Cromwell died on September 3rd 1658, and Milton walked with a group of humble secretaries at the state funeral in November. Around 1657-8 Milton began to compose Paradise Lost, and during the period 1658-60 completed De Doctrina Christiana, his Latin treatise he hoped would become the basis for Protestant unity (although it was not printed until 1825).
Miltons last major pamphlet The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660) demonstrated the poets courage and commitment to the republican cause. From February 1660 the Restoration was increasingly probable, and the tract appeared first in that month (and enlarged in April). This was a month before Charles IIs triumphal entry into London. Abuse of, and danger to, Milton was at its peak in 1660. On the anniversary of Charles Is execution, the remains of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw were exhumed, dragged to Tyburn and decapitated, their heads impaled on poles at Westminster. Some Cromwellians were executed (e.g. Sir Henry Vane, Miltons friend, in 1662), others were imprisoned or escaped to exile. Milton was protected by friends during 1660 and in Parliament (certainly and notably by Andrew Marvell) who ensured his name was not excluded from the Act of Pardon. The poet was however arrested and imprisoned for several months (see the invocation to Book VII of Paradise Lost).
Miltons later life under a Stuart monarchy was productive. Paradise Lost was finished by 1665, published in 1667, and revised in 1674 for the second edition. A second edition of his Poems appeared in 1673, and Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, were published either 1670 or 1671. Milton died around November 9th 1674, a month before reaching 66.
The Historical Context of Miltons Work
John Milton lived and participated in an age that experienced radical upheavals in the principal areas of public life. Soon enough these spilled out to affect the population at large. Thus the course of English history during the seventeenth century is of direct relevance to Paradise Lost. For a competent reading of Miltons epic it is vital to have some understanding of the political, religious and cultural polarities of Caroline England, the course of the Republic under Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of the Stuarts with Charles II in 1660. Without reference to the major structural changes that took place in church and state during these years many of the allusions in the text will be overlooked or misconstrued, and perhaps the central meaning of Miltons purpose will fail to resonate.
In 1642 England became embroiled in civil war, and the last of Charles Is three kingdoms was to collapse. The King had lost control of government in Scotland in 1638-9 when his attempt to impose religious uniformity on the kirk in Scotland seriously backfired. Ireland fell into rebellion in 1641. The reasons why England, and Charles other kingdoms, collapsed into a state of dysfunction have been hotly debated by historians for decades, and it beyond the scope of this introductory discussion to become embroiled in this historiographical debate.
The early Stuarts (James VI and I and Charles I) inherited a governmental system that was in many ways incapable of supporting the expectations the country had of its monarchy. Elizabeth Is reign was very superficial. Behind the cult of Gloriana (see Spensers The Faerie Queene etc.), victory over the Spanish Armada, campaigns for the Protestant cause in the United Provinces, stood a governmental system with huge structural defects.
Changes in the Church of England were of central importance to the events that led up to the outbreak of the English Civil War. At the turn of the seventeenth century England was in many ways hampered by the problem of an incomplete Reformation. There existed under Elizabeth an uneasy coexistence of Catholics, Anglicans, and more extreme Protestants, the loosely defined grouping of Puritans. The importance of religion and religious issues to contemporaries should never be underestimated. Religion was an issue that, although at times manipulated by statesmen as a pretext for more secular ambitions, managed to cause wars across early modern Europe. To a great extent, events in England followed this same path.
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