Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: Historical Situation. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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II.: Historical Situation. - John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates 
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Talbot Allison (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911).
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The historical situation, which forms the background to this hurriedly written book, and with which it deals in the boldest manner, was intensely dramatic. From the serene pages of Philips, with his talk of the prospect of Lincolns-Inn Fields from the High Holborn retreat, and his references to the private life of Milton while he was ‘prosecuting his curious search into knowledge,’ we gain only a partial view of the great writer’s interests. It is true that he still kept up his studies, and this is one of the strange and wellnigh unaccountable things about so many of the scholars, statesmen, and soldiers of that age of commotion and upheavel, that they could turn so easily from the turmoil of events to ‘the still air and quiet of delightful studies,’ and prosecute all kinds of laborious, and what seem to us trivial researches. Considerable material in this pamphlet reveals the ‘private’ scholar, the curious student of ancient laws and historical precedents. We must also remember that in these days of revolution Milton did considerable work towards a history of England. But if there was the studious side to his life, bearing witness to a strength of mind that would not be upset by the storms in the real England at his door, he was also a child of his time, an intensely interested observer of every move in politics and religious controversy. He sat there in his study at High Holborn, but he looked not towards Lincolns-Inn Fields, but towards Westminster, where the House of Commons was hastening to the condemnation of Charles Stuart.
The historical situation at the beginning of the year 1649 can best be depicted by explaining the attitude of various parties in England and Scotland towards King Charles. He was at this time a prisoner in the hands of the English army, whose leaders were Fairfax, Ireton, and Cromwell. As far back as March or April, 1648, the army officers had decided in their famous prayer-meeting at Windsor Castle that the only way in which to promote liberty and to secure peace for England was ‘to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for that blood he had shed and mischief he had done to his utmost against the Lord’s Cause and People in these poor Nations.’1 Fairfax weakened at the last, as we have seen, but Cromwell, Ireton, and the bulk of the officers and men never receded from their stern prayer-meeting resolve. While other parties treated with the king, they issued manifesto after manifesto, the burden of each and all being a demand for justice on the king. In November the democratic ideals of the regiments found expression in the Grand Army Remonstrance, in which all attempts to treat with the King were denounced, and he himself was declared to be guilty of the highest treason, incapable of penitence or common honesty.1 On Dec. 1 the army seized Charles as their own prisoner; and on the following day Fairfax led his troops into London, where they closed in upon Parliament, to overawe it into submission with their wishes. Pride’s Purge took place on Dec. 6, by which all opposers of the army, some 143 members of the Commons, were excluded from their places, leaving 78 members to carry out the orders of their masters. Of this number, some 28 withdrew from the house of their own accord, leaving what Prynne called the ‘unparliamentary Junto’ to bring the king to the scaffold.
The second political group, closely allied with the army, was composed of Independents—Puritans who had gradually come to believe in the separation of church and state, and were now willing to grant toleration to all religious freethinkers, except prelatists, papists, and atheists. At the close of the year 1648 this party in parliament and in the nation was divided into two classes—first, the ultra-radicals, who were determined to compass the king’s death, and set up a republic; and, secondly, the great majority, who were willing to visit the king with deposition, but who shrank from the army’s proposed cure for the ills of the nation. Of the large number of Independent divines, only two, so far as is known, expressed approbation of the trial of the king.
