The 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta has attracted plenty of attention this year, and it has made clear that its value lies in a living tradition. By a neat coincidence this year also marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Lilburne, a key figure in that tradition, whose political life spanned the English Civil War and Interregnum. (By another coincidence his grave may soon be found in the Bedlam burial grounds, also uncovered this year.)
Lilburne is best known as a Leveller, but there is far more to say about his remarkable life. First arrested in 1637 on suspicion of importing banned books he was, over the next twenty years, subjected to brutal physical punishment, harsh prison conditions and lonely exile, but managed to fit in active military service in the civil war, fighting bravely at a number of the key battles and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In trouble initially with the government of Charles I he was eventually at odds with every government under which he lived: on trial for his life three times, he was twice acquitted by juries. He died in 1657, in his early forties, having spent most of his adult life in prison or exile.
In the course of this remarkable life he won crucial legal victories, consistently citing Magna Carta in defence not only of his own rights but those of all free born Englishmen: the right to remain silent (he has been cited in the US supreme court), the right to hearing before one’s equals and that juries were judges of law as well as of fact. Most remarkably of all, he was closely associated with the Leveller campaign for a written constitution, an Agreement of the People, which would have enshrined the principle that the power of the state rested on the will of the people.
As his biography suggests he was both well-known to his contemporaries and excluded from power. But although he failed to see his ideas implemented in his own day, his example became central to the image of the free-born Englishman of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The remarkable courage and strength of character which underpinned this career made him an unreliable friend: he was more committed to his principles than to any of his friends or allies. Towards the end of his life a number of epitaphs and anagrams circulated all saying essentially same thing—bury John in one place and Lilburne in another, for if they ever meet in the afterlife they will argue for eternity. For his opponents he was the archetypal figure capable of starting an argument in an empty room. In fact, at the time of his final trial, in 1653, this test of character was literally a matter of life and death: central to that trial was the battle to persuade the jury that he was either a champion of legal freedoms or simply a pain in the neck, a turbulent spirit who posed a threat to political stability.
That cussedness, however, underpinned victories from which we have all, eventually, benefitted. Michael Foot thought he should have a national monument, and Geoffrey Bindman, the eminent human rights lawyer, described him as his ‘legal hero’. He stands half way between us and the signing of Magna Carta in more ways than one, and it is surely fitting that his life should be remembered at a major conference in London this weekend.
Michael Braddick is Professor of History at the University of Sheffield. He is author of God’s Fury, England’s Fire: a new history of the English Civil Wars, (Penguin, 2008)
Image from Wikicommons.