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 on John Lilburne

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 Biography 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.