Milton's Cottage, Chalfont St Giles
A piece of Paradise in Bucks!
Find out how John Milton's former cottage in a Buckinghamshire village helped bring Paradise Lost to the world!
Yes it's true, if it wasn't for Chalfont St Giles, the literary world may not have ever have had the epic poem Paradise Lost in its canon, nor its sequel, Paradise Regained.
So, while it may now be known as one of the top villages in the country as far as property is concerned, it is one particular house that should be our main focus of attention as it was to here that the great English poet and parliamentarian John Milton retreated to escape the plague that was rife in London.
Milton's Cottage - a view from the garden
The 16th century cottage, built around 1580 is now a grade 1 listed building and the only one of his many dwellings to survive. Milton's Cottage is now a museum, where little has changed since the 17th Century and it attracts visitors from all over the world who come to see, not only where the influential man lived, but also the 17th century first edition collection of his prose and poetry on open display.
It is also a chance to see the place where the man, who became totally blind in 1652 at the age of 44, sat to commit to memory the perfect verse that he would then dictate to an assistant.
In addition, Grade I is the rarest listing. There are only about 100 or so of these buildings in the whole of the UK of which only a handful are open to the public.
Milton arrived at the cottage in the village in 1665 on the advice of his young Latin pupil friend Thomas Elwood, now a hero in those parts. The young man lived at Chalfont Grange at the time and brought Milton and his family to Buckinghamshire from their home in the Moorgate area of London. In doing so, saved them all from certain death from the plague.
There is evidence that Milton spent about 18 months there and, if he hadn't, he would not have lived the last ten years of his life and as such, the world would not have had any of the epic poetry.
It was here that Milton returned to what is probably his most famous poem Paradise Lost, finishing it in the little bedroom study where today, visitors to the cottage start their tour. And it was in this room that the idea for Paradise Regained was put to him by Elwood.
The bust of John Milton in the garden
But while his epic poetry brought him to the attention of the world, fewer people realise how much more this man gave us. As well as being a poet he was a Parliamentarian whose views about democracy are now in place in this country with a democratic Parliament answerable to the people.
He was also anti-divine right, which means that he didn't believe in a monarch who set themselves above others thinking that they had a divine right to rule.
These views played an important part in the Civil War and in his writings Milton supported the Parliamentary cause in the conflict between Parliamentarians and Royalists. Afterwards, in 1649, he was appointed Latin Secretary to the Council of State to Oliver Cromwell.
But with the Restoration in 1660, Milton was punished for his support with a fine and imprisonment and all his hopes for what he believed in seemed to have been dashed. Furthermore, two of his books, "Eikonoclastes" and his "defence of the English People" were called in and burned.
Disappointed and disillusioned with political life in his country he still found the energy to return to his poetry and the work that he started some 20 years earlier - Paradise Lost - which became an allegory for freedom of choice. He returned to it in 1660 and finished it in Chalfont St Giles as disease ravaged the capital.
This man, whose poetry and prose was devoted to the defence of both civil and religious liberty, should be an icon for all those who believe in the same.
Having been intrigued by Milton for a while, I went to meet Edward Dawson, the curator at the cottage to find out more.
You get visitors from all over the world to this beautiful cottage don't you?
Edward: All over the world yes - there's not a country that doesn't come through the door in the eight months of the season.
What brings them here of course is John Milton. Now when people think about Milton they probably automatically think of Paradise Lost but he was far more than that wasn't he? He was a poet, and also a Parliamentarian, he had a lot of views and he wrote about them - how would you describe him within the literary canon of this country?
Edward: You have summed him up very neatly - you're dealing with one of the world's great polymaths (person of wide learning). Milton would approve of that word, although it wasn't one of his, but he is responsible for 650 words in our dictionary, so he's the greatest neologist in the world, beating Shakespeare into a rather poor fourth place!
In the political aspect of his life, his main ambition, which disappoints a lot of the poets coming through the cottage, was to leave behind a democratic Parliament answerable to you and I as we know it today, and not a monarch with a belief in his divine right to rule - that was an anathema to Milton and a major cause of the Civil War.