A third party, strongest in London, Lancashire, and Scotland, was made up of Presbyterians who were doing their utmost to save the royal prisoner from the army and the Independents. In the earlier years of the great rebellion the Presbyterians had been supreme; they had ruled with a high hand, had established their form of church government in England on the ruins of the prelacy, had passed severe laws against other sectaries, and had prosecuted the war against the king with energy. In spite of their jealous, persecuting zeal, the Independents rapidly increased in numbers and in power. Owing to Cromwell’s tolerance, the army became a hotbed of radicalism in politics and theology, and was regarded as the greatest foe of the Presbyterians. Actuated no doubt by genuine fear of the regimental preachers, and alarmed at the rapid growth of the Independent faction in the House of Commons, and feeling that their one chance to force England to remain Presbyterian lay in the rehabilitation of the king, the followers of the kirk both in Scotland and in England labored from the days of the first imprisonment at Newcastle in Aug., 1646, to the close of Nov., 1648, to negotiate a treaty with Charles which would be satisfactory, at least to themselves. The curious spectacle was now presented of former enemies converted into warm advocates of the king. A party among the Presbyterians of Scotland, headed by the Scottish Commissioners to England and the Hamiltonians, had even entered into a secret engagement with the king, in Jan. 1648, to invade England with a Scotch army, for the purpose of restoring him to his full royalty, on the understanding that he would guarantee the Presbyterian form of church government in England for three years, and suppress the Independents and all other sects and heresies. Although the Hamiltonian party did succeed in leading an army into England in the Second Civil War, it must be remembered that Argyle and other Scotch nobles, the Presbyterian ministers of Scotland, and the vast majority of their congregations, were entirely out of sympathy both with the treaty and the invasion. Yet in spite of the fact that there were two classes among the Presbyterians of the realm, just as there were divisions among the Independents, all the Presbyterians of Scotland and England were averse to the army’s proposal to bring the king to trial. One and all they pitied the fallen monarch, and would have been glad to restore him to his crown and royal dignity at no slight compromise of liberties hardly won in the bloody struggles of the Civil War. Wherefore not a Presbyterian layman sat on the court of trial, not a Presbyterian minister in London approved the course of the army chiefs. Hugh Peters, Cromwell’s chaplain, was sent to discuss the subject amicably with the Westminster Assembly of Divines, but they declared unanimously for the king’s release. Peters was then authorized by the army leaders to invite to a friendly conference several London divines who all along had preached in favor of armed rebellion—Marshall, Calamy, Whitaker, Sedgewick, Ashe, and others prominent in Presbyterian circles. They refused point blank, and, instead of peaceful talk of compromise, assembled in Sion College, and drew up a fiery criticism of Cromwell and his supporters in Parliament, their Serious and Faithfull Representation. The change of policy among the Presbyterians is clearly seen by comparing even the texts of their earlier and later sermons, and perhaps best of all in the change of front shown in the writings of the most voluminous of Presbyterian pamphleteers, William Prynne. It was these inconsistent sermons, protestations, and tracts which excited the contempt of Milton, and partly inspired his treatise.
The last group, numerous but at this time unimportant, was composed of the Royalists or Cavaliers—courtiers, clergymen of the old church deprived of their livings, country squires, nobles and soldiers in exile, a great mass of country people who had to a large extent remained untouched by sectarianism or by the struggle for constitutional rights; all these, deprived of power, looked on helplessly at the ‘royal martyr’ moving to his doom.
Few men in England, and none in Scotland, expected or desired that the leaders of army and parliament would bring the king to the block. Until the last moment thousands refused to believe that Charles would really die upon the scaffold; there was to be the pageantry of an execution, but nothing more.1 ‘Only some fifty or sixty governing Englishmen, with Oliver Cromwell in the midst of them, were prepared for every reponsibility, and stood inexorably to their task.’2 Milton was at one with Cromwell and the other forward spirits in this business. From his careful study of events he had come to the conclusion that Charles was a faithless tyrant, responsible for whole massacres committed on his faithful subjects, guilty of a deluge of innocent blood (9. 3ff.), a malefactor deserving of punishment as a common pest and destroyer of mankind (20.3). Neither Milton nor Cromwell had any superstitious reverence for the divinity that was supposed to hedge a king. ‘What hath a native king to plead,’ he cries, ‘bound by so many covenants, benefits and honours to the welfare of his people, why he through the contempt of all Laws and Parlaments, the onely tie of our obedience to him, for his owne wills sake, and a boasted praerogative unaccountable, after sev’n years warring and destroying of his best subjects, overcom, and yeilded prisoner, should think to scape unquestionable, as a thing divine, in respect of whom so many thousand Christians destroy’d, should lye unaccounted for, polluting with their slaughterd carcasses all the land over, and crying for vengeance against the living that should have righted them’ (21. 14ff.). Entertaining such views of his king, to whom loyalty and obedience would now mean only a base compliance, Milton was very strongly of opinion that the sword of justice above the king ought to do its work. Convinced in his own mind of the king’s guilt and well merited punishment, he ranged himself in the most uncompromising allegiance on the side of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw, who had long since resolved upon the tyrant’s death.
[1 ]See Carlyle, Letters and Speeches of Cromwell 1. 236 ff.
[1 ]Rushworth, Hist. Coll. 7. 1297.
[1 ]Burnet, Hist. of Own Time 1. 64.
[2 ]Masson, Life of Milton 3. 718.