by Merritt Hughes
|BackgroundOn the very day King Charles was
buried (Feb. 8, 1649), there appeared a book entitled Eikon Basilike: the Portraiture
of His Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings. This book (whose title
translates as "the King's image") was popularly thought to be written by King
Charles himself, though it was probably written by John Gauden, the king's chaplain, with
at most a minimum of help from Charles. Within a year this book went into sixty editions
in England and in Europe. It did what it was designed to do, by provoking an outpouring of
sympathy and popular sentiment in favor of the executed King, who was increasingly thought
of as a martyr and saint. Executing Charles, rather than simply imprisoning him,
eventually proved to be the single most self-destructive thing the new Commonwealth ever
did; by giving Charles martyr status, the Commonwealth government sewed the seeds for the
restoration of Charles II in 1660. Eikon Basilike takes immediate advantage
of the first, and fatal, political mistake of the Commonwealth: it claims to be a private
record of the thoughts and prayers of Charles through the last years, months, weeks, days,
even hours of his life. Charles is pictured as a monument to piety, conscientiousness, and
faith; he is shown as a man who loves his family, a King concerned for the welfare of his
people, and a pious Protestant much given to earnest prayer.
||The new Commonwealth
government was keenly aware of the political danger that the popularity of Eikon
Basilike posed. The execution of Charles had come at the height of a political and
economic crisis, in the midst of an era in which kings were regarded as semi-divine
figures. A contemporary publication entitled, A Miracle of Miracles wrought by the The
Blood of King Charles the First (1649, pp. 1-5), relates the story of a Deptford girl
who was cured by the touch of a napkin that had been dipped in the blood of the martyred
Charles. Eikon Basilike had to be answered, and the hysteria surrounding Charles
quelled. Milton was chosen for the task, and Eikonoklastes is the result.
Miltons intent is not to "descant
on the misfortunes" of King Charles I, "who hath also paid his final debt both
to nature and his faults."
Miltons intent is "for their sakes who through want of
better custom, simplicity, or want of better teaching, have not more seriously considered
kings than in the gaudy name of majesty" to argue against the pious picture of King
Charles that has been presented in the recent book, Eikon Basilike.
Since, as Milton claims, "a factious and defeated party"
(the Presbyterians, from whose company Milton has now parted) is making use of Eikon
Basilike for "the promoting of their own future designs," it will be "a
good deed . . . to the living" to "remember them the truth of what they
themselves know to be here misaffirmed."
Milton makes frequent disparaging references to the common people
in this work. Here is the first one: "as to any moment of solidity in the book
itselfsave only that a king is said to be the author, a name than which there needs
no more among he blocish vulgar, to make it wise, and excellent, and admired, nay to set
it next the Bible."
Miltons characterization of his current project: "And
though it might well have seemed in vain to write at all, considering the envy and almost
infinite prejudice likely to be stirred up among he common sort against whatever can be
written or gainsaid to the kings book, so advantageous to a book it is only to be a
kings; and though it be an irksome labor to write with industry and judicious pains
that which, neither weighed nor well read, shall be judged without industry or the pains
of well-judging by faction and the easy literature of custom and opinion; it shall be
ventured yet, and the truth not smothered, but sent abroad in the native confidence of her
single self to earn, how she can, her entertainment in the world, and to find out her own
readersfew perhaps, but those few such of value and substantial worth as truth and
wisdom, not respecting numbers and big names, have been ever wont in all ages to be
Since Eikon Basilike argues for the king, it is not wrong
of Milton to argue against the king. "It were too unreasonable that he, because dead,
should have the liberty in his book to speak all evil of the Parliament; and they, because
living, should be expected to have less freedom . . . to speak home the plain truth of a
full and pertinent reply.
The attempt to accomplish revenge upon political enemies after
ones own death is commonCaesar is used as an example. The publication of Eikon
Basilike is also so motivated: "And how much their intent who published these
over-late apologies and meditations of the dead king, drives to the same end . . . it
appears both by the conceited portraiture before his book . . . set there to catch fools
and silly gazers."
Another slam at the people who have been reading, and approving
of, Eikon Basilike: "The people, exorbitant and excessive in all their
motions, are prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of idolotry in
idolizing their kings."
