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John Lilburne rails against his unjust imprisonment (1646)

The English Leveller John Lilburne (1615-1657) denounces the government for his false imprisonment, his jailers for their corrupt practices, and demands his rights as an Englishmen under Common Law to face a jury of his peers, otherwise … :

… these extorting, barbarous and murthering Gaolors, and all other ministers of State, who make their rise and fortunes, by the mines and spoylings of the people, and as they tread in the steppes of their predecessours (and rather exceed them in iniquity) so small they run into the same destruction, for as the overflowing of water doe at length make the river loose its proper channell, so those that seeke to extend their power beyond their bounds, have ever hitherto lost not only their powers by them usurped, but often even that also which by right belonged unto them …

LIBERTY Vindicated against SLAVERY. SHEWING, THAT IMPRISONMENT FOR DEBT, REFUSING TO answer Interrogatories, long imprisonment, though for just causes. ABUSE OF PRISONS, AND cruell Extortion of Prison-keepers, are all destructive to the fundamentall Laws and⚓✪ common Freedomes of the people. Published for the use of all the Freeborne of England, whom it equally concernes, by occasion of the House of Lords commitment of Lieut. Col. John Lilburn, close prisoner, first to New-gate, and next to the Tower. By a lover of his Country, and sufferer for the Common Liberty.

SIR Edward Cook in his Proeme to his second part of Institutes or Exposition upon Magna Charta, sheweth, … that these Liberties and Franchises were not of Grace and donation, but of Right and Inheritance… The highest and most binding Laws, are the several Statutes established by Parliament, yet by authority of that highest Court, It is inacted (only to shew their tender care of Magna charta, or rather, The English-mans liberty) that if any Statute be made contrary to the great Charter. (that is, against our just liberty) the same shall be holden for null (or nothing) by which words all former Statutes made against the Great charter were Repealed, as appeareth by 42. of Edw.3 chap. 1. And the Nobles and great Officers were to sweare (and did so) to the due observation of Magna charta, Magna suit quondam magna Reverentia charta, In such high and great esteeme was Magna charta, The charter of the Peoples liberty: neither Prerogative not any other Priviledge, was, or could be pleaded or holden out against Magna charta, (nor justly to this day, and at this time, if true Justice could once get its place and right, before Arbitrary Power) according to that ancient maxime of the Common Law….

these extorting, barbarous and murthering Gaolors, and all other ministers of State, who make their rise and fortunes, by the mines and spoylings of the people, and as they tread in the steppes of their predecessours (and rather exceed them in iniquity) so small they run into the same [3-184] destruction, for as the overflowing of water doe at length make the river loose its proper channell, so those that seeke to extend their power be yond their bounds, have ever hitherto lost not only their powers by them usurped, but often even that also which by right belonged unto them …

Besides it is to be considered, that all Statutes and lawes are Null and void, which are or do any wayes tend to the infringing of the peoples rights and liberties, being repugnant and contrary to Magna charta, so often confirmed, though seldome or never observed or kept, the neglect whereof, and the suffering of the violators thereof to passe unpunished, have been the causes of great troubles to the Kingdome, in these and former times, and without their follow some speedy amendment thereof, and punishment to the breakers and abusers of this great Charter of liberty; nothing can be expected but confusion and unavoidable ruine upon this Kingdome, being by the sword already so much wasted, and by these and the like grievious oppressions, made to be a People in meere Bondage and slavery; most worthy therefore of consideration. …

But alas how miserable is the present inslaved condition of this Nation, where the gaolors (being thus supported) rore like Lyons, devoure like Tygers, ravine like Wolves, and like Beares crush the Prisoner under their feet; and yet poore men they dare not exhibit theire complaints, if exhibited, yet thou both they and their complaints extreamly slighted, the Gaoler thereby Imboldened to persist in his cruelty, and thus by seeking remedy, their miserable sufferings are augmented, and their wives and children thereby exposed to all the misery that tyrany can invent, we looked for prosperity and justice, but behould misery and oppression, for liberty, but behould thraldom, vayled by faire promises, although never people have done more for the recovery of their liberties then wee have done, nor never were there any people that have been (by so many Oathes, protestations, covenants, and declarations) fairlyer promised and more assured of the fruition and Injoyment of the benefit of our good Lawes then we have been for almost five yeares past, yea though the Law of England be a Law of mercy, yet [3-187] is it now turned into a shadow,

About this Quotation:

John Lilburne was imprisoned repeatedly for violating the censorship laws, advocating heretical religious views, and opposing the suppression of liberty in general. In August 1646 he smuggled out of prison a pamphlet called “Liberty Vindicated against Slavery” in which he denounced his imprisonment, condemned the mistreatment of prisoners by the jailers, and demanded his right as an Englishmen to be formally charged with any crimes he may have committed and to able to defend himself before a group of his peers as guaranteed under Magna Carta. What is notable about his long pamphlet is his deep knowledge of English common law, especially the work of Sir Edward Coke, whom he quotes repeatedly and at length presumably without having access to his own copy in jail, and his conviction that English liberties had been the norm until they had been usurped by a new form of centralising and oppressive monarchy and established Church. The second thing, is his courage in pulling no punches in his criticism of his jailers and the politicians who sent him there, calling them in an extraordinary burst of anti-state rhetoric so many “Lyons, Tygers, Wolves, and Beares”. When he did finally confront them in person in court he argued with them as an equal and often got the better of them, to their considerable embarrassment. And finally, there are the barely concealed threats that if the government does not reform itself soon then freedom loving Englishmen will rise up like a river overflowing its banks and will sweep them aside.

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