John Lilburne shows defiance to the tyrants who would force him to pay tythes to the Church (1648)

John Lilburne

Found in Tracts on Liberty by the Levellers and their Critics Vol. 5 (1648)

The Leveller soldier and pamphleteer John Lilburne (1615-1657) was imprisoned many times for his beliefs during the 1630s and onwards. In this pamphlet “A Defiance to Tyrants” (Jan. 1648) he says he has an obligation to refuse to obey unjust laws, such as compulsory payments to the Church:

ALL Magistracy in England, is bounded by the known and declared Law of England and while they Act according to Law, I am bound to obey them, but when they leave the rules thereof, and walk by the arbitrary rules of their owne wills, they do not act as Magistrates, but as Tyrants, and cannot in such actings challenge any obedience, neither am I bound to yeeld it, but am tied in conscience and duty to my selfe and my native Countrey therein to resist and withstand them, and if their Officers goe about by force and violence to Compell mee to obey and stoop unto their arbitrary and illegall command; I may, and ought, (if I will be true to my native and legall freedomes) by force to withstand him or them, in the same manner that I may withstand a man that comes to rob my house, or as I may withstand a man, that upon the high way by force and violence would take my purse or life from me.

In his typical confrontational style Lilburne tells his oppressors what he will do, namely deliberately break the law, why he will do it, because he thinks they are the ones breaking the laws of England not him, and that he plans to encourage even more people to do the same. This is a major reason why he was imprisoned so many times during the English Civil Wars and Revolution. In addition to the refreshing vigor of his legal reasoning, what makes this pamphlet especially interesting is that much of it is written as a kind of “Handbook for Prisoners of Conscience” where he tells other would-be “defiers of the law” how to conduct themselves when they are being arrested, what to say to the police, what to expect when they are brought before a judge in a court of law, and how to continue their defiance while in prison. His final words of advice are how to quote the exact words of the great jurist Sir Thomas Coke when “they” come for you with a warrant of arrest: “if they will imprison your person, go not but by force, & be sure to stand upon the legality of the warrant, which that you may fully and truly understand the forme of it; I shall give you at large the words of Sr. Edward Coke in the 2 part of his institutes fol. 590, 591, 592…” Note also the cheeky place and date of publication at the bottom of the title page: “London, Printed for the information of all men, that are not willing to be Priest ridden and to be slaves to Tyrannie and oppression, Jan. 1648.”