Miltons explanation for the willingness of the English
people to sympathize with the portrait of Charles offered in Eikon Basilike:
"But now, with a besotted and degenerate baseness of spirit, except some few who yet
retain in them the old English fortitude and love of freedom and have testified it by
their matchless deeds, the rest, imbastardized from the ancient nobleness of their
ancestors, are ready to fall flat and give adoration to the image and memory of this man
who hath offered at more cunning fetches to undermine our liberties, and put tyranny into
an art, than any British king before him. Which low dejection of mind in the people, I
must confess, I cannot willingly ascribe to the natural disposition of an Englishman, but
rather to two other causes: first, to the prelates and their fellow-teachers, though of
another name and sect, whose pulpit stuff, both first and last, hath been the doctrine and
perpetual infusion of servility . . . next, to the factious inclination of most men
divided from the public by several ends and humors of their own."
Higher standard of justice to be applied to kings because of their
higher responsibilities: "The unsparing sword of justice, which undoubtedly so much
the less in vain she bears among men, by how much the greater and in highest place the
Another slam at those sympathetic to Charles I: "an
ungrateful and perverse generation, who having first cried to God to be delivered from
their king, now murmur against God that heard their prayers, and cry as loud for their
king against those that delivered them." This line also seems to equate the will of
God with that of the regicides.
Milton takes on those who have doubts about the justice of having
executed Charles: "They who seemed of late to stand up hottest for the Covenant, can
now sit mute and much pleased to hear all these oprobrious things uttered against their
faith, their freedom, and themselves in their own dongs made traitors to boot. The divines
also, their wizards, can be so brazen as to cry Hosanna to this his bok, which cries
louder against them for no disciples of Christ, but of Iscariot; and to seem now convinced
with these withered arguments and reasons here, the same which in some other writings of
that party and in his own former declarations and expresses they have so often heretofore
endeavored to confute and to explode."
The present is "a graceless age" in which "things
of highest praise" are mischaracterized in order to "make them infamous and
Miltons project is "to resist and make head against the
rage and torrent of that boisterous folly and superstition that possesses and hurries on
the vulgar sort."
- Milton debunks the claim that Charles "called this last
Parliament [the Long Parliament], not more by others advice and the necessity of his
affairs than by his own choice and inclination."
- Charles dismissed his first Parliament "at his coming to the
crown, for no other cause than to protect the Duke of Buckingham against hem who had
accused him . . . of no less than poisoning" King James.
- No Parliament was called from 1629-1640.
- Charles called a Parliament in Ireland to raise money for war.
- Charles called what became the Long Parliament for the same
- Charles "never was perceived to call them but for the greedy
hope of a whole national bribe, his subsidies; and never loved, never fulfilled, never
promoted the true end of Parliaments, the redress of grievances."
- The major thrust of this chapter is the accusation that Charles
(or Gauden) stole a prayer from Sydneys Arcadia and tried to pass it of as
the kings own prayer. "But this king . . . to attribute to his own making other
mens whole prayers, hath as it were unhallowed and unchristened the very duty of
prayer itself, by borrowing to a Christian use prayers offered to a heathen god . . . a
prayer stolen word for word from the mouth of a heathen fiction praying to a heathen God;
and that in no serious book, but the vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidneys Arcadia."
- A proto-copyright argument: "But leaving what might justly be
offensive to God, it was a trespass also more than usual against human right, which
commands that every author should have the property of his own work reserved to him after
death, as well as living. Many princes have been rigorous in laying taxes on their
subjects by the head, but of any king heretofore that made a levy upon their wit and
seized it as his own legitimate, I have not whom beside to instance."
- Another shot at the people sympathetic to Charles: "how
unhappy, how forsook of grace, and unbeloved of God that people who resolve to know no
more of piety or of goodness than to account him their chief saint and martyr."
- This chapter is concerned primarily with the bill calling for
Triennial Parliaments and Charles claim that the bill was passed by "his own
act of grace and willingness."
- "The first bill granted much less that two former statutes
yet in force by Edward III: that a Parliament should be called every year, or oftener if
- Milton bases this argument on Horns Mirror of Justices:
"from a far ancienter Law-Book called the Mirror, it is affirmed in a late
treatise called Rights of the Kingdom that Parliaments by our old laws ought twice
a year to be at London."