So, he was a Republican and his whole ethos was about freedom of choice?
Edward: Yes, although I would say that neither Cromwell nor Milton were necessarily anti-Monarchist - they were anti-divine right - that's the great subtle difference. They tried hard to do a deal with Charles I but they found him an impossible man to do business with, so they simply couldn't do that deal.
This came through in his writing and obviously while Paradise Lost was based on something in the Bible it was an allegory for freedom of choice?
Edward: Yes that's true - he was a great believer in liberty of conscience and Paradise Lost was a very political work. He was disillusioned, down in the dumps and recently released from prison when he turned back to his great epic poem in about 1660 and then finished it off here at the cottage.
When did he arrive here and why?
Edward: He arrived here in 1665, rescued by his young Latin pupil friend Thomas Elwood, our hero in these parts. He's buried up the road alongside Penn of Pennsylvania in the village of Jordan. He (Elwood) was one of the earliest people to spot the genius of his master and rescued him. It was a friendship across the generation gap you could say. A street is named after him here as he brought Milton and his family to the village and saved him from certain death in the Moorgate area of London.
Because of the plague?
Edward: Yes - 20,000 people were dying around his home, the bodies were going past his doorstep to the biggest mass grave round the corner.
He was blind when he arrived here wasn't he?
Edward: Yes, in 1652 at the age of 44 Milton went completely blind for the rest of his life. It slowed him down obviously and he had to reorganise himself and set up new disciplines in his mind but it's quite extraordinary what he achieved during his blind period.
The garden at Milton's Cottage
So how did he write - he must have dictated?
Edward: Yes he did. He used to get up at 4.00am here, we know that from the archive, and create 40 or 50 lines of iambic pentameter to be locked in his mind like a human computer ready for dictation at 11.00am.
It must have been easier to be organised in this atmosphere - even though he never saw it - it was quieter than London?!
Edward: It was indeed - it was a hamlet of only 300 souls and this cottage was the last of a ribbon development out of the centre of the village so all you would see in the landscape in Milton's time would just be the odd farmhouse.
And he finished Paradise Lost here?
Edward: Yes - the original manuscript was handed to Thomas Elwood in the little bedroom study which all my visitors start off from in here at the cottage.
Other than the early rising, what was his life like here?
Edward: We don't know for certain exactly how his average day was spent but he was amongst Quaker friends here. He was a supporter of Quakerism - he supported all the banned religous minority groups which rubbed off on the founding father movement to the States, so this is a shrine for the thinking American too!
Amongst his Quaker friends was Isaac Penington [who lived] just up the road at Botrill's Farm just on the outskirts of Chalfont St Giles. Milton might well have gone and visited there because that's where Elwood lived as he was a tutor to Penington's children.
What can visitors find here today?
Edward: Purely and simply the greatest and most complete across the board 17th century first edition collection of his prose and poetry on open display and I would say it's the best in the world.
So this is the place to come for all Milton scholars?
Edward: Yes indeed and we have a working library. In fact the door [of the cottage] opened [to the public] in 1887 as a reading room before public libraries were properly established. And that's seven years before the National Trust itself!
And also, you know that Milton did actually live here - in Stratford there's only a bit of supposition about Shakespeare's birthplace?
Edward: Yes - we have evidence of his living here and his movements here for about 18 months and if he hadn't come here he wouldn't have lived the last ten years of his life because of the disease and therefore we wouldn't have any of the epic poetry.
So Chalfont St Giles is responsible for Paradise Lost being brought to the world?
Edward: Yes it is - and it's sequel - Paradise Regained.
How long have you been doing this job?
Edward: I sold my business about 15 years ago and then applied for this job because I wanted something to keep me occupied and I've been here ever since!
What made you apply for it?
Edward: It's part of my old subject, English Literature. I had a wonderful classical tutor who introduced me to Milton so I've never had him out of sight even though I went into industry. I've now come back round in a full circle, I've never forgotten him and when the Trust were looking for somebody to run this lovely place I applied and was lucky enough and they were idiotic enough to take me on!
