The later 17th Century: Civil War, Interregnum, Restoration, Glorious Revolution

    King Charles, after becoming king in 1625, soon provoked great anger in his subjects. In England he tried to rule without Parliament, raising money by other means than regular taxes. In Scotland, he tried to impose a more Catholic form of worship that was unacceptable to the strictly Protestant (Presbyterian) Scots. When the Scots rose in rebellion in 1638, he needed an army and was forced to summon Parliament. Parliament demanded a radical change in his way of ruling; they decided that the army should be controlled by them, and not be subject to the king.

In 1642, civil war broke out between Parliamentarians and Royalists (Cavaliers and Roundheads). Much of the dispute was religious; The Parliamentarian army came under the command of Oliver Cromwell, a devout Protestant from East Anglia and a military genius. Soon the Royalists were defeated (there were only a few real battles) and the king was imprisoned. Parliament abolished the monarchy, and the House of Lords, changed the system of church government to the Calvinist, “presbyterian” form, rejecting the Catholic system of bishops and priests. Because many people still supported the king, and threatened rebellion to reinstate him, a group of radicals decided he should be executed and staged a summary trial. King Charles I was executed in Whitehall in January 1649, the first modern revolution.

The period during which there was no king in England came to be known later as the Interregnum. The new system of government, known as the Commonwealth (translating the Latin Res publica, republic) saw intense debate about the best form of government, usually religious and based on texts from the Bible, but no agreement was reached and Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector ruled with even more absolute powers than the old king had, since he did not need to call Parliament. He died suddenly in 1658, with nothing settled for the future, and a group of leading citizens decided that there would have to be a return to the old systems with king, lord, and bishops. Charles’ son returned from exile in France as Charles II and in 1660 England experienced the “Restoration.”

    Charles II was a very sensitive politician and he became a popular monarch, especially by refusing to leave London during the Great Plague of 1665 (the last great outbreak of the plague)  and by helping to fight the Great Fire which destroyed 80% of London in 1666. He had many children, but none by his wife, so when he died in 1685 his brother James became king. Since 1660, the citizens of London especially had been increasingly alarmed by the Catholic sympathies of the court; the years of exile in France were no doubt partly to blame, and the support the Catholic Church gave to the most absolute forms of monarchy when England had learned to value open debate and had fought the Civil War to protect the rights of Parliament. Where Charles was obviously pro-Catholic but remained outside the Church, although his wife was Catholic, his brother James was a practising Catholic and when he became king it was clear that he wished to challenge the 1660 settlement, by which the Church of England was the one national church.

By 1688, the public opposition to James was so intense that his nerve suddenly broke and he fled from England without abdicating. This is known as the Glorious (bloodless) Revoution. His sister Mary was a Protestant, wed to the ruler of the Netherlands, William of Orange, and finally the two were invited to become joint rulers of Great Britain. In 1689 the Bill of Rights gave legal form to the future succession and declared clearly that the monarch could be deposed legally by Parliament if the contract between monarch and nation were clearly broken. This marks the beginning of modern Britain’s “constitutional monarchy.”  James’s subsequent arrival in northern  Ireland in an attempt to regain the crown in 1689, and the support he received there from the native, Catholic population, prompted William of Orange to reassert Protestant domination there in a violent repression in 1690 after the Battle of the Boyne. The memory of those events underlies the recent Troubles in Northern Ireland.

John Milton

(Click here for a full account of the life and works of John Milton)

Milton was born in London in1608 and died in 1674. Milton's first major poem, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" (often called "The Nativity Ode") was composed for Christmas 1629, when he had just turned twenty-one. For Milton, it seems to have marked his birth as a mature poet. He was at Cambridge then and probably wrote the parallel poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" while still at Cambridge, in 1631. In all these poems, he is writing poetry about the possible ways in which poetry (or what we know as "literature") may be written and received in society. The poems are full of contrasts between sounds and silence, outwardness and inwardness, pleasure and thoughtfulness, day and night. In each poem, Milton can be felt posing the question of his future career, but without finding any clear reply. While he was waiting for his future course to become clear, he left Cambridge in 1632 and went to live at his father's country house at Horton in Buckinghamshire. There he continued to read intensively for another six years.

In 1637 Milton wrote the elegy Lycidas in memory of Edward King who had also been a student at Cambridge and who died when the ship he was going to Ireland on struck a rock and sank. This poem was published in a collection of tributes to King in 1638. It is not sure that King and Milton were close friends; the poem mentions that King wrote poetry and was preparing to become a minister (pastor) in the church. Much of the poem seems to dwell on the possibility of combining poetry and public service of God, which was Milton's great concern. From 1637 to 1639 Milton travelled in Europe, meeting other noted humanists such as Galileo. Hearing of the approaching conflicts of the Civil War, he returned home. From that moment the only poems he wrote for many years were a few sonnets, and occasional poems in Latin or Italian. All his energies went into writing polemical pamphlets.

