Imprisoned in print: John Lilburne and the (in)visibility of incarceration

NPG D10576; John Lilburne by George Glover
John Lilburne by George Glover, from The Christian mans triall (1641). © National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D10576 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

On 11 June 1646, John Lilburne was imprisoned by the House of Lords following an altercation over a libel he’d printed against the Earl of Manchester. Although this marked the beginning of a period of recurrent imprisonment for Lilburne, it wasn’t the first time he’d ended up in prison. In 1637, he had been incarcerated for his involvement in clashes between the puritan martyrs (Burton, Bastwick and Prynne) and Archbishop William Laud. By the time of his release in November 1640, Lilburne had become something of a political celebrity, and he soon after published The Christian mans triall (1641), an account of his conflict with the Laudian authorities. It was accompanied by a dashing print portrait by George Glover intended to celebrate Lilburne’s triumph over his opponents. As the verse caption to the portrait put it:

Gaze not vpon this shaddow that is vaine.
But rather raise thy thoughts a higher straine.
To GOD (I meane) who set this young-man free.
And in like straits can eke deliuer thee.

Lilburne’s portrait, then, affirmed his newfound freedom, granted by God. Yet, somewhat ironically, the portrait intended to celebrate his freedom soon became the basis for one of the most iconic depictions of incarceration in seventeenth-century England.

By the time of his incarceration in 1646, Lilburne was developing in earnest his conception of the rights and liberties guaranteed to “free-born” Englishmen, a rhetoric that made for a stark contrast with his imprisonment. Lilburne and his allies were clearly alive to this connection, and jumped at the chance to propagandise. In July 1646, Richard Overton published A remonstrance of many thousand citizens, and other free-born people of England, widely considered one of the earliest salvos of the nascent Leveller movement against parliament. Yet while it addressed wider grievances, this outpouring was explicitly ‘occasioned through the illegall and barbarous imprisonment of that famous and worthy sufferer for his countries freedoms, Lievtenant Col. John Lilburne’.

John Lilburne by George Glover, from A remonstrance of many thousand citizens (1646). © The Trustees of the British Museum, BM #1879,0712.353 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Drawing attention to Lilburne’s ordeals was central to drumming up support, and A remonstrance of many thousand citizens went so far as to depict Lilburne behind bars, “reimprisoned” in a cell superimposed in print. Tellingly, it reused Glover’s 1641 portrait, originally a celebration of Lilburne’s freedom and now updated to hammer home his incarceration. The accompanying caption made clear the message: this was “The Liberty of the Freeborne English-Man, Conferred on him by the house of lords”, a sarcastic claim that parliament was using the very same tricks that Charles I had pulled in the late 1630s and early 1640s and a contrast to the God-given freedom celebrated in The Christian mans triall.

As John Rees has recently pointed out, this is a great early example of savvy use of print by the future Leveller leaders. Indeed, it was an effective juxtaposition of Lilburne’s insistence upon the rights and liberties of “freeborne Englishmen” and his own unfreedom. In this case, the subversive wit of the radicals’ propaganda was underpinned by a simple, yet powerful, visual vocabulary of incarceration.

It is this visibility that is particularly interesting. Imprisonment can be a very conspicuous way of rendering someone invisible, an attempt to remove them from public consciousness or at least control public perceptions of them. The Levellers understood as much, and these prints were an ingenious counter to this.

Chelsea Manning, by Alicia Neal

In a contemporary political world so driven by images, we could do well to ask—inspired by the Levellers—who is being denied visibility and to what end. In the case of Chelsea Manning, this took on a particular potency, as the US Army prohibits photography of its inmates. As a result, even since Manning formally changed genders, the only widely-circulated photos of her are military images and a private selfie, never intended for publication but released during her trial. This control of her image further restricts her ability to publicly transition, a process already incredibly difficult within the confines of a men’s military prison. Attempts to counter this with an officially approved portrait have met with little success in the media, perhaps due to editorial gravitation towards photos over portraiture, although it became a focal point of the successful campaign for Manning’s release. Like Lilburne and his allies, Manning’s supporters attempted to reassert control over depiction of the political prisoner.

Control is also imposed on migrant detention centres, where attempts to counter this are arguably even harder: it’s no coincidence that the few images available from inside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, in a display of cruel irony, typically depict quintessentially “British” events, including the celebrations of the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee. Such jingoism is surely intended for the benefit of an external audience, rather than for the inmates of an institution designed to separate and ultimately remove them from the society celebrated at these events. Given this tightly managed depiction of the facility, attempts to contact and communicate with detained women during recent protests outside Yarl’s Wood are particularly important.

Images permitted and prohibited are revealing of the message authorities and inmates respectively want to convey about imprisonment. What is seen and what images we choose to circulate are important. Depictions of and from incarceration aren’t neutral, and we would do well to question how they arrive with us.

Richard Bell


[Richard Overton], A remonstrance of many thousand citizens, and other free-born people of England, 1646.

John Lilburne, The Christian mans triall, 1641.

David Adams, “The Secret Printing and Publishing Career of Richard Overton the Leveller, 1644–46,” The Library 11/1 (2010), 3-88.

John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, 2016.

Michael Zelenko, “Meet Chelsea Manning’s official portrait artist,” The Verge, 14 October 2014.

Charlie Savage, “Chelsea Manning Describes Bleak Life in a Men’s Prison,” The New York Times, 13 January 2017.

Damien Gayle and Ruth McKee, “Activists surround Yarl’s Wood detention centre with wall of noise,” The Guardian, 10 September 2016.

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