What surprising things have you learnt while here that you didn't know before?
Edward: All sorts of things about Milton crop up all the time, he's a lifetime study. Not only that, I would say that each subject of his is a lifetime study - his views on marriage and divorce for instance - everything that he concentrated on he left behind and it affects us today, even after 400 years.
I've had a barrister in family law taking a dissertation which was achieved here at the cottage. Milton's views on non-compatibility, which were rejected during his lifetime, are now written in the divorce laws throughout the Western world. This is just one example of his genius.
And there were his religious views as well - he was all for freedom of choice and wasn't very keen on the Roman Catholics was he?
Edward: No - it was mainly because as far as Milton was concerned, no single individual could set themselves up over and above his fellow human beings. A monarch riding roughshod over democracy like that was an anathema to Milton and the same would apply in Milton's mind to the idea of a Pope overseeing as an individual. But Milton supported all the banned religous minorities.
What do you think he would think of our society today, because we still have a monarchy even though they don't have as much power?
Edward: Well - they [the monarchy today] are constitutional and they've all come through the cottage themselves! We're very privileged like that - and they hold him in great esteem. But everything that Milton wanted to put in place is now in place with regard to the mother house of parliament as we know it.
Remember to that his respect for Cromwell, in whose next door office Milton served as a top civil servant, is very easily explained because during his lifetime the only person who would bring home the bacon as it were for Milton, and achieve his great ambition, was courtesy of Oliver Cromwell. And it's his statue that is in pride of place in Parliament Square in front of the great hall for that very reason.
So Milton could almost be seen as a founding father of this country?
Edward: Well as an honorary founding father of the USA because he supported all the Mayflower persecuted pilgrims, so that is how he is looked upon in the States but not really here.
But a lot of his views have been incorporated in to our society today?
Edward: Yes they have.
What's the main reaction from visitors here would you say?
Edward: Astonishment. Because they come here paying their respect to the muse and inspiration to the entire Romantic movement [in poetry] from Blake to Wordsworth, and they polish up that aspect of his poetry and his great influence, and then they unwrap all this political period - putting his pen down on poetry for 20 years and picking it up in the service of the Protectorate [Oliver Cromwell's Republicans].
And he suffered a lot of loss in his life didn't he?
Edward: Yes, he had a very unhappy personal life indeed mainly because he lost two wives in childbirth. He also had a problem with his first wife who went back to spend a weekend with her family just outside Oxford - her first visit to them since her marriage. But the road closed behind her and became the most dangerous road in Europe because the court and the King had moved to the city of oxford. So it started off as a largely enforced absence but people seize on Mary's absence shortly after her marriage as an indication that her husband was making life impossible for her but nothing really could be further from the truth.
After three years she went back to him and had four children but died having Deborah who was here at the cottage with her stepmother Betty Minshull, the third wife, escaping the plague with her father. The other two weren't here they had gone out to work.
2008 is his Quater centenary, it's 400 years since he was born - how are you marking that?
Edward: Very exciting things are going on. From here at the cottage we formed the 400 centenary Committee early last year and that involved representation from Cambridge University, the City of London, St Giles Cripplegate the Barbican Library. The programme of events that are going on at the moment are very exciting indeed. For example, Cambridge are doing a back to back performance of Comus, his famous musical masque which he achieved at the age of only 24. It was the forerunner of all today's musicals - where do we stop with this man?!
Is there anything he didn't do?
Edward: That question is quite often asked! And when I tell you he was a horticulturalist, an expert swordsman when he had his eyesight, he spoke seven languages fluently and wrote prose and poetry as beautifully in Latin, Greek and Italian as in English, your question is extremely apt! And he was largely self-made - from humble Oxfordshire yeoman stock - there was no silver spoon and he was largely self-taught.
I really like this man, rebellious, questioning of society and self- made, he didn't ask for anything. We could do with more people like him around?
Edward: Yes - and remember Wordsworth calling for him in a famous sonnet:
"Milton thou shouldn't be living at this hour, England hath need of thee."
Never a truer word!
last updated: 13/05/2009 at 13:04