John Wilkes (1725-97) was a radical politician and newspaper editor, who frequently used Magna Carta to mobilise public opinion. On 23 April 1763, issue 45 of his newspaper, The North Briton, criticised King George III (r. 1760–1820) and his newly appointed ministry for making too generous a peace with France. Wilkes was immediately arrested under a general warrant, which permitted the detention of unnamed persons suspected of seditious libel. He would eventually flee to France in order to escape prosecution (1763–68).
This Appendix to issue 45 of The North Briton was published after Wilkes returned from exile in 1768. Despite being arrested and jailed in the King’s Bench Prison, Wilkes sought re-election to Parliament (1768–69), and he used The North Briton to promote himself as a defender of ancient English liberties. The Appendix supplied a detailed account of his prosecution, and began by repeating in full the famous clause from Magna Carta stating that ‘No freeman may be apprehended or imprisoned …’, which was quoted in Latin in the main body of the text and translated into English in a footnote. From his prison cell, Wilkes was re-elected as a Member of Parliament for Middlesex and Alderman of London, despite opposition from the government. His use of Magna Carta was a masterstroke, and throughout this period the rallying cry of ‘Wilkes and liberty’ was repeatedly heard on the streets of London.
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