for Miltons Regicide Tracts
(Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
The conflict between the Parliament and the Army
over what to do with the captured and imprisoned Charles is reaching a critical stage.
Parliament is now resisting the idea of trying (and eventually executing) Charles, while
the Army is pushing Parliament to do exactly that. On 12/6/1648, the Army stages a coup
(known as Pride's Purge) that rids Parliament of its less cooperative members (members
opposed to the policies of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Pride), and leaves a so-called
"Rump" Parliament in place of the full Parliament (known as the "Long
Parliament" because it had sat more or less continuously since 1640). The Rump
Parliament ordered the trial of King Charles I, and after his execution in 1649 they
governed England through an executive council until 1653, when Cromwell dismissed
Parliament and seized power as Lord Protector. After Cromwell's death there were two
attempts in 1659 to revive the Rump Parliament. In February 1660, the original Long
Parliament reassembled and voted its own dissolution as of March 16.
The execution of Charles set off a firestorm of protest
both from Royalist supporters of the king, and from Presbyterian ministers who, for
various reasons, were not willing to go to the extreme of execution in deposing the king
they had for so long resisted. Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and Eikonoklastes
are responses that attempt to justify the ways of the regicides to men.
What follows is a kind of hodge-podge of background
documents and issues. It is ridiculously incomplete, but it covers enough territory to
allow someone who is completely new to this time period and these issues to "hum a
few bars and fake it."
An "Independent" Document Stating the
Position of the Army.
A Remonstrance of His Excellency Thomas Lord Fairfax,
Lord Generall of the Parliaments Forces, and of the Generall Councell of Officers.
- States the case for Prides Purge of the Parliament
(two weeks later, on 12/6/1648), and for the trial of Charles I in January, 1649.
- Held that both the Army and the Parliament were employed
in the interests of the people.
- Parliament had pleaded "necessity" in asking
Charles I to recognize its war upon him as justified; the army uses the same plea of
"necessity" to justify its pressure upon Parliament (and its soon-to-come
purging of "uncooperative" MPs). See Paradise Lost IV. 393,394.
- Charles I was known to be conspiring to bring armed
support from Ireland and the continent.
- Declares the power of a national "council or
representative body [to punish] public officers abusing or failing their trust, . . .
either according to law, where it has been provided, or their own judgment, where it has
not and they find the offense . . . against the general law of reason or nations."
- The king intended to "hold the community of men . .
. in a darksome ignorance and superstition or formality in religion, with only an awful
reverence of persons, offices, and outward dispensations, rendering them fit subjects for
ecclesiastical and civil tyranny."
- The army admits that its course is illegal, but claims
that it is justified by "necessity."
- Lesser magistrates are obligated to call evil rulers to
A Presbyterian Reply (Defending the Position of the
A Serious and Faithful Representation of the
Judgements of Ministers of the Gospel within the Province of London. (1/18/1649)
- The kings enemies should ask themselves whether God
is hardening their hearts in order to condemn them to greater punishment.
- "It is one of the greatest judgements, when God
suffers men to prosper in sinfull courses."
- "In reference to the Power of Magestracie, [the
army, and other rebels, are] but private persons."
- Therefore, the purge of Parliament and the arrest (and
eventual execution) of the king are private crimes which no plea of necessity can justify.
- "For the Lawes of God, Nature, and nations, together
with the Dictates of Reason, and the common consent of all Casuists, allow that to those
which are intrusted with managing the Supreame Authoritie of a State of kingdom, which
they doe not allow to a multitude of Private persons."
The Parliament and the Army are the two primary forces
temporarily united in opposition to Charles I. However, these two groups resist the king
from widely disparate positions: the Parliament is primarily Presbyterian, while the Army
is primarily Independent.
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The Distinction Between Public and Private Persons
The "private person" argument appears in
Miltons Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in reference to Davids refusal
to slay Saul. This story was often used by Royalist writers to argue against punishing
Charles I. Milton, in TKM, argues that David held back because he was acting as
"a private person," who, in slaying the king, would have been "his own
avenger, not so much the peoples."
