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Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

  1. Renaissance and Revolution 101: A Literary and Historical Overview

  2. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

  3. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Jacobean Culture and Shakespeare’s Othello

  4. Renaissance and Revolution 101: The Cavalier Poets

  5. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I – John Milton

  6. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution II – Andrew Marvell

  7. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Radical Voices

  8. Renaissance and Revolution 101: Sex and Desire in the Restoration

Renaissance and Revolution 101: Literature and Revolution I - John Milton

What are the rights of the people in comparison to that of the king? Is the authority of the monarch so absolute that the people do not have the right to depose their leader? These are the questions posed and answered by John Milton in his political treatises of the English Civil War. Committed to his political theory of the relationship between a monarch, parliament and the people as necessarily contractual and deriving from the will and power of the people, Milton sought to justify the deposition and ultimate regicide of the king.

John Milton’s literary endeavours are synonymous with the literary history of the Civil War (1642-1651). It is significant to evaluate Milton’s political and religious beliefs in order to best understand his literary texts. Best known for his epic poem, Paradise Losta tale of the fall of Adam and Eve and Satan’s rebellion against GodMilton is a significant figure in English literary history. Milton was a staunch advocate of republicanism which stemmed both from his “educat[ion] in Puritan principles” (Brydges, 1853, p. ix) and his belief in the importance of individual liberty, free speech, and religious toleration within the state. Milton possessed a “native love of liberty and self-government” (p. ix) and as such, grew to detest the monarchical figures and structures that he viewed as substantially limiting the will of the people and their freedoms.

Figure 1: John Milton (The Works of Milton, 1851).

Milton’s literary career was framed against tumultuous events in England, and his writing must be considered both within this context and as a product of such events. As Brydges (1853) attests, “the nativity of John Milton was cast at an epoch when might events were brewing in the political institutions of England” (p. ix). Milton was a staunch Puritan, and his affliction for the importance of the freedom of the people and their right to be ruled justly led to a souring perception of the monarchy. As the events of the 17th century transpired and increasingly worsened, the monarchy “could impress upon the poet nothing but scorn and hatred” (p. x). Gordon Campbell (2008) advocates for Milton’s revolutionary principles that “can disappear from modern view because he was the advocate of principles which seem now obvious and commonplace” (p. 3). Campbell surmises the premises of Milton’s revolutionary attitude as resting upon the freedom of the people and a government with constricted power, which must necessarily be held accountable for any injustices against the people:

He argued that governments have no business meddling with the religious beliefs of their citizens; that how people worship and whether they worship should not be regulated by the legal machinery of the state. He also denied the right of his rules to determine what could be printed and read […] He thought his rulers should be held to account for their actions and that the law was above them. He also contented that the best kind of government was republican (p. 3).

Milton's commitment to the liberty of the people and the restriction of absolute power became particularly strong at the end of the Civil War. Milton's writings reflected his growing dissatisfaction with the king and his magistrates who he viewed as no longer acting in the interests of the people. Milton set to continually re-elaborate his theory of political authority, seeking each time to conclude that the power of the monarch was not absolute, but derived from the will of the people.

A significant event of the English Civil War that encapsulates Milton's commitment to the rights of the people to act against a tyrannous king was Pride's Purge of 1648. In this event, New Model Army soldiers blocked the entrance to the House of Commons, refusing to allow any members of Parliament hostile to their Army from entering Parliament. The day before this event took place, on the 5th December, Parliament voted 129-83 to continue negotiations with the king. After the Purge, a subsequent vote was taken, which resulted in the decision to end negotiations with the King. This vote was undertaken by 83 MPs, and resulted in a subsequent tribunal that tried Charles I for treason, after which the death warrant for the king was signed.

Figure 2: Contemporary engraving showing Charles I sitting before the High Court of Justice, from "Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I" (Unknown, 1649).

For those against the king, the trial of Charles I challenged their justifactory ideologies and arguments. Whilst those in support of the regicide had a strong argument, the king's dedication to playing the role of the martyr, supported by centuries of the monarchy as the absolute authority of the realm, certainly undermined those seeking to justify such an unprecedented event. As Jason Peacey (2001) is acutely aware of, scholars were quick to analyse the "king's strategy" at the trial, as well as his "impending martyrdom [...] [and] the obvious parallels with the trial and death of Jesus Christ" (p. 5). For Peacey (2001), the king "played his role to absolute perfection, facing the inevitability of his destruction in the cool assurance of martyrdom and beatification" (p. 71). So poignant was Charles's defence, Peacey (2001) goes so far as to attribute the trial as:

One of the principal founding myths upon which was erected that great kingship cult sustaining successive constitutional dispensations within the islands of Britain down to the middle of the nineteenth century (p. 71).

