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The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates



The victorious parliamentary coalition had largely been held together by the urgency of war. Once peace came, the urgency faded, and the coalition began to disintegrate. Achieving any kind of agreement on the shape political settlement should take proved impossible. A majority in the Parliament, especially the Presbyterians, wanted to negotiate with Charles and to reinstate him on terms that seemed to some outside Parliament to sacrifice the aims for which the war had been fought. The Army, far more radical than the Parliament in its politics, wanted instead to bring the King to justice and on 11/20/1648 expressed its opposition to a treaty in a lengthy document, entitled A Remonstrance of His Excellency Thomas Lord Fairfax, Lord Generall of the Parliament’s Forces, and of the Generall Councell of Officers. To finally break this stalemate, the Army staged a coup on Dec. 6, 1648. This coup, called Pride's Purge, excluded the more uncooperative members of Parliament, thereby leaving a body (the "Rump" Parliament) that was more responsive to the wishes of the Army. This opened the way for the events to come. When it became clear that Charles would be placed on trial, bitter responses were provoked from Royalists and Presbyterians alike. Even radical groups such as the Levelers opposed the trial of Charles.

Milton throws his support to the Army. He begins by attempting to discredit his Presbyterian opponents. Despite having initially urged the war against Charles, the Presbyterians are now hiding behind the third article of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) that pledged them to safeguard both the kings authority and his person. Milton argues that the Presbyterians have betrayed their own heritage; they have abandoned the theory of resistance which they themselves espoused at the start of the Civil War and much which was developed in their own sixteenth century history by figures such as John Knox and George Buchanan.

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The Presbyterians were arguing for a distinction between the inferior magistrates and private persons where the issue of resistance to authority was concerned. They took the traditional Lutheran/Calvinist line that it was never lawful for private persons to take any political initiatives at all. Resistance to tyrannical rule was lawful only for magistrates. The Presbyterians in Parliament argued that since the Army had been raised by Parliament, the Army itself had no legitimate political power; therefore, the Army ought to be regarded as no more than a collection of private persons. Presbyterians used this argument after the purge of Parliament on 12/6/1649 to contend that the Army's action had been illegal.

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Charles I

The position that private persons could never take political initiatives was not universal, however. Many writers upheld the distinction between inferior magistrates and private persons, while treating the issue of tyrannicide in such a way that allowed private persons to act in certain circumstances. This move usually depended upon a distinction between two different kinds of tyrant: tyrants by practice, and tyrants by usurpation. Tyrants by practice (legitimate rulers who had for some reason descended into tyranny) could only be resisted by the inferior magistrates. Tyrants by usurpation (for example, a foreign invader, or native who seized power in some illegitimate way) could be resisted by private persons acting in defense of their country. However, if the usurper at any point gains or is granted legitimacy, any further resistance by private persons becomes unlawful. Milton denies the distinction between the two types of tyrant. There is for him, no difference between a foreign invader, a domestic usurper, or domestic ruler who becomes a tyrant. Denying the distinction between types of tyrant allows Milton to go on to deny the distinction between the legitimacy of political action by inferior magistrates and by private persons. Any tyrant may be punished, and any tyrant may be punished by private citizens.

Milton uses the concept of natural law to claim that though men "naturally were born free," they formed "Cities, Towns and Commonwealths" in order to escape the violence which stemmed from the Fall by agreeing to "bind each other from mutual injury, and jointly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement." Eventually it became necessary to "ordain some authority, that might restrain by force and punishment what was violated against peace and common right." Finally it became necessary to invest this authority either in one person (a King) or in many persons (magistrates). These rulers, however, ruled strictly at the behest of the people. Milton explicitly denies the idea that power is given to a King or magistrates directly from God; instead, he argues that this power of the rulers is entrusted to them by the people. (It is important, however, to discern what his definition of "people" is.)

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Milton's Response to the Presbyterians--Tenure of Kings and Magistrates


  1. If men within themselves would be governed by reason and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny of custom from without and blind affections within, they would discern better what it is to favor and uphold the tyrant of a nation. But being slaves within doors, no wonder that they strive so much to have the public state conformably governed to the inward vicious rule by which they govern themselves.
  2. None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but license, which never hath more scope or more indulgence than under tyrants.
  3. Neither do bad men hate tyrants, but have been always readiest with the falsified names of loyalty and obedience to color over their base compliances.

