The eighteenth century John Lilburne.

You can listen to a podcast of my talk on the above here. Thanks to the organisers for pulling together such an excellent conference.


Lilburne day 24th Oct

Programme for the above at Birkbeck, University of London (saving the best til last):

24 October 2009



Jason Peacey (UCL):

‘To repair to Westminster: public politics and the trial of John Lilburne’



Phil Baker

Rachel Foxley (Reading):

‘How to criticize John Lilburne’



Jerome de Groot (Manchester) and Jason McElligott (TCD):

‘Lilburne’s legacies’

Ted Vallance (Roehampton):

‘John Lilburne and the historians’

John Lilburne Conference

London Renaissance Seminar
Birkbeck College, University of London
24 October 2009

On 25 October 1649, the charismatic Leveller leader John Lilburne was dramatically acquitted of treason following a high profile trial at London’s Guildhall. The decision was greeted by jubilant crowds and celebratory bonfires, and was quickly commemorated by a medal which explained that Lilburne had been ‘saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury’. In the 360 years since that trial, Lilburne has become one of the seventeenth century’s most well-known characters, and one of few contemporaries who have been capable of taking centre stage in both academic and popular histories of the civil wars. However, Lilburne was a flagrant self-publicist, who did much to mythologize his own story, while since his death ‘Freeborn John’ has been made into a hero for a range of more or less incompatible political causes. For Lilburne, more than for most of his contemporaries, it is vital to try and separate myth from reality, and to explore how his reputation has been made and moulded since the 1640s. This event will contribute to this process by reconsidering Lilburne’s 1649 trial, and by thinking about its importance for enhancing our understanding the life and times of this most controversial character.


Ted Vallance, Phil Baker, Rachel Foxley, Jason Peacey, Jerome de Groot

Details: Jerome de Groot

Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers, the Levellers and the G20

There is an interesting piece by David Horspool in the Times today, seeing resonances between some of the G20 protests, notably the G20 Meltdown on Wednesday 1 April, and the Diggers, whose commune on St. George’s Hill, Surrey was established on the same day 360 years ago.

Of course, some of these protesters had already been very consciously linking their actions back to an earlier tradition of protest – if not quite back to the mid-seventeenth century – see Climate Rush‘s appropriating of suffragette style, slogans and tactics in opposing Heathrow expansion.

Horspool’s argument also involves an artificial division between Leveller ‘democrats’ and Digger ‘communists’ (with a small c.) But even Winstanley’s supposedly neo-Stalinist last political tract The Law of Freedom in a Platform envisaged a democratic state built upon a clear notion of a social contract, while the Levellers were a lot more interested in the defence of individual liberty against tyranny than they were in securing the vote for adult males. Back in the mid-17th century, the Levellers had already recognised that voting rights alone could not reverse political inequalities. For that reason, not only did government have to be clearly founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, by the actual act of subscribing to the Leveller proto-constitutions, the Agreements of the People, but once elected, the power of the new ‘representative’ (Parliament) and the executive had to be hemmed in by a series of ‘reserves’, rights which no power in the land could abrogate.

More interesting is Horspool’s suggestion that the Diggers’ vision was more global than the Levellers. That is largely a consequence of the wedding of the plan for Digger communes with Winstanley’s vision of the new millennium, an event that obviously was not going to be confined just to England. Even so, the Levellers, again, get a bit hard done by. Didn’t Edward Sexby try, albeit with limited success, to sell Leveller ideas (via a French translation of the Agreement of the People, ‘L’Accord du peuple’) to the Frondeurs? And see also Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s excellent treatment of the wider implications of Leveller rhetoric in The Many Headed Hydra.

But certainly, the largely peaceful, carnivalesque nature of the G20 demonstrations this week has clear affinities with many British popular movements that successfully combined sociability with solidarity, like the orderly processions that marched to Peterloo in 1819, indebted to the Lancashire tradition of  ‘rush-bearing’

Even Winstanley is at last getting a party in his honour, with a festival commemorating the Digger settlements to be held in Cobham in September this year.

Digital history: Yay! Boo!

