John Lilburne - Leveller leader
|On 26 October 1649, amid tumultuous
scenes at Westminster, a high-profile political trial ended
in chaos. A jury had acquitted John Lilburne, the charismatic
leader of the Levellers, of a charge of high
treason against the recently formed English republic.
Within days a commemorative medal had been struck, bearing Lilburne's
image and the names of the jury. This dramatic episode and the
media frenzy with which it was surrounded encapsulate the romance
of the Leveller movement and the potency of the threat which
Lilburne was perceived to represent to the political establishment.
Leveller mobilisation, 1649
(254k) | Transcript
'Condigne punishment', 1638
(144k) | Transcript
Lilburne and the birth of the
Born into a gentry family, but apprenticed to a London merchant,
Lilburne was a notorious Puritan
'martyr'. In 1638 he was flogged through the streets of London
for his work for the underground Puritan press. A courageous
soldier in the Civil War, he came to represent the fragmentation
of the coalition that fought against Charles I in the mid
1640s, the emergence of a new style of politics, and the development
of radical ideas.
|Lilburne tormented Parliamentarian
grandees with radical religious tracts, public disdain for authority,
defiant performances in court, and a passion for self-publicity.
His clandestine printing network became the focus for high-level
concern. Moreover, he gave voice to the concerns of soldiers
and apprentices, and sought to mobilise a mass movement from
within the army and the City of London through political meetings,
financial subscriptions and fiery pamphlets scattered in the
streets and dispersed among the troops. Through such means,
Lilburne threatened to turn a newly politicised populace into
a movement independent of the political elite and conscious
of its own economic, religious and political interests.
Bringing 'these authors of sedition'
to justice, 1646
(207k) | Transcript
Leveller ideas and policies
The Levellers' programme was based on a potent set of radical
ideas. Lilburne championed religious toleration, campaigned
for codification of the law, and fashioned Parliamentarian
political thought into a weapon against Parliament itself.
Power, the Levellers argued, originated in 'freeborn' people
with natural rights, and authority was merely entrusted to
their representatives. By its very nature, political power
was therefore susceptible to being reclaimed by the people.
|Lilburne's radical vision was practical
as well as theoretical, and the Levellers outlined a detailed
plan for reform in the Agreement of the People, a written
constitution to which individuals were supposed to demonstrate
their allegiance by appending their signatures. This rejected
unelected leaders - including the king and the House of Lords
- in favour of regular elections for parliaments of specified
length and limited powers, based upon a widened franchise and
a redistribution of parliamentary seats.
Stamping out Leveller publications,
A threat to the English republic
Lilburne became most dangerous, however, through his opposition
to the trial of Charles I and the constitutional changes that
ensued. Distrustful of Oliver Cromwell and dismissive of the
legitimacy of the Rump
Lilburne - sensing the betrayal of the people and the creation
of a new tyranny - quickly became the regime's most vocal
critic. Having inspired the army
mutiny at Burford in Oxfordshire in May 1649, he was now
regarded as a threat to political and social order. In the
end, his libellous attacks upon Cromwell resulted in his trial
for high treason, undertaken amid strict security for fear
that it would provoke popular unrest.
|Although he was acquitted
in 1649, Lilburne became a marked man. He was soon exiled to
the Continent and then, upon his illegal return in 1653, was
subjected to another set-piece trial and further imprisonment.
The Levellers, with Lilburne broken in body and spirit, disintegrated
as a political force, and Lilburne himself died a Quaker in
1657. However, Leveller ideas would resurface in different forms
over the ensuing centuries; and 'Lilburnism', a dramatic new
form of political activism, never disappeared.
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