- So Charles is bragging, in effect, about having reduced the
frequency of Parliaments: "this is that which the king preaches here for a special
token of hhis princely favor, to have abridged and overreached the people five parts in
six of what their due was, both by ancient statute and originaly."
- Repetition of the charges that Charles only ever called a
parliament for the purpose of raising funds for wars: He had by his ill-stewardship and,
to say no worse, needless raising of two armies, intended for a civil war, beggared both
himself and the public . . . To disengage him and the Kingdom great sums were to be
borrowed, which would never have been lent, nor could ever be repaid, had the king chanced
to dissolve this Parliament as heretofore."
- Milton places the power of calling Parliaments in the people,
calling it a "mere trust" to invest this power in the king. He also claims that
the law was so commonly relied upon that it was never actually written down. "And
that it was a mere trust, and not his prerogative, to call and dissolve Parliaments at his
pleasure; and that Parliaments were not to be dissolved till all Petitions were heard, all
grievances redressed, is not only the assertion of this Parliament, but of our ancient
law-books, which aver it to be an unwritten law of common right so engraven in the hearts
of our ancestors, and by them so constantly enjoyed and claimed, as that it needed not
- Milton claims that the calling, and not prematurely dissolving, of
Parliaments was a known and common right which our ancestors enjoyed as firmly as if
it had been graven in marble."
- Milton takes the writing in this chapter of Eikon Basilike
as evidence of the tyrannical nature of Charles I. "I shall show point by point that
although the king had been reinstalled . . . or that his son admitted should observe
exactly all his fathers precepts . . . that it would inevitably throw us back again
into all our past and fulfilled miseries; would force us to fight over again all our
tedious wars and put us to another fatal struggling for liberty and life, more dubious
than the former."
- Better keep the Stuarts down and out, now that Charles I has been
executed. "They who suffer as oppressors, tyrants, violators of law, and persecutors
of reformation, without appearance of repenting, if they once get hold again of that
dignity and power which they had lost, are but whetted and enraged by what they suffered,
against those whom they look upon as them that caused their sufferings."
- Charles warns his son "that the devil of rebellion doth most
commonly turn himself into an angel of reformation." Milton takes this as a sign
"that our consciences were destined to the same servitude and persecution . . . under
him, or if it should so happen, under his son; who count all protestant churches erroneous
and schismatical which are nor episcopal."
- Charles next bit of advice to his son is taken up: "His
next precept is concerning our civil liberties, which by his sole voice and predominant
will must be circumscribed and not permitted to extend a handsbreadth further than his
interpretation of the laws already settled. . . . if the removing of an old
law, or the making of a new, would save the kingdom, we shall not have it, unless his
arbitrary voice will so far slacken the stiff curb of his prerogative as to grant it
- Next, Milton objects to the portrayal of Charles in Eikon
Basilike as martyr: "martyrs bear witness to the truth, not to themselves . . .
He who writes himself martyr by his own inscription is like an ill painter who, by writing
on the shapeless picture which he hath drawn, is fain to tell passengers what shape it
- Charles death does not, in and of itself, make him a true
martyr: "if to die for the testimony of his own conscience be enough to
make him martyr, what heretic dying for direct blasphemy, as some have done constantly,
may not boast a martyrdom?"
- Charles support of the Church of England was a way of
subduing the English people: "he could not possibly find a more compendious and
politic way to uphold and settle tyranny than by subduing first the consciences of vulgar
men with the insensible poison of their slavish doctrine."
- Miltons most eloquent condemnation of those English who
sympathize with the cause of Charles I: "that people that should seek a king claiming
what this man claims, would show themselves to be by nature slaves and arrant
beastsnot fit for that liberty which they cried out and bellowed for, but fitter to
be led back again into their old servitude like a sort of clamoring and fighting brutes,
broke loose from their copyholds, that know not how to use or possess the liberty which
they fought for, but with the fair words and promises of an old exasperated foe are ready
to be stroked and tamed again into the wonted and well-pleasing state of their true Norman
villeinage, to them best agreeable."
