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John Lilburne
John Lilburne (1614 – 29 August 1657), also known as Freeborn John, was an English political agitator before, during and after English Civil Wars 1642-1650. He coined the term "freeborn rights", defining them as rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or human law. In his early life he was a Puritan, though towards the end of his life he became a Quaker. His works have been cited in opinions by the United States Supreme Courtmarker.

Early life

John Lilburne was a child of middle level, the exact date of whose birth is unknown; there is some dispute as to whether he was born in 1613 or 1614.He was probably born in Bishop Aucklandmarker in County Durham, England where his uncle Richard Lilburne became one of the first members of Parliament to represent the County of Durham. John's elder brother Robert Lilburne also later became active in the Parliamentary cause, but seems not to have shared John's Leveller beliefs. By his own account Lilburne received the first ten years' of his education in Newcastlemarker, almost certainly at the Royal Free Grammar Schoolmarker.

In the 1630s he was apprenticed to John Hewson who introduced him to the Puritan physician John Bastwick, an active pamphleteer against Episcopacy who was persecuted by Archbishop William Laud.

Unlicensed publishing

In 1638 at age 22, John Lilburne imported into England religious publications from Holland which were not licenced by The Stationers' Company (known after 1937 as the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers). At that time all printing presses were licenced as well as the publications that were produced on those presses.

"Freeborn John"

John Lilburne was arrested upon information by an informer acting for The Stationers' Company and brought before the Court of Star Chamber. Instead of being charged with an offense he was asked how he pleaded. John Lilburne demanded to be presented in English with the charges brought against him (much of the written legal work of the time was in Law French). The Court refused Lilburne's request. The court then threw him in prison and again brought him back to court and demanded a plea. Again, Lilburne demanded to know the charges brought against him.

The authorities then resorted to flogging him with a three-thonged whip on his bare back, as he was dragged by his hands tied to the rear of an ox cart from Fleet Prisonmarker to the pillory at Westminstermarker. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censor, while distributing more unlicenced literature to the crowds. He was then gagged. Finally he was thrown in prison. He was taken back to the court and again imprisoned.

This began the first in a long series of trials that lasted throughout his life for what John Lilburne called his "freeborn rights". As a result of these trials a growing number of supporters began to call him "Freeborn John" and they even struck a medal in his honour to that effect. It is this trial that has been cited by constitutional jurists and scholars in the United States of Americamarker as being one of the historical foundations of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also cited within the 1966 majority opinion of Miranda v. Arizona by the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker. On his release, he married to Elizabeth Dewell (a London merchant's daughter) in September 1641. Lilburne’s agitation continued, the same year he led a group of armed citizens against a group of Royalist officers, forcing them to retreat.

English Civil War

In the First English Civil War he enlisted as a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment of foot in the Parliamentary army commanded by the Earl of Essex and fought at the Battle of Edgehillmarker. He was a member of the Parliament's garrison at Brentfordmarker against Prince Rupert during the Battle of Brentfordmarker that took place on 12 November 1642 as the Royalist advance on London and after trying to escape by jumping in the Thames was taken as a prisoner to Oxfordmarker. As the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists intended to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal (see the Declaration of Lex Talionis), Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer.

He then joined the Eastern Association under the command of Earl of Manchester and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. He became friends with Oliver Cromwell, who was second in command, supporting him in his disputes with Manchester. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Marston Moormarker in 1644. Shortly afterwards he asked permission to attack the Royalist stronghold at Tickhill Castlemarker, because he had heard it was willing to surrender. Manchester refused, dismissing him as a madman. Taking that as a yes, he went and took the Castle without a shot being fired.

In April 1645, Lilburne resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion, namely members of the parliamentary army. Lilburne argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others. This was practically a treaty between Englandmarker and Scotlandmarker for the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, the reformation of religion in England and Ireland "according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches," and the extirpation of popery and prelacy. The Scots, he maintained, were free to believe as they saw fit but not to bind anyone to the same faith if they did not share it.


