Citizen Milton
Title page of Paradise Lost (2nd ed. 1674)

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley

5. 'By the Known Rules of Ancient Liberty': Milton's Revolution

A Republican Revolution
Milton joined in the public debate following the king's execution when the constitutional revolution of republicanism abolished monarchy in England. To Milton, "all men naturally were born free" and kings and magistrates were accountable to the people. Milton's brave and eloquent defense of republican principles against arbitrary government in a work published just two weeks after the execution of Charles, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, led to his appointment to the Commonwealth as Secretary for Foreign Languages. Milton wrote not to insult the King but to serve "Queen Truth." In his work for the Council of State, Milton's gifts as a writer, and especially his fluency in Latin, were put to use, even as his blindness became complete during his period of state service.

Milton, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, published shortly after the execution of Charles I, rallied citizens to be governed by "reason, and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny of custom from without and blind affections within," as Milton strenuously argued that people had a right to oust tyrants and to choose their own rulers.

Milton, Eikonoklastes (1649)

The propaganda campaign of those loyal to monarchy had produced a brilliant coup, the Eikon Basilike, which offered a sympathetic image of the martyred king. Milton was commissioned to write a reply, and his Eikonoklastes, or Idol-Breaker, was a rebuttal of the King's alleged arguments and a critique of the institution of monarchy. Milton donated this copy to the Bodleian Librarian Thomas Barlow, who acknowledged the gift on the flyleaf.
4o Rawl. 408 (1)

Milton, The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the EXCELLENCE thereof Compar'd with The inconveniences and dangers of readmitting Kingship in this nation (1660)

On the eve of the return of monarchy, after eleven years without kings, Milton urged his fellow British citizens to remain loyal to the principles of Commonwealth rule. He set out a political system that included elections for local councils, balanced by a rotating Grand Council. God "hath not quenched the spirite of libertie among us" he wrote, but his proposals were overtaken by events that brought back monarchy to the realm.
Pamph. C109(16)

'This brief use of my eyes': Milton's work for the Council of State
As he defended the new republic and answered its European critics, Milton at the same time suffered the intense pains of his onset of the blindness which would become total by 1652. Milton refused the payment of £100 offered by the Council as its official thanks. On his commission to write a defense of the new republic in Latin even as he was losing his eyesight, Milton later wrote, "I resolved therefore that I must employ this brief use of my eyes while yet I could for the greatest possible benefit to the state."

Milton, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651)

Milton saw the execution of King Charles I as a triumph of freedom against tyranny. His Defense of the English People, published 24 February 1651, was an eloquent and sometimes gossipy rebuttal in Latin of a work by Claude Saumaise ('Salmasius'), the European champion of monarchy. This frontispiece bears the arms of the new British Commonwealth, uniting England, Scotland and Wales without a king.
From the title page of Areopagitica (1644).
Title page of Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651).
[Full size image]

Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651)

The Council of State ordered reprints for numerous European editions of this work, and the variety of formats on display here attests to the saturation of this elegant piece of political theory. Because of its advocacy for a republic, it was burned and banned in Toulouse and Paris. As a result of its success, Milton was sought out by many international visitors and found new supporters.
12o. Vet. B3 f. 290(1)

Manuscript copy of Defensio pro populo Anglicano (1651)

Even when readers could not obtain a printed copy of Milton's sensational work, they commissioned pirated, manuscript imitations. This fine hand-copied manuscript imitates the type face and design of Milton's printed version, and even includes catch-phrases and running titles.
MS Rawl. D.230

Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651)

This lavish folio edition, given by Milton as a presentation copy to the Bodleian library, was part of a run sponsored by the Council of State and produced on special, heavy paper, suitable for presentation.

The Arts of Statecraft
As Secretary to Foreign Tongues in the revolutionary government, Milton sat in on the Council of State and helped to compose diplomatic correspondence in Latin. There he put to use his gifts in languages and expresssion, remaining in his post even after he lost his eyesight.

To The Queen of Sweden (11 March 1652)

As was his usual work for the Council, Milton composed latin drafts of letters from the Council, here to Queen Christina of Sweden. The letter encourages increase in trade and amity in an effort to consolidate relations between the republic and the great Northern European Protestant power. Milton later eulogized Queen Christina, "the most brilliant exemplar of royal virtues," all the more "sublime" for having abdicated her crown.
Ms Nalson 18, fol. 86

Sir Walter Raleigh, attr., The Cabinet-Council… Published By JOHN MILTON, Esq (1658)

This manual of political and military statecraft, with a strong tinge of Machiavellian republicanism, was purportedly penned by Sir Walter Raleigh. In publishing the work, Milton evoked the heroic Providentialism and the ethos of state service of the Elizabethan era. His advice offered practical counsel to the guardians of liberty.
232 g.105

Milton, 'To Oliver Cromwell,' Letters of State (1694)

Milton's state papers were published posthumously, along with several unpublished poems. This sonnet to Oliver Cromwell turns away from the conventional sonneteers' theme of love to praise Cromwell's protection of religious liberty. Milton charges Cromwell with the duty of maintaining in peacetime all that has been won in war.
Tanner 831

Joannis Miltoni Angli Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda (1654)

In this work addressed to Europe, the counsel is republican: "If to be a slave is hard, and you do not wish it, learn to obey right reason, to master yourselves." Milton likens his own countrymen to the illustrious Greeks and Romans, with his own role as the epic poet singing their "heroic achievement." Milton cautions English citizens to summon the vigilence necessary to safeguard liberty at home, and to learn the "arts of peace."
Antiq. f.N 1654.3

Top image: the title page of Angli Defensio (1651), showing the Arms of the Commonwealth.