John Lilburne: champion of liberty and born belligerent

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

1 September 2018

9:00 AM

John Lilburne was only 43 when he died in 1657, an early death even for the time. But in many ways it was remarkable that he lived so long. He not only dodged Royalist bullets when fighting for Parliament in the civil war as Lieutenant Colonel Lilburne, but managed to avoid the noose or firing squad on three occasions, each time trusting his own principled legal dexterity (and a slice of luck that he would have seen as the hand of Providence) to cheat his would-be executioners.

This was an age, of course, when men of far more elevated status than this member of the minor gentry from the north east did not manage the same feat. Most famously, Charles I himself was tried, convicted and executed for his crimes, and he had been preceded by some of his most powerful subjects, including his favourite the Earl of Strafford and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.

It is one of the many merits of Michael Braddick’s political biography of Lilburne that he restores a sense of jeopardy to the Pimpernel-like achievements of his subject. As Lilburne is brought before yet another court on trial for his life, whether under the aegis of king, Commonwealth or Protectorate, the reader really is allowed to wonder how he could possibly manage to work his magic this time.

But it would be wrong to imply that Lilburne’s courtroom triumphs led to him getting off scot-free. He is certainly not as well known today as he once was — his posthumous high watermark may have been in the 1960s and 1970s, which would account for Jeremy Corbyn’s fondness for him — but if a mental image of him does linger, it is almost certainly a portrait of a man behind bars. That was how Lilburne was depicted in the frontispiece to one of his many publications, and it reflected reality. As Braddick remarks, in two decades of active political life, Lilburne ‘seems to have spent around 12-and-a-half years in prison or exile’. One of his sons was called Tower, because that was where he was born. Braddick does his best to restore the humanity of John’s wife Elizabeth, whose trials were hardly less severe than his, without the consolation of political martyrdom, or frankly, a very respectful husband.

What got him into so much trouble? Partly, the answer to that question lies in Lilburne’s character. An ally, Henry Marten, was only half joking when he remarked: ‘If there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John.’ Like all argumentative types, Lilburne himself maintained that he didn’t go looking for trouble. But that won’t really wash. Even when he was ostensibly not actively engaged in political agitation, as in some of his business dealings, he managed to embroil himself in controversy. But there is a lot more to Lilburne than the inveterate troublemaker of his enemies’ caricature. During his life of agitation, he stood up against tyranny, as manifested by both crown and parliament, and fought for rights that we still take for granted, including the freedom from arbitrary imprisonment guaranteed by habeas corpus, free speech and (limited) freedom of religion.

Braddick lists nearly 40 separate publications that Lilburne wrote or had a hand in, but for such a promiscuous political author, it is paradoxically not his words but his actions that account for his reputation. As Braddick makes clear, Lilburne’s claims as a champion of liberty depend less on what he wrote than on the principles he established when called before judge and jury to defend himself for having written it.

So while the content of his writings changed and evolved markedly over the two decades he was active, from an assault on episcopacy in the 1630s, through wider questions of church and state separation, and then a contribution to the debate on a new constitution after Parliament’s victory in 1649, the strategies and defences he used when these publications got him into trouble with successive authorities did not. He refused oaths, insisted on open trials, went to extraordinary lengths not to incriminate himself, or be forced to do so, and maintained (to his advantage, as it twice turned out) that juries were judges of law as well as fact.

To those who are familiar with the convoluted historical debates about the Civil War, Lilburne’s reputation is as a ‘Leveller’. Like so many political nicknames, this was initially an insult for those who were accused of shockingly wishing to ‘level’ all social distinctions. There were certainly thinkers along these lines in the 1640s and 1650s, many of them comrades of Lilburne, but he was not truly one of them. Braddick refers us repeatedly both to Lilburne’s rejection of the term and his insistence on his own gentlemanly status: he may have had the seeds of a democrat in his make-up, but there is no discernible hint of socialism.

The book strikes a delicate balance between telling the story of Lilburne’s life, almost all the details of which originate in his many court battles, and putting him in context. Occasionally the blizzard of radical names and involved political, ecclesiastical and commercial disputes becomes confusing. But overall this is a triumph of sympathetic biographical writing, without succumbing to the biographer’s trap of sticking up for everything his subject did or stood for.

Braddick’s final verdict may be less histrionic than Lilburne himself would have liked, but it is eminently judicious, and stirring: ‘We are all in his debt: rather than rebuke him for his failings, we should honour him for his courage.’

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