John Lilburne then began in earnest his campaign of agitation for freeborn rights, the rights that all Englishmen are born with, which are different from privileges bestowed by a monarch or a government. He also advocated extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. His enemies branded him as a Leveller but Lilburne responded that he was a "Leveller so-called." To him it was a pejorative label which he did not like. He called his supporters "Agitators." It was feared that "Levellers" wanted to level property rights, but Lilburne wanted to level human basic rights which he called "freeborn rights"

At the same time that John Lilburne began his campaign, another group led by Gerrard Winstanley styling themselves True Levellers (and became known as Diggers), advocated equality in property as well as political rights.

Putney Debates

Lilburne was imprisoned from July to October 1645 for denouncing Members of Parliament who lived in comfort while the common soldiers fought and died for the Parliament cause. It was while he was incarcerated that he wrote his tract, England's Birthright Justified.

In July 1646, he was imprisoned in the Tower of Londonmarker for denouncing his former commander the Earl of Manchester as a traitor and Royalist sympathiser. It was the campaign to free him from prison which spawned the political party called the Levellers. Lilburne called them "Levellers so-called" because he viewed himself as an agitator for freeborn rights.

The Levellers had a strong following in the New Model Army with whom his work was influential. When the Army held the Putney Debates between 28 October and 11 November 1647, the debate centred upon a pamphlet influenced by the writings of John Lilburne called An Agreement of the People for a firm and present peace upon grounds of common right. The Agreement of the People as presented to the Council of the Army October 1647The events of 1647, where rank and file soldiers organised themselves, under the leadership of the Agitators have been compared to the organisation of Soldiers Soviets during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Written Constitution

Lilburne was instrumental in the writing of two more editions of this famous document. The second was An Agreement of the People of England, and the places therewith incorporated, for a secure and present peace, upon grounds of common right, freedom and safety, was presented to Parliament on 11 September 1648 after amassing signatories including about a third of all Londoners.

Following the defeat of the Royalists and the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lordsmarker, England became a commonwealth in 1649 with the regicide of Charles I. It was while he was in the Tower of London that John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton wrote the third edition of An Agreement of the Free People of England. Tendered as a Peace-Offering to this distressed Nation. They hoped that this document would be signed like a referendum so that it would become a written constitution for the Commonwealth of England. The late United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who often cited the works of John Lilburne in his opinions, wrote in an article for Encyclopædia Britannica that he believed John Lilburne's constitutional work of 1649 was the basis for the basic rights contained in the US Constitution.

After his acquittal by Parliament on the charge of treason in 1649, Lilburne turned to other legal matters involving his extended family. This action resulted in his being arrested yet again. Following the abolition of the monarchy, Cromwell became increasingly powerful. He eventually became Head of State under the Protectorate, with the title Lord Protector. Lilburne was held in prison because Cromwell viewed him as a political threat.

During his trial, tickets were thrown about with the words...


Lilburne 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 took to visiting Quaker congregations in Kent. In the last of his 83 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.

Fictional portrayal

Lilburne was portrayed by Tom Goodman-Hill in the 2008 television drama The Devil's Whore. In this apocryphal work, Lilburne is shown to have died in prison while being visited by his wife, Elizabeth.


  1. Richards, Peter John Lilburne (1615-1657): English Libertarian (Libertarian Heritage No. 25) (2007) ISBN 9781856377485
  2. Alan Myers. John Lilburne (c1614 - 1657), Retrieved 2008-12-10
  3. The Putney Debates
  4. Agreement of the People of England, as presented to Parliament in January 1649
  5. An Agreement of the Free People of England, extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649


  • Free Born John - Biography of John Lilburne, by Gregg, Pauline. Greenwood Press, London. 1960.
  • John Lilburne: Campaigner for Democracy by Nicholas Reed. Lilburne Press 2004 See

  • The World Turned Upside Down - Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill, Penguin,1991.

  • Aristocats, Plebians and Revolutiuon in England 1640- 1660, 1996 by Brian Manning, Pluto Press, 1996.

  • The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution by Christopher Hill, Penguin, 1993.

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