The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (TKM) tries to be several things at once — a closely argued and authoritatively supported treatise in political science, a polemical pamphlet, and an essay in biblical interpretation. In her recent The Life of John Milton, Barbara Lewalski describes its various generic elements: "Several elements are intertwined here, somewhat disjointedly: castigation of backsliding Presbyterians, rhetorical appeals to the fragmenting revolutionary parties, defenses of tyrannicide, and development of a republican political theory derived from classical and contemporary sources, and the Bible" (230). For all of its claims to be chiefly a work of theory, there's much to be gained from reading it as an occasional piece, prompted by one of England's most important political emergencies.

By December 1648, King Charles I's royalist forces had been utterly defeated by the Parliamentary Army led by Generals Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Attempts to come to some compromise with the King had all failed and there was very good reason to suspect that the King and his agents were negotiating (when they agreed to negotiate at all) in bad faith. Still, many in Parliament, including some Presbyterians who had supported war against the king for nearly seven years, balked at the idea of trying King Charles I for treason, and deposing and executing him. Milton argues that these procedures, however radical they may appear, are nothing more than the logical and necessary extension of having waged a just war on a tyrant who remains unrepentant and a danger to the commonwealth.

On the sixth of December, 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride led troops into the House of Commons and forcibly ejected royalist and Presbyterian supporters of rapprochement with the King. The remaining members, known as the Rump Parliament empowered a commision to try the king for treason; it found him guilty and deposed and executed him on January 30, 1649. Milton wrote TKM at this moment in support of the Rump and the Army. Though he argues forcefully for the right of a people to re-assume its natural and God-given right of popular sovereignty, he never addresses the crucial issue of whether the Rump or the Army that shaped it could justly be said to represent the sovereignty of a free-born people. By March, Milton had been appointed to a post — Secretary for Foreign Tongues — in the new commonwealth government shorn of the king (though not entirely of monarchy) and the House of Lords.

The first edition of TKM is dated 1649 on its title page and runs to forty-two quarto pages. The second edition runs to sixty quarto pages, adding a number of quotations, paraphrases, and citations from Protestant authors, continental, English, and Scottish. Some second edition copies are dated 1649 and some 1650. The Julian Calendar, which begins the new year on March 25, and the Gregorian Calendar, promulgated by a papal bull of 1582, were variously used by English printers well into the seventeenth century. For this edition I have followed the second edition, specifically the Harvard University Library's copy (Wing M2183) from Early English Books Online. For more information on early editions, see Merritt Y. Hughes preface to TKM in the Yale Complete Prose volume 3 (185-88); and John T. Shawcross, "Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: Date of Composition, Editions, and Issues."

Thomas H. Luxon