Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time

Photo by Engraver George Glover | CC BY 2.0

In Love’s free state all powers so levelled be
That them affection governs more than awe.

— William Davenant

In 1638, John Lilburne was put on secret trial by the Star Chamber of Charles I. His crime? The writing and distribution of seditious pamphlets that skewered the legitimacy of the monarchy and challenged the primacy of the high prelates of the Church of England. He was promptly convicted of publishing writing of “dangerous consequence and evil effect.”

For these intolerable opinions, the royal tribunal sentenced him to be publicly flogged through the streets of London, from Fleet Prison, built on the tidal flats where Fleet Ditch spilled out London’s sewage, to the Palace Yard at Westminster, then a kind of public showground for weekly spectacles of humiliation and torture. By one account, Lilburne was whipped by the King’s executioner more than 500 hundred times, “causing his shoulders to swell almost as big as a penny loafe with the bruses of the knotted Cords.”

The bloodied writer was then shackled to a pillory, where, to the amazement of the crowd of onlookers, he launched into an impassioned oration in defense of his friend Dr. John Bastick, the puritan physician and preacher. Only weeks before, Bastick’s ears had been slashed off by the King’s men as punishment for publishing an attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury, an essay that Lilburne had happily distributed far and wide. Lilburne gushered…

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