Father, King, and God: John Milton's Prose Response to Monarchy

By Peters, John G. | The Midwest Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Father, King, and God: John Milton's Prose Response to Monarchy


Peters, John G., The Midwest Quarterly


"He showed me that [the kite] was covered with manuscript.... I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First's head again."

--Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

DURING THE RENAISSANCE in England, much discussion surrounded the proper role of the king. Supporters of the monarchy argued that the king was divinely appointed, carrying out the will of God and benevolently presiding over the citizens of the realm. In this role, the king came to represent order and security for the people. By the end of the Renaissance, particularly during the rule of Charles I, some began to question such assumptions about the role of the king, as Charles's opponents such as John Milton rejected the idea of the king as divinely appointed and argued instead that the king was a mere magistrate. In attempting to make this argument, Milton would have to overcome some of the most deeply entrenched ideas in the social psyche.

I

In 1581, John Stubbs published The Gulph Wherein England Will Be Swallowed by the French Marriage. This book greatly offended Elizabeth I, and she had both the author and the publisher, William Page, arrested. William Camden records the following events:

   Hereupon Stubbs and Page had their Right hands cut off with a
   Cleaver, driven through the Wrist by the force of a Mallet, upon a
   Scaffold in the Marketplace at Westminster. The Printer was
   pardoned. I remember (being there present) that when Stubbs, after
   his Right hand was cut off, put off his Hat with his Left, and said
   with a loud voice, God save the Queen; the Multitude standing about
   was deeply silent: either out of an Horrour at this new and
   unwonted kind of Punishment; or else out of Commiseration towards
   the man, as being of an honest and unblameable Repute; or else out
   of Hatred of the Marriage, which most men presaged would be the
   Overthrow of Religion. (Camden, 270)

Some time later, while still in prison, Stubbs explained his surprising action in a letter to the Queen and her Privy Counsel:

   If I should remember my dutiful suffering the punishment, in so
   much as in my bitterest extremity, and immediately after my hand
   cut off, even upon the place, the Lord gave me grace to speak these
   words from an unfeigned heart, "God save the Queen!" yet was all
   this no more then every man should do which maketh conscience to
   give none evil example to others of the left repining thought
   against God's sacred Magistrate, or due execution of justice.
   (Harington, 2: 208-9)

Although Camden and others present at the execution of the sentence believed the punishment to be barbaric, the idea and role of monarchy was so important to Stubbs that he responded with praise rather than with reproach. The significance of the monarchy to English culture remained strong throughout the Renaissance even down to Milton's time, and the origin of its significance lies in the relationship between father, king, and God.

For most human beings, the family is an individual's first experience with an organization and represents structure and protection for its members. Because the family experience makes an initial and lasting impact on an individual, this organization can become a model for other organizations as well. This phenomenon is particularly true of the monarchial organization during the Renaissance, especially since the monarchy was established by common consent. Leadership, loyalty, hierarchies, obedience, and kinship are all common elements of both the monarchy and the family. In fact, many people saw the king as a father figure. Richard F. Hardin argues, "Just as Adam and all succeeding fathers are sole rulers of their families, so the father-king rules the collection of families known as the state" (180). As the father was a leader, protector, and director of the family's members and affairs, so also was the king leader, protector, and director of the kingdom's members and affairs.

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