Three radicals, two anniversaries… and one Great Charter

By Dr Rachel Foxley

This year I’ve been involved in events marking two anniversaries, four hundred years apart: the birth of the radical pamphleteer John Lilburne in 1615, and the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. My home turf as a historian is the seventeenth century, and in particular the radical political undercurrents of the English Civil War and Cromwellian era. But although these two events might seem distant from each other – and although I would never pretend to be any kind of authority on medieval England – the Magna Carta anniversary has been on my mind. That’s because Magna Carta itself underwent a kind of rebirth in the seventeenth century, and Lilburne and the radicals of the civil war gave it a key place in their pamphlets.

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John Lilburne was an irrepressibly turbulent man: his enemies accused him of being an enemy to the government in power, whatever it might be (a critic of Charles I’s monarchy, Lilburne was a fervent parliamentarian in the civil war but denounced the republic which followed). Even a one-time ally was said to have joked that ‘if the World was emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John, and John with Lilburne.’ Lilburne became one of the leaders of the Leveller movement, which pushed for a radical settlement following the end of the civil war. They demanded freedom of conscience in religion; in politics they argued for government by annually-elected ‘Representatives’, with no king of House of Lords to veto legislation. The lawmakers would be responsible to the people themselves, their electors, who were the real sovereign power.

The Levellers were, on the face of it, proposing something which was radically new. Even to us, it sounds remarkably modern. So why did they look back 400 years to Magna Carta? Well, not all of them did, at least initially. William Walwyn, who was to be another key leader of the Leveller movement, objected vehemently to Lilburne’s reliance on Magna Carta: it was only called the ‘Great Charter’ ‘deceitfully and improperlie… to blind the people’; in fact the charter was a minimal concession made by England’s Norman conquerors, and, as another pamphlet stated, was ‘but a beggerly thing, containing many marks of intollerable bondage’.

In spite of this, though, Lilburne and the third great Leveller leader and pamphleteer, Richard Overton, continued to invoke Magna Carta. Overton described how, after being dragged through the streets of London ‘as if I had been a dead dog’ and committed to Newgate prison, he physically fought his gaoler to try to keep his copy of Magna Carta on him:

I clapped it in my Armes, and I laid myself on my belly, but by force, they violently turned me upon my back then Briscoe (just as if he had been staving off a Dog from the Beara) smote me with his fist, to make me let go my hold, whereupon as loud as I could, I cryed out, murther, murther, murther…

A contemporary engraving of John Lilburne shows him pleading his case with the same book in his hands which Overton laboured so hard to defend: the second volume of Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England, which gave pride of place to a text and commentary on Magna Carta.

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The Magna Carta of 1225, in the National Archives

Why were Lilburne and Overton so devoted to Magna Carta? Coke reproduced the reissued Charter of 1225, not the 1215 original, so the most radical aspect of the original charter was not in the copy the Levellers consulted: the ‘security clause’ allowing a group of barons to enforce the Charter’s provisions against the king was omitted in 1225. Instead, the Levellers referred constantly to the clauses of the Charter which are most famous today: those which said no free man could be punished in his person or property except by ‘the lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land’, and that justice should not be sold, denied, or delayed to anyone. At the most cynical level, we might think that Lilburne and Overton constantly invoked these clauses precisely because they were constantly thrown in prison on the authority of the House of Lords and even the House of Commons, without due process (whereas Walwyn was far more careful in his activities and almost succeeded in avoiding prison completely). But there is more to it than this. Magna Carta became totemic for the Levellers because – as they claimed in one pamphlet – ‘it makes us Free-men’ and represents ‘common liberty’. This effect of Magna Carta might not reside in any one clause of it; it was an impressionistic seventeenth-century interpretation which almost lost contact with the original text altogether. But this invocation of Magna Carta asserted that there was an ‘inheritance’ of liberty which had been recognized in the past in England and should be fought for again. This, in the end, was the constant message of Lilburne’s pamphlets: Englishmen (he emphasized both the ‘English’ and the ‘men’) had rights and privileges, just by virtue of their birth in England; but if they really wanted to live up to Lilburne’s own standard of a ‘free-born Englishman’, they had to fight to make those rights a reality.

Dr Rachel Foxley is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Reading. She is the author of The Levellers: radical political thought in the English Revolution. Politics, culture and society in early modern Britain. Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp304.


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1 Response to Three radicals, two anniversaries… and one Great Charter

  1. Jacqui Turner says:

    What a great take on Magna Carta from Rachel.

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