Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter III
Early Years of Charles I’s Reign. John Lilburne’s Youth and First Persecutions

A DETAILED description of the great English Revolution, its immediate causes, and the vicissitudes through which it passed, does not come within the purview of this book. No movement, however, can be understood unless it be studied in relation to contemporary events. It is therefore essential to relate briefly such of the events as bear a close relation to the subject of this work. Moreover, as the Leveller movement was the fount of the extreme tendencies which manifested themselves during the Revolution, and as this movement clustered around the personality of John Lilburne, a biographical sketch of this remarkable man is clearly indicated as our first task, the more so as up to a certain period the chief phases of the Revolution are reflected in Lilburne’s personal activities and fate.

John Lilburne was born at Greenwich in 1615 or 1617, his father being Richard Lilburne, an English gentleman, a member of that important class of non-feudal landowners which already set the tone of the House of Commons. It is said of him that he was the last to decide a trial in England by wager of battle, and John may have inherited his pugnacity from his father. The family seat of the Lilburnes was in Durham, in which place and in Newcastle John spent his youth. Being a younger son [1], John was obliged to earn a livelihood after leaving school, and in 1630 he came to London as apprentice to a great City merchant, the linendraper, Thomas Hewson.

The situation was already becoming critical. Charles was involved in a quarrel not only with the commons, but also with the majority of the Lords. Even then the preponderating power rested with the Lower House, which represented a much greater aggregate of wealth than the House of Peers. According to Hume, the wealth then represented in the House of Commons was more than three times the volume represented in the House of Peers. The House of Lords then consisted of 97 lords temporal and 26 lords spiritual, while 90 county members, 4 university members, and over 400 members for towns and boroughs constituted the House of Commons. There are grounds for believing that the Puritans at that date were stronger than the High Tories, the moderate Churchmen, and the Roman Catholics put together.

In 1628, after two years of unconstitutional levying of taxes, imprisonment of persons refusing to pay them, and molestation of the King’s opponents by billeting soldiers on them, Charles, whose foreign enterprises had come to grief, was obliged to summon Parliament. This Parliament compelled the King, who was in urgent need of money, to assent to the famous Petition of Right. The terms of this Petition were that no freeman should be compelled to pay any gifts, loans, benevolences, or taxes whatever that were not imposed by consent of Parliament; that no freeman could be arrested or kept in prison against the law; that soldiers and sailors were not to be billeted in private houses under compulsion; and that no more despotic tribunals were to be appointed. Not until he had signed the Petition of Right would Parliament vote Charles the money for the Spanish war that was still dragging on, whereupon Parliament was prorogued. Charles, however, interpreted the signature that had been extorted from him in quite another light than that in which Parliament had regarded it. He again proceeded to levy taxes that Parliament had not voted and to imprison those who refused to pay them. He had attracted the support of the able and strenuous Wentworth, up till then one of the leaders of the opposition, whilst Laud, an equally energetic priest, had his ear upon all ecclesiastical questions. Laud was known as a High Churchman, well disposed to the Catholics, and favouring the Catholic ritual. In Puritan circles his appointment was regarded as a fresh challenge, and when Parliament met again in 1629 the quarrel with the King was resumed. Numerous complaints gave voice to the dissatisfaction with the King’s government, and open resistance was offered to the King’s wish that the House should adjourn, the Speaker, who was intimidated by the King, being compelled to listen to the members’ complaints. The King thereupon dissolved Parliament and arrested its nine leading members as rebels by way of example. Despite their appeal to their privileges as members of Parliament, the employment of devious legal expedients secured their condemnation by the judges of the Court of King’s Bench to imprisonment until they submitted and paid a heavy fine. The heaviest penalty was inflicted on the ringleader, Sir John Eliot, who was thrown into the Tower. Declining to give even a formal submission, he died in 1632 from the effects of harsh treatment.

