John Lilburne, c.1615-1657

Political firebrand who began his career as a martyr for Puritan doctrine, became a champion of the Levellers and political democracy, and ended his days as a Quaker and pacifist.

Portrait of John LilburneJohn Lilburne was born in Sunderland, the third son of Richard Lilburne, a minor country gentleman. His mother, Margaret, was the daughter of Thomas Hixon, master of the King's wardrobe at Greenwich Palace. As a child, Lilburne stayed at Greenwich with his parents and grandparents. He was taken back to the north-east in 1620 after the deaths of his grandfather and mother.

After attending schools in Bishop Auckland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Lilburne returned to London as an apprentice to Thomas Hewson, a wholesale clothier and Puritan. Lilburne remained with Hewson from around 1630 to 1636. During his apprenticeship, Lilburne became a member of Edmund Rosier's congregation and attended sermons by separatist preachers throughout the city. He immersed himself in the Bible, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and the writings of the Puritan divines. In 1636, he was introduced to the physician John Bastwick, an active pamphleteer against episcopacy who, with William Prynne and Henry Burton, was persecuted by Archbishop Laud in a famous case in 1637.

Puritan Martyr

After his meeting with Bastwick, Lilburne became involved in the printing and distribution of unlicensed Puritan books and pamphlets, for which he was arrested in December 1637 and brought before the notorious court of Star Chamber. He obstinately refused to take the oath or to answer questions and insisted that his prosecution was unlawful. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to be whipped at the cart-tail from the Fleet prison to New Palace Yard, Westminster, where he was to stand in the pillory, then to be imprisoned until he conformed and admitted his guilt. The sentence was carried out on 18 April 1638 with Lilburne loudly declaring that he had committed no crime against the law or the state but that he was a victim of the bishops' cruelty. As in the case of Prynne, Burton and Bastwick, Lilburne's punishment turned into an anti-government demonstration, with cheering crowds encouraging and supporting him.

Lilburne was kept in prison for nearly three years. During his imprisonment, he wrote the first of many pamphlets that publicised the injustices committed against him.

Meanwhile, in November 1640, King Charles reluctantly summoned the Long Parliament. Within a week of its meeting, Oliver Cromwell MP drew attention to Lilburne's case in a passionate speech denouncing the tyranny of the bishops, and Parliament ordered his release. As soon as he was free, Lilburne became active in the revolutionary fervour developing in London. He harangued the crowds at the execution of the Earl of Strafford and led an apprentice riot against the King's guards at Whitehall in December 1641.

Around this time, Lilburne married Elizabeth Dewell, a member of a London Baptist congregation.

Roundhead Soldier

When the First Civil War broke out, Lilburne enlisted for Parliament as a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment of foot and fought at the battle of Edgehill. In November 1642, his regiment defended Brentford against an attack by Prince Rupert and Lord Forth during the Royalist advance on London. Lilburne was taken prisoner and sent to the King's headquarters at Oxford. As one of the first Roundhead officers to be captured, the Royalists intended to try Lilburne for treasonous rebellion. His wife Elizabeth petitioned Parliament on his behalf and provoked an emergency debate in the House of Commons, which led to Parliament threatening to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal if Lilburne were to be hanged as a traitor. Elizabeth courageously delivered the message from London to Oxford herself. The trial was called off and Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer in May 1643.

At Oliver Cromwell's instigation, Lilburne was commissioned in the Eastern Association army as a major in Colonel King's regiment of foot. In May 1644, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the Earl of Manchester's regiment of dragoons. Lilburne fought with distinction at Marston Moor in July 1644 but like many other Eastern Association officers, he grew frustrated at Manchester's inaction in the weeks following the battle. Hearing that Tickhill Castle was on the point of surrendering to Parliament, Lilburne asked Manchester's permission to march against it but was dismissed as a madman. Taking this as permission, Lilburne negotiated the surrender of Tickhill without a shot being fired, and returned to be angrily berated by his general in front of his astonished Royalist prisoners. Infuriated further by Manchester subsequently taking the credit for the surrender of Tickhill, Lilburne was one of Cromwell's witnesses when he denounced Manchester before the House of Commons in November 1644.

If the World was emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John, and John with Lilburne.attributed to Henry Martin

In April 1645, Lilburne resigned his commission after refusing to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, which was required of New Model Army officers following Parliament's alliance with the Scots. He clashed with his former heroes Prynne and Bastwick in a pamphlet defending liberty of conscience over their Presbyterian orthodoxy and was imprisoned from July to October 1645 for denouncing MPs who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for Parliament. Lilburne also became embroiled in a bitter dispute with MPs who had promised him compensation for his persecution by Star Chamber in 1638, but who showed no sign of paying it. In July 1646, Lilburne was sent to the Tower of London for denouncing his former commander the Earl of Manchester as a traitor and Royalist sympathiser. Whilst in the Tower, he continued to write a stream of inflammatory pamphlets, which were smuggled out to be published by his friends and supporters.

