John Lilburne reading from Coke's Institutes at his trial for treason


John Lilburne (1614–57), depicted here at his trial for high treason in 1649, was an outspoken pamphleteer, Civil War officer and Leveller. He was an astute propagandist, who repeatedly represented his personal grievances as illustrative of wider popular discontent. In doing so, Lilburne invoked Magna Carta as a symbol of the fundamental laws of England, which were threatened by tyrannical government and which he sought to defend for the public good. Perceiving that Parliament could act as tyrannically as a king, Lilburne denounced the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, and was accused in turn of committing treason. This frontispiece, published with an account of the trial, shows Lilburne in the dock reading from Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, which he used at his hearing with particular reference to Coke’s commentary on Magna Carta. Having successfully argued his case, Lilburne was acquitted to popular acclaim.

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The Triall of Lieut. Collonell J. Lilburne by an extraordinary ... Commission of Oyear and Terminer, at the Guildhall of London, the 24, 25, 26 of Octob. 1649 ... Unto which is annexed a necessary ... Appendix ... Published by Theodorus Verax [i.e. Clement Walker].
John Lilburne
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