John Milton & the English Civil War

A medieval illuminated manuscript represents mankind's fall, subject of Milton's
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John Milton (1608-1674) is best known as the poet who composed arguably the most famous epic in the English language, "Paradise Lost," which chronicles Adam and Eve’s sin and exile from paradise as related in the Bible. Milton calls that sin “Man’s First Disobedience” in the poem's first line. However, from a certain point of view, Milton was disobedient. He was a vocal opponent of the British monarchy, a stance with great significance. Between 1642 and 1651, England was embroiled in three civil wars, which would lead to the exile and eventual execution of the reigning monarch, Charles I, and the replacement of the monarchy with the English Commonwealth, with Oliver Cromwell appointed lord protector.

1 Becoming a Political Voice

Though Cromwell would give Milton a government post in 1649 thanks to the poet’s political treatises, Milton’s involvement in public affairs began with religious statements. Milton felt church authorities were assuming too much control over church government, a stance he communicates in a flurry of treatises between 1641 and 1642. In the years that followed, Milton addressed other social issues such the lawfulness of divorce, education reform and censorship -- in the last of these, the "Aeropagitica" provides the foundation for arguments against censorship even today.

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2 Entering the Political Ring

A dramatic rendering shows exiled King Charles I's demise.
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Milton's attention turned explicitly political in 1649 with the second edition of “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.” In that treatise, republished mere weeks after the execution of King Charles I, Milton quotes ancient philosophers, historians and even Scripture to justify regicide, the execution of a king. This document confirmed Milton’s reputation as a political figure and earned him the post of secretary of foreign languages, a role the poet would occupy until the 1660 return of the monarchy.

3 Crumbling of Power

King Charles II (known as the
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Officially, Milton’s role as secretary of foreign languages consisted of composing formal correspondences in Latin on behalf of the English Commonwealth. Milton also penned propaganda for Cromwell. Milton's public visibility made him the subject of attacks both political and personal. Worse still, in 1658, Milton's faltering eyesight left him entirely. Cromwell's death and the dissolution of the ever-weakening Commonwealth proved serious challenges as well. Milton remained loyal to his principles, and published a treatise defending the Commonwealth within weeks of the monarchy's return.

4 Milton's Final Years

This portrait of John Milton captures the poet at the height of his powers.
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With England again ruled by a monarch, Milton was forced into an unofficial exile. His writings were publicly burned by the new regime and a warrant for his arrest was issued, though later revoked. Milton retired from public view, though he would continue to publish treatises on subjects ranging from logic to British history. In these years, Milton would also complete, among other literary works, the poem that is considered his masterpiece, "Paradise Lost."

Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.