John Lilburne

John Lilburne

John Lilburne (1614–29 August 1657), also known as Freeborn John, was an agitator in England before, during and after the English Civil Wars of 1642–1650. 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 Court.

Early life

John Lilburne was born in Sunderland [] , a child of middle level but still prosperous members of the royal court. The exact date of his birth is not known and there is some dispute as to whether he was born in the year 1613 or 1614. His family had originated in Sunderland, in North-East England where his uncle Richard Lilburne became one of the first members of Parliament to represent the County of Durham. By his own account Lilburne received the first ten years' of his education in Newcastle, almost certainly at the Royal Free Grammar School [] .

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 licensed by The Stationers' Company (known after 1937 as the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers). At that time all printing presses were licensed 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 Latin). 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 Prison to the pillory at Westminster. He was then forced to stoop in the pillory where he still managed to campaign against his censors, while distributing more unlicensed 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 honor to that effect. It is this trial that has been cited by constitutional jurists and scholars in the United States of America 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. Supreme Court.

English Civil War

In the First English Civil War he enlisted as a captain in the Parliamentary army commanded by the Earl of Essex and fought at the Battle of Edgehill. He commanded Parliament's garrison at Brentford against Prince Rupert during the Battle of Brentford that took place on 12 November 1642 as the Royalist advance on London and although he managed to save the artillery, he was taken as a prisoner to Oxford. 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, 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 Moor in 1644. Shortly afterwards he asked permission to attack the Royalist stronghold at Tickhill Castle, 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 England and Scotland 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. 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 became known as True Levellers. They were the people who demanded 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 Parliamentary 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 London 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 Debates1 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"2.

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"2, 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 Lords, England became a republic 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"4. They hoped that this document would be signed like a referendum so that it would become a written constitution for the English Republic. 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 U.S. 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 him being arrested yet again. Following the abolition of the monarchy, Cromwell had moved the republic through various stages until it became more of a dictatorship than a free society. John Lilburne was held in prison because Cromwell viewed Lilburne as a political threat.

During his trial, tickets were thrown about with the words...
"And what, shall then honest John Lilburne die!"
"Three score thousand will know the reason why,"


During this period of solitude John Lilburne became a Quaker and he turned to a form of personal and quiet religion. Due to years of abuse and imprisonment, his health began to fail and he was released by the prison warden so that he could visit his wife. Upon hearing of his release Oliver Cromwell gave orders for his immediate return to prison, but in the meantime John Lilburne had died on 29 August 1657.


*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 Putney Debates]
# [ The Agreement of the People] as presented to the Council of the Army October 1647
# [ Agreement of the People of England] , as presented to Parliament in January 1649
# [ An Agreement of the Free People of England] , extended version from the imprisonment of the Leveller leaders, May 1649
# [ A longer biography of John Lilburne]

Further reading

* [ Rev Hammer's concept album about the life of Freeborn John]
*Foxley Rachel. [;jsessionid=863EB24E32D3609B8B1DB2D2EB04D18B.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=265013#fn1 Joun Lilburne and the citizenship of 'free-born Englishmen'] , [ The Historical Journal] (2004), 47: 849-874 Cambridge University Press

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