A more radical view was put forth in an anonymous
pamphlet entitled An Answer to the Cities Representation Set forth by some Ministers .
. . Concerning the Proceedings of the Army (2/7/1649). This pamphlet argued that David
held back out of magnanimity; he would have been fully entitled to kill Saul, had he
chosen to do so, because he was "in Armes by Authority of the Magistracy or people
against Saul, declared a Violator of his Trust, and Israels just Liberites, as the
king hath been by parliament, to suppresse his exorbitancies."
The ultimate significance of the "private
person" argument is this: the case for a clear distinctionderived from Lutheran
and Calvinist tracts on resistancebetween the political rights of inferior
magistrates and private persons maintained that it was unlawful for private persons to
take any political action whatsoever. Calvin writes that "under this obedience I
include the restraint which private citizens ought to bid themselves keep in public, that
they may not deliberately intrude in public affairs, or pointlessly invade the
magistrate's office, or undertake anything at all politically" (Institutes of the
Christian Religion, IV. xx. 23). Luther opens (ever-so-slightly) the door to the
possibility of non-violent political resistance when he argues that "the
governing authority must not be resisted by force, but only by confession of the truth"
(Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, 124), but on the
question of how far the obedience of subjects to their prince must extend, Luther is
slightly less than clear. If a prince is definitely in the wrong, subjects are absolved of
obedience: "It is no ones duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who deserves the
right) rather than men" (125). Luther further argues that if the subjects do not know
whether or not the prince is in the wrong, they should obey: "So long as they do not
know, and cannot with all possible diligence find out, they may obey him without peril to
their souls" (126). For Calvin, the only lawful political resistance to a tyrannous
king could come from lower magistrates acting in concert with one another. It is, in fact,
the sacred duty of such magistrates to resist tyranny, as is spelled out quite
clearly in the following passage:
I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in
accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at
kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their
dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of
the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God's
ordinance. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xx. 31)
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Cases Made by Two "Independent" Ministers
Right and Might Well Met, Or a Briefe Enquiry
into the Proceedings of the Army (1/2/1649).
John GoodwinPastor of Independent congregation at
St. Stephens in Coleman St. London.
- Distinguishes between "Magistraticall
Power"from Godand the abuse of that powerwhich is tyranny.
- Denies that any individual ruler is divinely ordained.
- The "end and intent of the ordinance of God . . .
[is] the good of those that are subject to it."
The City Ministers Unmasked (3/5/1649)
William DellOnce secretary to William Laud, now an
army chaplain, later to be the master of Caius College, Cambridge.
- Revelation 20:6reign of the saints on earth to be
accomplished by the final separation of church and state.
- The "three grand Sects of Papacy, Prelacy, and
Presbytery" make up "the triple crown of Antichrist."
- The army was fulfilling Gods purpose by acting
against "the grand and domineering Sect of Presbytery, which is the third disguise of
Antichrist, as the Papacy and Prelacy were the first and second."
Issues at Work
The Authority of Kings: Divine Right?
The authority of a King was thought by Royalists in
this era to be granted by divine right. Divine Right theory argued that kings derived
their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by
any earthly authority such as a parliament. The French bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
declared that the king's person and authority were sacred, his power was modeled on that
of a father's, and that his power was absolute (being granted by God). The English
Royalist Sir Robert Filmer, in his Patriarcha, argued that the state was a family
and that the king was a father. He went on to argue that Adam was the first king and that
Charles I ruled England as Adam's heir. John Locke disputes these notions in his First
Treatise of Civil Government.
According to Calvin, God ordains kingship. Calvin is
clear and insistent on this point. "Those who serve as magistrates are called
gods" (Institutes, IV. xx. 4). The scriptural passages he cites
in support of this point (Exodus 22:8, and Psalm 82:1,6) use the word elohim, which
may be translated variously as God, gods, and even magistrates or judges. Calvin takes
full advantage of this word and its possible translations to suggest that magistrates are
not merely appointed by God, but are in some way divine themselves due to the divine
nature of their positions. "Authority over all things on earth is in the hands of
kings and other rulers . . . by divine providence and holy ordinance" (Institutes,
IV. xx. 4). Civil authority is "the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all
callings in the whole life of mortal men" (Institutes, IV. xx. 4).
