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Monday, October 24, 2016

Freeborn John Bled for Liberty

The US tradition of courage in the defense of free speech draws on the heritage of the 17th-century English. People such as John Lilburne, for example.


John Lilburne (1614-1657), also known as Freeborn John, was an English political Leveller before, during and after the English Civil Wars 1642–1650. He coined the term “freeborn rights”: rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or human law. He is known for having distributed pamphlets not licensed by the government’s monopoly on printing. Writing in Aeon, Timothy Garton Ash relates a remarkable story about this early classical liberal.

“The US tradition of courage in the defense of free speech draws on the heritage of the 17th-century English. People such as John Lilburne, for example. In 1638, while still in his early 20s, Lilburne was found guilty by the Star Chamber court of helping to smuggle into England a tract against bishops that had been printed in the Low Countries. He was tied to the back of a cart on a hot summer’s day and unremittingly whipped as he walked with a bare back all the way from the eastern end of Fleet Street to Westminster Palace Yard. One bystander reckoned that he received some 500 blows that, since the executioner wielded a three-thronged whip, made 1,500 stripes.

Lilburne’s untreated shoulders “swelled almost as big as a penny loafe with the bruses of the knotted Cords,” and he was then made to stand for two hours in the pillory in Palace Yard. Here, in spite of his wounds and the burning sunshine, he began loudly to tell his story and to rail against bishops. The crowd was reportedly delighted. After half an hour, there came ‘a fat lawyer’ – ah, plus ça change – who bid him stop. The man whom the people of London had already dubbed ‘Free-Born John’ refused to shut up. He was then gagged so roughly that blood spurted from his mouth. Undeterred, he thrust his hands into his pockets and scattered dissident pamphlets to the crowd. No other means of expression being left to him, Free-Born John then stamped his feet until the two hours were up.”

Fair use excerpt from an article on Aeon.


  • Timothy Garton Ash is a historian and writer. He is professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is also the director of the Free Speech Debate. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016).