Levellers Day Thoughts on Freeborn John

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On the 17th May 1649 a little known event took place at an obscure little church at Burford in Oxfordshire which was to mark a major turning point in the history of English Radical Politics. The event, which in many ways was to change the course of the so called ‘Great Rebellion’ of the 1640s by Parliament against the King, involved the execution of three soldiers in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’: Cornet Thompson, Private Perkins and Corporal Church, in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist, Burford, on the orders of Cromwell himself.

A dedicated page on St. John the Baptist Burford’s website describes the Levellers as ‘a group of radical thinkers, whose views challenged Parliament’s control during the English Civil War. They wanted equality for all, a level society and are considered by some to be the first socialists.’ Elsewhere, in a short, but by no means insignificant, book by the journalist and writer Peta Steel, published in May 2015 by the South East Regional branch of the TUC, they are referred to as ‘the first political grouping to actually represent the ordinary people and not the vested interests of the wealthy and the aristocracy.’

The fact that history is largely taught at academic institutions, which, in recent decades, have come to represent those self same vested interests, means that in many ways the Levellers have gradually drifted into greater and greater obscurity over the years. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the one individual around whom the small cadre of thinkers and intellectuals who inspired the Leveller Movement were to gravitate, John Lilburne, is almost forgotten within the borders of his own home county; the former Prince Bishopric of Durham.

Although the Leveller Movement has been the subject of a by no means unimportant doctorate thesis penned by one former student of Durham University, the man who is generally accepted as the Movement’s founder, John Lilburne, is neither widely discussed within local schools or communities within County Durham, nor is there a commemorative statue dedicated to him anywhere in the Bishopric. This in itself seems at odds with County Durham’s reputation as a hotbed of political radicalism and left leaning ideas. Indeed, when the Newcastle based publication ‘The Chronicle‘ posted a list of ‘North East streets named after socialist leaders, radicals and reformers’ on its website, there wasn’t a single reference to John Lilburne anywhere to be found.

Born in Sunderland and educated at Newcastle and Bishop Auckland, John Lilburne represents the lost legacy of true County Durham Radicalism more than any other figure before or since. Whilst contemporary Durham Radicals draw their inspiration from Marx, Lenin and a whole host of other, mainly Socialist, thinkers, Lilburne’s influence is almost entirely overlooked.

Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn to office as Leader of the Opposition in September 2015, however, and the new Labour leader’s statement in an interview that the historical figure he most admired was none other than John Lilburne, the initiation of a £7,200 Heritage Lottery Fund project in the North East saw the Canny Craic Theatre Company, Sunderland Museum and Bede’s World joining forces in a landmark collaboration using Lilburne’s story as its main focus. With Corbyn’s fortunes considerably more improved since his initial election to the Leadership in 2015, and his links with such local organizations as the Durham Miners’ Association as strong as ever, perhaps we shall see a well deserved revival of interest in the man and his ideas in the coming months and years.

Picture Credit: John Lilburne: Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Licence

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