John Lilburne – Abolitionist


I’ve been working on my paper for the upcoming John Lilburne conference. The talk is going to tackle the presentation of Lilburne from the late seventeenth century to the present day.

One of the more unexpected contexts in which the Leveller’s name appears is in Somerset’s Case of 1772. Often seen as the legal verdict which outlawed slavery in the British Isles (though more on that below), the case revolved around the re-capture of a slave, James Somerset or Somersett, who had left the service of his master, Charles Steuart, when Steuart, a Boston customs officer, had brought Somerset to England in 1769. In 1771, Somerset had been baptised (often seen – though not by the courts- as symbolising manumission) and when he was seized by his master and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary awaiting transport to Jamaica, three of his godparents made an application for a writ of Habeus Corpus. The captain of the ship was then forced to deliver Somerset to the Court of King’s Bench to determine whether his imprisonment had been lawful (but not, importantly, to determine whether he had been a slave.)

Of the five lawyers arguing on behalf of Somerset, two made reference to a reputed sixteenth-century legal precedent, Cartwright’s case. This case concerned one Cartwright, who in 1569 was arrested for savagely beating another man in the street. Cartwright’s defence was that the man he had attacked was a slave he had brought from Russia and that as such, the corporal ‘chastisement’ he had meted out was lawful. The court, however, disagreed, arguing that ‘England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.’

Significantly, though, there is no original record of this case. Indeed, said Francis Hargrave, the young lawyer who made his reputation in Somerset’s case, the judgment was only credible because it had been invoked in 1640 by the Commons in their impeachment of the Star Chamber judges who had sentenced ‘the famous John Lilburne’ to flogging for libel in 1638.

Hargrave’s source here was the second part of Rushworth’s Collections. In his own commentary, Rushworth had noted the parallels between the brutal treatment of the Russian slave and the similar scouring of Lilburne, even though the latter was ‘a free Citizen of London…descended from an antient family in the North’. Rushworth’s point here was very different from Hargrave’s. For Hargrave, Cartwright’s Case affirmed that ‘the Russian slave’s presence on English soil immediately freed him. The point for Rushworth, on the other hand, was that Lilburne’s treatment by Star Chamber reduced him to the status of a slave:

‘By imprisonment he was made a dead trunk, by whipping a rogue, by pillory a cheat, and by gagging a beast: They had better have hang’d him outright.’

In the eighteenth century, it seems to have been Lilburne’s punishment by Star Chamber in 1638, rather than his activities as a Leveller pamphleteer that were deemed worthy of attention. Indeed, many historical dictionaries from the 1700s only noted the date of his flogging followed by the date of his death. Aside from the potential significance of the case for abolitionists, the treatment of Lilburne as a libeller obviously also had resonances with the treatment of John Wilkes for his reputedly seditious remarks in The North Briton in 1763.

Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of King’s Bench, found in Somerset’s favour but that the case did not end slavery in England is no better demonstrated than by the fact that Mansfield himself made strenuous efforts to assert the freedom of his mulatto niece, Dido Belle, in his will of 1782.

Nonetheless, what the eighteenth-century invocation of Lilburne’s case does demonstrate is that the language of slavery which formed, as Quentin Skinner, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have noted, an important part of Parliamentarian rhetoric in the 1640s later had significant ramifications in both English and Atlantic contexts.

(For a very useful discussion of Somerset’s Case, see this edition of Law and History Review.)


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m really excited by that Rushworth quote: “and by gagging a beast” supports my argument that the scold’s bridle effectively turned women into animals. This is good evidence that it might have been perceived in that way at the time. I still need to investigate whether the scold’s bridle actually existed and was used in the 17th century, but my analysis of the idea of it still stands anyway.

    Interesting that Rushworth didn’t say that whipping made Lilburne a beast, but I’m increasingly thinking that whipping humans and whipping animals were subtly different.

  2. John Donoghue has explored contexts of Lilburne that may be of interest to you, Ted. His dissertation is available online:

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