John Milton was passionately engaged with the turbulent politics of his time, living and writing through the Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians, the regicide, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. As well as poems, Milton wrote anti-Royalist pamphlets, challenging the idea that kings have a God-given right to rule.
With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton’s political writings suddenly placed him on dangerous ground. This royal proclamation calls for the suppression and burning of two books by Milton, and one by the radical thinker John Goodwin (c. 1594–1665).
Censorship and the threat of death
The proclamation was issued by Charles II on 13 August 1660, soon after his restoration to the English throne. It is a backlash against writers who defended the execution of the king’s father Charles I, in 1649.
The decree is printed on a single broadside sheet, to be displayed in public. It condemns the ‘Traitorous’ books which justified Charles I’s ‘Murder’, and demands that they are surrendered and ‘publicly burned’ by the hangman. The broadside also reveals that Milton and Goodwin were in hiding, knowing that they were under threat of execution for treason.
On 27 August, Milton’s books were duly burned. But on 29 August, the king issued an Act of Free and General Pardon, and Milton surfaced from hiding. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London that autumn, but released on 15 December 1660.
The background: Milton’s anti-Royalist pamphlets
In his pamphlets, Milton disputed the underlying principles of the monarchy and put forward a vision for a republican government. He argued against the divine right of kings, a doctrine which insists that a monarch is not subject to any person or authority on earth. Instead, he contended that a king’s authority depends on the law and a contract with the people.
Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates provocatively claims that ‘it is Lawfull … to call to account a Tyrant, or wicked king … and put him to death’. This was published in 1649, just after Charles I’s execution, and Milton was hired as Latin Secretary in Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. As part of this role, he was commissioned to write Eikonoklastes – meaning ‘image breaker’ – to counteract the flattering view of Charles I in Eikon Basilike, meaning ‘the image of the king’. Milton’s Eikonoklastes (1649) is one of the three books banned in this proclamation.
Monarchy and tyranny in Paradise Lost
The language of kingship and tyranny pervades Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), prompting some critics to view the poem as a reflection of Milton’s politics. Satan proclaims his resistance to the ‘Throne and Monarchy of God’ and the ‘Tyranny of Heav’n’ (1.42; 124) in words that seem to echo Milton’s resistance to Charles I. But Satan then emerges as a tyrannical ruler himself, overriding the fallen angels with ‘Monarchal pride’ (2.428).
- Full title:
- By the King. A proclamation for calling in, and suppressing of two books written by John Milton; the one intituled … pro populo Anglicano defensio … and the other in answer to a book intituled, The pourtraicture of His Sacred Majesty in his solitude and sufferings. And also a third book intituled, The obstructors of justice, written by John Goodwin.
- 1660, London
- Broadside / Ephemera
- King Charles II
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Roberta Klimt
- Politics and religion
From his politics and religious writings to Paradise Lost, Roberta Klimt traces how the life and work of John Milton was guided by the principle of freedom of thought and how in doing so he challenged fundamental aspects of 17th-century society.
- Article by:
- Diane Maybank
- Satire and humour, Politics and religion, Theatre and entertainment
Diane Maybank introduces the characters, conventions and historical context of Restoration comedy, and explores what the genre has to say about gender, courtship and class.
- Article by:
- Philip Pullman
- Politics and religion, Gender and sexuality
Philip Pullman first read Paradise Lost as a schoolboy and was dazzled by the sound of its poetry as he and his classmates read it aloud. Since then, he has become fascinated by Milton's tremendous powers of storytelling, and the ways in which he creates narrative tension, complex moods and vivid characters.