The other day I was looking for P. J. Norrey’s 1988 Bristol Uni thesis on the relationship between central and local government in Restoration Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. Imagine my joy when I found that the BL’s new digital thesis service, Ethos, had a PDF copy that I could download for free. Within minutes, I had the whole thesis on my laptop. No more going blind in dusty microfilm rooms, no more hours spent by the photocopier, now I could read the thesis on the train, in bed, while I ate my dinner even!

And now the downside. I was looking at Norrey’s thesis for some discussion of the dispute that followed the tendering of a loyal address from Lyme Regis giving thanks to Charles II for his declaration in the wake of the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament. Prior to looking at Norrey’s thesis, I had thought about doing a research trip/busman’s holiday to Lyme to look at the quarter sessions records which discuss the case.

But not only does Norrey talk about John Wildman‘s attempted revival of the principle of popular election at the June 1679 election in Marlborough, an incident relatively little commented on by the ex-Leveller’s biographers, he also gives chapter and verse on the dispute over the Lyme address. So no ice-creams for me after a hard day in archives.

Ah well, swings and roundabouts eh?

Rethinking Democracy in the English Revolution – the podcast

A recording of my talk to Lancaster Student History Society here (opens as wma file.)

Thanks to the history society for the invite to talk and for their excellent hospitality.

‘”the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he” : What did Thomas Rainborough mean? Re-thinking democracy in the English Revolution.

…is the name of the talk that I am giving to the Lancaster University History Society next Thurs (19th) at 6.30pm.  A preview of pt. 2 of the book. Podcast – technology permitting – to follow.

1649: the nearly revolution

I did promise much regicide related posted here a few weeks back. However, actual work and other things rather got in the way.

The other day, though, I revisited the BL’s Taking Liberties exhibition, this time with a group of my special subject students. They seemed to enjoy it and looking round it for the second time, I noticed things I’d missed during my first, quick, reconnoiter.

One of those things is Egerton. MS 1048 f. 91-92. This is an MS copy of the so-called ‘Officers’ Agreement’, the form of the Agreement of the People presented to the Rump Parliament by the Council of Officers in January 1649.

The Officers’ Agreement is often dismissed as a mere sop to radical opinion within the army, a document which the officers had no real commitment to and which was allowed to die a quite death at the hands of an uninterested Rump Parliament.

But the Egerton MS in the BL’s most recent exhibition ought to get us to think twice about this. It’s not only that is (as far as I know), as unique manuscript version of documents – the Agreements of the People – which existed predominately as printed artefacts.

The really important bit of this big document is a tiny little scribble in the left hand corner. It says
‘The forme of ye subscription for the Officers of ye Army’.

You can’t see it on this image, unfortunately, but I promise it’s there.

The key word here is ‘subscription’. One of Lilburne’s initial objections to the Officers’ Agreement was that it was tendered to Parliament for approval before being tendered to the people.

There are references, though, in other printed sources, which suggest that the Agreement was already being tendered for public subscription at around the same time as it was being presented Parliament. All of which seems to suggest that recent historians (including Glenn Burgess, David Farr and Clive Holmes) who have argued that some of the officers, Ireton especially, were a good deal more sincere about their commitment to this form of the Agreement are probably in the right.

In fact, with its detailed discussion of the distribution of seats, the Officers’ Agreement looks much more like a worked out transition mechanism to a new, more democratic representative than the two earlier ‘Leveller’ Agreements.

So why did it fail? Less because a Machiavellian Ireton never wanted it to succeed in the first place, and more because the political situation in England and the British Isles was so turbulent and fast moving that the project simply had to be abandon in favour of something much less ambitious. That would turn into the Engagement of Loyalty to the Commonwealth, a bare promise of obedience to the de facto power of the new republic, all that could be wrung out of a political nation broadly unsympathetic to the projects and ideals of radical Levellers.

(More of this in the new book and in my chapter in the forthcoming collection on the Agreements edited by Phil Baker and Eliot Vernon.)

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

Putney Debates as a word cloud

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Officers’ Agreement in Word Cloud form

Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 2:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,