John Lilburne was a child of middle level, the exact date of whose birth is unknown; there is some dispute as to whether he was born in 1613, 1614, or 1615. He was probably born in Bishop Auckland in County Durham, England where his father Richard Lilburne became one of the first members of Parliament to represent the County of Durham. Richard Lilburne was the last man in England to insist that he should be allowed to settle a legal dispute with a trial by battle John's elder brother Robert Lilburne also later became active in the Parliamentary cause, but seems not to have shared John's Leveller beliefs. By his own account Lilburne received the first ten years' of his education in Newcastle, almost certainly at the Royal Free Grammar School.
In 1638 at age 22, John Lilburne imported into England religious publications from Holland which were not licenced by The Stationers' Company (known after 1937 as the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers). At that time all printing presses were licenced as well as the publications that were produced on those presses.
John Lilburne was arrested upon information by an informer acting for The Stationers' Company and brought before the Court of Star Chamber. Instead of being charged with an offense he was asked how he pleaded. John Lilburne demanded to be presented in English with the charges brought against him (much of the written legal work of the time was in Law French). The Court refused Lilburne's request. The court then threw him in prison and again brought him back to court and demanded a plea. Again, Lilburne demanded to know the charges brought against him.
The authorities then resorted to flogging him with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicenced literature to the crowds. He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned. On his release, he married Elizabeth Dewell (a London merchant's daughter) in September 1641. Lilburne–s agitation continued: the same year he led a group of armed citizens against a group of Royalist officers, forcing them to retreat.
That was the first in a long series of trials that lasted throughout his life for what John Lilburne called his "freeborn rights". As a result of these trials a growing number of supporters began to call him "Freeborn John" and they even struck a medal in his honour to that effect. It is this trial that has been cited by constitutional jurists and scholars in the United States of America as being one of the historical foundations of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also cited within the 1966 majority opinion of Miranda v. Arizona by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the First English Civil War he enlisted as a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment of foot in the Parliamentary army commanded by the Earl of Essex and fought at the Battle of Edgehill. He was a member of the Parliament's garrison at Brentford against Prince Rupert during the Battle of Brentford that took place on 12 November 1642 as the Royalists advanced on London and, after trying to escape by jumping in the Thames, was taken as a prisoner to Oxford. As the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists intended to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal (see the Declaration of Lex Talionis), Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer.
He then joined the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. He became friends with Oliver Cromwell, who was second in command, supporting him in his disputes with Manchester. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Shortly afterwards he asked permission to attack the Royalist stronghold at Tickhill Castle, because he had heard it was willing to surrender. Manchester refused, dismissing him as a madman. Taking that as a yes, he went and took the Castle without a shot being fired.
In April 1645, Lilburne resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion, namely members of the parliamentary army. Lilburne argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others. This was practically a treaty between England and Scotland for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, the reformation of religion in England and Ireland "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches," and the extirpation of popery and prelacy. The Scots, he maintained, were free to believe as they saw fit but not to bind anyone to the same faith if they did not share it.
John Lilburne then began in earnest his campaign of agitation for freeborn rights, the rights that all Englishmen are born with, which are different from privileges bestowed by a monarch or a government. He also advocated extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. His enemies branded him as a Leveller but Lilburne responded that he was a "Leveller so-called." To him it was a pejorative label which he did not like. He called his supporters "Agitators." It was feared that "Levellers" wanted to level property rights, but Lilburne wanted to level human basic rights which he called "freeborn rights"
At the same time that John Lilburne began his campaign, another group led by Gerrard Winstanley styling themselves True Levellers (and became known as Diggers), advocated equality in property as well as political rights.
Lilburne was imprisoned from July to October 1645 for denouncing Members of Parliament who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for the Parliamentary cause. It was while he was incarcerated that he wrote his tract, England's Birthright Justified.
In July 1646, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for denouncing his former commander the Earl of Manchester as a traitor and Royalist sympathiser. It was the campaign to free him from prison which spawned the political party called the Levellers. Lilburne called them "Levellers so-called" because he viewed himself as an agitator for freeborn rights.
