Milton, Vengeance and the Relative Logic of Absolute Truths
Revolutions often arrive at their crisis point, not from external pressure, but as a result of the inevitable logic of the revolution. That logic holds that those who resisted the needed change are responsible for the violence made necessary by their resistance. And they must be accountable, particularly if they have refused clear opportunity to stop and especially if they themselves used reactionary violence. The problem is that those not unflinching in their devotion to the cause do not always clearly see the inevitable logic. No one much cares about the vast bulk of humanity who perish in revolutions. Kings are different, especially to their former subjects.
Kings are symbols, not simply people. The forces of reaction try to invest Kings with mythical qualities. Revolutionaries, especially intellectuals or bourgeoisie or, sometimes, aristocrats, generally tread carefully. They use trials to try to exorcise the symbol. But that method never works because the form of trials always has to be ad hoc in those circumstances. Before Louis XVI was executed, he was given a trial of sorts. And by giving a trial, the Convention gave out the impression that their was a choice. But the lawyer-like logic of revolutionary Robespierre showed there really was no choice. Although personally opposed to capital punishment, Robespierre explained that in a revolution to overthrow monarchy and establish a republic there can be no question of a trial for the former “sovereign.” When the pretence under which he exercised power, namely, that he embodied France by right given by God was overthrown, he forfeited his life:
“A trial for Louis XVI! But what is this trial, if it is not the call of insurrection to a tribunal or to some other assembly? When a king has been annihilated by the people, who has the right to resuscitate him in order to make of him a new pretext for trouble and rebellion? And what other effects can this system produce? In opening an arena to the champions of Louis XVI, you resuscitate all the strife of despotism against liberty; you consecrate the right to blaspheme against the Republic and against the people, because the right to defend the former despot involves the right to say everything that concerns his cause. You arouse all the factions; you revive, you encourage dying royalism. The people might freely take part for or against it. What more legitimate, what more natural than to repeat everywhere the maxims that his defenders would be free to profess at your bar and from your very tribune? What kind of Republic is it whose founders raise up adversaries on every side to attack it in its cradle!” (Robespierre to the National Convention, December 3, 1792; Scott Robinson translation in William Jennings Bryan (ed.), The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 7 (NY: 1906), pp139-40.)
To try a king is therefore a mistake. The English Parliament made the same mistake when Charles I fell into their hands after his fateful Engagement with the Scots. There was certainly enough righteous anger after Parliament had to quell a second royalist uprising, an uprising which used the troops who were released by Parliament after the first Civil War on their parole not to take up arms against Parliament. That’s why George Lisle was shot immediately after the surrender at Colchester. Parliament also ordered the execution of several other Royalist leaders.
The case of the King was tricky nevertheless. Trials are supposed to legitimize punishments, but what charges can be laid against a sovereign? And if charges can be laid against a sovereign, a trial suggests that he can be found innocent, which presents the dilemma that Robespierre would point out later.
Cromwell had the additional problem that there wasn’t overwhelming support for trying Charles, perhaps not even majority support in Parliament — opposition that was more attributable to cowardice than Robespierre’s point. But the army was certain of Charles’s unredeemable duplicity, so on December 6, 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride commanding a regiment of foot together with a cavalry regiment (supported by others patrolling the streets) occupied the approaches to Parliament, and Pride permitted only approved MPs to enter, turning back some and arresting others. Only about 80 of the eligible 470 MPs entered the hall.
The Rump Parliament (as it would be known after the Restoration) now attempted to constitute a tribunal to try the King. It first had to resolve that its authority did not need the assent of the Lords or King. It did so on January 4, 1649. On January 6 Parliament established the High Court of Justice to try Charles. The court itself had only MPs (no judges) except for John Bradshaw, a judge of London’s sheriff’s court, the highest judge Parliament could persuade to participate. When Charles was brought before them, he noted other irregularities, including that there were no Lords present. But he also questioned the legitimacy of the commonwealth (Robespierre’s point), when he challenged the jurisdiction of the court by asking “who gave them power to judge of his actions, for which he was accountable to none but God: … he would not so much betray himself, and his Royal Dignity, as to Answer any thing they objected against him …” Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England: Begun in the Year 1641, Vol III:1 (Oxford: 1717), pp254-55.
