The rebel they couldn’t gag

John Lil­burne was whipped, pil­lo­ried, im­pris­oned and ex­iled, yet still the au­thor­i­ties couldn’t si­lence him. Mike Brad­dick charts one man’s ex­tra­or­di­nary fight for the rights of the free­born English­man in the 17th cen­tury

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Mike Brad­dick is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Sh­effield. His books in­clude The Com­mon Free­dom of the Peo­ple: John Lil­burne and the English Rev­o­lu­tion (OUP, 2018)

Mike Brad­dick chron­i­cles John Lil­burne’s ex­tra­or­di­nary cam­paign for free­dom of speech in 17th- cen­tury Eng­land

Dragged from bed at 6am on 11 June 1646, John Lil­burne was taken by armed men to the House of Lords. That day, and twice more in June and July, he re­fused to hear the charge against him be­cause the Lords were, he de­clared, not his peers – to ac­knowl­edge their right to charge him would be to sur­ren­der all the free­doms guar­an­teed in Magna Carta. Lil­burne went fur­ther, say­ing the Lords wanted “to tread [Magna Carta] un­der their feet”, and that he was de­ter­mined to re­sist them “to the last drop of my blood”. To make his point, he re­fused to kneel or to re­move his hat in the house, and while the charge was be­ing read he os­ten­ta­tiously put his fingers in his ears. He could tell the man had fin­ished, he later claimed, only be­cause he could see that his lips had stopped mov­ing.

If any in­ci­dent cap­tures the essence of John Lil­burne, then his per­for­mance in the House of Lords is surely it. His gift for po­lit­i­cal the­atre and the finely cal­i­brated in­sult made him a truly for­mi­da­ble po­lit­i­cal cam­paigner.

To­day, Lil­burne (1615–57) is pri­mar­ily as­so­ci­ated with the Lev­ellers, the small but vo­cal band of ac­tivists who emerged in the wake of the Civil War, call­ing for ex­tended suf­frage, equal­ity be­fore the law and re­li­gious tol­er­a­tion. His links with the Lev­ellers, how­ever, tell only half the story of a re­mark­able life. In fact, he had a much longer ca­reer as an ac­tivist, cam­paign­ing re­lent­lessly for what he re­garded as the rights of ev­ery free­born English­man – the right to re­main silent and the right to trial by one’s peers among them. He was per­haps the in­ven­tor of the term ‘ free­born English­man’, and re­fused to be gagged by the au­thor­i­ties. In tak­ing on these bat­tles, he blazed a trail for those in the fu­ture who op­posed gov­ern­ment at­tempts to use the courts to si­lence their crit­ics.

Dra­co­nian re­sponse

Born into a gen­try fam­ily in Green­wich in 1615, Lil­burne was in his early 20s when he first fell foul of the law. He was charged with im­port­ing sedi­tious books into Eng­land, but re­fused to of­fer a plea. The au­thor­i­ties’ re­sponse to this con­tempt of court was dra­co­nian: Lil­burne was whipped through the streets of Lon­don, pil­lo­ried, gagged and then thrown into prison.

Re­leased three years later, he soon found him­self in hot wa­ter again – this time ac­cused of trea­son after ful­mi­nat­ing against the Earl of Straf­ford, one of King Charles I’s key min­is­ters and a man sus­pected of plan­ning to raise an army to in­tim­i­date par­lia­ment.

Lil­burne signed up un­hesi­tat­ingly for the par­lia­men­tary armies on the out­break of the

Civil War in 1642 and fought with dis­tinc­tion, ris­ing to the rank of lieu­tenant colonel. But an al­liance with the Scots in 1643 – in which it was agreed that the Scots would pre­serve their Pres­by­te­rian re­li­gion and the English re­li­gion would be re­mod­elled – drove a wedge be­tween Lil­burne and some el­e­ments of the army lead­er­ship. He ar­gued that it was a be­trayal of the cause for which he and oth­ers had signed up to fight; some of his com­man­ders dis­agreed. By the end of 1645, he had quit the army.

It was now that Lil­burne’s jour­ney from com­mit­ted sup­porter of the par­lia­men­tary cause to vo­cif­er­ous critic be­gan in earnest. He soon came to the con­clu­sion that the new par­lia­men­tary regime could be just as dic­ta­to­rial as that of Charles I, and that the real war was not be­tween king and par­lia­ment, but be­tween the peo­ple and tyranny. The regime’s re­peated at­tempts to stop him pub­lish­ing and to muz­zle the presses only re­in­forced this con­vic­tion.