Lilburne and the Levellers

Lilburne's writings were popular and circulated widely. He described the many injustices he had suffered at the hands of the authorities. The Lords, the Commons, the clergy, army officers, magistrates, gaolers—no-one was safe from his vitriol. He fearlessly drew attention to examples of hypocrisy, corruption and profiteering wherever he saw them. He soon alienated most of his powerful friends, including Cromwell, but Lilburne's imprisonment stirred a storm of political activity and protest in his defence. His central demand that an entirely new form of government, answerable to the People, should be constituted from the turmoil of the civil war became a focal point in the formation of the Leveller movement.

Although he remained a prisoner, Lilburne's friends kept him in contact with army Agitators during 1647 and he was associated with the drafting of the Leveller manifesto An Agreement of the People. When he was released on bail in November 1647, Lilburne hurried to support the Leveller mutineers at Corkbush Field, but he arrived to find the mutiny suppressed and order restored by the Grandees. He returned to London and worked to build up a party organisation of Levellers until January 1648 when his bail was withdrawn and he was arrested with John Wildman on new charges of sedition after denouncing the House of Lords during a volatile meeting of Levellers at Smithfield.

During the Second Civil War, the Presbyterian John Maynard MP secured Lilburne's unconditional release from the Tower in the vain hope of gaining his support in a scheme to impeach Oliver Cromwell. Lilburne refused to join the attack at a time when Cromwell was away fighting the Royalists and their Scottish allies. Nevertheless, he distrusted the Grandees and feared that the army was becoming an even greater tyranny than the monarchy. He negotiated with Henry Ireton at meetings between the Grandees and the Levellers at Whitehall in December 1648. Lilburne urged the Grandees to accept the Agreement of the People before bringing the King to trial, so that at least the trial would have a basis in a legitimate constitution, but he was completely outmanoeuvred by Ireton and the Leveller demands came to nothing. Lilburne refused a nomination to sit on the High Court of Justice and left London for the north during the period of the King's trial and execution.

Trials, Exile and Imprisonment

Lilburne on trialLilburne reads from Coke's Institutes
at his trial for treason

As early as February 1649, Lilburne was attacking the new republican government in England's New Chains Discovered, in which he appealed to soldiers and citizens to unite in rejection of the unconstitutional rule of the Grandees, the Council of State and the Rump Parliament.

His agitation did not go unnoticed. In March 1649, Lilburne and other Leveller leaders were arrested. In October, Lilburne was brought to trial at the Guildhall, charged with high treason and with inciting the Leveller mutinies. He conducted his own defence, during which he raised strong objections to all aspects of the prosecution and quoted directly from Sir Edward Coke's Institutes, or commentaries on the laws of England. The jury found Lilburne Not Guilty, to enthusiastic cheers from crowds of his supporters and well-wishers.

After the trial, Lilburne withdrew into private life for a time, setting up as a soap-boiler and re-establishing friendly personal relations with Cromwell—helped no doubt by the fact that Lilburne's elder brother Robert was one of Cromwell's most trusted officers. His attempt to take up a career in the law was blocked by the Inner Temple, but in 1650 he acted as legal adviser to the fenmen of the Isle of Axholme, whose common lands had been enclosed by speculators.

In January 1652, Lilburne was on trial again, this time for criminal libel arising from a property dispute with Sir Arthur Hesilrige MP. Lilburne's fierce attack on Hesilrige was judged treasonous. He was fined heavily and banished from England, on pain of death if he returned.

Lilburne went to Amsterdam, then to Bruges. There was talk of collaboration between disillusioned Levellers and Royalists exiled on the Continent. Lilburne was willing to support the monarchy providing the rights of the People were upheld. He held discussions with the Duke of Buckingham and became friendly with Lord Hopton, though most prominent Royalists did not trust him.

When Cromwell threw out the Rump Parliament in April 1653, Lilburne returned to England, claiming that his banishment was made void by the dissolution of Parliament. However, he was arrested and put on trial for his life at the Guildhall on 13 July 1653. Lilburne was still popular in London and his supporters and sympathisers thronged to the Guildhall to demonstrate in his favour. Although his guilt seemed self-evident, Lilburne claimed that the prosecution was unable to prove he was the same John Lilburne who had been banished. The jury found him Not Guilty. Despite this, the government ordered that Lilburne should be held in prison indefinitely.

He 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 he took to visiting Quaker congregations in Kent. In the last of his many 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.


C.H. Firth, John Lilburne, DNB, 1892

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)

Andrew Sharp, John Lilburne, Oxford DNB, 2004

Lilburne's defence at his treason trial — Online Library of Liberty


The trials of John Lilburne links and bibliography

England's New Chains Discovered Lilburne's attack on the Commonwealth government

The Resurrection of John Lilburne — his last published pamphlet