The court proceeded as best they could, but owing to the ostensibly dignified carriage of the King, who was permitted to speak, a good case was made to look much worse than it was. The King and his followers were able to generate waves of sympathy especially among the superstitious lower classes. On the day of his execution, January 29, 1649, he was allowed to speak again (a mistake the French regicides would not make). He said that he had always labored to ensure the freedom of his citizens. But freedom did not mean that citizens had a right to participate in government. “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” He affirmed his allegiance to the Church of England. He was then beheaded. A legend grew up that a “groan” was emitted from the crowd such that, according to a childhood friend of Charles’s children, “he never heard before, and desired he might never hear the like again.” The witness’s own manuscript description of the event, however, contradicts the account. (Mathew Henry, The Life of Rev. Philip Henry, A.M. (Williams ed.: 1839), p17 & note r.) And then, quite incredibly, the soldiers were supposed to have permitted spectators to mop up some of the blood. These relics were claimed later to heal the sick.
But worst of all the Royalists had ready a publication designed to prove the execution was actually a martyrdom. Εἰκὼν Βασιλική [Eikon Basilike –“Royal Icon”]: The Pourtraicture of his sacred Majestie in his Solitudes and Sufferings (London: 1648 [o.s.]) was published 10 days after the execution, on February 9 (when the King was buried). The book was written as though by Charles himself. (Some royalists would later swear that Charles in fact did; another, John Gauden, after the Restoration, when he was Bishop of Exeter (a see he complained bitterly of, for its poverty), took credit for it.)
The book proved sensational and the Republicans viewed it as a grave threat. It went through numerous editions. Written as a diary, Charles supposedly gives his reasons for his actions and includes the simple prayers and aphorisms he supposedly uttered. The author had a difficult task in justifying royal actions, and limited his case to recent matters so as to avoid bringing to remembrance those things that all of England condemned in his conduct, but the author still found it necessary to misstate facts and revise the facts and attribute motives to the king that he never once indulged in. It began with an explanation of the reasons for calling the Long Parliament (and not calling one for so long before):
“This last Parliament I called, not more by others advice, and necessity of My affaires, then by My owne choice and inclination; who have alwaies thought the right way of Parliaments most safe for My Crowne, and best pleasing to My People: And although I was not forgetfull of those sparks, which some mens distempers formerly studied to kindle in Parliaments, (which by forbearing to convene for some years, I hoped to have extinguished) yet resolving with My self to give all just satisfaction to modest and sober desires, and to redresse all pubique grievances in Church and State; I hoped by My (freedome and their moderation) to prevent all misunderstandings, and miscarriages in this: In which as I feared affaires would meet with some passion and prejudice in other men, so I resolved they should find least of them in My selfe; not doubting, but by the weight of Reason I should counterpoize the over-ballancings of any factions.” (pp1-2.)
The claim was a barefaced lie which could be uttered only by someone convinced that his reader had no regard for the truth or so smugly persuaded of his own righteousness that the facts were irrelevant. Charles convened Parliaments only when he needed money (for his army) and only tolerated it when it complied. When Parliament tried to tie its fiscal legislation to other matters, Charles dismissed it and tried to obtain money by extra-legal methods. Before “the last Parliament I called” as the book calls it, the King had gone 11 years without calling a Parliament.
Of course the facts were: he hadn’t called a Parliament because he felt his Crown was safer without it, and when the need for armed action arose in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars, occasioned by his own insistence on control of the Scottish Church), he needed the funds that only Parliament could provide him.
The King was the soul of reason: “I intended not onley to oblige My friends, but Mine enemies also: exceeding even the desires of those, that were factiously discontented, if they did but pretend to any modest and sober sense.” (p3.) And so on. But the tract was most effective when it spoke of Charles’s religion. Not only did it use the simple language of the Book of Common Prayer, it sounded downright Wesleyan (actually Arminian, which Wesley would later adopt, which of course only further inflamed the Puritans):
“O Lord, I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.
“Deliver me from blood guiltinesse O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousnesse.
“Against thee have I sinned, and done this evill in thy sight, for thou sawest the contradiction between my heart and my hand.
“Yet cast me not away from thy presence, purge me with the blood of my Redeemer, and I shall be clean; wash me with that precious effusion, and I shall be whiter then snow.” (pp11-12.)
The King, even dead, could not be allowed to appear the more saintly. And here is where John Milton began his rise to international fame.