Speaking of the Presbyterians

  1. Straight these men and sure helpers at need, as if they hated only the miseries but not the mischiefs, after they have juggled and paltered with the world, bandied and borne arms against their King, divested him, disannointed him, nay, cursed him all over in their pulpits and their pamphlets to the engaging of sincere and real men beyond what is possible or honest to retreat from, not only turn revolters from those principles which only could at first move them, but lay the stain of disloyalty and worse on those proceedings which are the necessary consequences of their own former actions. [They are] not considering the while that he toward whom they boasted their new fidelity, counted them accessory; and by those statutes and laws which they so impotently brandish against others, would have doomed to them to a traitor's death for what they have done already.
  2. Most men are apt enough to civil wars and commotions as a novelty, . . . but through sloth or inconstancy and weakness of spirit . . . or through an inbred falsehood and wickedness, betray, ofttimes to destruction with themselves, men of noblest temper joined with them for causes whereof they in their rash undertakings were not capable.
  3. Others, who have been fiercest against their Prince under the notion of a tyrant, and no mean incendiaries of the war against him, when God out of his providence and high disposal hath delivered him into the hand of their brethren, on a sudden and in a new garb of allegiance, which their doings have long since canceled, they plead for him, pity him, extol him, protest against those that talk of bringing him to the trial of justice.
  4. Another sort there is, who . . . begin to swerve and almost shiver at the majesty and grandeur of some noble deed, as if they were newly entered into a great sin; disputing precedents, forms, and circumstances, when the commonwealth nigh perishes for want of deeds in substance, done with just and faithful expedition.
  5. [These are] apostate scarecrows, who, under show of giving counsel, send out their barking monitories and mementoes, empty of aught else but the spleen of a frustrated faction.
  6. Nor let any man be deluded by either the ignorance or the notorious hypocrisy and self-repugnance of our dancing divines, who have the conscience and the boldness to come with scripture in their mouths, glossed and fitted for their turns with a double contradictory sense, transforming the sacred verity of God to an idol with two faces, looking at once two several ways; and with the same quotations to charge others, which in the same case they may serve to justify themselves. For while the hope to be made classic and provincial lords led them on . . . then to fight against the king's person, and no less a party of his lords and commons, or to put force upon both houses, was good, was lawful, was no resisting of superior powers.
  7. But now that their censorious domineering is not suffered to be universal, truth and conscience to be freed, tithes and pluralities to be no more . . . now to exclude and seize upon impeached mmembers, to bring delinquents without exemption to a fair tribunal by the common national law against murder, is now to be no less than Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. He who but erewhile in the pulpits was a cursed tyrant, an enemy to God and saints, laden with all the innocent blood spilt in three kingdoms, and so to be fought against, is now, though nothing penitent or altered from his first principles, a lawful magistrate, a sovereign lord, the Lord's annointed, not to be touched, though by themselves imprisoned.

Who May Be Resisted as a Tyrant

This I dare owne as part of my faith, that if such a one there be, by whose commission whole massacres have been committed on his faithful subjects, his provinces offered to pawn or alienation, as the hire of those whom he had solicited to come in and destroy whole cities and countries; be he king, or tyrant, or emperor, the sword of justice is above him, in whose hand soever is found sufficient power to avenge the effusion and so great a deluge of innocent blood. For if all human power to execute, not accidentally but intendedly, the wrath of God upon evildoers without exception, be of God, then that power, whether ordinary or, if that fail, extraordinary, so executing that intent of God, is lawful and not to be resisted.

The Beginnings of Civil Authority

  1. I shall here set down from first beginning, the original of kings; how and wherefore exalted into that dignity above their brethren; and from thence shall prove that, turning to tyranny, they may be as lawfully deposed and punished as they were at first elected.
  2. No man who knows aught, 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, borne to command, and not to obey . . . till from the root of Adam's transgression falling among themselves to do wrong and violence . . . they agreed by common league to bind each other from mutual injury, and jointly to defend themselves against any that gave disturbance or opposition to such agreement. Hence came cities, towns, and commonwealths.
  3. This authority and power of self-defense and preservation being originally and naturally in every one of them, and unitedly in them all, . . . they communicated and derived either to one whom for the evidence of his wisdom and integrity they chose above the rest, or to more than one whom they thought of equal deserving. The first was called a king, the other, magistrates: not to be their lords and masters . . . but to be their deputies and commissioners.
  4. These for a while governed well and with much equity decided all things at their own arbitrement, till the temptation of such a power, left absolute in their hands, perverted to them at length to injustice and partiality. Then did they . . . invent laws, either framed or consented to by all, that should confine and limit the authority of whom they chose to govern them . . . while, as the magistrate was set above the people, so law was set above the magistrate.
  5. From that time, the only remedy left them, [was] to put conditions and take oaths from all kings and magistrates at their first installments to do impartial justice by law: who, upon those terms and no other, received allegiance from the people, that is to say, bond or covenant to obey them in execution of those laws which they, the people, had themselves made or assented to. And this ofttimes with express warning, that if the king or magistrate proved unfaithful to his trust, the people would be disengaged.
  6. The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferred, and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally and cannot be taken from them without a violation of their natural birth right.
  7. To say, as is usual, the king hath as good right to his crown and dignity as any man to his inheritance, is to make the subject no better than the king's slave, chattel, or his possession that may be bought and sold. . . . . But suppose it to be of right hereditary, what can be more just and legal, if a subject for certain crimes be to forfeit by law from himself and posterity all his inheritance to the king, then that a king, for crimes proportional, should forfeit all his title and inheritance to the people?

