Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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John Lilburne and the new politics

J.C. Davis

Michael Braddick, The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2018), ISBN: 978-0-19-880323-2, 391pp., £25.00.

[1] Dying in obscurity, it was nevertheless almost inevitable that the funeral arrangements for John Lilburne (1615? – 1657), one of the great courtroom battlers of the seventeenth century, should be contested in form. The stark simplicities of a Quaker funeral were too much (or too little!) for some of his more ardent followers. But from the start his celebrity has been touched by controversy. Hero or obsessive, trouble maker or man of principle, self-promoting attention seeker or martyr to injustice, brave or foolhardy, his reputation has oscillated between these polarities over the intervening centuries. From the eighteenth century onwards, progressives and radicals saw him as something of a hero in the forward momentum of the struggle for religious toleration, civil rights, resistance to arbitrary government, promotion of the sovereignty of the people, government by their consent and the rule of law. As Michael Braddick puts it, Lilburne ‘had a long run as a champion for secular political principles’ (291).[1] But of recent years his star has waned. So too has that of the Levellers of whom he was once seen as a principal leader. Once hailed as an innovative movement advocating democracy their democratic credentials and positive influence on the English Revolution have been called in question. So too Lilburne’s grasp of the political realities his day has come to seem fragile by comparison with his robust capacity to make his own occasions the focus of attention.

[2] Yet here we have a comprehensive political life, rather than biography (xv), of him by one of this generation’s most distinguished and productive historians of the English Revolution. As might be expected it is meticulously researched and unlikely to be exceeded in its recovery of many aspects of Lilburne’s life: his networks amongst the godly, the citizenry of London and the worlds of print and radical agitation from the later 1630s down to the mid-1650s. It is particularly strong in tracing his (and his family’s) struggles with Sir Henry Vane sr. and Sir Arthur Hesilrige over the spoils of war in north-east England, his protracted pursuit of compensation and reparations for past injustices to him, and his activities as consultant and lobbyist in the disputes over Fenland drainage in the 1650s. In fact, as Braddick sees it, the balance of this political life lies not so much in engagement as a Leveller as with a new world of politics bound up with print, lobbying and partisan mobilisation.

[3] Born, probably in Sunderland in 1615, into a gentry family with connections through his mother to the royal court at Greenwich Palace, Lilburne retained strong links with the north-east throughout his life. Apprenticed to a London clothier in 1630, he was soon active in the puritan underground opposed to the religious policies of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. He distributed anti-episcopalian literature smuggled in from the Netherlands and in 1637 witnessed the savage punishments meted out in the streets of London to William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton for publishing their critiques of the regime. The following year, Lilburne was himself arrested and sentenced to be flogged through the streets of the capital, then pilloried and imprisoned indefinitely. Such exemplary punishment backfired with Lilburne turning it into a personal martyrdom, preaching throughout his ordeal and lambasting his persecutors while insisting that his case was that of all decent Englishmen. It was a self-image he was repeatedly to project throughout his career. But, at this stage, his thought remained a mixture of anti-authoritarianism, fuelled by religious sentiment, and the conservatism of the common law mind, appealing to precedent and inherited rights.[2]

[4] In November 1640 one of Oliver Cromwell’s first acts in the Long Parliament was to raise the case of John Lilburne and obtain his release. The latter was soon campaigning against the Earl of Strafford as a symbol of the personal rule, against the bishops and against Roman Catholic members of the House of Lords. On the outbreak of civil war, in midsummer 1642, he joined the parliamentary army and gave distinguished service at the first major battle, Edgehill, only to be taken prisoner by the royalists at Brentford. Facing a trial for treason at the royalist headquarters in Oxford, in May 1643 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He promptly joined Cromwell in the army of the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester, seeing service at Lincoln, Marston Moor and, against Manchester’s orders (although the Earl later claimed credit for it), securing the surrender of Tickhill Castle. But increasingly, Lilburne, like others, had to confront conflict within the parliamentary coalition between, in particular, those who advocated a presbyterian church settlement and those seeking greater liberty for the consciences of individuals and gathered churches, and between those who were resigned to the necessity – as they saw it – of negotiated settlement and those who sought outright victory in the war. Manchester backed the former options, Cromwell (and Lilburne) the latter. By later 1644 the quarrel had escalated and resulted in the Self Denying Ordinance (whereby members of either House of Parliament were required to leave the army) and the formation of the New Model Army. At this point. Lilburne abandoned military service principally because of his aversion to the oath of the Solemn League and Covenant which all soldiers in the parliamentary armies were now required to swear. But he took with him his fear of a Presbyterian/Scots imposed settlement and a suspicion that the seeds of a parliamentary defection from the goals for which he and others had seen themselves fighting had already been sown.

