John Milton is well known today for his poetry, especially Paradise Lost. But in his own time, he was famous for his justification of the execution of England’s King Charles I in 1649. It begins by acknowledging that perhaps it seems unfair to write about the faults of someone now dead, but he does so in order to explore the rights of the people against their king. Below are a few excerpts to give you a flavor of this radical text. Charles I was executed by Parliament after 9 years of war, a war fought over the the rights of the king versus those of Parliament. As the son of James I (document 1), it should be clear how his arguments reflected those of his father. Many of those in Parliament used religious arguments that they should follow their own consciences and also challenged the king’s divinity. How is Milton justifying Charles I’s execution?
- Kelsey, Sean. “The Death of Charles I.” The Historical Journal 45, no. 4 (2002): 727-54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3133526
- Kelsey, Sean. “The Trial of Charles I.” The English Historical Review 118, no. 477 (2003): 583-616. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3489287
- HOLMES, CLIVE. “THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF CHARLES I.” The Historical Journal 53, no. 2 (2010): 289-316. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40865689
The “Rump” Parliament
- Worden, Blair. The Rump Parliament, 1648-1653. Cambridge England: University Press, 1974.
The English Civil Wars
- Cust, Richard, and Ann Hughes. The English Civil War. Arnold Readers in History. London: Arnold, 1997.
- Ashley, Maurice. The English Civil War. Rev. and Reillustrated ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
- Ashton, Robert, and Raymond Howard Parry. The English Civil War and After, 1642-1658. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
- Hibbert, Christopher. Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1993.
TO descant on the misfortunes of a person fall’n from so high a dignity [Charles I], who hath also payd his final debt both to Nature and his Faults, is neither of it self a thing commendable, nor the intention of this discours. Neither was it fond ambition, or the vanity to get a Name, present, or with Posterity, by writing against a King: I never was so thirsty after Fame, nor so destitute of other hopes and means, better and more certaine to attaine it. For Kings have gain’d glorious Titles from thir Favourers by writing against privat men, as Henry the 8th did against Luther; but no man ever gain’d much honour by writing against a King, as not usually meeting with that force of Argument in such Courtly Antagonists, which to convince might add to his reputation. Kings most commonly, though strong in Legions, are but weak at Arguments; as they who ever have accustom’d from the Cradle to use thir will onely as thir right hand, thir reason alwayes as thir left. Whence unexpectedly constrain’d to that kind of combat, they prove but weak and puny Adversaries. Nevertheless for their sakes who through custom, simplicitie, or want of better teaching, have not more seriously considerd Kings, then in the gaudy name of Majesty, and admire them and thir doings, as if they breath’d not the same breath with other mortal men, I shall make no scruple to take up (for it seems to be the challenge both of him and all his party) to take up this Gauntlet, though a Kings, in the behalf of Libertie, and the Common-wealth.
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But if these his [the King’s] fair spok’n words shall be heer fairly confronted and laid parallel to his own farr differing deeds, manifest and visible to the whole Nation, then surely we may look on them who notwithstanding shall persist to give to bare words more credit then to op’n deeds, as men whose judgement was not rationally evinc’d and perswaded, but fatally stupefi’d and bewitch’d, into such a blinde and obstinate beleef. For whose cure it may be doubted, not whether any charm, though never so wisely murmur’d, but whether any prayer can be available. This however would be remember’d and wel noted, that while the K[ing] instead of that repentance which was in reason and in conscience to be expected from him, without which we could not lawfully re-admitt him, persists heer to maintain and justifie the most apparent of his evil doings, and washes over with a Court-fucus the worst and foulest of his actions, disables and uncreates the Parlament it self, with all our laws and Native Liberties that ask not his leave, dishonours and attaints all Protestant Churches, not Prelaticall [Church of England], and what they piously reform’d, with the slander of Rebellion, sacrilege, and hypocrisie; they, who seem’d of late to stand up hottest for the Cov’nant, can now sit mute and much pleas’d to hear all these opprobrious things utter’d against thir faith, thir freedom, and themselves in thir own doings made traitors to boot: The Divines also, thir wizzards, can be so braz’n as to cry Hosanna to this his book, which cries louder against them for no disciples of Christ, but of Iscariot; and to seem now convinc’d with these wither’d arguments and reasons heer, the same which in som other writings of that party, and in his own former Declarations and expresses, they have so oft’n heertofore endeavour’d to confute and to explode; none appearing all this while to vindicate Church or State from these calumnies and reproaches, but a small handfull of men whom they defame and spit at with all the odious names of Schism and Sectarism. I never knew that time in England, when men of truest Religion were not counted Sectaries: but wisdom now, valor, Justice, constancy, prudence united and imbodied to defend Religion and our Liberties, both by word and deed against Tyranny, is counted Schism and Faction. Thus in a graceless age things of highest praise and imitation under a right name, to make them infamous and hateful to the people, are miscall’d. Certainly, if ignorance and perversness will needs be national and universal, then they who adhere to wisdom and to truth, are not therfore to be blam’d, for beeing so few as to seem a sect or Faction. But in my opinion it goes not ill with that people where these vertues grow so numerous and well joyn’d together, as to resist and make head against the rage and torrent of that boistrous folly and superstition, that possesses and hurries on the vulgar sort. This therfore we may conclude to be a high honour don us from God, and a speciall mark of his favor, whom he hath selected as the sole remainder, after all these changes and commotions, to stand upright and stedfast in his cause; dignify’d with the defence of truth and public libertie; while others, who aspir’d to be the topp of Zelots, and had almost brought Religion to a kinde of trading monopoly, have not onely by thir late silence and neutrality bely’d thir profession, but founder’d themselves and thir consciences, to comply with enemies in that wicked cause and interest, which they have too oft’n curs’d in others, to prosper now in the same themselves.
