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Churchill on the King

Churchill, who received a state funeral on this date in 1965, writes about Charles I, who was executed on this day in 1649 -

The King, basing himself upon the law and Constitution he had strained and exploited in his years of prosperity, confronted his enemies with an unbreakable defence. He eyed his judges, as Morley says, "with unaffected scorn". He refused to acknowledge the tribunal. To him it was a monstrous illegality. John Bradshaw, the president of the court, could make no logical dint upon this. Cromwell and the Army could however cut off the King's head, and this at all costs they meant to do. The overwhelming sympathy of the great concourse gathered in Westminster Hall was with the King. When, on the afternoon of the final sitting, after being refused leave to speak, he was conducted from the Hall it was amid a low, intense murmur of 'God save the King'.

We note the King's and Churchill's belief in the Constitution.

The King died bravely on the scaffold. It was a cold day and he wore two shirts so the crowd would not see him shiver and think him afraid. A poignant detail - he was allowed to walk his dog in the park before his execution.

Lilburne also believed in the Constitution. He had been interrogated by the King's men and whipped through the streets of London and imprisoned by them, and he had fought the King in the Civil War, but he rose to the King's defence and to his right to due process under the law.

Neither the King nor Lilburne fared well - Lilburne spent years in prison defying a despotic Parliament. But his witness to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion would become the basis for many of the rights and freedoms established in Britain. And according to US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who often quoted him, his courage would help to establish the rights and freedoms in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

If you are interested in knowing more about Lilburne -

When he was in his 20s, John Lilburne watched as a friend who was a religious dissenter had his ears publicly cropped – sliced off. Are you afraid, John? his friend asked. Lilburne was, but not for long. In 1638 he began distributing books censored by the government. Betrayed by an informer, he was brought before the Star Chamber.

The Star Chamber and flogging

What went on inside the Court of the Star Chamber was not pretty. Here the powerful interrogated political and religious opponents in secret without jury or appeal. Lilburne's interrogators demanded that he confess. Lilburne refused. He told them he had a right to be silent in the face of his accusers.

The government had him tied to the rear of an ox cart and flogged 200 times with a three-thonged whip while dragged two miles across London. Sore, very sore, and forced to sit in pillory, Lilburne addressed the watching crowd until he was gagged and thrown back into prison. But this would not be the last that his accusers heard from Lilburne.

Love and battles

His imprisonment toughened him. His faith sustained him. Friends and supporters brought him food – prisons of the time did not provide food to prisoners – and they smuggled out his pamphlets. One of those who came to visit was Elizabeth. They fell in love, and married.

When Lilburne was released he joined Parliament’s struggle with the king. In 1642, in the Civil War, he served bravely. On 12 November he defended Brentford with distinction, was captured, and sent to royalist headquarters in Oxford to be tried, and presumably executed, for treason.

But this would not be the last that the Royalists heard from the Lilburnes. Pregnant, Elizabeth travelled to the battlefield with a message she had managed to wring from Parliament – lex talionis - we will treat your prisoners exactly as you treat ours. Lilburne was released.

Opposing an increasingly dictatorial Parliament

In 1645 Lilburne published pamphlets critical of an increasingly authoritarian and religiously dogmatic Parliament. Elizabeth helped him to distribute them. Parliament threw him into Newgate.

Elizabeth joined him, and gave birth to their daughter in prison. Released, she circulated his books and escaped arrest. Lilburne meanwhile was repeatedly hauled into Westminster where he challenged Parliament’s legal right to try him or to investigate his political opinions. He demanded his right to presumption of innocence and to a jury trial under common law. To Parliament he defiantly declared -
blockquote class ="highlight">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 of England.

Parliament scorned Magna Carta, and threw back him into jail. But this would not be the last that Parliament would hear from the Lilburnes.

Inalienable rights

Writing torrents of prose and managing with Elizabeth’s help to get it printed and distributed, Lilburne went further - he advocated due process under common law, representative government - with lawyers forbidden to serve as representatives - and a constitution that defined a government with limited powers and a people with inalienable rights.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Lilburne inspired the Levellers to agitate for voting rights for all men and for freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Cromwell and Parliament’s newest grandees betrayed and crushed the Levellers. Charles I was imprisoned. From prison Lilburne wrote declaring that the king had a right to due process under the law.

Desperately poor, with ill babies to care for – two babies died of smallpox - Elizabeth felt they had done enough. Anyone who has children will understand. Released from prison, John made another appeal to the British people to resist the military junta and the puppet Parliament. The people did not resist and did not rise, not then. Parliament charged Lilburne with treason. But this would not be the last that Parliament would hear from Lilburne and the British people.

The British people defend Lilburne

It was expected that Lilburne, like the king, would call his tribunal a monstrous illegality in contravention of the Constitution. Instead Lilburne successfully persuaded the jury that they were judges of law as well as fact. In a packed court, with huge crowds waiting outside, the jury pronounced him innocent. London celebrated with bonfires.

But Lilburne was thrust back in the Tower. He spent the next years in prison or in exile. He was in poor health when he was released to visit his family. Days later, in 1657, he died. He was 47. But this would not be the last that we would hear from John Lilburne.

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