By Jane Bassett
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The Common Freedom of the People

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Issue 448

John Lilburne spent much of his adult life in prison, often in appalling conditions. Punished in the late 1630s for his suspected involvement in printing and distributing subversive literature, he was whipped brutally through the streets of London.

He fought for parliament in the English Civil War against the Royalists in the early 1640s. Nonetheless, he was subsequently put on trial for his life twice by parliament in the years following the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Cromwell’s ascendency.

Lilburne was obstinate, brave and determined to stick to his principles and his commitment to what he referred to as the “common freedom of the people”.

He was also clearly, as Michael Braddick, the author of this excellent new political biography of Lilburne puts it, “very difficult to live with” and his pursuit of his political principles combined “an almost monstrous egotism with an apparent misogyny remarkable even for the seventeenth century”.

Braddick, who is the author of an authoritative account of the English Civil War, God’s Fury, England’s Fire, traces Lilburne’s journey through the decade in which the world was “turned upside down”. Growing discontent with the personal rule of Charles I throughout the 1630s was fuelled by many factors. This included the use of courts such as the Star Chamber, the imposition of taxation without recourse to parliament and the growing influence of Archbishop Laud in the Church of England — strongly resisted by growing numbers of “puritans” of different stripes, including Lilburne.

When war broke out with Scotland Charles was forced to recall parliament and these growing political and religious tensions broke through. There was an outbreak of often unlicensed printing of short pamphlets, petitions and other literature. As parliament split in the mid-1640s, radical groups including the Levellers emerged.

The extent to which the Levellers can be described as a movement or political organisation, and their influence with the New Model Army, has been hotly debated. However, many historians have convincingly demonstrated how individuals such as Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and others were seen as a considerable threat to the social order.

Lilburne’s career as a political activist and his involvement in the Levellers can be traced through the stream of publications he produced, even from prison. As Braddick shows, Lilburne is not a modern democrat or early socialist. Even less did he express any idea that women could play a political role, the involvement of women in the Leveller movement and his wife’s consistent support notwithstanding. He was proud of his gentry background, and refuted the idea that he supported the “levelling” of social distinctions or any challenge to property rights.

Lilburne did however take his stand on the issue of the rights of the people, however defined. He argued, in anticipation of Rainsborough’s famous speech at the Putney debates, that “every freeman of England, as well poore as rich, whose life, estate & etc is to be taken away by law, may have the Vote in chusing those that are to make the law, it being a maxim in nature that no man can be justly bound by his own consent.”

His insistence on his rights and the rights of Englishmen under the law underpinned his many court appearances and his consistent refusal to incriminate himself or to bend to those he saw as oppressors. Infuriating and confrontational, Lilburne showed huge commitment and bravery.

Anyone with an interest in the period will enjoy Braddick’s biography of this remarkable man.

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