Lilborne, John (Freeborn John) (1614–1657)

2012-07-24 13:26:24

John Lilborne (also Lilburne, Lilbourne) secured the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to be confronted with one’s accusers, and the right to be informed of the accusation in the English courts. Lilborne was born in Sunderland, in Northern England, in either 1614 or 1615. He was the third child and second son of a prominent Puritan family. He was apprenticed to a London tailor at the age of sixteen. In 1637, under the reign of Charles I, he became involved in Puritan politics. He met John Bastwick and arranged to print Bastwick’s tract, the Letany, in Holland and to smuggle copies to England. He was caught and was brought before the Court of the Star Chamber at age twenty-three on the charge of distributing seditious and libelous books. Star Chamber officers and later the Archbishop of Canterbury himself demanded that Lilborne take the oath ex officio mero, by which he would swear to answer truthfully the Court’s inquiries. When asked to take the oath, Lilborne replied,

Lilborne: ‘‘To what?’’

The Court: ‘‘That you shall make true answer to all things that are asked of you.’’

Lilborne: ‘‘Must I so, sir? But before I swear, I will know to what I must swear.’’

The Court: ‘‘As soon as you have sworn, you shall [know], but not before.’’

Lilborne refused to take the oath and refused to answer the Court’s questions. He argued that as a ‘‘freeborn Englishman,’’ he had the right to know the accusation against him. He asserted that the Court’s attempt to prove his guilt through his answers rather than permitting him to confront his accusers violated his rights as an Englishman, Magna Carta, the ‘‘goode olde’’ laws of England, and the Holy Bible.

The Star Chamber Court found him in contempt. Lilborne was sentenced to the pillory and to be whipped through the streets of London between the Fleet Prison and the pillory. Two weeks after his Sentencing, Lilborne was tied to a cart, stripped to the waist, and began his journey. The route was crowded with spectators and his sympathizers. Lilborne used this opportunity to declare himself a martyr and to speak out against the injustice of scourging a man for remaining silent. He excoriated the High Church and the Catholic Church from the pillory until a jailer shoved a rag into his mouth and silenced him. From that day he was known as ‘‘Freeborn John.’’

During his imprisonment, Lilborne, now a hero, wrote numerous pamphlets describing his ordeal and arguing on behalf of the right of conscience and against the abuses of the Star Chamber. Two and a half years later, Lilborne was released by the Long Parliament after Oliver Cromwell’s speech on his behalf. Parliament abolished the Star Chamber and High Commission (Ecclesiastical) courts.

After the execution of King Charles I, radical Presbyterians won control of Parliament and attempted to establish Presbyterianism as the state church. Suffering criticism from what had become a free press, the House of Commons enacted a licensing law that restricted publication. Lilborne then became a leading defender of the freedom to publish. He published both legal and illegal tracts critical of the Presbyterian Church, the House of Commons, and his old protector, Oliver Cromwell. For his efforts, he was charged with treason and three times put on trial for his life.

During his confinements, petitions flowed to the House of Commons demanding his release. Lilborne again refused to answer questions put to him by a committee of the House and even refused to enter a plea at his trial, asserting that to compel him to answer guilty or not guilty would violate his right of conscience.

Although Lilborne was acquitted, Cromwell ordered him imprisoned in the Tower of London without the privilege of habeas corpus. Lilborne was later transported to prison on the Isle of Jersey, where he died in 1657.

Lilborne’s life was remarkable. He inspired those who followed him to assert the privilege against selfincrimination in the common law courts. After 1640, the House of Commons abolished the oath ex officio. English judges respected the accuseds’ assertions that they should not be compelled to incriminate themselves, that they should be advised of the accusations against them, and that they should be confronted by their accusers. All three rights became established in English common law. Lilborne is remarkable, too, because he maintained a principled stance against infringements of liberties, attacking those in power, whether Catholic or Protestant, who would abuse them.


References and Further Reading

  • Gibb, M. A. John Lilborne, The Leveller. London: Lindsay Drummond, Ltd., 1947.
  • Gregg, Pauline. Free-born John. London: George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1961.
  • Levy, Leonard W. Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against Self-incrimination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

See also Confrontation Clause; Puritans; Rights of the Accused