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John Lilburne and the Levellers

Updated Sunday 7th January 2001

Inspiring a battle over land rather than religion: John Lilburne and The Levellers

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John Lilburne was a thorn in the Establishment's side - the Arthur Scargill or Tony Benn of his day. He believed in religious freedom and, what we would now call, 'social justice.' And he was willing to fight for it.

He had been jailed many times during Charles' personal rule. In the early years of the war, he became a Roundhead hero because of his bravery in battle. But when Pym signed up to the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scottish Covenanters, Lilburne resigned his commission.

John Lilburne

For Lilburne, the Presbyterian Covenanters were as bad as the Papists. Any attempt to limit religious freedom was both evil and foolish.

Based amidst the taverns and dens of London, Lilburne argued his core belief that since all men were equal before God, so they should be equal before the law. He took as his model the freedom of the gathered church, which men entered into willingly and by general agreement. As the 1640s progressed, he turned his attention from religious liberty to reform of the state.

Lilburne demanded the disestablishment of the Church, legal reform, an end to imprisonment for debt, and an end to press censorship - many of the issues those on the Left argue for today. But above all, and most revolutionary, he demanded the vote. Lilburne was basically arguing for a form of democracy, while Charles still believed in the divine right of Kings. Though his plans excluded women and servants, it was nonetheless an amazing development. This was the real revolution - a revolution of ideas.

Lilburne's belief in democracy and male equality earned him and his followers the derogatory title of Levellers. And for these radical and controversial views, Lilburne was imprisoned seven times between 1645 and 1652.

It is not surprising that Lilburne's views were welcomed by a disgruntled and weary Army. Talk of equality, democracy, and justice was music to the ears of the Agitators and the disaffected rank and file of the New Model Army.

The Levellers seemed to have the answer to their problems; Lilburne's ideas swept through the soldiers' camps like wildfire, in particular, Lilburne's idea that Parliament was just as corrupt as the King. Just as Tony Benn and others now worry over the excessive power of Government, so the Levellers saw the Long Parliament as just as tyrannical and brutal as Charles. In fact, more so. The Army, fuelled by the seeming legitimacy of its military victories, regarded itself as the voice of the people.

But not everyone in the Army was wild about Lilburne. Generals like Cromwell, Fairfax and Ireton saw him as a dangerous troublemaker. He was a maverick, a radical with crazy ideas bent on levelling society. He even wanted to get rid of the King. Cromwell was particularly dismissive of that idea.

'No man could enjoy their lives and estates quietly', he believed, 'without the King had his rights.' They were scared of his revolutionary radicalism. But such was his following within the Army rank and file, 'the Grandees' couldn't simply dismiss him. Instead, they were forced to debate his ideas.

 

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