By Ted Vallance
Forrest Gump’s momma famously told him that you could tell a lot about a person from their shoes. Footwear features prominently in two images of the Leveller leader John Lilburne, with both the seventeenth- and the nineteenth-century prints depicting Lilburne wearing striking leather boots. The Sunderland museum also holds a pair of boots once said to have belonged to Lilburne, though these appear to be of a rather plainer design than those that were so lovingly rendered in his 1649 trial portrait.
I included an image of these boots in a ‘guess the seventeenth century-radical’ quiz for my third-year students. Tellingly, it was the only picture that everyone identified correctly. The importance of image and personality to Lilburne’s survival in the public memory has been noted by the historian Mike Braddick. Indeed, Braddick has dubbed Lilburne ‘the celebrity radical’, seeing him as a figure whose political style provided a template for later radical figures such as John Wilkes.
Lilburne is now probably the best-known of all seventeenth-century radicals, featuring in television dramas (Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore) and even inspiring a rock opera (Rev Hammer’s Freeborn John). However, it’s generally accepted that historical and public interest in Lilburne and the Levellers is relatively recent phenomenon, going back no further than the late nineteenth century. Then the Levellers came to be a subject for serious historical investigation through a combination of archival discoveries (the Clarke papers that contained the text of the Putney Debates) and, more importantly, the writings of liberal, socialist and Marxist scholars who saw in the Levellers either their intellectual ancestors or the agents of bourgeois revolution.
Blair Worden, whose Roundhead Reputations (2001) brilliantly traces these historiographical developments, has noted that Lilburne was alone amongst Leveller writers in receiving some public attention in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, according to Worden, these representations of Lilburne largely separated him from the Leveller movement and instead re-imagined him as a proto-‘Patriot’ figure.
Yet, in researching Lilburne’s eighteenth-century reputation, it became clear that both his connections to the Levellers and the details of his biography were better known than had previously been thought. Some of these eighteenth-century representations were surprisingly accurate, based on close-reading of Lilburne’s pamphlets (still the main source for biographical information on him.)
Lilburne’s life story had a tangible impact on eighteenth-century society. In his 1649 trial, Lilburne had successfully convinced the jury that they were ‘judges of law as well as fact’. This radical reinterpretation of the role of the jury was taken up by Charles James Fox in a speech laying the groundwork for the 1792 Libel Act, also known as Fox’s Act. This law, which remains in force today, expanded the role of juries in trials for libel, permitting them to give a ‘general verdict on the whole matter put in issue.’
By this point, Lilburne’s remarks in his 1649 trial had already become a rallying-point for eighteenth-century advocates of the ‘pro-jury’ position, like Lilburne’s biographer Joseph Towers. Much more unexpected for me was discovering the impact that Lilburne had on the eighteenth-century debate over slavery. The verdict in Somerset’s case of 1772 was widely seen as rendering slavery incompatible with English law. The defence lawyer Francis Hargrave employed an obscure sixteenth-century legal precedent, Cartwright’s Case, to argue that slavery had no standing in English common law. His only source for this precedent though was a reference in a seventeenth-century commentary upon the Star Chamber proceedings against John Lilburne in 1637-8. Lilburne’s idea of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ had been dramatically extended in its scope.
Lilburne’s eighteenth-century afterlife suggests that there was a greater affinity between seventeenth and eighteenth-century radicalism than is usually acknowledged. There were, of course, differences but the causes in which Lilburne was invoked (freedom of the press, the importance of the jury system, and individual liberty) were all ones that were central to his own political philosophy. Many historians are understandably wary of the idea of a single, unbroken ‘radical tradition’. But this does not mean we should ignore the intellectual influence of the English revolution upon the eighteenth century or the importance of charismatic figures such as Lilburne to later generations of radicals.
Ted Vallance is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton and has previously taught at the universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. He is the author of “Reborn John?: the Eighteenth-century Afterlife of John Lilburne” in the latest issue of History Workshop Journal (available for free for a limited time), A Radical History of Britain (2009), The Glorious Revolution (2006), and Revolutionary England and the National Covenant (2005).
Since its launch in 1976, History Workshop Journal has become one of the world’s leading historical journals. Through incisive scholarship and imaginative presentation it brings past and present into dialogue, engaging readers inside and outside universities. HWJ publishes a wide variety of essays, reports and reviews, ranging from literary to economic subjects, local history to geopolitical analyses.