[5] By 1646 and once parliamentary victory was assured, that struggle intensified as groups contested the shape of the final settlement. Over the next two years its main focus became the confrontation between the presbyterian majority in Parliament and the city of London, on the one hand, and the army with its amalgam of military grievances and conscientious principles, on the other. At the same time, Lilburne was frequently at loggerheads with the House of Lords and in the process developed a portfolio of demands including equality before the law, the right to a trial before a jury of one’s peers, that trials could only be on specified charges, facing known accusers in established courts under known laws, and a denial of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords over commoners. In 1647 and in the face of the presbyterians’ attempts to mobilise support, Lilburne became prominent in a counter-mobilisation of pamphleteering, petitioning, demonstrations and attempted dialogue with the army.

[6] With the military occupation of London and the virtual purge of Parliament in that year, the dissolution of government looked to be either in train or imminent and, in a letter to Cromwell, Lilburne insisted that tyranny in a parliament had to be as resistible as tyranny in a King. In its search for a legitimate basis for settlement, the General Council of the Army permitted debate on a draft new constitution (an Agreement of the People). The indeterminate outcome of the Putney debates was soon overwhelmed by Charles I’s deal with the Scots and the second civil war. The New Model Army’s decisive victory in the succeeding campaigns led to a further sharpening of issues and the sense of urgency around a settlement. Lilburne and his colleagues were once more engaged in discussions with the military about such constitutional provision as would allow for unicameral government without a King or with a token monarch only. The officers moved to produce their own Agreement of the People at which point Lilburne walked out of the talks, objecting both to their proposed constraints on liberty of conscience and the retention of a punitive capacity in the state which might operate outside of the known law. Moves to bring the King to trial for his life before a new and legitimate authority was erected was a tipping point. But, in effect, Lilburne had abandoned what was to prove his greatest opportunity to influence the course of the revolution.

[7] Faced with Pride’s Purge, the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of the House of Lords by a purged and unrepresentative Rump, Lilburne and his friends excoriated the new tyranny and its machiavellian originators, England’s new chains discovered. Their status and influence was such that their challenge could not be ignored by a regime struggling for support and seeking to escape dependence on force of arms. Lilburne was arrested and brought to trial for treason in October 1649. It was the second most important trial of that momentous year and, to the administration’s chagrin, the jury acquitted him to a display of public rejoicing. Not only was the unpopularity of the government exposed but, in another reproof to them, in December Lilburne was elected to the Common Council of London. That election was quashed by the authorities and he turned to pursue reparations and property claims. He was soon in vituperative verbal conflict with Sir Arthur Hesilrige. The Rump took attacks on such a powerful member of parliament as treasonous and, without any hearing of the case, condemned him to a huge fine. By a subsequent Act of Parliament he was condemned to exile with any subsequent return being a capital offence. Such a civil death penalty, arbitrarily imposed, gave testimony to the regime’s fear of his fame and influence.

