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Surviving to rise again - uncanny modern parallels


We've written about John Lilburne, but it wasn't until we did some more research that we realized what a partner his wife Elizabeth had been.

The story of John and Elizabeth Lilburne fascinated us because despite being born in the early 17th century they were far ahead of their time – certainly far ahead of MPs in Parliament today. The sacrifices they made to establish and defend a whole range of our freedoms would make most people run. You can see why parents would be reluctant to take the risks they took – yet the Lilburnes defied dangers to give their children the inheritance of freedom.

John Lilburne was young and frightened of what the authorities might do to him when three of his friends who were religious dissenters had their ears cropped. But it was the last time he was frightened. He began printing and distributing books censored by the government and walked right into the maw of the Star Chamber.

Begun in the 15th century to hear cases against the powerful, the Court of the Star Chamber at the Palace of Westminster had become a tool to destroy political and religious opponents in secret without jury or appeal. (Bright gold stars in its ceiling give the chamber its name.) Haberdasher George Collier, lawyer Robert Beale, minister Thomas Cartwright and many other Brits had fought Star Chamber persecutions, and lost.

When he was interrogated, Lilburne declared he had a right to be silent, and refused to answer questions and confess. He was sentenced to a £500 fine, and was whipped over 200 times on the two-mile walk to the pillory. Forced between wooden bars, he continued to protest until he was gagged and returned to prison for the next two years.

His courage and confinement caused a public sensation, and helped to put an end to the Star Chamber. He met Elizabeth, who had been arrested for worshipping with a dissenting congregation, and they fell in love. They married in 1641. They had a few months together before the Civil War began.

Lilburne became a captain and fought for Parliament at Edgehill and Brentford, where he was captured. The Royalists planned to hang him, but Parliament declared lex talionis, the law of retaliation, which would save him if anyone were willing to deliver the message to the royalist camp. Elizabeth, pregnant, was the only one who dared to go. Her message - if prisoners-of-war who had fought for Parliament were hanged, Parliament would hang Royalist prisoners. Lilburne was released.

Lilburne became a lieutenant-colonel, but he showed his real mettle by leaving the Army because he refused to take a religious oath. By 1645 he was writing and publishing pamphlets that attacked an increasingly authoritarian Parliament. He believed that MPs should not act according to their own will and pleasure, but according to the fundamental Constitutions and Customs of the Land. . . for the safety and preservation of the people.

Unchecked by the king and trampling on the law, Parliament attacked him, hauling him in to investigate his political opinions. Lilburne demanded a trial by a jury of his peers, on a specified and known charge brought by known accusers, in a court of common law, and according to the known and declared laws of the land. "I have a right to all the privileges that do belong to a free man. . .and the ground and foundation of my freedom I build upon the Great Charter (Magna Carta) of England." He was imprisoned in Newgate, and was joined there by Elizabeth, who was heavily pregnant. She gave birth to their daughter in prison. When she was released, she began circulating his pamphlets, and was arrested by the House of Commons.

In 1647, soldiers from all parts of the country and walks of life began meeting in inns and bivouacs across Britain. Called Agitators (New Agents) or Levellers they were developing new ideas -

The right to vote in biannual or annual parliamentary elections
Complete religious freedom for individuals with no religious direction from the state
Freedom of association
Uncensored books and newspapers
The right not to bear witness against oneself
The abolition of class privileges
The right of juries to acquit
No taxes for people earning less than £30 per year.
As you see, they were ahead of their time and ours. They presented a petition signed by many thousands to the House of Commons. The House ignored the petition, and moved to suppress them.

The most famous Agitators, John Lilburne and Richard Overton, were jailed. Like Elizabeth, Richard's wife, Mary Overton, distributed her husband's pamphlets. She was dragged through the streets by government agents while holding her six-month-old baby.

In another break with convention, Lilburne believed that women "were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority and majesty" to men. In London women mobilised a mass peace campaign.

In one of the first peace protests in history, hundreds of women crowded into Westminster to present a petition to end the horrors and deprivations of the war. Army troopers commanded by Parliament rode the women down. The women tried to pull the men from their saddles; the soldiers slashed them with their swords.

The Lilburnes were living from hand to mouth. With small children and babies, they had plenty of reason to quit defending freedom, and try to get on with their lives. Let someone else be a hero. But Lilburne continued to write and publish until, in 1649, he was taken to court for treason.

We wonder how John and Elizabeth endured it. They were, he once remarked, steadied by Christ.

Speaking on behalf of every person charged by the government, Lilburne demanded fair play - the right to counsel, time to consult with counsel, the right to subpoena witnesses in his favor, and presumption of innocence. In a legal watershed that prosecutors try to ignore to this day, Lilburne persuaded his jury that they were judges of law as well as fact. In other words, they could find him innocent if they found the law to be illegal. They did, and Londoners celebrated with bonfires. Today the right of jury nullification remains one of the key defences against oppressive government.

Lilburne fought alongside men who took credit for his victories in battle and who betrayed him. He met MPs who sold out principle for a bribe or an office. He found little to choose between a dictatorial king and a despotic parliament, and challenged them both. Historians have called him argumentative and paranoid. In grieving much that is wrong today, many people may doubt he was paranoid.

By 1652, Oliver Cromwell and Parliament had crushed the Agitators. Lilburne spent most of the rest of his life in prison, dying in 1657 at the age of 42. Brave and realistic, Elizabeth struggled to preserve their children. Though the Agitators were levelled, their ideas went underground like seeds, and survived to rise again.