This slender political tract The Tryal of Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburn links indelibly two of the most commanding figures in English radicalism, both of whom won key legal victories against the executive and so helped to establish greater freedom to publish and propagandise.
The Leveller John Lilburne, ‘Freeborn John’, was the most renowned of the radicals to emerge from the English Civil War. In 1649, a few months after the execution of Charles I, Lilburne was acquitted of high treason – a celebrated judgement, though by then Cromwell had largely succeeded in neutralising the challenge from Levellers and other radicals in his army.
A lawyer and Parliamentarian Clement Walker who used the pseudonym Theodorus Varax (he died in 1651 while a prisoner in the Tower of London) published an account of the trial. The frontispiece includes a representation of a medal struck to pay tribute to the jury who acquitted Lilburne, bearing his likeness and the legend:
John Lilborne saved by the power of the Lord and the integrity of the jury who are juge of law as wel as fact
The tract was as much a trumpeting of Lilburne’s great victory as a record of the proceedings.
Thirty-five years or so ago, I came across a 1710 edition of this landmark radical publication at auction. What caught my attention was the inscription in ink: ‘Presented with the silver medal / to Mr Wilkes / June 10. 1763’. No other potential buyer appears to have noticed it – the pamphlet was knocked down to me for £10.
John Wilkes in the summer of 1763 was being lionised for escaping charges of seditious libel arising out of an article in his journal the North Briton. In the new issue of History Workshop Journal, Edward Vallance in an article entitled ‘Reborn John? The Eighteenth-Century Afterlife of John Lilburne’ (the article is available here) examines the way in which Lilburne’s reputation was honoured and reinvented by successive generations of radicals.
‘Lilburne’s name’ – states Vallance – ‘came to be firmly connected to the cause of the freedom of the press when John Wilkes was accused of libelling George III in issue forty-five [of the North Briton] … The comparison was so keenly felt that in June 1763 Wilkes was even presented with a copy of Lilburne’s 1649 trial and the medallion commemorating it.’
Where that silver medal now is, I don’t know, but – as a footnote in Vallance’s article records – the book I bought at auction so cheaply all those years ago is the very copy of Lilburne’s Tryal that was presented with such fanfare to John Wilkes.
Not many objects can have such a remarkable radical pedigree.