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12 - John Lilburne and political agency in revolutionary England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2017

Michael J. Braddick
Affiliation:
University of Sheffield
Alexandra Shepard
Affiliation:
Reader in Early Modern History, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow
Amanda J. Flather
Affiliation:
Department of History, University of Essex
Andy Wood
Affiliation:
Professor of Social History at the Department of History, Durham University
Keith Wrightson
Affiliation:
Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History at Yale University
Mark Knights
Affiliation:
Professor of History at the University of Warwick
Steve Hindle
Affiliation:
W.M Keck Foundation Director of Research, The Huntington Library
Phil Withington
Affiliation:
Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield
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Summary

Two themes central to John Walter's work on popular politics have been the analysis of practical measures of organisation, tactics and mobilisation, and of the legitimating languages which could be appropriated and deployed in support of popular action. This chapter considers John Lilburne's public career in order to explore how the possibilities for this kind of action were extended during the Revolution, as John Walter has done in his more recent work. Lilburne himself was not, of course, of the lower orders, and would certainly have resented the suggestion. But he was deeply involved in forms of political mobilisation which did offer opportunities for those normally excluded from political power to exercise political influence. By exploring how Lilburne sought to achieve political agency, and what that might tell us about the English Revolution, this chapter aims to throw light on broader changes in English political culture in the mid seventeenth-century crisis.

Lilburne was undoubtedly a significant public figure and, although he was clearly not a ‘plebeian’, his political role did not derive from conventional sources. One of the Lincolnshire fenlanders who took him on as their advocate in the early 1650s said they had done so because he ‘was a powerful man & having friends would give a sooner end to the business’. He was certainly by then someone with a high profile: he had stood trial for his life in 1649 and would again in 1653, and both trials were interpreted as tests of the legitimacy of the regime, the latter indeed as a trial of strength between him and Cromwell. He did not hold any public office, however, and was not by birth or background a natural member of the national political elite. He was the younger son of a gentleman, apprenticed into the cloth trade and at other stages in his life was able to enter highly capitalised trades, first brewing with the support of his family and then soap-boiling, but he never established for himself a trade or landed estate and never held public office. After his death, his wife was forced to petition for continued payment of a state pension. His political profile was not therefore achieved by the established means – of secure gentry, professional, trade or merchant status, or through public office. Instead, it arose by virtue of his mastery of the techniques of political mobilisation.

Type
Chapter
Information
Popular Culture and Political Agency in Early Modern England and Ireland
Essays in Honour of John Walter
, pp. 223 - 242
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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