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Yet heer he [the King] maintaines To be no further bound to agree with the Votes of both Houses, then he sees them to agree with the will of God, with his just Rights as a King, and the generall good of his People. As to the freedom of his agreeing or not agreeing, limited with due bounds, no man reprehends it; this is the Question heer, or the Miracle rather, why his onely not agreeing should lay a negative barr and inhibition upon that which is agreed to by a whole Parlament, though never so conducing to the Public good or safety? To know the will of God better then his whole Kingdom, whence should he have it? Certainly Court-breeding and his perpetual conversation with Flatterers was but a bad Schoole. To judge of his own Rights could not belong to him, who had no right by Law in any Court to judge of so much as Fellony or Treason, being held a party in both these Cases, much more in this; and his Rights however should give place to the general good, for which end all his Rights were giv’n him. Lastly to suppose a clearer insight and discerning of the general good, allotted to his own singular judgement then to the Parlament and all the People, and from that self-opinion of discerning, to deny them that good which they being all Freemen seek earnestly, and call for, is an arrogance and iniquity beyond imagination rude and unreasonable: they undoubtedly having most autoritie to judge of the public good, who for that purpose are chos’n out and sent by the People to advise him. And if it may be in him to see oft the major part of them not in the right, had it not bin more his modestie to have doubted their seeing him more oft’n in the wrong?…
But if a King may doe among men whatsoever is his will and pleasure, and notwithstanding be unaccountable to men, then contrary to this magnifi’d wisdom of Zorobabel, neither Truth nor Justice, but the King is strongest of all other things: which that Persian Monarch himself in the midst of all his pride and glory durst not assume.
Let us see therfore what this King hath to affirm, why the sentence of Justice, and the weight of that Sword, which shee delivers into the hands of men, should be more partial to him offending, then to all others of human race. First, he pleades that No Law of God or Man gives to Subjects any power of judicature without or against him. Which assertion shall be prov’d in every part to be most untrue. The first express Law of God giv’n to mankind was that to Noah, as a Law in general to all the Sons of men. And by that most ancient and universal Law, whosoever sheddeth mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed; we find heer no exception. If a King therfore doe this, to a King, and that by men also, the same shall be don. This in the Law of Moses, which came next, several times is repeated, and in one place remarkably, Numb. 35. Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, but he shall surely be put to death: the Land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shedd therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. This is so spok’n as that which concern’d all Israel, not one man alone to see perform’d; and if no satisfaction were to be tak’n, then certainly no exception. Nay the King, when they should set up any, was to observe the whole Law, and not onely to see it don, but to do it; that his heart might not be lifted up above his Brethren; to dreame of vain and reasonless prerogatives or exemptions, wherby the Law itself must needs be founded in unrighteousness. And were that true, which is most fals, that all Kings are the Lords Anointed, it were yet absurd to think that the Anointment of God, should be as it were a charme against Law; and give them privilege who punish others, to sin themselves unpunishably. The high Priest was the Lords anointed as well as any King, and with the same consecrated oil: yet Salomon had put to death Abiathar, had it not bin for other respects then that anointment. If God himself say to Kings, Touch not mine anointed, meaning his chos’n people, as is evident in that Psalme, yet no man will argue thence, that he protects them from Civil Laws if they offend, then certainly, though David as a privat man, and in his own cause, feard to lift his hand against the Lords Anointed, much less can this forbidd the Law, or disarm justice from having legal power against any King. No other supreme Magistrate in what kind of Goverment soever laies claim to any such enormous Privilege; wherfore then should any King, who is but one kind of Magistrat, and set over the people for no other end then they?
EARLY ACCESS: Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
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