Dur­ing 1645 he was de­tained five times by a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee for pub­lish­ing pam­phlets that they con­sid­ered be­yond the pale. The fol­low­ing year, he de­nounced the Earl of Manch­ester, the com­man­der of the Eastern As­so­ci­a­tion army un­der whom he had served, as a traitor. The earl’s head “had stood it seemes too long upon his shoul­ders”, Lil­burne de­clared.

When he was called to an­swer for this, his os­ten­ta­tious and in­flam­ma­tory re­fusal to ac­knowl­edge the Lords’ ju­ris­dic­tion led to a seven-year sen­tence in the Tower (he served just over two years). There he would be joined by his long-suf­fer­ing and equally re­mark­able wife, El­iz­a­beth – the cou­ple would name their next child ‘Tower’.

In 1649, Lil­burne found him­self charged with trea­son again, ac­cused of in­cit­ing army mutiny in pam­phlets highly crit­i­cal of the tyran­ni­cal in­stincts of the repub­li­can regime. He was ac­quit­ted in a very pub­lic trial, and af­ter­wards seems to have tried to set­tle down to a quiet life.

Two years later, though, he pub­lished a pe­ti­tion ac­cus­ing Sir Arthur He­sil­rige, a war hero and prom­i­nent MP, of cor­rupt use of his power. Lil­burne had a point – He­sil­rige showed no lit­tle ruth­less­ness in pur­su­ing his per­sonal in­ter­ests – but that didn’t stop Lil­burne be­ing ex­iled for life for his ac­cu­sa­tions. In 1653 he breached his ex­ile, and was again put on trial for his life. He was ac­quit­ted by the jury once more, in an­other very pub­lic trial.

Ab­sence of hu­mil­ity?

Lil­burne’s many brushes with the law arose mainly from what he said – as op­posed to what he did – and many con­tem­po­raries thought he could have avoided trou­ble by keep­ing his mouth shut. His en­e­mies ar­gued that this so-called cham­pion of the English­man’s lib­er­ties was in fact per­pet­u­ally angling for a fight. Even Henry Marten, an old friend and ally, thought that “if there none liv­ing but him­self, John would be against Lil­burne, and Lil­burne against John”.

Put the other way, though, Lil­burne’s many tri­als amounted to a de­fence of his right to speak his mind. Lil­burne was en­gaged in a bat­tle for the com­mon free­dom of the English peo­ple. The en­emy was tyranny, but he ex­pe­ri­enced this pri­mar­ily in the many at­tempts to pun­ish him for what he pub­lished, so that his suf­fer­ings came to res­onate with later cam­paigns for a free press.

Prior to 1640, print­ing had been a mo­nop­oly of the Sta­tion­ers’ Com­pany, and any­thing pub­lished in Eng­land re­quired their li­cence – in prin­ci­ple a pow­er­ful form of pre-pub­li­ca­tion cen­sor­ship. This col­lapsed in the early 1640s be­cause mo­nop­o­lies of all kinds were abol­ished, along with the two courts that had en­forced the Sta­tion­ers’ mo­nop­oly.

The re­sult was a flood of short, polem­i­cal pam­phlets and news­books, cre­at­ing a chaotic pub­lic de­bate. Po­lit­i­cal writer Cuth­bert

Sy­den­ham saw in the writ­ings of Lil­burne and his ilk one of the “ex­or­bi­tan­cies” of the age, which “stained the glory of this na­tion”. The “mul­ti­tude of li­cen­tious and abu­sive pam­phlets” turned the press into “a com­mon strum­pet to con­ceive and bring forth the froth of ev­ery idle and wan­ton fancy”. Books, rea­son and judg­ment had been dis­placed by “Pasquils [lam­poons] and Li­bels, stuft with… ran­cour and rage”.

The par­lia­men­tary regime tried to rein­tro­duce press con­trol in the face of this an­ar­chic pub­lic de­bate and its Com­mit­tee of Ex­am­i­na­tions reg­u­larly heard cases re­lat­ing to sedi­tious or of­fen­sive pub­li­ca­tion: it was this com­mit­tee that ar­rested and de­tained Lil­burne so of­ten in 1645. Al­most as much as any­thing else, the use of this com­mit­tee by his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies within the par­lia­men­tary coali­tion con­vinced Lil­burne that the new regime might be just as tyran­nous as the old.

