Historical Context

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 Milton's 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 Milton's purpose will fail to resonate.

In 1642, England became embroiled in civil war, the last of Charles I's three kingdoms 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 I's reign was very superficial. Behind the cult of Gloriana, 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.

With the Hampton Court Conference (1604), James I had managed to achieve a state of equilibrium in which the confessional strands were accommodated or at least temporarily appeased. This was perhaps James' principal achievement as king of England; Charles I and William Laud destroyed this within a matter of years.

Supreme Head of the Church of England, Charles, with his archbishop William Laud, pursued an ecclesiastical policy that has been labelled 'Arminian' or 'Laudian'. Essentially the Caroline church was marked by a greater emphasis on ritual in administering the sacraments, and hence the Laudian clergy, steeped in ritual, took on greater pomp. Furthermore, the judicial abuses of the ecclesiastical courts were most unpopular, particularly the case of Prynne, Burton and Bastwick.

The theology of Jacobus Arminius had been derided at the Synod of Dort (1618), and thus in England the more Calvinistic and Puritan sections of society were hostile to the doctrine of free will. However, the Laudian church was not strictly Arminian, and it was the drive for uniformity in worship, with what was perceived as crypto-Catholic ritual and the doctrinal superiority of the sacraments over the power of individual contact with God (i.e. the Lutheran doctrine of Sola fide), that caused most outrage.

The Stuarts have been infamous throughout subsequent history for their extravagance. Though it would be misleading to attempt to dispel this image of luxury at the Jacobean and Caroline courts entirely, it must be quantified. Relatively, James I's expenditure was equal to that of Henry VII and less than Henry VIII's had been. What did cause great frustration and wariness was the fear of crypto-Catholicism at the court and 'popish plots' engineered through the court, and the continued isolation of the king and a small group of aristocrats and favourites.

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