldiers were fighting for Parliament, very few of them were allowed to vote for it.

Lilburne also argued that all adult males should have the vote and that these elections should take place every year. Lilburne, who believed that people were corrupted by power, argued that no members of the House of Commons should be allowed to serve for more than one year at a time.

Now Lilburne and his allies, including John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, formed a new political party called the Levellers. The Levellers‘ political programme included, voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to unfair taxation

The Levellers started publishing their own newspaper, The Moderate. They also organised meetings where they persuaded people to sign a Petition supporting their policies. His wife, Elizabeth Lilburne, was also active in this campaign.

When these reforms were opposed by officers in the New Model Army, the Levellers called for the soldiers to revolt. In March 1649, Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn were arrested and charged with advocating communism. After being brought before the Council of State they were sent to the Tower of London.

Lilburne was tried first and after a jury refused to convict him Lilburne and the other Levellers were released on 8th November. Lilburne was granted £3,000 in compensation for his sufferings and was granted estates in Durham.

After the Civil War Period

Oliver Cromwell agreed with some of the Levellers policies, including the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. However, he refused to increase the number of people who could vote in elections. Lilburne now began writing pamphlets attacking Cromwell’s government. Cromwell responded by having Lilburne arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Over 10,000 people signed a petition calling for Lilburne’s release but Cromwell refused to let him go.

Lilburne was eventually charged with treason. It was claimed that the pamphlets that he had written had encouraged people to rebel against Cromwell’s government. However, the jury at Lilburne’s trial found him not guilty. As soon as he was released Lilburne returned to writing pamphlets. He attacked Cromwell’s suppression of Roman Catholics in Ireland, Parliament’s persecution of Royalists in England and the decision to execute Charles I.

Once again Lilburne was arrested. This time Oliver Cromwell banished him from England. For four months Lilburne lived in Holland, but in June 1653 he was caught trying to get back into England. Once again Lilburne was imprisoned and charged with treason. This result was also the same; the jury found him not guilty. However, this time Cromwell was unwilling to release him.

On 16th March, 1654, Lilburne was transferred to Elizabeth Castle, Guernsey. Colonel Robert Gibbon, the governor of the island, later complained that Lilburne gave him more trouble than ‘ten cavaliers’. In October, 1655, he was moved to Dover Castle. While he was in prison Lilburne continued writing pamphlets including one that explained why he had joined the Quakers.

In 1656 Oliver Cromwell agreed to release Lilburne. John Lilburne’s years of struggle with the government had worn him out and on 29th August, 1657, at the age of 43, he died an exhausted man.

However, his ideal of Freeborn Rights lives on, not just here in England, but across the world. Perhaps most influential, were Lilburne’s writings on the creation and content of the United States constitution. Even today he is cited in the U.S. Supreme Court.


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