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The National Archives > Exhibitions > Citizenship
John Lilburne - Leveller leader
On 26 October 1649, amid tumultuous scenes at Westminster, a high-profile political trial ended in chaos. A jury had acquitted John Lilburne, the charismatic leader of the Levellers​, of a charge of high treason against the recently formed English republic​. Within days a commemorative medal had been struck, bearing Lilburne's image and the names of the jury. This dramatic episode and the media frenzy with which it was surrounded encapsulate the romance of the Leveller movement and the potency of the threat which Lilburne was perceived to represent to the political establishment.Leveller mobilisation, 1649
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'Condigne punishment', 1638
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Lilburne and the birth of the Levellers
Born into a gentry family, but apprenticed to a London merchant, Lilburne was a notorious Puritan 'martyr'. In 1638 he was flogged through the streets of London for his work for the underground Puritan press. A courageous Parliamentarian soldier in the Civil War, he came to represent the fragmentation of the coalition that fought against Charles I in the mid 1640s, the emergence of a new style of politics, and the development of radical ideas.
Lilburne tormented Parliamentarian grandees with radical religious tracts, public disdain for authority, defiant performances in court, and a passion for self-publicity. His clandestine printing network became the focus for high-level concern. Moreover, he gave voice to the concerns of soldiers and apprentices, and sought to mobilise a mass movement from within the army and the City of London through political meetings, financial subscriptions and fiery pamphlets scattered in the streets and dispersed among the troops. Through such means, Lilburne threatened to turn a newly politicised populace into a movement independent of the political elite and conscious of its own economic, religious and political interests.Bringing 'these authors of sedition' to justice, 1646
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Leveller ideas and policies
The Levellers' programme was based on a potent set of radical ideas. Lilburne championed religious toleration, campaigned for codification of the law, and fashioned Parliamentarian political thought into a weapon against Parliament itself. Power, the Levellers argued, originated in 'freeborn' people with natural rights, and authority was merely entrusted to their representatives. By its very nature, political power was therefore susceptible to being reclaimed by the people.
Lilburne's radical vision was practical as well as theoretical, and the Levellers outlined a detailed plan for reform in the Agreement of the People, a written constitution to which individuals were supposed to demonstrate their allegiance by appending their signatures. This rejected unelected leaders - including the king and the House of Lords - in favour of regular elections for parliaments of specified length and limited powers, based upon a widened franchise and a redistribution of parliamentary seats.
Stamping out Leveller publications, 1649
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A threat to the English republic
Lilburne became most dangerous, however, through his opposition to the trial of Charles I and the constitutional changes that ensued. Distrustful of Oliver Cromwell and dismissive of the legitimacy of the Rump Parliament​, Lilburne - sensing the betrayal of the people and the creation of a new tyranny - quickly became the regime's most vocal critic. Having inspired the army mutiny at Burford in Oxfordshire in May 1649, he was now regarded as a threat to political and social order. In the end, his libellous attacks upon Cromwell resulted in his trial for high treason, undertaken amid strict security for fear that it would provoke popular unrest.
Although he was acquitted in 1649, Lilburne became a marked man. He was soon exiled to the Continent and then, upon his illegal return in 1653, was subjected to another set-piece trial and further imprisonment. The Levellers, with Lilburne broken in body and spirit, disintegrated as a political force, and Lilburne himself died a Quaker in 1657. However, Leveller ideas would resurface in different forms over the ensuing centuries; and 'Lilburnism', a dramatic new form of political activism, never disappeared.
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