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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Supplemental. Freeborn John. In the interest of streamlining the story of the English Revolution, I have from time to time elected not to introduce men into the picture who don’t directly advance the plot. Now, any comprehensive history of the period would necessarily include men like Lord Digby and Viscount Falkland, but for clarity’s sake, they have remained unmentioned in the background.
There is, however, one guy who I would like to haul up, because even the briefest summary of the period would be incomplete without him. I speak, of course, of the most famous, infamous, obnoxious, eloquent, passionate, uncompromising leveler of them all, John Lilburn. Lilburn has been lurking around the edges of our story, and occasionally lobbing bombs into the middle of it, from the very beginning, but the time never seemed quite right to introduce him. So, I’m giving up on trying to weave him into the larger narrative, so here we are with this standalone supplemental.
John Lilburn was born in 1614, the third son of a minor landowner. He attended school in Newcastle and was apprenticed to a Puritan wholesaler in London from 1630 to 1636, aka the heyday of personal rule. During this period, he dove into Puritan theology and met the radical physician John Bastic and then got into the underground printing business. When Bastic was arrested, along with William Prynne and Henry Burton way back in episode 2, Lilburn fled to Holland, but when he returned to England in December 1637, Ditu was arrested, flogged, and imprisoned. He would remain in captivity for the next three years.
When the Long Parliament convened in November 1640 and started running through their endless list of grievances, one of those grievances was the continued imprisonment of John Lilburn. His eloquent defenses of an Englishman’s freeborn rights had earned him a popular following who clamored for the release of their hero, Freeborn John. In an interesting historical twist, Lilburn’s petition for clemency was brought before the Commons by none other than backbench MP Oliver Cromwell. In May 1641, just as the Earl of Stratford was losing his head, the Long Parliament voted that Lilburn’s imprisonment was unjust, and they set him free. When the First Civil War started up a year later, Lilburn was commissioned a captain and fought at Edgehill, but as the King slowly marched on the capital after the battle, Lilburn and his company were captured at Brentford. They were about to be hanged as traitors, to set an example and a precedent, but Parliament sent a message to the King that if he summarily executed captured parliamentary soldiers, that Parliament would do the same to captured royalists. So Charles cancelled the executions, bowing to the distasteful reality that he was indeed fighting an army of soldiers and not a gang of criminals. In the spring of 1643, Lilburn wound up getting exchanged for some royalist prisoners, and with Cromwell’s help, got himself commissioned as a major in the Eastern Association Army, soon rising to Lieutenant-Colonel in a regiment of Dragoons.
He marched with the Eastern Association up north to block Prince Rupert and fought at Marston Moor, as did probably his older brother Robert Lilburn, who would himself wind up a pretty prominent officer in the New Model Army, and a signatory to the King’s death warrant a few years later. After Marston Moor, both John and Robert were part of that frustrated group of officers who wanted the Earl of Manchester to do something, anything, to capitalize on the momentum of their great victory. Indeed, Lilburn asked permission to take a detachment to go and seize Tickhill Castle, but Manchester refused. So Lilburn, never a big fan of people telling him what to do, went and took it anyway. When he got back, Manchester upbraided him for disobeying orders, but then started taking credit for the successful operation. Lilburn was not amused, and when the parliamentary inquiry was convened to look into what had happened after the Second Battle of Newbury, John Lilburn was an enthusiastic witness against the Earl of Manchester.
With the rise of the New Model Army, though, Lilburn’s combative principle started to alienate him from his former friends. A staunch religious independent, he resigned his commission in April 1645 rather than sign the Solemn League and Covenant. He was then imprisoned by Parliament in July 1645 for denouncing various MPs and then refusing to answer questions about what he had said. He was released in October and kept his head down for a while, but the next year he publicly hinted that Manchester, who was by that time serving as Speaker of the House of Lords, was probably a closet royalist who should have his head lopped off.
