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John Lilburne died today in 1657. Which was a shame.

August 29, 2014


John Lilburne died today in 1657. His birthday would perhaps make a better anniversary but we’re not sure when it was. John Lilburne was a “Leveller” – a heroic republican who opposed not only the title of monarchy but its substance, who stood up to Cromwell as well as the Stuarts.  For Lilburne, it wasn’t enough to remove the name of monarchy, it was necessary to keep fighting for popular sovereignty.

He helped to popularise the term “freeborn rights” – and stood up for basic legal, political and religious freedoms throughout his life.  While puritans looked forward to a sort of republic of virtue, a parliament of the orthodox and righteous, the far less dogmatic and generous religion of Lilburne insisted on abolishing religious tests for political participation.

In short, Lilburne’s beliefs were in their own day so strange, so extreme, and so impractical, that just about everything he preached has become regarded as absolutely central to any so-called democratic society.  The idea that humans are born with anything like “inalienable” rights owes perhaps more to Lilburne than anyone else.  The idea that someone is “freeborn” was his and, as such, he became known as “Freeborn John”.  Perhaps inevitably for someone who promoted any ideal of natural or universal freedom, he spent a great deal of time being locked up.  Even the field he was buried in was close to Bedlam asylum, which his (many) enemies felt was somehow appropriate.

So look up John Lilburne today and ponder yet again why any nation state would spend millions promoting tedious and demotivational royalist history (the celebration of dynastic longevity), when they could be celebrating people like Lilburne.

Incidentally, the Civil War dress-up society, The Sealed Knot have given him a regiment.  He didn’t have a regiment named after him in life, but he has one now.  Nice touch.


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