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Eikonoklastes—selections by Merritt Hughes



On the very day King Charles was buried (Feb. 8, 1649), there appeared a book entitled Eikon Basilike: the Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings. This book (whose title translates as "the King's image") was popularly thought to be written by King Charles himself, though it was probably written by John Gauden, the king's chaplain, with at most a minimum of help from Charles. Within a year this book went into sixty editions in England and in Europe. It did what it was designed to do, by provoking an outpouring of sympathy and popular sentiment in favor of the executed King, who was increasingly thought of as a martyr and saint. Executing Charles, rather than simply imprisoning him, eventually proved to be the single most self-destructive thing the new Commonwealth ever did; by giving Charles martyr status, the Commonwealth government sewed the seeds for the restoration of Charles II in 1660.  Eikon Basilike takes immediate advantage of the first, and fatal, political mistake of the Commonwealth: it claims to be a private record of the thoughts and prayers of Charles through the last years, months, weeks, days, even hours of his life. Charles is pictured as a monument to piety, conscientiousness, and faith; he is shown as a man who loves his family, a King concerned for the welfare of his people, and a pious Protestant much given to earnest prayer.


eikonoklastes.jpg (18975 bytes)
charlespraying.jpg (16416 bytes) The new Commonwealth government was keenly aware of the political danger that the popularity of Eikon Basilike posed. The execution of Charles had come at the height of a political and economic crisis, in the midst of an era in which kings were regarded as semi-divine figures. A contemporary publication entitled, A Miracle of Miracles wrought by the The Blood of King Charles the First (1649, pp. 1-5), relates the story of a Deptford girl who was cured by the touch of a napkin that had been dipped in the blood of the martyred Charles. Eikon Basilike had to be answered, and the hysteria surrounding Charles quelled. Milton was chosen for the task, and Eikonoklastes is the result.


  1. Milton’s intent is not to "descant on the misfortunes" of King Charles I, "who hath also paid his final debt both to nature and his faults."
  2. Milton’s intent is "for their sakes who through want of better custom, simplicity, or want of better teaching, have not more seriously considered kings than in the gaudy name of majesty" to argue against the pious picture of King Charles that has been presented in the recent book, Eikon Basilike.
  3. Since, as Milton claims, "a factious and defeated party" (the Presbyterians, from whose company Milton has now parted) is making use of Eikon Basilike for "the promoting of their own future designs," it will be "a good deed . . . to the living" to "remember them the truth of what they themselves know to be here misaffirmed."
  4. Milton makes frequent disparaging references to the common people in this work. Here is the first one: "as to any moment of solidity in the book itself—save only that a king is said to be the author, a name than which there needs no more among he blocish vulgar, to make it wise, and excellent, and admired, nay to set it next the Bible."
  5. Milton’s characterization of his current project: "And though it might well have seemed in vain to write at all, considering the envy and almost infinite prejudice likely to be stirred up among he common sort against whatever can be written or gainsaid to the king’s book, so advantageous to a book it is only to be a king’s; and though it be an irksome labor to write with industry and judicious pains that which, neither weighed nor well read, shall be judged without industry or the pains of well-judging by faction and the easy literature of custom and opinion; it shall be ventured yet, and the truth not smothered, but sent abroad in the native confidence of her single self to earn, how she can, her entertainment in the world, and to find out her own readers—few perhaps, but those few such of value and substantial worth as truth and wisdom, not respecting numbers and big names, have been ever wont in all ages to be contented with."
  6. Since Eikon Basilike argues for the king, it is not wrong of Milton to argue against the king. "It were too unreasonable that he, because dead, should have the liberty in his book to speak all evil of the Parliament; and they, because living, should be expected to have less freedom . . . to speak home the plain truth of a full and pertinent reply.’
  7. The attempt to accomplish revenge upon political enemies after one’s own death is common—Caesar is used as an example. The publication of Eikon Basilike is also so motivated: "And how much their intent who published these over-late apologies and meditations of the dead king, drives to the same end . . . it appears both by the conceited portraiture before his book . . . set there to catch fools and silly gazers."
  8. Another slam at the people who have been reading, and approving of, Eikon Basilike: "The people, exorbitant and excessive in all their motions, are prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of idolotry in idolizing their kings."
  9. Milton’s explanation for the willingness of the English people to sympathize with the portrait of Charles offered in Eikon Basilike: "But now, with a besotted and degenerate baseness of spirit, except some few who yet retain in them the old English fortitude and love of freedom and have testified it by their matchless deeds, the rest, imbastardized 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 offered at more cunning fetches to undermine our liberties, and put tyranny into an art, than any British king before him. Which low dejection of mind in the people, I must confess, I cannot willingly ascribe to the natural disposition of an Englishman, but rather to two other causes: first, to the prelates and their fellow-teachers, though of another name and sect, whose pulpit stuff, both first and last, hath been the doctrine and perpetual infusion of servility . . . next, to the factious inclination of most men divided from the public by several ends and humors of their own."
  10. Higher standard of justice to be applied to kings because of their higher responsibilities: "The unsparing sword of justice, which undoubtedly so much the less in vain she bears among men, by how much the greater and in highest place the offender."
  11. Another slam at those sympathetic to Charles I: "an ungrateful and perverse generation, who having first cried to God to be delivered from their king, now murmur against God that heard their prayers, and cry as loud for their king against those that delivered them." This line also seems to equate the will of God with that of the regicides.
  12. Milton takes on those who have doubts about the justice of having executed Charles: "They who seemed of late to stand up hottest for the Covenant, can now sit mute and much pleased to hear all these oprobrious things uttered against their faith, their freedom, and themselves in their own dongs made traitors to boot. The divines also, their wizards, can be so brazen as to cry Hosanna to this his bok, which cries louder against them for no disciples of Christ, but of Iscariot; and to seem now convinced with these withered arguments and reasons here, the same which in some other writings of that party and in his own former declarations and expresses they have so often heretofore endeavored to confute and to explode."
  13. The present is "a graceless age" in which "things of highest praise" are mischaracterized in order to "make them infamous and hateful."
  14. Milton’s project is "to resist and make head against the rage and torrent of that boisterous folly and superstition that possesses and hurries on the vulgar sort."

