Freeborn John and the Levellers
Freeborn John was the populist leader of his time. A man who defied authority in the name of freedom. A folk hero who was paraded, flogged, through the streets of London and slapped into the pillory in Parliament Square.
“Freeborn” John Lilburne was a real person and one of the forces behind the Levellers, a radical political movement in the run-up to the English Civil War.
His belief that all people are born with freeborn rights was a driving force behind moves for political reform. It is argued by some that the theory of freeborn rights was the source of the doctrine of unalienable rights that underpins the American constitution.
John Lilburne was born in 1615 into a landowning family in the Midlands, and arrived in London in 1630 to be apprenticed to a clothier.
Imprisoned for distributing seditious leaflets, he refused to apologise to the courts. The result was the infamous scene witnessed by the young Elizabeth when he was flogged through the streets of London on 18th April 1638. Contemporary records say he flung leaflets to the crowd: the British Library has an original copy of the leaflet most likely thrown, which inspired Elizabeth.
He fought on the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War and was captured at Brentford, shortly before the Battle of Turnham Green. He narrowly escaped being tried for treason, was released in a prisoner exchange, and went back into battle.
Originally a strong supporter of Oliver Cromwell, Lilburne became critical of his regime. The Leveller movement, with which was identified, was implicated in plots to restore the monarchy, and John Lilburne was tried for high treason. He was acquitted to huge popular acclaim.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his public popularity, Lilburne was exiled abroad, and only allowed to return to the UK, with restrictions on his movements, in 1656. The following year, while visiting his wife, a remarkable woman then expecting their tenth child, he died.
John Lilburne’s story is little told, and the Leveller movement is no more. However, there’s a remembrance event in May every year in the picturesque Cotswold town of Burford. Three hundred and forty Levellers were imprisoned in the church there in 1649, and their ringleaders were executed.