Milton's Response To The Divine-Right Theory Account of a King's Accountability

  1. To say kings are accountable to none but God, is the overturning of all law and government.
  2. Some would persuade us that this absurd opinion was king David's, because in the 51 Psalm he cries out to God, "against thee only have I sinned"; as if David had imagined that to murder Uriah and adulterate his wife had been no sin against his neighbor.
  3. Aristotle . . . writes in the fourth of his Politics, chap.X, that "monarchy unaccountable is the first sword of tyranny, and least of all to be endured by free-born men."
  4. How much more rationally spake the heathen king Demophoon, in a tragedy of Euripides, than these interpreters would put upon king David! "I rule not my people by tyranny, as if they were barbarians, but am myself liable, if I do unjustly, to suffer justly."
  5. Not unlike was the speech of Trajan, the worthy emperor, to one whom he made general of his praetorian forces: "Take this drawn sword," saith he, "to use for me if I reign well; if not, to use against me."
  6. Since the king or magistrate holds his authority of the people, both originally and naturally for their good in the first place, and not his own, then may a people, as oft as they shall judge for the best, either choose him or reject him, retain him or depose him, though no tyrant, merely by the liberty and right of freeborn men to be governed as seems to them best.
  7. The right of choosing, yea of changing their own government, is by the grant of God himself in the people.
  8. Kingdom and magistracy, whether supreme or subordinate, is without difference called "a human ordinance."
  9. St. Paul . . . tells us that such magistrates he means as are not a terror to the good, but to the evil . . . doubtless those powers that do the contrary are no powers ordained of God, and by consequence no obligation laid upon us to obey or not to resist them . . . if the power be not such or the person execute not such power, neither the one nor the other is of God, but of the devil and by consequence to be resisted.
  10. If the people's act in election be pleaded by a king as the act of God and the most just title to enthrone him, why may not the people's act of rejection be as well pleaded by the people as the act of God and the most just reason to depose him?

The Definition of a Tyrant

A tyrant, whether by wrong or by right coming to the crown, is he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns only for himself and his faction.

What May Be Done to a Tyrant

  1. The Greeks and Romans . . . held it not only lawful, but a glorious and heroic deed . . . to kill an infamous tyrant at anytime without trial.
  2. Among the Jews this custom of tyrant-killing was not unusual.

Does it Matter Whether a Tyrant is Domestic or Imported?

  1. It imports not whether [a tyrant is] foreign or native. For no prince so native but professes to hold by law; which when he himself overturns . . . what differs he from an outlandish king or from an enemy?
  2. How much right the king of Spain hath to govern us at all, so much right hath the king of England to govern us tyrannically.

What Does the Gospel Have to Say About Tyranny?

  1. Our Savior himself, how much he favored tyrants and how much intended they should be found or honored among Christians, declares his mind not obscurely . . . charging those that would be his disciples to usurp no such dominion; but that they who were to be of most authority among them, should esteem themselves ministers and servants to the public.
  2. The greatest among you shall be your servant.
  3. So far ought we to be from thinking that Christ and his gospel should be made a sanctuary for tyrants from justice, to whom his law before never gave such protection.

What About the History of British Monarchs and Tyranny?

  1. To prove that some of our own monarchs have acknowledged that their high office exempted them not from punishment, they had the sword of St. Edward borne before them by an officer . . . that if they erred, the sword had power to restrain them.
  2. It is also affirmed from diligent search made in our ancient books of law that the peers and barons of England had a legal right to judge the king.
  3. Our ancestors, who were not ignorant with what rights either nature or ancient constitution had endowed them, when oaths both at coronation and renewed in parliament would not serve, thought it no way illegal to depose and put to death their tyrannous kings.