Chapter 1

  1. Milton debunks the claim that Charles "called this last Parliament [the Long Parliament], not more by others advice and the necessity of his affairs than by his own choice and inclination."
  2. Charles dismissed his first Parliament "at his coming to the crown, for no other cause than to protect the Duke of Buckingham against hem who had accused him . . . of no less than poisoning" King James.
  3. No Parliament was called from 1629-1640.
  4. Charles called a Parliament in Ireland to raise money for war.
  5. Charles called what became the Long Parliament for the same reason.
  6. Charles "never was perceived to call them but for the greedy hope of a whole national bribe, his subsidies; and never loved, never fulfilled, never promoted the true end of Parliaments, the redress of grievances."
  7. The major thrust of this chapter is the accusation that Charles (or Gauden) stole a prayer from Sydney’s Arcadia and tried to pass it of as the king’s own prayer. "But this king . . . to attribute to his own making other men’s whole prayers, hath as it were unhallowed and unchristened the very duty of prayer itself, by borrowing to a Christian use prayers offered to a heathen god . . . a prayer stolen word for word from the mouth of a heathen fiction praying to a heathen God; and that in no serious book, but the vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia."
  8. A proto-copyright argument: "But leaving what might justly be offensive to God, it was a trespass also more than usual against human right, which commands that every author should have the property of his own work reserved to him after death, as well as living. Many princes have been rigorous in laying taxes on their subjects by the head, but of any king heretofore that made a levy upon their wit and seized it as his own legitimate, I have not whom beside to instance."
  9. Another shot at the people sympathetic to Charles: "how unhappy, how forsook of grace, and unbeloved of God that people who resolve to know no more of piety or of goodness than to account him their chief saint and martyr."

