THE COMMON FREEDOM OF THE PEOPLE
JOHN LILBURNE AND THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION
MICHAEL BRADDICK OUP, 391pp, £25, Oldie price £14.99 inc p&p
Contemplating the first biography of the 17th-century radical John Lilburne since Pauline Gregg’s amid the predominant Marxism of the Sixties, David Horspool, writing in the Spectator, reflected that Lilburne’s ‘posthumous high watermark may have been in the 1960s and 1970s, which would account for Jeremy Corbyn’s fondness for him’. Horspool commended Michael Braddick’s new book, The Common Freedom of the People, for restoring ‘a sense of jeopardy to the Pimpernel-like achievements of his subject’, who survived imprisonment under Charles I, Parliament and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell for most of the period of 1637-57.
Kwasi Kwarteng, whose parliamentary office, he related with alarming relish in the Times, lies close to the site of the Star Chamber in which Lilburne was first tried, mischievously compared Lilburne not to the Leader of the Opposition but to Nigel Farage, ‘a restlessly subversive figure who delighted in pouring scorn on the Establishment of his day’. Kwarteng went on to differentiate Lilburne from Farage on the stinging grounds that ‘Lilburne was highly conscious of his status as a gentleman’. Kwarteng respected Braddick’s ‘accuracy and fluency’, while calling for a ‘more popular and cinematic treatment’ in the future.
But in the Literary Review it did not escape Edward Vallance that ‘Freeborn John’ has already broken through, at least, onto the silver screen, as the truth-telling political martyr of Channel 4’s 2008 Civil War drama, The Devil’s Whore. That series also featured Lilburne’s long-suffering wife, Elizabeth, whom, Vallance added, finally gets the portrait she deserves in Braddick’s telling; on one occasion in 1642, ‘heavily pregnant, she rode to Oxford to present his Royalist captors with a threat of retaliation from Parliament if he were executed’. Vallance concluded with another lesson for contemporary politicians, musing that, given Lilburne’s increasingly heterodox opinions as he passed through the penal systems of successive regimes, ‘His, perhaps, is a life for the architects of the current government’s Prevent strategy to ponder.’