The Levellers had a strong following in the New Model Army with whom his work was influential. When the Army held the Putney Debates between 28 October and 11 November 1647, the debate centred upon a pamphlet influenced by the writings of John Lilburne called An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right. The events of 1647, where rank and file soldiers organised themselves, under the leadership of the Agitators have been compared to the organisation of Soldiers Soviets during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Lilburne was instrumental in the writing of two more editions of this famous document. The second was An Agreement of the People of England, and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety, was presented to Parliament on 11 September 1648 after amassing signatories including about a third of all Londoners.
Following the defeat of the Royalists and the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, England became a commonwealth in 1649 with the regicide of Charles I. It was while he was in the Tower of London that John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton wrote the third edition of An Agreement of the Free People of England. Tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation. They hoped that this document would be signed like a referendum so that it would become a written constitution for the Commonwealth of England. The late United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who often cited the works of John Lilburne in his opinions, wrote in an article for Encyclopdia Britannica that he believed John Lilburne's constitutional work of 1649 was the basis for the basic rights contained in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.
When Hugh Peters visited John Lilburne in the Tower on 25 May 1649, Lilburne told him that he would rather have had seven years under the late king's rule than one under the present regime, and that in his opinion if the current regime remained as tyrannical as it was, then people would be prepared to fight for "Prince Charles". Three months later in Outcry of the Apprentices to the Soldiers Lilburne stated that apprentices and soldiers fought to maintain the fundamental constitution of the Commonwealth and rights of the people in their Parliaments by regulating the Crown not against the person of the King.
There had been rumours after the Broadway meeting of January 1648, that Levellers were conspiring with Royalists to overthrow the new republic. During the Oxford mutiny this was confirmed when Parliament acquired a letter from a Royalist prisoner in the Tower of London to Lord Cottington, and advisor in exile with Charles II in France, which suggested that the Royalists should finance the Levellers, as a method by which Charles could be restored to the throne. Armed with this evidence parliament published a long deceleration against the Levellers and passed a motion to try Lilburne for High Treason, using a court similar to that which had tried Charles I. Like the trial of the King sentence would be passed by appointed commissioners, (forty for Lilburn's trial), but unlike the King (who had no peers) a jury of 12 would decide on Lilburn's guilt or innocence. The trial took place in the London Guildhall. It started on 24 of October 1649, and lasted two days. When the jury found him not guilty, the public shouted their approval so loudly and for so long that it was another half an hour before the proceedings could be formally closed.
During his trial, tickets were thrown about with the words...
And what, shall then honest John Lilburne die!
Three score thousand will know the reason why,
Lilburn was not released immediately and was held for a further two weeks before pressure from the populaces and some friends in Parliament finally secured his release. Although some members of parliament were irked at Lilburne's release, Parliament had succeed in suppressing open Levellers dissent. The Levellers gave up all attempts to rouse the country and army to open rebellion, and started to conspire ineffectually in secret.
After his acquittal, Lilburne turned to other legal matters involving his extended family. This action resulted in his being arrested yet again. Following the abolition of the monarchy, Cromwell became increasingly powerful. He eventually became Head of State under the Protectorate, with the title Lord Protector. Lilburne was held in prison because Cromwell viewed him as a political threat.
Lilburne was held in the Tower until March 1654, then transferred to Jersey and finally, in October 1655, he was brought to Dover Castle. On parole at Dover, Lilburne met Luke Howard, a Quaker whose serenity impressed him and began the process of his own conversion. In 1656, he was allowed to leave the castle during the daytime to visit his wife and children, who had settled in Dover. Later he was permitted to stay away from prison for several days at a time and took to visiting Quaker congregations in Kent. In the last of his 83 pamphlets, The Resurrection of John Lilburne, he declared that he had given up political activism and become a Quaker. In the summer of 1657, whilst visiting his wife, who was expecting their tenth child, he caught a fever and died at Eltham, Kent, on 29 August 1657, aged 42.
The Citizens In Charge Foundation, lead by Paul Jacob, honors a person or organization every month who stands up for initiative & referendum rights in the US. The first award was given in November 2008 to Eric Ehst of the Clean Elections Institute, for his role in defeating Arizona's Proposition 105, which could have imposed a super-majority.
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