Chapter 5

  1. This chapter is concerned primarily with the bill calling for Triennial Parliaments and Charles’ claim that the bill was passed by "his own act of grace and willingness."
  2. "The first bill granted much less that two former statutes yet in force by Edward III: that a Parliament should be called every year, or oftener if need were."
  3. Milton bases this argument on Horn’s Mirror of Justices: "from a far ancienter Law-Book called the Mirror, it is affirmed in a late treatise called Rights of the Kingdom that Parliaments by our old laws ought twice a year to be at London."
  4. So Charles is bragging, in effect, about having reduced the frequency of Parliaments: "this is that which the king preaches here for a special token of hhis princely favor, to have abridged and overreached the people five parts in six of what their due was, both by ancient statute and originaly."
  5. Repetition of the charges that Charles only ever called a parliament for the purpose of raising funds for wars: He had by his ill-stewardship and, to say no worse, needless raising of two armies, intended for a civil war, beggared both himself and the public . . . To disengage him and the Kingdom great sums were to be borrowed, which would never have been lent, nor could ever be repaid, had the king chanced to dissolve this Parliament as heretofore."
  6. Milton places the power of calling Parliaments in the people, calling it a "mere trust" to invest this power in the king. He also claims that the law was so commonly relied upon that it was never actually written down. "And that it was a mere trust, and not his prerogative, to call and dissolve Parliaments at his pleasure; and that Parliaments were not to be dissolved till all Petitions were heard, all grievances redressed, is not only the assertion of this Parliament, but of our ancient law-books, which aver it to be an unwritten law of common right so engraven in the hearts of our ancestors, and by them so constantly enjoyed and claimed, as that it needed not enrolling."
  7. Milton claims that the calling, and not prematurely dissolving, of Parliaments ‘was a known and common right which our ancestors enjoyed as firmly as if it had been graven in marble."

Chapter 27

  1. Milton takes the writing in this chapter of Eikon Basilike as evidence of the tyrannical nature of Charles I. "I shall show point by point that although the king had been reinstalled . . . or that his son admitted should observe exactly all his father’s precepts . . . that it would inevitably throw us back again into all our past and fulfilled miseries; would force us to fight over again all our tedious wars and put us to another fatal struggling for liberty and life, more dubious than the former."
  2. Better keep the Stuarts down and out, now that Charles I has been executed. "They who suffer as oppressors, tyrants, violators of law, and persecutors of reformation, without appearance of repenting, if they once get hold again of that dignity and power which they had lost, are but whetted and enraged by what they suffered, against those whom they look upon as them that caused their sufferings."
  3. Charles warns his son "that the devil of rebellion doth most commonly turn himself into an angel of reformation." Milton takes this as a sign "that our consciences were destined to the same servitude and persecution . . . under him, or if it should so happen, under his son; who count all protestant churches erroneous and schismatical which are nor episcopal."
  4. Charles’ next bit of advice to his son is taken up: "His next precept is concerning our civil liberties, which by his sole voice and predominant will must be circumscribed and not permitted to extend a handsbreadth further than his interpretation of ‘the laws already settled.’ . . . if the removing of an old law, or the making of a new, would save the kingdom, we shall not have it, unless his arbitrary voice will so far slacken the stiff curb of his prerogative as to grant it us."
  5. Next, Milton objects to the portrayal of Charles in Eikon Basilike as martyr: "martyrs bear witness to the truth, not to themselves . . . He who writes himself martyr by his own inscription is like an ill painter who, by writing on the shapeless picture which he hath drawn, is fain to tell passengers what shape it is."
  6. Charles’ death does not, in and of itself, make him a true martyr: "if to die for ‘the testimony of his own conscience’ be enough to make him martyr, what heretic dying for direct blasphemy, as some have done constantly, may not boast a martyrdom?"
  7. Charles’ support of the Church of England was a way of subduing the English people: "he could not possibly find a more compendious and politic way to uphold and settle tyranny than by subduing first the consciences of vulgar men with the insensible poison of their slavish doctrine."
  8. Milton’s most eloquent condemnation of those English who sympathize with the cause of Charles I: "that people that should seek a king claiming what this man claims, would show themselves to be by nature slaves and arrant beasts—not fit for that liberty which they cried out and bellowed for, but fitter to be led back again into their old servitude like a sort of clamoring and fighting brutes, broke loose from their copyholds, that know not how to use or possess the liberty which they fought for, but with the fair words and promises of an old exasperated foe are ready to be stroked and tamed again into the wonted and well-pleasing state of their true Norman villeinage, to them best agreeable."
  9. Those who would serve God, must choose him as master rather than any king: "If God, then, and earthly kings be for the most part not several only, but opposite masters, it will as oft happen that they who will serve their king must forsake their God; and they who will serve God must forsake their king."