    After the execution of Charles I, Milton published tracts in favour of a republican form of society and became the Latin secretary to the new Council of State. His skills in writing Latin made him invaluable for correspondence with the rulers of Europe who wanted to know how a king could be executed. Many of his writings were so powerfully radical that they were condemned and burnt in France. In the mid-1640s, Milton realized that his sight was growing weak, in part at least because of his endless reading. By 1652 he was completely blind. The Commonwealth's collapse meant the failure of the social and religious dream he had worked for. He was arrested at the Restoration, but the poet Andrew Marvell was able to secure his release. The rest of his life was devoted to the composition of the three great works: Paradise Lost (1667 & 1674), Paradise Regained, and  Samson Agonistes (1671). In 1673 there appeared a second edition of his Poems.

Paradise Lost

The first lines of Paradise Lost

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th' Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
  Say first, for Heav'n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov'd our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour'd of Heav'n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?
Who first seduc'd them to that fowl revolt?
Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd
The Mother of Mankinde, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal'd the most High,
If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.

 Books 1 and 2 are centered on Satan. The poem begins, as tradition requires, in medias res with Satan and his fellows lying on the floor of Hell. Satan's first speech, to Beelzebub, indicates his fixed nature as rebel against God. How to continue the fight? The hall of Pandemonium rises and they gather in assembly round Satan, their manipulative dictator. In Book 2, after a debate on continuing resistance to God, in which Satan strikes poses of rebel hero, he sets out to find the newly-created world. At the gates of Hell he finds the figures Sin and Death; Sin says that Death is her son and that Satan is his father. Satan journeys through Chaos and arrives at the world.

Books 3 and 4 form a strong contrast. Book 3 is set in Heaven; the Father tells the Son what will happen to Adam and Eve as a result of Satan's journey. The Son freely offers to give his own life for the redemption of their sin. Meanwhile Satan is trying to find where Adam and Eve are living. In Book 4 Satan slips into Paradise disguised as a bird. The angels detect his presence and arrest him while he is trying to tempt the sleeping Eve, now reduced to the shape of a toad.

Book 5 introduces Adam and Eve in their perfect but slightly precarious harmony. God sends the archangel Raphael to warn them of the approaching danger. While Eve cuts fruit for their meal, Raphael starts to describe to Adam in suitably adapted heroic style how Satan rebelled, created an opposition party and easily fooled a host of angels by his seeming sincerity. In Book 6, Raphael's tale continues: there is open warfare in epic mode; the hosts of God's angels are led by Michael and Gabriel. The first day's battle is inconclusive; on the second day, Satan's army invents heavy artillery but the guns are buried by God's angels under uprooted mountains. On the third day, the Son himself comes out to battle as Messiah and by his unique power drives the rebels straight through the wall of heaven.

The two halves of the poem hinge around the division between books 6 and 7, the fall of Satan in Book 6 being followed in Book 7 by Raphael's story (from Genesis) of the six days of creation by the Son who then returns to Heaven. They reach the point in the story where Adam is already created. In Book 8, Adam shows his human nature by taking over the story-telling from Raphael and plying him with questions about the mechanics of the cosmos. Raphael discourages too much scientific curiosity. The creation of Eve to be Adam's "fit companion" is described by Adam, who tells how they fell in love at a moment when Eve was in danger of falling in love with her own reflection in a pond. Raphael warns Adam and Eve again of the danger Satan represents, then withdraws.

The climax of the story comes in Books 9  and 10. Satan takes the shape of the serpent, tempts Eve while she is working away from Adam, she eats. Hearing what has happened, Adam is horrified. He recalls God's "you shall surely die" and decides he would rather die with her than live alone again. He eats and they are both overcome by liberated sexual passion of a degenerate kind that leads to discord. In Book 10 the Son comes to judge them and give them clothes. Sin and Death create a highway linking earth and Hell while Satan returns to Pandemonium to tell of his success. All the inhabitants of Hell are turned into serpents eating ashes. The cosmos itself is corrupted as a result of humanity's Fall, although God in heaven promises the final victory of good. Adam and Eve consider suicide but Adam begins to use his reason, finds grounds for hope, and they turn towards God in prayer.

The final two books, Books 11 and 12, are oriented towards the future. The Son prays to the Father for Adam and Eve; his prayers are accepted. Adam and Eve must leave Paradise and live out in the harsh world. Michael is sent to tell them of their exile. Michael tells Adam of the future consequences of the Fall, as portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis, with the murder of Abel, the corruptions that follow, until God decides to send the flood to destroy humanity. Adam is appalled. Book 12 turns from disaster to hope, with the call of Abraham and his obedience to God. Michael tells Adam all the history of Israel, constantly wavering between obedience and sin, until one woman, Mary, says yes to God and the Son is born. The life and death of Jesus are reported, and the continuing work of salvation in the Christian Church with the same alternations of disaster and hope until finally the Last Day brings the Return and final victory of the Son. Adam is comforted. Eve, who has been asleep, dreams similar things and together they set out to begin human society's history.