John Milton, 1608-74

Renowned poet and pamphleteer, he served as Latin Secretary to the Council of State and wrote several works in defence of the Commonwealth.

Portrait of John MiltonJohn Milton was born in London in December 1608, the third of six children of John Milton (1562-1647), a prosperous Puritan scrivener and gifted amateur musician, and his wife Sara, née Jeffrey (c.1572-1637). Before he attended school, Milton's father employed private tutors to instruct him in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and modern languages. His father also taught him music, and Milton became an accomplished consort singer and player of the organ and bass viol. Around 1620, he became a pupil at St. Paul's School, and went up to Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1625.

Milton gained a reputation for erudition and poetic skill, writing several accomplished poems in English, Latin and Italian while still a student. His first published work was a commendatory poem On Shakespeare, dated 1630, which appeared with the second folio of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1632.

When he left Cambridge after graduating as M.A. in July 1632, Milton gave up his intention of becoming a clergyman because he was unwilling to take the oaths required under the religious policies of Archbishop Laud. He decided to devote himself to literature and spent six quiet years at his father's house at Horton in Buckinghamshire, reading, writing and pursuing his studies in Greek, Latin and Italian, with regular visits to London to take lessons in mathematics and music. During this period, Milton wrote several works that displayed his full powers as a poet, including L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, the masque Comus, and Lycidas.

During 1638-9, Milton travelled through France to Italy, where he was welcomed into intellectual circles and met leading scholars and philosophers, including the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius in Paris, the astronomer Galileo in Florence, and Cardinal Barberini in Rome.

Milton returned to England in July 1639 and set up as a private schoolmaster in London. In addition to his teaching and literary projects, he began to write polemical tracts on church government, publishing a series of attacks on Episcopacy during 1641 and 1642. The almost immediate collapse of the first of his three marriages in the summer of 1642 prompted a series of pamphlets attacking English marriage law as a relic of medieval Catholicism and advocating the legality and morality of divorce. In 1644, he wrote a short tract urging reform of the universities, and in the same year produced the most celebrated of his prose writings, Areopagitica, written in protest at a parliamentary ordinance of June 1643 which stipulated that all books had to be examined and licensed by a censor before publication. Although it was ignored by Parliament, Areopagitica came to be valued as an eloquent defence of free speech and freedom of the press. His early poems were collected and published in 1645.

After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Milton wrote The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in which he declared his support for the republican Commonwealth and advanced the view that the People had the right to depose and punish tyrannical Kings.

In March 1649, Milton was offered the post of Secretary of Foreign Tongues, or Latin Secretary, to the Council of State, which he readily accepted. His chief responsibility was the drafting into Latin of diplomatic letters and papers which passed between the revolutionary English government and foreign powers. In addition to his routine duties, he was commissioned to answer various attacks on the Commonwealth and wrote Eikonoklastes ("the Image Breaker") as a counterblast to Eikon Basilike ("the Royal Image"), which was popularly attributed to the martyred King Charles. However, Milton refused the Council of State's order to write a refutation of the Leveller pamphlet England's New Chains in 1649, possibly because he felt too much sympathy with the sentiments expressed to attack it. From 1651, he superintended the official government newsbook Mercurius Politicus and became good friends with the journalist Marchamont Nedham. Milton wrote further justifications of the Commonwealth in Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio ("Defence of the English People") in 1651 and 1654.

Milton became completely and permanently blind in 1652, apparently as a result of continuing to strain his eyes by writing against the advice of his physician. However, he retained his offices throughout the Commonwealth and Protectorate with the help of secretaries and amanuenses. Even with the Restoration imminent, Milton continued to defend the republic, publishing The Ready and Easy Way to Establishing a Free Commonwealth in April 1660.

When Charles II arrived in London, Milton went into hiding. His name was among those considered for exclusion from the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion. His Defensio and Eikonoklastes were among the books ordered to be burned by the common hangman during the summer of 1660. Although he was arrested and imprisoned for several months, Milton was eventually pardoned for his activities during the Interregnum.

Milton lived quietly after the Restoration, devoting himself to literary pursuits. His epic Paradise Lost, one of the greatest achievements of English literature, was first published in 1667. His last poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published in 1671. He died in November 1674 shortly after the publication of the second edition of Paradise Lost.

Milton was married three times. His first wife was Mary Powell (c.1625-1652), the third child of a Royalist family of Oxfordshire, whom he married in June 1642 when Mary was seventeen and Milton was thirty-three. Within weeks, Mary had left Milton and returned to her parental home, prompting Milton to write his series of "divorce tracts" during the mid-1640s. They were reconciled in 1645 and had three daughters and a son who died in infancy before Mary's death in May 1652. In November 1656, Milton married Catherine Woodcock, who gave birth to a daughter in October 1657, but mother and daughter died the following February. Despite opposition from his daughters, his third marriage, in February 1663, was to Elizabeth Minshull (1638-1727) who managed his household affairs and outlived him by over fifty years.


Gordon Campbell, John Milton 1608-1674, Oxford DNB 2004

Leslie Stephen, John Milton, DNB 1894

John Milton, 1911 Encyclopedia


John Milton Reading Room

Selected Political Works

Wikipedia article on Milton

Darkness Visible: a resource for studying Paradise Lost

John Milton's 400th anniversary celebrations Christ's College, Cambridge

Milton's Cottage Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire