The Resurrection of John Lilburne, Quaker

Hessayon, Ariel. 2017. The Resurrection of John Lilburne, Quaker. In: John Rees, ed. John Lilburne and the Levellers: Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 95-116. ISBN 9781138060692 [Book Section]

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On Saturday, 29 August 1657 John Lilburne, being ‘very sicke and weake in bed’, passed away while on parole at Eltham, Kent. His heavily pregnant wife Elizabeth, perhaps with their three surviving children, was with him during his final moments in a house he had recently rented so that she might be near her friends when she gave birth. A Quaker source lamenting that he had died a prisoner, ‘Beareing a Testimony for Truth’, identified Lilburne’s place of death as the ‘Kings house’. If so, then this was the royal palace at Eltham then in the possession of Colonel Nathaniel Rich, a Parliamentarian army officer who had also purchased the royal parks and keeper’s lodge at Eltham. Lilburne had once railed against Rich, calling him a ‘juggling paltry, base fellow’, although by this time Rich – who had attended a Quaker meeting in Cheapside – had likewise been imprisoned by Cromwell for associating with Fifth Monarchist opponents of the Protectorate.

As in life, so in death, the burial of this ‘busie man’ and ‘factious spirit’ was the cause of controversy. On the morning of Monday, 31 August his body was transported to the Bull and Mouth near Aldersgate. This inn was to be described after the Great Fire as ‘large, and well built’ and since March 1655 it had been used as the Quakers’ principal London meeting place, also serving as the premises for their main publisher Thomas Simmons. According to a contemporary journalist as the day of Lilburne’s funeral progressed so a ‘medley of people’ gathered at the Bull and Mouth, the majority of them Quakers. There was disagreement, however, as to whether the coffin should be covered with a black hearse-cloth that had been brought either by Lilburne’s widow or some of his old Leveller acquaintances. The Quakers refused, insisting that the less pomp attended the proceedings the more opportunity there would be for piety. So about five o’clock in the afternoon Lilburne’s bare coffin was brought out into the street, at which point an unidentified man attempted to cast a velvet pall over it. But to no avail. The crowd of Quakers would not permit it and hoisted the coffin on their shoulders, carrying it away without further ceremony to Moorfields, and from thence to the new churchyard adjoining Bedlam where Lilburne’s body was interred. An unsympathetic contemporary biographer considered the funeral route of this ‘illiterate’ latter-day ‘Proteus’ well-chosen since Lilburne had been partially blinded in one eye by a pike in Moorfields; and as ‘his turbulent life came near to madness, so the place of his burial was near to the distracted crew’. While Quakers eschewed funeral sermons it seems words were spoken as part of the solemn obsequies. The historian John Rushworth later added that there had been 4000 mourners, although there is no way of knowing if this was an accurate estimate. Even so, the event was reported in several contemporary newsbooks and pamphlets, and such was its significance that the Florentine agent in London included a brief account of this ‘factious person who had a taste of all religions’ but ‘in the end died as a Quaker’ in his weekly report.

While one epitaph lamented the demise, ‘after much wrangling’, of ‘this stout champion’, another advised that John and Lilburne be buried separately lest they argue among themselves in the grave. Similar quips that if the world were emptied of all but the Leveller leader then ‘John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John’ were variously attributed to the regicide Henry Marten and the royalist judge David Jenkins. His ‘impetuous’ contentious nature aside, even hostile seventeenth and early eighteenth century commentators were agreed that Lilburne had been a victim of Cromwellian tyranny, illegally tossed from one prison to another. Thus the diarist and numismatist John Evelyn reproduced a medal commemorating the acquittal of that ‘Stout and Couragious Assertor’, who had withstood a famous trial ‘under the late Arbitrary Usurper’. Similarly, the author of The History of King-Killers (1720) conceded that:

He may well be reck’ned at least half a Martyr for his long Imprisonment, Trials, and other Sufferings for the Fanatick Cause in General; and every Party under that Determination may claim a Share in him, he having been first a Puritan, then an Independent, next a Leveller, and lastly a Quaker.

So what are we to make of the last phase of a religious and political struggle that had begun during the personal rule of Charles I with membership of a separatist congregation and imprisonment for importing seditious books, and which ended during the Protectorate of Oliver with conversion to Quakerism and rejection of temporal weapons?

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This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge in 'John Lilburne and the Levellers: Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On' on 2017-09-06, available online:


John Lilburne, Quakers, Levellers

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6 September 2017Published

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30 Nov 2018 11:03

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29 Apr 2020 17:00


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