- Those who would serve God, must choose him as master rather than
any king: "If God, then, and earthly kings be for the most part not several only, but
opposite masters, it will as oft happen that they who will serve their king must forsake
their God; and they who will serve God must forsake their king."
- "truth is but justice in our knowledge, and justice is but
truth in our practice."
- Justice is ultimately valued above truth: "For truth is
properly no more than contemplation, and her utmost efficiency is but teaching: but
justice in her very essence is all strength and activity, and hath a sword put into her
hand to use against all violence and oppression on the earth. . . . We may conclude
therefore that justice, above all other things, is and ought to be the strongest; she is
the strength, the kingdom, the power, and majesty of all ages. Truth herself would
subscribe to this, though Darius and all the monarchs of the world should deny."
- In response to Charles claim that "no law of God or man
gives to subjects any power of judicature without or against him," Milton writes that
the Mosaic law was given to all men. That laws provision that "whosoever
sheddeth mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed," applies to kings as well
as ordinary men.
- Even if all kings were anointed by God, which Milton describes as
an idea "most false," that wouldnt support Charles claim to immunity
either: "it were yet most absurd to think that the anointment of God would be as it
were a charm against law; and give them privilege who punish others, to sin themselves
- Milton makes a series of claims designed to argue for the notion
that kings have been held accountable, even executed, before:
- "The kings of Sparta, though descended from Hercules,
esteemed a God among hem, were often judged, and sometimes put to death by the most just
and renowned laws of Lycurgus."
- "What the Senate decreed against Nero, that he should be
judged and punished according o te laws of their ancestors . . . is vulgarly known."
- "That the Christian civil law warrants like power of
judicature to subjects against tyrants, is written clearly by the best and famousest
civilians. For if it was decreed by Theodosius and stand yet firm in the Code of
Justinian, that the law is above the emperor, then certainly the emperor being under law,
the law may judge him; and if judge him, may punish him, proving tyrannous." Note
Miltons use of a Catholic Church authority claiming temporal jurisdiction over an
- Milton claims that law is to be universally applied, regardless of
rank: "all laws, both of God and man, are made without exemption of any person
whomsoever; and that if kings presume to overtop the law by which they reign for the
public good, they are by law to be reduced into order."
- The people are ruled laws made by their own consent: "who
should better understand their own laws, and when they are transgressed, than they who are
governed by them and whose consent first made them?"
- The king is not submitted to because of his person, but because of
his authority, and that authority is invested in him by the people: "Those objected
oaths of allegiance and supremacy we swore, not to his person but as it was invested with
his authority; and his authority was by the people first given him conditionally, in law
and under law, and under oath also for the kingdoms good, and not otherwise."
- "Kings in receiving justice and undergoing due trial are not
different from the meanest subject."
- One final slam at those sympathetic to Charles: "the
worthless approbation of an inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble; that like a
credulous and hapless herd, begotten to servility and enchanted with a new device of the
kings picture at his prayers, hold out both their ears with such delight and
ravishment to be stigmatized and bored through in witness of their own voluntary and
beloved baseness." The image of holding out ears is designed to evoke memories of
those whose ears were cut off for their resistance to what Milton takes to be the combined
tyranny or prelacy and kingship is the late 1630s.
The Atheist Milton
(Ashgate Press, 2012)
||Basing his contention on
two different lines of argument, Michael Bryson posits that John
Milton–possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary
history–was, in fact, an atheist.
First, based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the
doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of
creation (which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and
Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with
the human body, Bryson argues that Milton was an atheist by the
commonly used definitions of the period. And second, as the poet who
takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in
Paradise Lost, to the internal-almost Gnostic-conception of God in
Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson
Agonistes, Milton moves from a theist (with God) to something much
more recognizable as a modern atheist position (without God) in his
Among the author's goals in The Atheist Milton is to account
for tensions over the idea of God which, in Bryson's view, go all
the way back to Milton's earliest poetry. In this study, he argues
such tensions are central to Milton's poetry–and to any attempt to
understand that poetry on its own terms.
The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)
The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of
Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven.
Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this
neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity.
Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects
external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit
audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as
a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady
backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under
the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period
of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with
open arms the return of a human king.
Review of Tyranny of