The dissolution of this, Charles’ third, Parliament was followed by eleven years of absolute rule. Laud, Wentworth, and other renegades formed the King’s Ministry, Buckingham having fallen under the knife of the fanatic Felton. Illegal taxes were levied, illegal monopolies farmed, illegal persecutions meted out, and illegal confiscations decreed. Wentworth went first to York, intending, as President of the Northern Council, to make a clean sweep – he signed his letters “Thorough” – of the Puritans of the Northern Counties, who were assuming a threatening attitude. But all his measures of repression only just averted an armed rising. For the time being the Puritans of the North, as elsewhere, confined themselves to legal resistance. They collected funds to send travelling preachers into the poorer districts, the City of London being a large contributor to such funds. Although Laud had the money so collected confiscated, there does not appear to have been any waning in the propaganda. The illegal imposts drove multitudes into the camp of the religious and political opposition. And other fiscal measures of the Government, justifiable enough in themselves, but regarded as unjust because of their illegal origin, had the same effect. This was particularly the case with ship money, a tax levied to defray the alleged expenses of protecting the coasts. At first Charles levied this tax on the maritime counties only, but later, in 1635, contrary to all precedent, he levied it on the inland counties. Servile judges pronounced the act legal, because the King could do no wrong, and John Hampden, who refused to pay ship money, was condemned and fined. The majority of people did not go as far as Hampden, but offered, in their own way, passive resistance, and the collection of ship money was attended with so many difficulties that the expenses quite swallowed up the proceeds.

Intense feeling was aroused when Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus Primate of the State Church, in 1633. Laud’s policy was to assimilate the ritual of the State Church more and more to that of Rome. It must be remembered that the Thirty Years War was then raging in Germany, and a Papist reaction in England would have been fatal to the Protestant cause throughout Europe. It was therefore to be expected that Laud’s measures would meet with strenuous resistance. Although no Press in the modern sense of the word existed, the first regular newspapers, weekly news-sheets, appeared in 1640, so that the feelings of the Opposition found expression in pamphlets, for the most part printed in Holland. In Holland the Calvinists were in control, and Holland now became the land of freedom for their English co-believers.

Such was the general situation when John Lilburne entered upon his apprenticeship. His master was a Puritan of some renown. Even in Newcastle Lilburne had frequented the society of “men of light and leading”, as he expressed it in one of his pamphlets. During his first years in London he read religious and historical books in his spare time, and while yet an apprentice took part in religious and political agitation. The apprentices of those days played no small part in the public life of London. History records a number of political demonstrations by apprentices of formidable aspect. On the other hand, the journeymen or labourers took no particular part in politics. The apprentices of the worshipful guilds, being the sons of gentlemen, were not unskilled in the use of arms.

When about twenty years of age, and while still an apprentice, Lilburne attracted the attention of the authorities owing to his activity in distributing prohibited literature that had been smuggled into the country from Holland, whither he was obliged to flee in order to avoid arrest. In “free” Holland he was not idle, but in December 1637 he returned to England, thinking that he had been forgotten in the meantime. No sooner had he arrived than he was lured into a trap through the treachery of a servant, probably suborned by one of his friends, the hot-presser J. Wharton, himself already in prison. According to Lilburne’s own statement, the informer was in custody for the distribution of prohibited writings, and was induced to play the part of spy by the promise of his own liberty.

