When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
How a friendship saved John Milton's life
Without the influence of the colourful son of an Oxford innkeeper — who nevertheless encouraged the rumour that he was really the son of William Shakespeare — the world would never have gained some of John Milton’s greatest poems, including Paradise Lost.
At the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton, by then blind, found himself in immediate danger of being arrested, tried, and hanged drawn and quartered — as had happened to others who had supported Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War and Commonwealth. And had this horrible event occurred, none of his later poems would have been written. But Jonathan Richardson, who much later (in 1734) sketched a likeness of Milton based on an earlier drawing by William Faithorne, contended that the poet’s life was saved by the intercession of our innkeeper’s son, Sir William Davenant (1606-1668) — who was indeed the godson, if not the biological son, of William Shakespeare; and who became Poet Laureate in 1638, by which time he was widely known as the Sweet Swan of Isis.
Davenant, or D’Avenant as he affected to call himself, was born at the Crown Inn at Carfax, Oxford — where his father, John, a rich vintner who in 1621 became Mayor of Oxford, was landlord. Shakespeare often stayed at the inn on his travels between Stratford-upon-Avon and London and he was whispered to be very friendly with John’s beautiful wife — though the notion that he was anything more than friendly has now been all but completely dismissed.
William Davenant was a Royalist during the Civil War and afterwards; Milton, a Parliamentarian. But it seems that because they were both writers, who respected one another’s work, each saved the other’s life when the political tide meant the chips were down for one or other of them.
Milton’s star was in the ascendancy in 1650, by which time he had become Secretary of Foreign Tongues — a sort of learned spin-doctor and pamphleteer — in Cromwell’s administration; but Davenant’s hit the nadir of his career at that same time.
In that year, after living for some years in exile with the Queen’s court in Paris, he took command of a colonising expedition from France to Virginia. But he was captured by a Parliamentarian man of war and imprisoned in Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight, where he spent most of 1651, and where he wrote much of his epic poem Gondibert (which Milton would have read).
When he was eventually transferred to the Tower of London to await trial for High Treason, Milton managed to use his influence to secure his release.
And on Charles II’s accession to the throne, Davenant, whose star was of course by then riding high again— repaid the compliment. He used his influence to make sure that Milton was not “excepted” from the King’s Act of Indemnity and Oblivion which extended mercy to all who were not immediately concerned with the execution of his father, Charles I. And Richardson writes: “The nation forgave him though they little knew how well he would reward their clemency by his future writings, chiefly Paradise Lost.”
Amazingly — as it seems to us now — Milton was not much known during the Civil War and Commonwealth as a poet; he was more famous instead for his notorious writings and opinions on divorce; his attacks on the church hierarchy, particularly bishops (who of course supported the king); and most of all his verbal vitriol against the Royal family, the monarchy in general, and his support of the King’s execution.
Ironically enough, his role under Cromwell included that of press censor — even though he had earlier championed a free press.
What is clear is that, probably with the utmost sincerity, Milton changed his views as his personal circumstances changed. For instance, his pro-divorce ideas flowered after his unhappy marriage to the 16-year-old Marie Powell, daughter of Richard Powell of Forest Hill, near Wheatley, where Milton’s Gateway, pictured above, commemorates the connection with the poet.
That miserable marriage, brought about largely because Richard Powell owed money to Milton’s father — who was a scrivener, or money lender, in the City — is reconstructed brilliantly in Robert Graves’s book Wife to Mr Milton, first published in 1942, the tercentenary of the outbreak of Civil War.
Anyone reading that book will surely conclude that the mid 17th century must have been among the unhappiest periods of history in which to be alive in England — and particularly in Oxfordshire where the tide of civil war swept back and forth continuously, ruining families on both sides of the divide. There must surely have been much talk in those days of punishing rulers who fired upon their own people, but little help for either side came from abroad.