Robert Lilburne, 1613-65

Baptist army officer and regicide who became governor of Scotland and a Major-General. He lost faith in the Protectorate and became a supporter of John Lambert.

Portrait of Robert LilburneBorn in Auckland, County Durham, Robert Lilburne was the elder brother of the Leveller leader John Lilburne. Robert served as a cornet in Lord Brooke's troop under the Earl of Essex in 1642–3, then took command of a regiment of horse in Lord Fairfax's Northern Association army. Lilburne's regiment maintained a distinguished military record in northern England and Scotland throughout the civil wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate.

In 1646, Sir Thomas Fairfax commissioned Lilburne colonel of Ralph Weldon's regiment of foot in the New Model Army when Weldon became governor of Plymouth. Lilburne's appointment caused resentment amongst officers in the regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Kempson tried to persuade officers and men to accept Parliament's offer of service in Ireland, which Lilburne himself opposed. A committed Baptist and opponent of the Presbyterians, Lilburne was active in the Army's protests against service in Ireland and was a spokesmen at the Saffron Walden meeting with Parliament's commissioners in April 1647. Shortly after this, he was appointed governor of Newcastle, where he founded the city's first Baptist congregation. He was not present when his regiment mutinied on its march to Newcastle in November 1647 to take part in the Corkbush Field rendezvous against orders. Command of the regiment and the governorship of Newcastle was given to Sir Arthur Heselrige in December 1647, while Lilburne returned to his cavalry regiment.

During the Second Civil War, Lilburne joined Cromwell and Lambert in the defeat of the Engagers at the battle of Preston. He remained in the north and took part in the siege of Pontefract Castle, which held out stubbornly against Parliament until March 1649. However, Lilburne interrupted his military service when he was appointed to the High Court of Justice in January 1649. He attended most sessions of the King's trial and was a signatory of the death warrant.

In 1650, Lilburne served with Cromwell during his invasion of Scotland. He fought at the battle of Dunbar and was left in command at Edinburgh when Cromwell marched against General Leslie at Stirling. The following year, Lilburne played an important role in the campaign that culminated in the battle of Worcester when he defeated Royalist forces raised by the Earl of Derby at Wigan in Lancashire on 25 August 1651. Lilburne's victory ended Charles II's hopes of military support from northern England.

Lilburne returned to Scotland in November 1651 as part of Major-General Richard Deane's army of occupation. When Deane left to take up his naval appointment in December 1652, Lilburne took over command of the army in Scotland. He had to deal with the early stages of Glencairn's Uprising, but Lilburne's authority was compromised because he was not promoted from the rank of colonel. The government in London was preoccupied with war against the Dutch, so Lilburne's requests for money and troops were largely ignored. Although he succeeded in containing the uprising, Lilburne was happy to hand over command in Scotland to General George Monck early in 1654.

Lilburne was appointed governor of York in 1654 and elected MP for County Durham in the First Protectorate Parliament. He became a close political associate of John Lambert and deputised for him as military governor of Yorkshire and the north during the Rule of the Major-Generals. Lilburne was tolerant of sectarians and encouraged Baptist and Quaker congregations in his region. He may have been a convert to Quakerism himself. He was elected MP for the East Riding of Yorkshire in the Second Protectorate Parliament, but opposed the offer of the Crown to Oliver Cromwell in 1657. Although Cromwell declined the offer, Lilburne's faith in the Protectorate was shaken. He supported the restoration of the Rump Parliament in April 1659, which led to the downfall of Richard Cromwell's Protectorate. Lilburne supported Lambert throughout the political turmoil of 1659 and was appointed to the Army's Committee of Safety after Lambert forcibly dissolved Parliament in October. But Lambert was unable to prevail against Monck. In January 1660, Lilburne surrendered York to Lord Fairfax, who handed it over to Monck and urged him to restore the Monarchy.

After the Restoration, Lilburne was excluded from the Act of Indemnity. He surrendered and was brought to trial as a regicide in October 1660. He pleaded for mercy, confessing his sense of guilt and claiming that he had acted under orders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound, where he remained until his death in August 1665.


Barry Coward, Robert Lilburne, Oxford DNB, 2004

Christopher Durston, Cromwell's Major-Generals (Manchester 2001)

C.H. Firth, The Regimental History of Cromwell's Army vol.ii (Oxford 1940)