Lilburne’s conduct in this his first trial is typical of the way in which he fought all his cases. He was the ideal of a fearless fighter for right. He was charged with having caused to be printed in the Dutch towns of Rotterdam and Delft various “scandalous” pamphlets and having them smuggled into England. After several weeks of imprisonment, Lilburne was brought before the Star Chamber, when he disputed the accuracy of the statements relating to the various acts of which he was accused and refused point-blank all further information, contending that he was not called upon to be his own accuser. He was sent back to prison. Ten or twelve days later he was required to undergo a fresh examination before the Court of the Star Chamber, but he was unshaken in his resolution not to be deflected by a hair’s-breadth from his legal position. He was emphatic in refusing to comply with the formalities which would have implied an admission of the legality of the proceedings of the Star Chamber. Neither by persuasion nor by threats could he be induced to take the prescribed oath, which would have laid on him the obligation to be his own accuser. He returned to prison, and five weeks later, on February 9, 1638, he was brought to the bar of the high and mighty Court itself, but with the same result. Neither the threats of the Earl of Dorset nor the jeers of Archbishop Laud caused him to recede an inch from his fundamental position. For three days he was kept in strict custody for contempt. On February 12th he was condemned, together with Wharton, who also refused to make any statement, to pay a fine of £500 and to be imprisoned in the Fleet until he submitted to the jurisdiction of the Court. It was further ordered, “to the end that others may be the more deterred from daring to attempt in the like manner”, that Lilburne should be publicly whipped and, in company with the aged Wharton, placed in the pillory. On April 18th this punishment was inflicted upon both of them with the utmost severity. All the way from the Fleet Bridge – now Ludgate Circus – to Westminster the three-thonged whip fell hissing on the bare back of Lilburne. When his journey’s end was reached he was nearly in a swoon. Nevertheless, asked if he was prepared to confess the error of his ways and avoid, at least, the pillory – always attended with some physical torment – he had but one answer to make. He was not afraid for the good cause he represented to suffer this additional torment. The opening for his head being too low, he was obliged to stand in the pillory with bent back; but there was no failure in courage, and he threw among the crowd three copies of the incriminated “libels”, whose author, Dr. Bastwick, had in 1639, in company with the lawyer Prynne and the clergyman Burton, suffered still crueller punishment. He explained to the people the illegality of the procedure adopted towards him, and denounced the cruelty of the bishops in such eloquent terms that the officers in attendance found it necessary to gag him. So for a further hour and a half he stood silent, his back on fire, his bare head exposed to the scorching rays of a noon sun. But when his time was up his first words were, “I am more than conqueror through Him that hath loved me.” As punishment for these defiant words, the Star Chamber decreed that he should be rigidly confined, chained hand and foot, in the part of the prison allocated “to the lowest and worst criminals”, and none of his friends was allowed to supply him with money. All this was literally carried out. Even the surgeon was only allowed to visit him once, and many complaints and bribes were needed before he was permitted, at his own cost, to replace the tight iron fetters on his hands and feet by looser gyves. In his cell, dirty and foul-smelling beyond measure, he suffered for a long time such agonies that again and again he thought himself at death’s door. At last he wavered so far as to make an appeal to the Privy Council for somewhat better treatment. But when it was explained that this appeal could only be transmitted if he declared his readiness to submit, he at once withdrew it. So long as it was not proved to him that he was wrong, he answered, on no account would he give way, although he would much rather have gone to hang at Tyburn or burn at Smithfield than suffer the tortures of the prison.

But he had to bear them for more than another two years. His imprisonment would have lasted even longer but for the political revolution in the winter of 1640-41 that brought liberation at last to him and many of his companions in suffering.

It should here be mentioned that the harsh treatment of the religious sectarians caused the emigration of many weavers from Norfolk, Suffolk, and Yorkshire. Some of them went to the Netherlands, where they were received with open arms, just as one hundred years earlier England had welcomed the fugitives from Holland, who might have been the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the very men and women now turning their backs on England. Nevertheless, enough were left behind to maintain the old traditions.



1. His elder brother, Robert Lilburne, held a high position in the Parliamentary Army and afterwards in the Commonwealth. He was a member of the Extraordinary High Court of Justice that sentenced Charles to death. A younger brother of John, Henry Lilburne, also served in the Parliamentary Army, and, on Cromwell’s recommendation, was made Governor of Tynemouth Castle; but when the breach between Parliament and the Army came to a head, he wavered in his allegiance to the Army, and was preparing to surrender the castle to the Scotch Presbyterians hastening to the assistance of Charles, when his own soldiers killed him during the fight.


Last updated on 21.11.2002