Vindicating such unlawful acts, particularly in the face of a king who had died promoting his symbolic act of martyrdom, was a major concern for those in support of the regicide. Sentencing the monarch to death, and under dubious circumstances, was certainly unprecedented and viewed by many as a perversion of justice as well as a disruption of God's appointment of the people's leader. As we have seen throughout this 101 series, the English Civil War was predominately ideological warfare, as paradigmatic ways of viewing the rights of the king and the people were continually reworked, challenged, and debated. For regicide supporters such as Milton, the task at hand was primarily justified. As Go Togashi (2005) writes, Pride's Purge was "blatantly illegal" (p. 59), and as such, Milton's desire within his political tracts and treatises were to construct a precedent for regicide, and to propel his argument for contractual politics between authority and the people into the contemporary public mind.

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

Milton’s political pamphlet The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates illuminates the ways in which Milton used the written word to engage with political contexts. As discussed before in this 101 series, “the British Civil Wars and Interregnum produced an unprecedented quantity of polemical writings” (Neufeld, 2007, p. 329). Eager to contribute to the ideological tension and debates that were the defining feature of the seventeenth century, poets and writers were keen to engage in political debates. John Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates is a political treatise published in 1649, shortly after the execution of King Charles I during the English Civil War. This text proposes that the people have the right to overthrow a tyrannical ruler and that magistrates (or government officials) are held accountable to the people.

Figure 3: Title page to 1645 Poems (Marshall, 1645).

Written in response to Charles I’s publication of Eikon Basilike, the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was written to deflect support for the king and to produce an argument to justify the regicide. Written by Charles I during his imprisonment, Eikon Basilike served as a defence for his actions during the English Civil War. Published just days after his execution in 1649, the book’s popularity was evidenced by its widespread printing and reprinting in subsequent years. Published in an attempt to play to those who believed Charles had been unjustly executed, it served as a powerful tool for his supporters in their efforts to restore the monarchy.

In Eikon Basilike, Charles I portrays himself as a pious and dutiful monarch, who sought only to act in the best interests of his people. To justify his actions during the English Civil War, Charles I based the premise of his argument on the sanctity of divine right and portrayed his bearing of arms against parliament as a natural continuation of his need to defend his God-given right to rule. Portraying himself as a victim of treacherous and ungrateful subjects who had forgotten their duty to the king, the book sought to produce sympathy and support for the monarchy so as to convince the people that the regicide was unjust and that the Restoration was needed.

The heart of Milton’s argument rests on his respect for individual liberty. For Milton, political power ultimately resides with the people, and as such, governments established to serve the needs of the people must have the power to overthrow rulers who fail to attend to the people. This view was widely shared by those in support of republicanism. As Skinner (2000) attests:

Among the disputes between Crown and Parliament under the early Stuarts, one of the most persistent centered on the so-called “fundamental liberties of subjects" (p. 1).

Figure 4: Frontispiece, Eikon Basilike: The Portraiture of His Sacred Majestie in his Solitudes and Sufferings (Charles I, 1648).

In order to deconstruct the martyrisation of Charles I in the wake of the publication of Eikon Basilike, Milton works to portray Charles as a tyrant whose actions against the people were heinousa crime that justifies the regicide. If power is “derivative” from the people (Milton,1851, p. 12), it is only by conditional power that the King sustains his rule. By going against the needs of the people, Charles is by natural consequence a “cursed tyrant [...] lad’n with all the innocent blood spilt” (Milton, 1851, p. 8). To undo Charles’ evocation in Eikon Basilike of the image of the traitorous people, Milton instead evokes the natural liberty of the people, unwriting their guilt and directing it toward the King instead.

Milton's criticism of the absolute authority of the monarch and the magistrate is justified through biblical analysis as well as historical precedent. As Go Tashashi (2005) asserts, "Pride's Purge and the decision of the Rump Parliament that Charles I be tried and punished [...] [were] blatantly illegal" (p. 59), and in order to refute the illegality of the regicide, Milton was led to "elaborate on his theory of the origin of political authority" (p. 59).

