The 17th-century Leveller leader John Lilburne has been lauded as a historical hero by political figures as diverse as the former UKIP MP Douglas Carswell and the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Lilburne now vies with the Digger Gerrard Winstanley for the title of most celebrated Civil War radical: ‘Free-born John’ has been depicted on the small screen (in Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore) and has inspired a rock opera (written by Rev Hammer). These representations of Lilburne have rested largely on the work of the British Marxist historian Christopher Hill, still the greatest populariser of this country’s 17th-century history.
Hill’s influence was clear to see in the last biography of Lilburne, written by Pauline Gregg and first published in 1961. Gregg, a Hill acolyte, produced a biography very much in her mentor’s image: Lilburne in this analysis was a godfather of modern British democratic movements, such as the Chartists, and represented an important ‘link’ in the British radical tradition (though Gregg was careful to state that there was no direct evidence of the transmission of Lilburne’s ideas into Chartist thought).
Since the publication of Gregg’s biography, 17th-century historiography has undergone a revolution. In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘revisionist’ historians took aim at Marxist scholarship such as Hill’s, attacking its methodology (for example, Hill’s overreliance on printed sources) and its arguments, not least the stress placed by Hill in