The Lords, of course, dragged Lilburn in for questioning, but Freeborn John refused to even recognize their jurisdiction over him, so they threw him in Newgate Prison. But when the Lords sent for him again, they discovered that he had barricaded himself inside his own cell to prevent them from resummoning him. Finally hauled back in, the Lords were further incensed when Lilburn refused to kneel or take off his hat. They fined him 4,000 pounds, which is a lot, and sentenced him to seven years in the Tower of London. While in the Tower, he started smuggling out subversive pamphlets about the trampled rights of Freeborn Englishmen that would soon form part of the basis for the growing leveler movement. When the army mutiny started in early 1647, one of the demands was that Freeborn John be released from prison. When the army took London later that summer, Lilburn expected to be freed, but Fairfax was not really sympathetic to his arguments or his plight, though Cromwell still harbored some affection for the man whose cause he had championed seven years before. But that affection appears to have been pretty well snuffed out by Lilburn’s role in drafting the uncompromising leveler manifesto that led to the fractious Putney debates and by the personal attacks Lilburn made against Cromwell.
But after the Putney debates, he was released on bail and tried to join the mutiny at Corkbush Field, but it was put down before he got there. Then a few months later, his bail was rescinded for once again attacking the House of Lords. Lilburn kept up his rhetorical broadsides on the army and the lords and everything else he thought was oppressing the Freeborn Englishmen. In August 1648, he was released from prison again, but this time it was thanks to Presbyterians in the Commons who hoped Freeborn John would lead the public charge against Oliver Cromwell, who they desperately wanted to see laid low, but the Battle of Preston made Cromwell virtually untouchable. Now you would think that the decision to put the king on trial after the Second Civil War would realign Lilburn with his old comrades in the army, and as you’ll recall, Henry Ireton did indeed reach out in late 1648. But as you will also recall, Lilburn and his leveler associates thought they had been asked to compose the final draft of a new constitution for England, not a rough draft of a new constitution for England. Lilburn took further offense when Ireton quietly dumped the leveler proposal altogether. So when the king was brought to trial and Lilburn was actually offered a place on the High Court of Justice, he declined the seat, saying that only a jury of commoners had the kind of authority the High Court pretended to. Plus, as radical as he was, he still thought it was kind of insane to kill the king without a new constitution ready to go. Just after Charles was killed, Lilburn published England’s New Chains Discovered, which denounced the military grandees and their allies in the rump and called on citizens and soldiers everywhere to rise up against this new tyranny. He was, of course, immediately re-arrested. He sat in jail for eight months and was then put on trial for treason, but after conducting a fairly brilliant personal defense of himself, he was found not guilty. It is possible that the sympathetic mobs who gathered in support outside the courtroom played some small role. After years of agitation, imprisonment, more agitation and more imprisonment, Lilburn put his head down and tried to retire to private life, but he was constitutionally incapable of remaining quiet, and he soon picked a public fight with Arthur Haselrig, who was by now one of the most influential members of the rump. But this fight was not about abstract rights, but rather a very personal family quarrel with Haselrig over some land in Durham. Parliament had of course decided the dispute in Haselrig’s favor, but Lilburn kept up his petitions and attacks and denunciations. A committee wound up reviewing the case all through 1652, until they finally concluded in January 1653 that Lilburn’s case held no merit. They ordered him to pay a fine of three thousand pounds to the state, two thousand pounds to Haselrig for damages, and five hundred pounds each to four committee members, probably for wasting their time. Then they banished him from England for life, and in February 1653, freeborn John Lilburn sailed for the Netherlands.
I’m going to leave it off here because we’re pretty well caught up, and by now John Lilburn has already said and done everything that makes him important to the long-term development of constitutional democracy. His fiery defenses of freeborn rights will wind up being cited centuries after the fact by lawyers and judges as they continue to refine the legal definition of freedom. Lilburn’s writings, for example, influence the formation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the one that prohibits double jeopardy and self-incrimination and guarantees due process of law. Plus, and I just found this out, but Lilburn is actually specifically cited in the Supreme Court’s famous 1966 Miranda decision, the one that guarantees a suspect will be fully informed of his rights when he is taken into custody because Justice Hugo Black was like a John Lilburn superfan. So every time you hear a cop on TV, hopefully not in real life, starting with you have the right to remain silent, you have, in part, John Lilburn to thank. Though we are ending here with his exile to Holland, just know that England has not in fact seen the last of Freeborn John. That said, when we see him next, his seething anger at Cromwell and Parliament will lead him to make some very strange bedfellows indeed.
- Henry Burton (theologian)
- John Lilburne
- William Prynne
- Oliver Cromwell
- Prince Rupert of the Rhine
- Henry Ireton
- Arthur Haselrig
- Hugo Black
For someone who was born free John Lilburne sure spent a lot of time in prison
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
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