[8] The Rump, which had exiled Lilburne, was itself ousted by Cromwell in April 1653 and Lilburne, without waiting for permission, seized the opportunity to return from exile. His claim was that either the Rump had been expelled as an illegitimate authority, in which case its actions against him were illegal, or Cromwell had acted without lawful authority and so had no jurisdiction over him. Inevitably he was arrested and a government, struggling for what shreds of authority it could find, brought him to trial at the Old Bailey in July and August 1653. Lilburne once more turned this into a protracted piece of political theatre, showcasing the flimsiness of the government’s claims to legitimacy and its proceedings against him. In a sensational, if ambiguous, verdict, the jury found him ‘not guilty of any crime worthy of death’. Embarrassed and fearful, the government kept him prisoner, first on Jersey, then in Dover, allowing him parole only in the last few weeks before his death in August 1657. His two trials under the Commonwealth had raised the most fundamental constitutional and judicial questions about the republic. Having abandoned tradition and consent what could legitimately authorise its rule? The onset of the Protectorate and England’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government, in December 1653 was to a considerable extent shaped as an answer to that question.

[9] How had an agitating apprentice, a restless pursuer of slights and perceived injustices, ‘an impulsive, intemperate man blind to the virtues of prudence’ (110; see also 158), an unsystematic thinker (107, 277-8), and – despite his web of associates – something of a loner (272-3) come to achieve such status as to frighten a revolutionary government with overwhelming military backing into blatantly illegal acts? It is here that Braddick’s new study makes its most interesting and innovative contribution. While fully aware of the importance of Lilburne’s capacity for and skill in self-dramatisation, his exploitation of celebrity and sensation, he sets this in the context of a new and emergent politics. In many respects the context itself was new. From November 1640, Parliament was sitting, for the first time, more or less continuously, displacing traditional curial politics. Parliamentary committees assumed more and more functions of government administration and the details of policy making. As representative of the people, these bodies were subject to outside influences expressing, or claiming to express, the popular will. Petitioning, pamphleteering, demonstrating, lobbying, working the corridors and committee rooms of Westminster, Lilburne was to prove an adept, if not always effective, practitioner of these new arts to the point where, in the early 1650s, he may have been able to earn some of his keep as a consultant to others on them (204-26). But equally, an important part of the developing context was the emergence of new partisan and subscriptional communities,[3] displacing the old political communities of locality, corporation, faction and personal fealty. These new communities had to be identified and mobilised and, for these, print, petitioning, protest gatherings and demonstrations, as well as tavern meetings were all important. Braddick has made this theme of partisan mobilisation something of his own (see for example Braddick 2008, especially Ch. 16). But partisan mobilisation also required ideas and symbols around which followers could rally. Lilburne here becomes a key player in the emergence of this new politics. For that reason, this book will remain a seminal contribution not only to the study of John Lilburne but also in understanding the longer term legacy of the English Revolution.

[10] Braddick is less easy, perhaps less assured, in dealing with key and related aspects of Lilburne’s thought. Two issues stand out. They concern whether he was primarily religious or a secular thinker and whether his appeal was most typically to civic law and civil rights or to natural law and natural rights. On the one hand, Braddick sees him as beginning in intense religiosity, with a sense of the immediacy of God’s presence (xi, 6). Reacting to the brutality of his punishment in 1638, he proclaimed, ‘Wellcome be the Cross of Christ’, and thanked God for seeing him through the ordeal (23). Called by the Almighty to fight the battle of all Englishmen, liberty of conscience, or the freedom to serve God not man, was central to him (86-8, 272). Later, faith sustained him in exile. In a letter to his long-suffering wife, he wrote of God’s dealings with him, ‘if it be his pleasure to let this cross I am under to lie upon me, for the tryall of my faith & patience & sonne-like dependence upon him, his Good will & pleasure be done’ (231). At the same time, Braddick suggests that, even in the face of his punishment in 1638, Lilburne was putting secular before religious concerns (26). In his first prison pamphlet, A light for the ignorant (Amsterdam, 1638), according to Braddick he was arguing for ‘a radical separation of religious and secular authority’ (30).[4] Again, from 1645 his verbal battle with Prynne was ‘more secular’ than religious and legal rights took precedence over liberty of conscience (88-9). In the end while ‘Christian rhetoric had suffused Lilburne’s writings … he had not defined his cause in religious terms’ (262). This is somehow to see language as separable from the substance of the message and one wonders if the secular religious distinction is not something of an anachronism or if Lilburne would have recognised it. Is it more appropriate to think of civic law, natural law, the law of nations and divine law as ideally operating in harmony, as complementary? Certainly, Lilburne did not want the state to interfere with conscience since citizens were not the property of the state but held their consciences in trust from God. The limitations on sovereignty allowed to a state, even one enjoying the consent of the governed – no authority to force conscience in religious or military matters (conscription) – were not secular in origin but were determined by a belief in God’s exclusive authority over conscience, that is by the force of a religious conviction. So there were a set of assumptions about will and law which were underpinned by ideas of the limited nature of autonomy and of stewardship (cf. Davis 2000).[5] And Lilburne and the Levellers seem to have held to these convictions, and little else, with remarkable consistency.