Milton was 40 when the agitation arose over what to do with the King, having encouraged the second civil war. He was now independently comfortable. He inherited his patrimony when his father died two years before. His father, who was by profession a scrivener, made his fortune by, of all things, writing religious music, hymns and the like. It paid well enough for the son to have a private classics tutor, and to go to Cambridge. He had the further luxury of never having to work, so he planned the career of a poet. He became an expert classicist and even debated in Latin. He wrote important poems at Cambridge including “Lycidas,” an elegy for his friend Edward King and L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, two pastorals contemplating perfect pleasure (which later provided part of the text for an oratorio by Handel). He received a B.A. (1629) and Masters (1632) from Cambridge, and then retired to his suburban home for six years of reading. In 1638 he set off on his Grand Tour of France and Italy where he met such intellectuals as Grotius, Galileo and Giovanni Batista and patron of the arts Cardinal Francesco Barberini. When he returned to England it was in the middle of the Bishops’ Wars, the prelude to the Civil War brought on by Charles’s attempts to bring episcopy to the Church of Scotland. Milton began writing political tracts critical of the king. He wrote five tracts against episcopal control of churches, taking a republican point of view. He wrote a reform tract on education and a political tract proposing liberalizing divorce. When he was threatened with censorship (divorce was a radical idea then), he wrote in 1644 his first important theoretical political piece, Areopagitica, arguing for the right to publish without license. (He published it without the required license.) He became more radicalized as the Civil War continued, and must have, like all opponents of the King, been thoroughly outraged when it was discovered that the King, in prison, negotiated the secret Engagement whereby the Scots would invade England and restore Charles to the throne.
Milton began work on a book to explore how commonwealths are formed, what their constitution should be and about where the line is between legitimate monarchy and tyranny. On February 16, 1649 The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates was published, just after the King was beheaded and shortly after Eikon Basilike was first distributed. It could not have been more timely. Although it did not expressly defend regicide, the conclusion was inevitable; tyranny was so great an evil.
It called for a commonwealth of virtue. Milton blamed tyranny on the depraved spirit of the rabble. Freedom requires moral fiber (“none can love freedom heartilie, but good men”), but most people “being slaves within doors, no wonder that they strive so much to have the public State conformably govern’d to the inward vitious rule, by which they govern themselves.”) It was full of the stuff of Roman republican virtues, as if from Cato or Sullust. But it impressed the Parliament, because he explicitly condemned the wavering MPs who had pleaded for mercy for the king, in a way that fully justified the Pride Purge:
“Others who have beene fiercest against thir Prince, under the notion of a Tyrant, and no mean incendiaries of the Warr against him, when God out of his providence and high disposal hath deliver’d him into the hand of thir brethren, on asuddain and in a new garbe of Allegiance, which thir doings have long since cancell’d; they plead for him, pity him, extoll him, protest against those that talk of bringing him to the tryal of Justice, which is the Sword of God, superior to all mortal things, in whose hand soever by apparent signes his testified will is to put it. But certainly if we consider who and what they are, on a suddain grown so pitifull, wee may conclude, thir pitty can be no true, and Christian commiseration, but either levitie and shallowness of minde, or else a carnal admiring of that worldly pomp and greatness, from whence they see him fall’n; or rather lastly adissembl’d and seditious pity, fain’d of industry to begett new discord. As for mercy, if it be to a Tyrant, under which Name they themselves have cited him so oft in the hearing of God, of Angels, and the holy Church assembl’d, and there charg’d him with the spilling of more innocent blood by farr, then ever Nero did, undoubtedly the mercy which they pretend, is the mercy of wicked men; and their mercies, wee read are cruelties; hazarding the welfare of a whole Nation, to have sav’d one, whom so oft they have tearm’d Agag; and vilifying the blood of many Jonathans, that have sav’d Israel; insisting with much niceness on the unnecessariest clause of thir Covnant wrested, wherein the feare of change, and the absurd contradiction of a flattering hostilitie had hamperd them, but not scrupling to give away for complements, to an implacable revenge, the heads of many thousand Christians more.”
The text was a closely argued treatise on the source of law, the nature of tyranny and the responsibilities of rulers. Milton called for the people to rally around Parliament.
So, having found the man they needed, the Council of State appointed Milton Secretary for the Foreign Tongues on March 15. (The position was peculiarly appropriate for Milton inasmuch as the principal function was to translate into Latin diplomatic correspondence.) On March 28 the Council ordered him to prepare a document concerning Cromwell’s proposed incursion into Ireland. Milton’s first official work as Secretary was published on May 16 – Observations on the Articles of Peace … (in J.A. St. John (ed.), The Prose Works of John Milton, vol 2 (London: 1888), p139ff). It was devised again to discredit the King, for whose benefit the Scottish treaty with Irish rebels was made. Milton’s goal was to enlist the nation’s support for the campaign by showing how the Irish (which, he claimed, rightly, belonged to England) were both Roman Catholic and monarchists — Milton would always try to associate Protestantism (to which the English were instinctively bound) with republicanism, or at least anti-monarchism (of which the English were skeptical). He reminded the reader of the Irish massacres of English and Scottish settlers only eight years before: “the bloud of more then 200000 … assassinated and cut in pieces by those Irish Barbarians” (id. at 183). The reminder was unnecessary. Cromwell used it to justify the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford during the campaign.