No man who knows ought, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were borne free, being the image and resemblance of God himself, and were by privilege above all the creatures, born to command and not to obey: and that they liv'd so. Till from the root of Adams transgression, falling among themselves to doe wrong and violence, and foreseeing that such courses must needs tend to the destruction of them all, they agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury, and joyntly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. Hence came Citties, Townes and Common-wealths. And because no faith in all was found sufficiently binding, they saw it needfull to ordaine som authoritie, that might restrain by force and punishment what was violated against peace and common right ...
... These for a while govern'd well, and with much equity decided all things at thir own arbitrement: till the temptation of such a power left absolute in thir hands, perverted them at length to injustice and partialitie. Then did they who now by tryal had found the danger and inconveniences of committing arbitrary power to any, invent Laws either fram'd, or consented to by all, that should confine and limit the autority of whom they chose to govern them: that so man, of whose failing they had proof, might no more rule over them, but law and reason abstracted as much as might be from personal errors and frailties  (Milton, 1650, p. 3).  

Figure 5: "The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates" (Milton, 1650).

The above passage enlightens Milton's commitment to the "contractual relationship between the King and Parliament as representative of the people, in order to argue that [the monarch's] power and authority were derivative, entrust by Parliament, who could reclaim it when necessary" (Tashasi, 2005, p. 60). Tashasi's summarisation of Milton's argument is acutely aware of the significance Milton endowed upon the contract between the king and the people. Milton does not deny that the people must be ruled by a supreme authority, drawing on evidence of the Fall and Adam's transgression that evidences the necessary requirement of a governing body. However, it is significant to assess that Milton derives this very prescribed power as coming from the people, who agreed themselves, "they saw it needfull to ordaine som authoritie, that might restrain by force and punishment what was violated against peace and common right" (Milton, 1650, p. 3). This is a significant element of the passage, and reveals the power of the people. If the King's power was ordained by the people, Milton saw it to be the natural right of the people to dissolve and challenge the contractual power of the very authority they instituted. In this way, the perversion of justice transcribed by Milton is a worthy enough argument for the people to "confine and limit the authority of whom they chose to govern them" (Milton, 1650, p. 3).

Milton's "contract theory of government" is "predicated on the fall of man and [...] addresses the partiality, fallibility, and vice inherited by fallen human beings" (Fallon, 2012, p. 1). Whilst Milton does not accept the absolute authority of the king, it is crucial to recognise that Milton does not idealise the freedom of the people as an example of their infallibility. By addressing the Fall of Man, Milton strengthens his argument. If men are so liable and subject to vice and wrongdoing, they need a ruler dedicated to justice and committed to the political philosophy of "citizenry as the first and last repository of political power" (Larson, 1975, p. 108). Milton's issue lies not with kingship or monarchical power, but rather with tyrannous monarchical authority that does not respect the will of the people.

Figure 6: Pride's Purge (Unknown, 1648).

The complete title of the 1650 edition of the Tenure is as follows:

The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: Proving, That it is Lawfull, and hath been held so through all Ages, for any, who have the Power, to call to account a Tyrant,or wicked King, and after due conviction, to depose, and put him to death; if the ordinary Magistrate have neglected, or deny'd to doe it. And that they, who of late so much blame Deposing, are the Men that did it themselves.

The full title of the Tenure encapsulates the main arguments of Milton's treatise. The parenthesis states that it has been lawful throughout history to hold accountable a wicked king for their actions against the people, which illuminates Milton's commitment to the justification of the regicide. Milton’s treatise also emphasizes the importance of accountability in government. Even those appointed by the king are ultimately still answerable to the people. By consequence, no king, nor his appointments, are above the law.

Magistrates are only ministers, and as they execute their office well or ill, so they are to be accounted good or bad (p. 10).

Without precedent for his justification of the regicide, Milton draws on famous literary and historical examples of the resistance to tyrannical rules. Citing Aristotle, who argued that “monarchy unaccountable is the worst sort of tyranny” (p. 13), Milton utilises the power that literature held in this tumultuous time to give power and justification to his argument for the regicide. As Neufeld (2008) evokes, Milton is keen to provide historical examples of regicide. He draws on examples from “primitive Christian times”, in which it was common “for the people to depose and punish kings whenever they deemed it right” (p. 340). In this way, Milton is able to indirectly dismantle the King’s reliance on Divine Rights, producing examples throughout history where the needs of the people were prioritised over the absolute power of the king. Milton’s preoccupation with producing precedent for what was widely regarded as an unprecedented event was an endeavour of many advocators of parliament. Turning to the Magna Carta to confirm the “absolute rights of free subjects”, parliamentary supporters traced “an inherent right and interest in liberty and freedom in the subjects of this realm as their birthright and inheritance” (Skinner, 2000, p. 1).

Figure 7: Execution of Charles I, 1649 (Historical Cabinet, 1834).