To Whom Is the King Answerable?
One of the contentions of the Divine-Righters was
that a king was answerable only to God; in fact, a bad king could not be said to actually
wrong anyone except God. This point is made clearly by Hobbes:
. . . nothing the sovereign representative can do to a
subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice or injury . . . . And
the same holdeth also in a sovereign prince that putteth to death an innocent subject. For
though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity (as was the
killing of Uriah by David); yet it was not an injury to Uriah, but to God. (Leviathan,
What Do Divine-Righters Think of Rebels?
Hobbes bolsters his case for the Divine sanction of
sovereignty, and takes a swipe at parliamentary, presbyterian, and independent ideals,
with his interpretation of the story of the rebellion against Moses in Numbers 16:
So also in the question between Moses and the people who
had the right of governing the people, when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and two hundred and
fifty princes of the assembly 'gathered themselves together against Moses, and against
Aaron, and said unto them, ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are
holy, every one of them, and the Lord is amongst them, why lift you up yourselves above
the congregation of the Lord?'" God caused the earth to swallow Korah, Dathan, and
Abiram, with their wives and children, alive, and consumed those two hundred and fifty
princes with fire. Therefore neither Aaron, nor the people, nor any aristocracy of the
chief princes of the people, but Moses alone had next under God the sovereignty over the
Israelites: and that not only in causes of civil policy, but also of religion. (Leviathan,
Milton derives his justification for a right to
rebel against, depose, and execute Charles I, partly from an appeal to "natural
law." What is natural law? At the most absurdly reductive level, natural law is a set
of principles, based on what are assumed to be the permanent characteristics of human
nature, principles that can serve as a standard for evaluating conduct and civil laws. It
is considered fundamentally unchanging and universally applicable. However, since the
meaning of the word "nature" can vary from writer to writer, and from context to
context, the concept of "natural law" varies as well. In the mid-17th
century, "natural law" was appealed to frequently, by writers and propagandists
at all points of the political spectrum. What follows is a basic outline of the
development of this concept through Milton's time.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
- What is "just by nature" is not always the same
as what is "just by law."
- There is a natural justice valid everywhere with the same
force and "not existing by people's thinking this or that."
- Appeal can be made to natural justice from the positive
law (the laws passed by civil governments).
The Stoics (300 B.C.-200 A.D.)
The law of nature is in conformity with the "right
reason," or Logos, inherent in the human mind.
Paul (3-62 A.D.)
Writes of a law "written in the hearts" of the
Gentiles (Romans 2:14-15).
St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.)
Man lived freely under the natural law before his fall
and his subsequent bondage under sin and the positive law.
Gratian (1090-1155 A.D.)
Equates natural law with divine law (the revealed law of
the Old and the New Testament).
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.)
- The eternal law of the divine reason, though it is
unknowable to us in its perfection as it is in God's mind, is yet known to us in part not
only by revelation but also by the operations of our reason.
- The law of nature, which is "nothing else than the
participation of the eternal law in the rational creature," comprises those precepts
that humankind is able to formulate, namely, the preservation of one's own good, the
fulfillment of "those inclinations which nature has taught to all animals," and
the pursuit of the knowledge of God.
- Human law must be the particular application of the
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 A.D.)
- Insists on the validity of the natural law "even if
we were to suppose . . . that God does not exist or is not concerned with human
- Man's innate nature and his propensities are viewed as
ideal or inherently good.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 A.D.)
- Argues not from a "state of innocence" in which
man had lived in the biblical Eden but from a savage "state of nature" in which
men, free and equal in rights, were each one at solitary war with every other.
- Defines a law of nature (lex naturalis) as "a
precept of general rule found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which
is destructive of his life."
- Mans innate nature and propensities are not
viewed as ideal or inherently good.
- Man is motivated first and foremost by the desire to
survive. This requires that all men invest their rights of self-help in a sovereign,
whether that sovereign be an individual or an assembly, and subjecting themselves to the
laws of that sovereign.
The Atheist Milton
(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
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
(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