Magazine article History Today

Milton Appointed Latin Secretary

Magazine article History Today

Milton Appointed Latin Secretary

Article excerpt

March 16th, 1649

Charles I's head had been off his shoulders for six weeks when John Milton accepted the office of Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Commonwealth Council of State. He had announced his approval of the execution in a pamphlet which came out within a few days of the event and throughout the struggle between Parliament and the King he had been a vigorous anti-Royalist polemicist. He was now forty years old, a slender man of middling height and delicately fastidious ways, who had earned the sneering nickname `Lady' at Christ's College, Cambridge. He had subsequently abandoned early thoughts of becoming a lawyer, travelled in Italy and called on Galileo, published poems in Latin and English (including the superb `Lycidas'), earned a crust by taking private pupils and inherited money from his London scrivener father. He had written trenchantly in favour of both freedom of the press and divorce for incompatibility, his own lively young wife, Mary Powell, having found him so intolerable that she went home to her parents and refused to return. He was also rapidly going blind.

Latin was still the language of international communication in 1649 and `foreign tongues' in practice meant Latin. Milton's new job, which carried a salary of 288 [pounds sterling] a year (at least 60,000 [pounds sterling] today) with two assistants and quarters in Whitehall, involved him in translating official communications with foreign governments into Latin and translating the replies into English. As few foreign governments wished to have much to do with the regime in England, Milton could spend his time writing propaganda tracts for his employers. One of them was Eikonoklastes (`The Image-Breaker'), which came out in October, 1649. …

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