Cromwell’s major work, however, was to respond to the book the king supposedly wrote, Eikon Basilike. His production was titled, cleverly enough, Eἰκονοκλάστης (Eikonoklastes [“Icon Smasher”]), which appeared in October 1649. The book amply repaid the Council’s confidence.
It attacks and overwhelms every point made in Eikon Basilike with a firm and often mocking tone. It begins with a humble excuse for attacking the deceased: “It were too unreasonable that he, because dead, should have the liberty in his book to speak all evil of the Parliament; and they, because living, should be expected to have less freedom . . . to speak home the plain truth of a full and pertinent reply.” (Preface.) It exposes the hypocrisy of the author’s claimed veneration of Parliament (Ch. I). It ridicules the King’s sanctimonious repentance for having signed the death warrant of his impeached retainer Thomas of Wentworth (an act done not out of conviction, but purely for craven political purposes), after he announced defiantly to Parliament that he would not execute their judgment — “that no fears or respects whatsoever should make him alter that resolution founded upon his conscience”:
“Either then his resolution was indeed not founded upon his conscience, or his conscience received better information, or else both his conscience and this his strong resolution struck sail, notwithstanding these glorious words, to his stronger fear; for within a few days after, when the judges, at a privy-council, and four of his elected bishops had picked the thorn out of his conscience, he was at length persuaded to sign the bill for Strafford’s execution. And yet perhaps that it wrang his conscience to condemn the earl of high-treason is not unlikely; not because he thought him guiltless of highest treason, had half those crimes been committed against his own private interest or person, as appeared plainly by his charge against the six members; but the because he knew himself a principal in what the earl was but his accessory, and thought nothing treason against the commonwealth, but against himself only.” (Ch. II.)
The book minutely rebuts, often in gravely mocking terms, each assertion made on behalf of the king. Its sheer length and tireless, and sometimes subtly clever, refutations of the self-pity, false piety and dissembled motives of the king were sweeping. But it failed to wipe away the sympathy created by the book or the mystical claim a king has on his subjects. In 1649 alone Eikon Basilike was printed in 35 editions in England and 25 in continental Europe. But Milton’s book firmly established him as the Council’s principal advocate. When eminent classicist (and protestant) Claudius Salmasius of Leiden published his withering condemnation of the regicide, Defensio Regia pro Carolo I, it was Milton to whom the Council turned to provide the Latin response.
Salmasius, writing from securely republican Holland, was paid by Charles II for his efforts. For all of its scholarly neo-Latin, it merely rehashes the divine right of kings, and calls on the European monarchs to unite to put his patron Charles II on the throne. The defense of kings so delighted Queen Christina that she invited him to Sweden and regaled him with honors and gifts for a year. The Council chose Milton to write the Latin defense, and they permitted him to use his name as author (it was as large as the title on the title page). He used the opportunity to introduce himself (literally), to viciously attack Salmasius’s intellectual dishonesty, his lack of information and his cravenness, and to put forward a nuanced view of the role of kings and what limits they cannot pass without becoming tyrants. And he offered biblical, historical and logical reasons to show that the people can dispose of tyrants. The book, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, brought international fame to him when it was published in February 1651. Humanists from all over obtained copies. Even Christina approved of it. It was burned in at least two places (including Paris) and banned from German universities. There could not be a surer endorsement for humanists.
He should now have been happy. Although he did not take the position for money, it gave him an additional handsome income. His young wife was with him; his in-laws (who had been royalists and with whom he had financial disputes) had moved out; he had a son in March 1651 (along with 5 year old Anne and 3 year old Mary). He dealt with foreign dignitaries (albeit as translator, a station probably more humble than he thought he deserved), and the powerful, rich and aristocratic members of the Council now not only knew him, but depended upon him to defend the regime. But as a classicist Milton surely knew that the gods did not sell good fortune cheaply. He was rapidly, and surely, becoming blind. It began in his left eye, which clouded over. The sharp pain allowed him to read only for a short time. If he closed his right eye, things in the left eye appeared smaller. His eyes would become heavy after meals. By the time he published Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, he was completely blind in his left eye. It was probably glaucoma, but the only treatment at the time likely made him lose his sight faster (Gordon Campbell & Thomas N. Corns, John Milton (Oxford: c2008), pp. 211-22). By 1652 he was blind. He later (1655?) wrote the sonnet (XIX) “When I consider how my light is spent.” He asks: “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” Then answers: “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.”
