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Background for Milton’s Regicide Tracts

(Tenure of Kings and Magistrates & Eikonklastes)


Background Documents

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 Parliament’s Forces, and of the Generall Councell of Officers. (11/20/1648).

  1. States the case for Pride’s Purge of the Parliament (two weeks later, on 12/6/1648), and for the trial of Charles I in January, 1649.
  2. Held that both the Army and the Parliament were employed in the interests of the people.
  3. 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.
  4. Charles I was known to be conspiring to bring armed support from Ireland and the continent.
  5. 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."
  6. 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."
  7. The army admits that its course is illegal, but claims that it is justified by "necessity."
  8. Lesser magistrates are obligated to call evil rulers to account.

A Presbyterian Reply (Defending the Position of the Parliament):

A Serious and Faithful Representation of the Judgements of Ministers of the Gospel within the Province of London. (1/18/1649)

  1. The king’s enemies should ask themselves whether God is hardening their hearts in order to condemn them to greater punishment.
  2. "It is one of the greatest judgements, when God suffers men to prosper in sinfull courses."
  3. "In reference to the Power of Magestracie, [the army, and other rebels, are] but private persons."
  4. Therefore, the purge of Parliament and the arrest (and eventual execution) of the king are private crimes which no plea of necessity can justify.
  5. "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 Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in reference to David’s 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 people’s."

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 Israel’s 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 distinction—derived from Lutheran and Calvinist tracts on resistance—between 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 one’s 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 Goodwin—Pastor of Independent congregation at St. Stephen’s in Coleman St. London.

  1. Distinguishes between "Magistraticall Power"—from God—and the abuse of that power—which is tyranny.
  2. Denies that any individual ruler is divinely ordained.
  3. 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 Dell—Once secretary to William Laud, now an army chaplain, later to be the master of Caius College, Cambridge.

  1. Revelation 20:6—reign of the saints on earth to be accomplished by the final separation of church and state.
  2. The "three grand Sects of Papacy, Prelacy, and Presbytery" make up "the triple crown of Antichrist."
  3. The army was fulfilling God’s 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, II, xxi)

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, III, xl)

Natural Law

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.)

  1. What is "just by nature" is not always the same as what is "just by law."
  2. There is a natural justice valid everywhere with the same force and "not existing by people's thinking this or that."
  3. 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.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Human law must be the particular application of the natural law.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 A.D.)

  1. 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 affairs."
  2. Man's innate nature and his propensities are viewed as ideal or inherently good.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 A.D.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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."
  3. Man’s innate nature and propensities are not viewed as ideal or inherently good.
  4. 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

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