Examples of Justified Warfare against Kings

  1. In the year 1546, the Duke of Saxony, Landgrave of Hesse, and the whole protestant league, raised open war against Charles the Fith, their emperor.
  2. In the year 1559, the Scots protestants claiming promise of their queen-regent for liberty of conscience, she answering that promises were not to be claimed of princes beyond what was commondius for them to grant, told her to her face in the parliament then at Stirling that if it were so, they renounced their obedience; and soon after betook them to arms.
  3. When allegiance is renounced, that very hour the king or queen is in effect deposed.
  4. In the year 1564, John Knox . . . maintained openly . . . that subjects might and ought execute God's judgments upon their king.
  5. Three years after, they met in the field Mary their lawful and hereditary queen, took her prisoner yielding before fight, kept her in prison, and the same year deposed her. And four years after that, the Scots, in justification of their deposing Queen Mary, sent ambassadors to Queen Elizabeth and in a written declaration alleged that they had used towards her more lenity than she deserved; that their ancestors had heretofore punished their kings by death or banishment; that the Scots were a free nation, made king whom they freely chose, and with the same freedom unkinged him if they saw cause.

The Presbyterians were the ones who deposed Charles I

  1. The Presbyterians, who now so much condemn deposing, were the men themselves that deposed the king, and cannot with all their shifting and relapsing washed off the guiltiness from their own hands. For they themselves by these their late dealings have made it guiltiness and turned their own warrantable actions into rebellion.
  2. The Presbyterians . . . Have they not utterly broke the oath of allegiance, rejecting the king's command and authority sent them from any part of the kingdom, whether in things lawful or unlawful? Have they not abjured the oath of supremacy by setting up the parliament without the king, supreme to all their obedience?
  3. It follows undeniably that the king from that time was by them in fact absolutely deposed; and they no longer in reality to be thought his subjects, notwithstanding their fine clause in the covenant to preserve his person, crown, and dignity.
  4. To prove it yet more plainly that they are the men who have deposed the king, I thus argue. We know that king and subjects are relatives, and relatives have no longer being than in the relation. The relation between king and subject can be no other than regal authority and subjection . . . if the subject, who was one relative, take away the relation, of force he takes away also the other relative. But the Presbyterians, who were one relative, that is to say, subjects, have for this seven years taken away the relation, that is to say, the king's authority and their subjection to it. Therefore the Presbyterians for these seven years have removed and extinguished the other relative, that is to say, the king, or, to speak more in brief, have deposed him.
  5. Who knows not that the king is a name of dignity and office, not a person? Who therefore kills a king, must kill him while he is a king. Then they certainly who by deposing him have long since taken from him the life of the king, his office and his dignity, they in the truest sense may be said to have killed the king.
  6. They . . . were the men who in the truest sense killed the king . . .by the depressing him, their king, far below the rank of a subject to the condition of a captive, without intention to restore him . . . unless he granted fully all their demands, which they knew he never meant.
  7. If the whole bent of their actions had not been against the king himself, but only against his evil counselors, as they feigned and published, wherefore did they not restore him all that while to the true life of the king, his office, crown, and dignity, when he was in their power and they themselves his nearest counselors?

The justice of giving Charles a trial

  1. How much more justly then may they fling off tyranny or tyrants, who being once deposed can be no more than private men, as subject to the reach of justice and arraignment as any other transgressors?
  2. How much more mild and humane is it to give them fair and open trial--to teach lawless kings and all who so much adore them that not mortal man, or his imperious will, but justice, is the only true sovereign and supreme majesty upon earth?
  3. No unbridled potentate or tyrant, but to his sorrow, for the future may presume such high and irresponsible license over mankind, to havoc and turn upside down whole kingdoms of men, as though they were no more in respect of his perverse will than a nation of pismires.

Advice to the Presbyterians

  1. As for the party called Presbyterian . . . I wish them, earnestly and calmly, not to fall off from their first principles . . . not to compel unforcible things, in religion especially . . . . Let them not oppose their best friends and associates, who molest them not at all, infringe not the least of their liberties -- unless they call it their liberty to bind other men's consciences . . . . Let them fear therefore, if they be wise, rather what they have done already than what remains to do; and be warned in time they put no confidence in princes whom they have provoked.
  2. Stories can inform them how Christiern the Second, king of Denmark, not much above a hundred years past, driven out by his subjects and received again upon new oaths and conditions, broke through them all to his most bloody revenge; slaying his chief opposers when he saw his time, both them and their children invited to a feast for that purpose.
  3. [This should] admonish them, both English and Scotch, not to let their own ends and the driving on of a faction betray them blindly into this snare of those enemies whose revenge looks on them as the men who first begun, fomented, and carried on beyond the cure of any sound or safe accommodation, all the evil which hath since unavoidably befallen them and their king.
  4. If they be the ministers of mammon instead of Christ and scandalize his church with the filthy love of gain -- aspiring also to sit the closest and the heaviest of all tyrants upon the conscience -- and fall notoriously into the same sins whereof so lately and so loud they accused the prelates, as God rooted out those wicked ones immediately before so will he root out them, their imitators; and, to vindicate his own glory and religion, will uncover their hypocrisy to the open world.

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