Freeborn John your vision lingers on..
I don’t know if it’s just me that often researches subject matter of songs – the last Levellers album has resulted in me gathering books about the Raft of the Medusa and the Étaples mutiny to learn more about the inspiration for songs on the album, indeed, 3 Daft Monkeys‘ Days of the Dance too added to my library to learn more about the dancing plague of Strasbourg.
With Freeborn John, my favourite Ferocious Dog song, I didn’t need to read up retrospectively because I’m already a bit of a geek for the subject of it – John Lilburne. If you want an in depth book to read on the subject then I’d recommend ‘Free-Born John – The Biography of John Lilburne’ by Pauline Gregg, and also checking out The John Lilburne Research Institute.
Admittedly this existing geekery was also largely sparked by music anyway – the life of John Lilburne has been encapsulated in a captivating album by Rev Hammer (which he’s performing at Beautiful Days this year), and I’ve always fancied but never confirmed that Lowlands of Holland by Levellers is about his exile from England too – it was first listening to Rev’s album that got me reading more about this man who was so integral to the movement that gave my favourite band their name.
In the FD chords/lyrics book Ken describes the song as being about Oliver Cromwell’s betrayal of Lilburne and the Leveller movement. John Lilburne was a relentless campaigner and activist for the rights of the common man – he was whipped, pilloried, exiled, imprisoned and twice on trial for his life (by Cromwell, who had once petitioned for his release from prison) yet never faltered from his beliefs or relentless pamphleting to spread his ideas.
He fought for the Parliamentarians in the civil war but became disillusioned with the idea of one system of detached power in the form of the monarchy being replaced with another in the form of Cromwell’s parliament. A believer in the right of women to participate in political process, of freedom of conscience and freedom of the press he was most definitely a radical, and rather than an ally soon a considerable thorn in the side of Oliver Cromwell.
Leaving the army he became involved with what history would refer to as the Levellers, and end up imprisoned but hugely popular with the population of London for his taking on of the system. After refusing to kneel before the House of Lords he was sent to the Tower. After release he campaigned against the ‘new tyranny’ of parliament rule and was eventually returned to the Tower and charged with high treason.
A jury found him innocent, and he was duly packed off to the North of England to keep him away from the capital – although he continued to defend others on trial. During one of these episodes he libelled Sir Arthur Hasilrige and was summarily exiled – ending up in Amsterdam and then Bruges, making contact with banished Royalists.
Returning to England without permission within a couple of years he was again arrested and was again acquitted by a jury, but such was his popular support parliament secured him in Jersey to stop him stirring up trouble in London where his popularity was still high. His later return to the mainland two years later saw him a broken man and no longer seen as threat to the establishment – so he was released on parole and died a Quaker in his early forties.
As a general election looms large it brings into stark relief the depressing choices we have and how nearly four hundred years after the heyday of this visionary we are still blighted by this self-serving elite. Sadly Ken is spot on when he observes that whilst Lilburne’s vision may well linger on – alas it is the preserve of history scholars and enlightened musicians rather than that of the lawmakers. It’s a bloody awesome song, though, and but for Dan’s sad violin refrains you might not realise it’s really a sad song.
Great to surf to, though!