Freedom Fighter

‘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.

20 thoughts on “Freedom Fighter”

  1. Thank you for all you’re teaching us about the Levellers, claire. Fascinating stuff. I did say that Cromwell had given warts a bad name, but I didn’t realise how duplicitous he really was.

  2. Thank you Boa and Sheona. Most of this has come from reading bits and pieces from poetry anthologies of the era, such as the Norton Anthologies.

  3. A terrible way to make a revolution!

    What good is fighting from inside a jail? Words might have their power but bullets and swords speak more for the freedom of men than any combination of letters.

    “It is only when the blood of free men is spilled in the defense of slaves that the wicked shall fear the oppression they bring unto others” …… Donald (famous revolutionary)

    No wonder Britain still has no democracy 😦

  4. Excellent post, Claire.

    I agree it is interesting and informative to look at perspectives of contemporary poets, as long as one is aware of a certain bias, and indeed some of them are political propaganda.

    Sheona. Cromwell was really not all bad. In my opinion, his original aim was not to abolish the monarchy, merely limit the powers of a particularly disastrous example thereof!

  5. Araminta, that “particularly disastrous example” of the monarchy was a Stewart, of Scottish origin! I am not in favour of the English beheading Scots under any circumstances.
    Btw, I thought the Alec Guinness portrayal of Charles I was excellent. He made him sympathetic and rather sad; a king so imbued with the Divine Right he could not see where he had gone wrong.

  6. Yes, I’m not in favour of beheading monarchs either, Sheona, even those of Scottish origin, but then neither was Cromwell.

    As a fervent Royalist, I do find Charles to be a bit of a disappointment though, and the Divine Right concept did get in the way of democracy somewhat!

  7. Thank you Ara and Bearsy. I like the sense of vividness and immediacy that you get from poetry and extracts of prose like this one. This was propaganda, of course, which was a tool for all sides during the civil war. According to the same anthology, and to Antonia Fraser in ‘The Weaker Vessel’ Lilburne’s wife, Elizabeth, appeared to see her husband in a somewhat different light.

  8. Well, Araminta, if Cromwell was not in favour of beheading Charles I, he didn’t oughter have done it! He was treated as a regicide on the restoration of the monarchy. His body was exhumed and hung at Tyburn in its shroud, along with others.

  9. There is that Sheona, certainly, but historians have subsequently dealt with the poor chap a little more favourably than his contemporaries. He was forced into it.

    And Zen likes him. 🙂

    Rather more seriously though, if I have the time, I’ll try to write a post on the subject of Mr Cromwell. Don’t hold me to it though, I’ve tried before to write about the Civil War, and failed miserably. I find it very difficult to condense it into anything concise.

  10. Please make the effort Araminta!

    I’m still struggling to condense my piece into a manageable form. I really could do with someone who knows what they’re talking about to pick up the thread of limiting the powers of a particularly disastrous example of Kingship!

  11. It’s not WordPress limitations, Bearsy, it’s mine! It’s time and I am not in the right frame of mind at the moment, not to mention small details like Probate; a very lengthy and time consuming occupation.

    But I’ll see what I can do.

  12. Getting everything straight after a death and getting probate sorted out is very time consuming. You have my sympathies.

  13. Thanks, Nym.

    Talking of which, I better say goodnight to you all, I need to be up early tomorrow, to try to further the process.

  14. Ara; I would be very interested in a post on Cromwell.
    He has gone down in history as a hero, or a murderer, a dictator and a perpetrator of regicide, depending on what you believe.
    He said this:’I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.’
    He wrote, directly, to the mothers of parliamentarian soldiers who had died fighting for his cause.
    Antonia Fraser, in her book, Our Chief of Men, asserts that while life was not exactly a barrel of laughs under the puritan, God fearing government, things were generally easier for the average man on the street than under Charles 1..or something to that effect.
    Cromwell rose to prominence later in the civil war, due to his military and strategic prowess. Before that, Thomas Fairfax played a much more prominent role.
    I generalise a lot; contradict me if I am wrong. 🙂

  15. Hello Claire.

    I’ve made a start on Cromwell, and it is not easy! I wouldn’t dream of contradicting you, but I do have some views which may not agree with yours, but you are welcome to put forward your opinion.

    Bearsy, I’m not a fan of Antonia Fraser either, but then I haven’t read her biography of Cromwell 😦

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