‘I know they have an army at command, but if every hair on the head of that officer or soldier they have at their command were a legion of men, I would fear them no more than so many straws, for the Lord Jehovah is my rock and defence, under the assured shelter of whose wings and I am safe and secure, and therefore will sing and be merry; and do hereby sound an eternal trumpet of defiance to all the men and devils in earth and hell…’
From The Tower of London, April 3, 1649.
Thus wrote John Lilburne, of the Levellers. His radical group had fought for the parliamentarians against the king; he had suffered for issuing propaganda against the bishops. Now he wanted free elections, freedom of speech; the political, legal and social rights for which, as he saw it, the whole civil war had been fought.
But with Charles I having just been executed, Cromwell was having none of it. He intended to keep the power within his own tightly knit circle of army officers and trusted allies from the House of Commons. Cromwell was trying to usher in his own brand of governmental authority, moving further away from their democratic principles, and closer than ever to a tight, personal dictatorship.
Lilburne and the Levellers were outraged. They published a vehement pamphlet, entitled England’s New Chains Discovered, which denounced the betrayal of revolution. This angered Cromwell further, and he had Lilburne arrested, along with three other leading Levellers.
This was manna from heaven for Lilburne. He was a fearless, melodramatic man, with a strong sense of national pride. He saw, instantly, that the very tribunal before which he was being forced to appear was a farce; it was itself a matter to be put on trial. So Lilburne rose to the occasion magnificently, by transforming it into a public opportunity for deriding and lecturing his judges unmercifully:
‘I have been a contestor and sufferer for the liberties of England these twelve years together, and I should now look upon myself as the basest fellow in the world if now in one moment I should undo all that I have been doing all this while.. if I should answer to you questions against myself. For in the first place, by answering this question against myself, I should betray the liberties of England in acknowledging you to have a legal jurisdiction over me to try and judge me; which I have already proved to your faces you have not in the least.’
Put simply, Lilburne refused to accept Cromwell’s kangaroo court, and protested outright that he would not plead before its dubious authority. He was jailed for his refusal to compromise.
Lilburne was undeterred, and produced a long and passionate pamphlet – entitled The Picture of the Council of State – which represented his own eloquent arguments – as well as his first-hand account of the the narrow and constrained logic of his persecutors:
‘So after we were all come out, I laid my ear to their door, and heard Lieutenant Cromwell very loud, thumping his fist upon the Council table till it rang again, and heard him speak in these very words … ‘Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea, and bring all the guilty of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work that with so many years’ industry and toil, and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of silly, low spirited men as they are; and therefore, sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.’
Lilburne was, like Bunyan, gripped by a moral and spiritual crusade, The blunt, cast iron conviction of his prose is astonishingly hard hitting, and all the more so for being unfettered by the artifice of more conventional writers of his era such as John Milton. Thus he dismissed Cromwell’s self-proclaimed authority with scathing contempt:
‘‘Sir, by the law of England, let me tell you, what the House votes, orders and enacts within their walls is nothing to me, I am not at all bound by them…although twenty members come out of the House and tell me such things are done, till they be published and declared by sound of trumpet, proclamation, or the like, by a public officer or magistrate, in the public and open offices of the nation…And therefore, sir, I know not what more to make of you than a company of private men, being neither able to own you as a court of justice, because the law speaks nothing of you; nor as a council of state.’
Lilburne scorned the popular nickname ‘Leveller’ , calling himself an ‘agitator’. He was flogged, incarcerated and persecuted by all sides for his staunch beliefs and his stubborn refusal to compromise. Yet it was perhaps during the darkness of his clashes with Cromwell that his revolutionary flame burned brightest.