[11] In other respects, Braddick is right to see him as a pragmatic campaigner, a polemicist willing, within reason, to use such languages as fitted the occasion – common law, natural law, the law of nations, divine law (cf. Burgess 1993: 45-67). ‘In truth he was an activist drawing on those arguments that would work at particular moments, while collaborating with people who shared his political goals but not necessarily his ideological grounds’ (107). There was, of course, a Biblical formula which licensed him for such pragmatism in relation to civil affairs. It was that God had ordained government but left its particular form to the choice and creativity of men (Davis 2000: 290. For this formula as commonplace see, for example, Parker 1642: 1; Goodwin 1642: 7-8; Williams 1644: 196.) As Andrew Sharp concluded in a format which almost gets us there, ‘He would rather that all were subject to God’s law, but saw that most were not and tried to come to terms with such a world by way of human lawmaking’ (Sharp 2006).

[12] However questionable the dichotomies of secular and religious in this context, this book remains an important and authoritative contribution, not only to our understanding of Freeborn John but also of his place in the English Revolution and of the Revolution itself. Lilburne’s political influence in his own time and beyond rested not on traditional sources but on skill in mobilising support, exploiting print, lobbying, working the streets and corridors of power and committee rooms and, to a degree, on self dramatisation. It is a form of politics which is with us still.

University of East Anglia


[1] Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the book under review. [back to text]

[2] For the classic account of the common law mind see Pocock 2008.[back to text]

[3] Some of them, like the Levellers with their constituency and ward organisation and their manifestos, were teetering on the edge of becoming parties.[back to text]

[4] Such a separation of the spheres of Grace and nature takes us back almost eighty years to Woodhouse 1938. For other influential emphases on the Levellers as primarily secular in their thinking see Haller and Davies 1964: 7, and Wolfe 1967: 3. For a more recent emphasis on the secular in Leveller (and Lilburne’s) thought see Foxley 2013, and my review of it (Davis 2014). [back to text]

[5] Davis 2000. For the argument that the Levellers never distinguished between divine and natural law but saw them as complementary see especially 281-7. [back to text]


Braddick, Michael. 2008. God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (London: Allen Lane)

Burgess, Glenn. 1993. ‘Protestant Polemic: The Leveller Pamphlets’, Parergon 11:2, pp. 45-67

Davis, J. C. 2000. ‘The Levellers and Christianity’, in Peter Gaunt (ed.), The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 279-302

_____. 2014. ‘Review of The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution, by Rachel Foxley’, in The English Historical Review, 129:538, pp. 717-19.

Foxley, Rachel. 2013. The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Goodwin, John. 1642. Anti-Cavalierisme (London: Henry Overton)

Haller, William and Godfrey Davies (eds.). 1964. The Leveller Tracts 1647-53 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith)

Parker, Henry. 1642. Observations Upon Some of His Majesties Late Answers and Expresses London: Willian Sheares)

Pocock, J. G. A. 2008. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sharp, Andrew. 2006. ‘John Lilburne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Williams, Roger. 1644. The Bloody Tenent (London)

Wolfe, Don M. (ed.). 1967. Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution (London: Frank Cass)

Woodhouse, A. S. P.. 1938. ‘Introduction’ to Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-9), ed. by A. S. P. Woodhouse (London: Dent and Sons)

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