To explain and deflect the support for the king, particularly in the wake of the publication of Eikon Basilike, Milton evokes blindness as a motif in order to construct the king’s supporters as reliant on their ignorant perceptions. His attempt in the Tenure then becomes an effort to “correct [the] perception” (Neufeld, 2007, p. 338) of the people who ignorantly disregard the significance of their own liberty. Milton scorns the men who with “vulgar folly [...] desert their own reason and [shut] their eyes” to the truth in an attempt to justify the regicide. As a perceiver of the truth, Milton evokes his role as a reversal of ignorance and attempts to use literature in order to open the eyes of the people to the accountability of the monarch, who rules conditionally, and in respect of the needs of the people.


Like the Tenure, Eikonoklastes was published in 1649 in response to the King’s Eikon Basilike. Translating directly to “image-breaker”, Milton again seeks to dismantle the imagery of the King’s martyrdom. Turning again to the ignorance of the people, Milton in Eikonoklastes is “shocked by the extent to which, habituated to a life of servitude, they showed themselves willing to chose rather be the slaves and vassals” (Skinner, 2000, p. 16) of the King’s will. By evoking the trope of slavery, Milton is able to reimagine England without its monarchical constitution as a land of freedom, and in turn, portrays the King’s rule as once again tyrannous and constrictive to the freedom of the people. In this treatise, Milton scorns those who blindly support the king without acknowledgement of his treasonous actions:

The rest, imbastardised 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 offer’d at more cunning fetches to undermine our liberties, and put tyranny into an art, than any British King before him (Qtd in Skinner, 2000, p. 16).

Figure 8: Ball gave to Charles II at the Hague on his departure to England (Janssens, 1660).

To Milton, in order for the liberty of the people to be both constructed and maintained, the ignorance of the people to such freedoms must be reversed. His attempts of correcting perceptions stem directly from, as Skinner (2000) suggests, his haunting fear that “even after their triumph over Charles’s tyranny, they might still fall back into accepting the rule of kings” (p. 16). In this way, Milton constructs this ignorance as a natural slavery, and that the King calculatedly takes advantage of this blindness in order to fulfil his tyrannous and undutiful reign.

Throughout the events of the Civil War, Milton was dedicated to intervening in the politics of the time through his literature. His political writings were so renowned, that he was employed as “chief propagandist for the new republican government” (McDowell, 2022, p. 3). This evidences not only the commonality of Milton’s writings and expressions but also the substantial impact his political tracts had on the political debate of the period. With his fears manifesting as discussions for the return of Charles II began, Milton once again turned to literature to voice his concerns for the freedom and liberty of the people. In his tract The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, published in 1660 during the preparations for the return of the monarchy, Milton’s rage turns to boiling point. Deeply angered at his inability to correct the public perception, he mourns that “the inconsiderate multitude” who seem “madd upon returning to kingship” are destined to “be for ever slaves” (Qtd in Skinner, 2000, p. 17).

Milton’s intervention in politics was substantial. It is significant to consider the impact of Milton’s writings, an impact so feared that two defences of the regicide, Eikonklastes (1649) and Defence of the English People (1651), were “subject of a proclamation by Charles II for their confiscation and public burning in London, Oxford, and Cambridge in August 1660” (McDowell, 2022, p. 3). Ultimately, Milton’s political pamphlets and tracts are crucial to our understanding of the ways in which writers were responding to the political events of the world. Milton’s dedication to the liberties of the people is evidenced in his varied political writings, illuminating the power that literature was believed to, and did, possess during this period of political turmoil.

Bibliographical References

Brydges, E. (1853). The Poetical Works of John Milton. William Tegg and Company.

Campbell, G. (2008). Milton: Life, Work, and Thought. Oxford University Press.

Larson, C. (1975). Milton and “N. T.”: An Analogue to “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.” Milton Quarterly, 9(4), 107–110.

McDowell, N. (2022). Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton. Princeton University Press.

Milton, J. (1649). The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Henry Holt and Company.

Neufeld, M. (2007). Doing without Precedent: Applied Typology and the Execution of Charles I in Milton’s “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 38(2), 329–344.

Peacey, J. (2001). The Regicides and the Execution of Charles I. Palgrave Macmillan.

Skinner, Q. (2000). John Milton and the Politics of Slavery. Prose Studies, 23(1), pp. 1-22.

Togashi, G. (2005). Milton and the Presbyterian Opposition, 1649–1650: The Engagement Controversy and “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”, Second Edition (1649). Milton Quarterly, 39(2), 59–81.

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Ella Fincken

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