English Radicals and Reformers

The scope of English law and liberties founded on Magna Carta was pushed beyond the letter of the Charter by a number of radicals and reformers during the politically tumultuous seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A Puritan polemicist like William Prynne (1600-69), in The Soveraigne Power of Parliaments (1643), could give expression to Parliamentary sovereignty over a king, just as great poet and MP John Milton offered in Areopagitica (1644) a far-sighted vision of free speech, necessary for full and reasoned debate in a commonwealth. Both deeply controversial views later became basic English law.

One of the most interesting figures of the period was John Lilburne (1614-57). Like Prynne, his sometime adversary, Lilburne was dragged before Star Chamber in 1637 for printing libelous and seditious books. Lilburne was often in court, and in jail, but remained an indefatigable defender of his own causes and what he considered common (or "freeborn") English rights. At several trials he refused to take the oath or give evidence against himself, and demanded to hear accusations against him. He likewise defended freedom of conscience and at least inspired the Leveller pamphlet, An Agreement of the People (1647). Lilburne's early stand on defendants' rights would be referenced in several 20th-century Supreme Court opinions.

In a later generation, nonconformist and radical John Wilkes (1725-97) defended rights of election and free speech to a broad constituency. Starting as an incendiary journalist, Wilkes led a mercurial and opportunistic political career that saw him expelled from the Commons, exiled from England and imprisoned. Early in his career he resisted broad arrest warrants and defended Parliamentary privilege. Later he supported the publication of direct reports of Parliamentary debates, partly on grounds that constituents could not be represented without knowing what MPs discussed. The controversy over Parliamentary printing is treated in the volume Magna Carta, Opposed to Assumed Privilege (1771). Wilkes's stances resonated with many, not least in the American colonies, which saw in Wilkes a symbolic ally in the fight for liberty.