Milton's History of Britain in its historical context
The prologue studies the Tory publication of Milton's Character of the Long Parliament (1681). It argues that the provenance of this tract is best explained if Milton did in fact attempt to include the Digression in his History of Britain. Further ambiguities in Milton's early reputation are discussed in a review of the History's reception. Chapter I surveys Milton's response to the long standing demand for a national history and briefly reconsiders his ideas on history and historiography. Chapter II proposes that his political sympathies led Milton to look to the British legends for his historical subject. The strong Protestant and Tudor associations of such native myth have been largely overlooked, and yet they bear strongly on Milton's proposals for a British historical poem. His reappraisal of the myths in the History indicates his disillusionment with his original historical project: and reflects his changing opinion of the national character. Chapter III charts Milton's response to the legends surrounding Lucius, Constantine and the early British church, and traces conflicts between his need to deny church history and his desire to rewrite it. It then turns to his curiously muted views on the Saxon church. Chapter IV compares the use of Gildas's De Excidio in the History with Milton's relative silence on Arthur. Milton's regard for this ancient British jeremiad recalls that of the Reformers and suggests the instability of his commitment to purely classical styles of historiography in his time. Chapter V surveys the conflicting ideological and religious pressures on the history of the Saxons and the Conquest and compares Milton's shifting response to these in his political tracts with his views in the History. The Epilogue returns to Milton's view of the national character, with special reference to the Digression. Presenting his references to climate theory in a wider context, it argues that in moving from a loosely predestinarian position to a belief in free will, Milton first sought some determining natural force to explain England's conduct through the ages.