29th August 1657

Pioneering human rights advocate John Lilburne dies

John Lilburne was one of the most famous political prisoners of his day. His refusal to testify under oath against his own free will was inspiration for the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, but his refusal to do what the British state insisted saw him imprisoned at Mont Orgueil.

Lilburne believed that humans were born free and inherited their rights by birth, not because the state graciously granted them. Thus, when he was brought before court early in his career for printing unlicensed books and was asked how he pleaded, despite not being allowed to read the charges that had been leveled against him, he refused to enter a plea at all. As a result, he was whipped, fined and imprisoned for several years.

Freeborn John

This was just the first of several stays in prison, but while he may have upset the state Lilburne was winning support from ordinary people who began calling him Freeborn John. His attempt to produce a written constitution for Britain, and his denouncement of MPs for living a life of luxury saw him back in prison and, in 1649, he was charged with high treason when a plot to restore Charles II to the throne was uncovered.

Lilburne was found not guilty at the end of a two-day trial, but the government would still not release him. It was only forced to do so two weeks later when public demands for his freedom could no longer be ignored.

Banished for life

Further quarrels with Parliament saw Lilburne banished for life, with an Act of Parliament specifically being passed to make his banishment law. Lilburne headed to the Netherlands but returned to Britain without permission in summer 1653, was arrested and was tried. He was acquitted – as he had been in his trial for distributing unlicensed books – but, again, the government still refused to release him.

His following on the mainland was by now so strong that it sent him to Jersey and kept at Mont Orgueil Castle, where he was offered his freedom if he agreed to stop causing the government trouble. Naturally, this was not something to which Lilburne could ever agree. Thus, he remained imprisoned, eventually being transferred to Dover, shortly before his death on 29 August 1657.


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