Chapter 28

  1. "truth is but justice in our knowledge, and justice is but truth in our practice."
  2. Justice is ultimately valued above truth: "For truth is properly no more than contemplation, and her utmost efficiency is but teaching: but justice in her very essence is all strength and activity, and hath a sword put into her hand to use against all violence and oppression on the earth. . . . We may conclude therefore that justice, above all other things, is and ought to be the strongest; she is the strength, the kingdom, the power, and majesty of all ages. Truth herself would subscribe to this, though Darius and all the monarchs of the world should deny."
  3. In response to Charles’ claim that "no law of God or man gives to subjects any power of judicature without or against him," Milton writes that the Mosaic law was given to all men. That law’s provision that "whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed," applies to kings as well as ordinary men.
  4. Even if all kings were anointed by God, which Milton describes as an idea "most false," that wouldn’t support Charles’ claim to immunity either: "it were yet most absurd to think that the anointment of God would be as it were a charm against law; and give them privilege who punish others, to sin themselves unpunishably."
  5. Milton makes a series of claims designed to argue for the notion that kings have been held accountable, even executed, before:
  1. "The kings of Sparta, though descended from Hercules, esteemed a God among hem, were often judged, and sometimes put to death by the most just and renowned laws of Lycurgus."
  2. "What the Senate decreed against Nero, that he should be judged and punished according o te laws of their ancestors . . . is vulgarly known."
  3. "That the Christian civil law warrants like power of judicature to subjects against tyrants, is written clearly by the best and famousest civilians. For if it was decreed by Theodosius and stand yet firm in the Code of Justinian, that the law is above the emperor, then certainly the emperor being under law, the law may judge him; and if judge him, may punish him, proving tyrannous." Note Milton’s use of a Catholic Church authority claiming temporal jurisdiction over an emperor.
  1. Milton claims that law is to be universally applied, regardless of rank: "all laws, both of God and man, are made without exemption of any person whomsoever; and that if kings presume to overtop the law by which they reign for the public good, they are by law to be reduced into order."
  2. The people are ruled laws made by their own consent: "who should better understand their own laws, and when they are transgressed, than they who are governed by them and whose consent first made them?"
  3. The king is not submitted to because of his person, but because of his authority, and that authority is invested in him by the people: "Those objected oaths of allegiance and supremacy we swore, not to his person but as it was invested with his authority; and his authority was by the people first given him conditionally, in law and under law, and under oath also for the kingdom’s good, and not otherwise."
  4. "Kings in receiving justice and undergoing due trial are not different from the meanest subject."
  5. One final slam at those sympathetic to Charles: "the worthless approbation of an inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble; that like a credulous and hapless herd, begotten to servility and enchanted with a new device of the king’s picture at his prayers, hold out both their ears with such delight and ravishment to be stigmatized and bored through in witness of their own voluntary and beloved baseness." The image of holding out ears is designed to evoke memories of those whose ears were cut off for their resistance to what Milton takes to be the combined tyranny or prelacy and kingship is the late 1630s.

The Atheist Milton

Michael Bryson
(Ashgate  Press, 2012)

Basing his contention on two different lines of argument, Michael Bryson posits that John Milton–possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary history–was, in fact, an atheist.

First, based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of creation (which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with the human body, Bryson argues that Milton was an atheist by the commonly used definitions of the period. And second, as the poet who takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in Paradise Lost, to the internal-almost Gnostic-conception of God in Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson Agonistes, Milton moves from a theist (with God) to something much more recognizable as a modern atheist position (without God) in his poetry.

Among the author's goals in The Atheist Milton is to account for tensions over the idea of God which, in Bryson's view, go all the way back to Milton's earliest poetry. In this study, he argues such tensions are central to Milton's poetry–and to any attempt to understand that poetry on its own terms.


The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Review of Tyranny of Heaven