Lil­burne’s ac­tivism may have ap­palled the likes of Cuth­bert Sy­den­ham, but to later ad­vo­cates of free­dom of ex­pres­sion it was an in­spi­ra­tion. For ex­am­ple, in 1763 the rad­i­cal jour­nal­ist and MP John Wilkes was pros­e­cuted for sedi­tious li­bel after writ­ing an ar­ti­cle crit­i­cis­ing a par­lia­men­tary speech given in the name of King Ge­orge III. On the eve of his trial, Wilkes was pre­sented with one of Lil­burne’s pam­phlets and a medal struck to cel­e­brate his ac­quit­tal in 1649.

Thirty years later, Jeremiah Joyce, a Uni­tar­ian min­is­ter, was ar­rested at a meet­ing of the Lon­don Cor­re­spond­ing So­ci­ety and charged with trea­son­able prac­tices. He took a bound copy of Lil­burne’s tracts to his ar­raign­ment at the Old Bai­ley, where he re­fused to an­swer ques­tions with­out a lawyer present. Joyce spent four months in prison be­fore the charges were dropped.

Joyce’s col­lec­tion of Lil­burne pam­phlets later passed into the hands of Wil­liam Hone, a rad­i­cal book­seller who had first read one of Lil­burne’s pub­li­ca­tions at the age of 11. Hone him­self stood trial in 1817 in the tense af­ter­math of the Napoleonic Wars. He mod­elled his court­room per­for­mance on Lil­burne, pour­ing scorn on the gov­ern­ment’s charges and se­cur­ing ac­quit­tal by the jury. In do­ing so he helped to dis­credit the sedi­tious li­bel laws as a tool of re­pres­sion.

The asso­ciations be­tween the rights of the free­born English­man and the free­dom to speak are cap­tured in a c1790s por­trayal (shown left) of a bedrag­gled man dressed in rags and clasped in chains, with his lips pad­locked. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the im­age are the scathingly ironic words: “A free­born English­man: the ad­mi­ra­tion of the world, the envy of sur­round­ing na­tions.”

John Lil­burne did not cam­paign ex­plic­itly for a free press. But he did claim that he wanted to com­bat his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies on equal terms, “namely that the presse might be as open for us as for you”. He thought of his bat­tle more broadly, as the fight to pro­tect English­men from all cor­rupt and po­lit­i­cal uses of the law. He op­posed the Sta­tion­ers’ mo­nop­oly on the same grounds that he op­posed the clergy mo­nop­oly on re­li­gious teach­ing or the Mer­chant Ad­ven­tur­ers’ con­trol over the cloth trade. These were all in­vented pow­ers in­fring­ing on the rights of the English­man. “I have been in the field with my sword in my hand,” he wrote, “to ven­ter my life and my blood (against Tyrants) for the preser­va­tion of my Free­dome.”

Lil­burne did fight, and bravely too. Stub­born and dar­ing, he staked his claim to the com­mon free­dom of the peo­ple at enor­mous per­sonal cost (he would die on pa­role in 1657, while vis­it­ing his wife). In do­ing so, he made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the longer strug­gle for a free press, and struck a blow against the govern­ments that would gag it.

In 1763, on the eve of his trial for crit­i­cis­ing Ge­orge III, the MP John Wilkes was pre­sented with one of Lil­burne’s pam­phlets

Com­ple­ments the 10- part BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries The Bat­tles That Won Our Free­doms A 1646 en­grav­ing of John Lil­burne be­hind bars. The out­spo­ken critic of suc­ces­sive govern­ments spent half his adult life im­pris­oned or in ex­ile

A 1649 en­grav­ing shows Lil­burne be­ing tried for trea­son. This fear­less ac­tivist in­curred the wrath of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s regimes

A 1649 wood­cut show­ing ‘The Dec­la­ra­tion and Stan­dard of the Lev­ellers’, the po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists with whom Lil­burne is to­day pri­mar­ily as­so­ci­ated

The c1790s satir­i­cal car­toon ‘A free­born English­man’ – be­lieved to be by Isaac Cruik­shank – is an echo per­haps of John Lil­burne’s cam­paign for the right to speak his mind

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