But Milton’s trials did not end with blindness. Two months later, in May, his wife died giving birth to another daughter, Deborah. In June his son died. He was evidently reprimanded (or at least questioned) by the Council for permitting the publication of the Socinian manifesto, a tract not consistent with the then prevailing orthodoxy. (Milton was the licensor of publications.) His explained he was not a socinian, but rather had always believed that freedom of discussion would root out error — as he argued in his Areopagitica (William B. Hunter, Jr. (ed.), A Milton Encyclopedia, vol 3 (Cranbury, NJ: c1978), pp. 174-75). Worse Milton was beginning to see an anti-libertarian streak in Cromwell; the issue now was reduced tolerance for nonconformists and establishing state supported clergy. (Cambell & Corns at 246-248.) It would lead on April 20, 1653, to Cromwell’s coup — his dismissal of the Rump Parliament before Parliament could decide how to deal with its own future. Cromwell did not have elections to replace it; he simply nominated an assembly and called it Parliament. While many of Milton’s friends (including John Bradshaw) broke with Cromwell on this point, Milton remained with Cromwell in the reconstituted Council of State. Over the next two years Cromwell would take positions that Milton had formerly disapproved of, or broke with men who Milton had agreed with. Milton continued with Cromwell and said nothing. He did not even comment, however as he used to when he disagreed in the past, by writing mildly and guardedly opinionated sonnets. Instead, Milton seemed to burrow into his job. And because he was given secretaries (including Andrew Marvell), it’s difficult to know what it was the Milton did in that respect either, because there were no longer documents in his hand. And perhaps he was doing less and less. In 1655 his salary was reduced from £288 28s 6d to £155 per year (although it was made perpetual). Marvel, his secretary, was paid £200 when he began in 1657. It was as though the Council had retired him. Cromwell wrote no books for European intellectuals or pamphlets for Englishmen. He didn’t even write a poem during the time.
But in April 1655 word arrived of something so monstrous that it snapped Milton out of his silence. The 17th Century was no stranger to brutality and military horrors of all kind. The Thirty Years War on the continent left Germany year after year a wasteland such that nature was imitating Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts. England had seen horrors in all its lands during the Civil Wars. And even when Parliament won, military executions followed. And of course, there was the regicide.
But no one had ever expected a sovereign to go out to slaughter unarmed innocents, killing women and children by bashing their heads in, all in the name of the one church of universal love.
The victims seemed hardly capable of rocking Rome to its foundations. The Waldenses were a small, pacifistic sect, which arose some time in twelfth century, when a wealthy French merchant Peter Waldo (or Pierre Vaudès or Pierre de Vaux) had some sort of religious conversion and began preaching poverty and charity. He had taken the gospel injunctions quite literally and gave away his fortune. Waldo even had the Bible translated into a Provençal dialect, the first translation into a vernacular language (since Latin stopped being the vernacular). There was nothing particularly novel about the teachings of Waldo or his disciples. In 1179 a delegation went to Rome where they were blessed by Pope Alexander III. He forbade them, however, from preaching without permission from the local clergy. And this is where they fell afoul of Rome, which demands strict adherence not only to dogma but to hierarchy. In fact, hierarchy was more important, because thirst for power drove Rome as much as thirst for souls. So when the unauthorized preaching of the Waldenses became notorious, they quickly were declared first schismatics by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and then heretics in 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. Becoming anathema radicalized the Waldenses, who gradually rejected the entire apparatus of the church, including the intercession of priests and the apostolic succession of the popes. In the twelfth century the Count of Saxony had afforded protection to the group in the Piedmont. The Inquisition soon began hunting them down. Propaganda and force was used to root them out from the late fifteenth to mid sixteenth centuries, but the Piedmontese Waldenses were able to defend themselves. The attention of the Church soon turned to the Protestants, and so did the Waldenses, who in the 1530s, after meeting with Swiss and German Protestants, joined their cause, adopting the theology of Calvin over the beliefs of their founder. And so now the Waldenses were the Protestants of Italy, a closer threat to the hegemony of Rome than either Luther or Calvin, and the Church acted accordingly.
What ensured the horror that was about to descend on the Waldenses was the state of the ducal succession in Savoy. When Victor Amadeus I of Savoy died in 1632, his oldest son Francis Hyacinth (the “Flower of Paradise”) was only 5, so the duchess consort Marie Christine became the de facto ruler of the duchy. Marie Christine had a peculiarly appropriate blood-line for her role in history. Her father was Henry IV who had to feign Catholicism to avoid threats on his life; he was assassinated by a Catholic anyway. Her mother was Marie de Médicis, the foul-mouthed second wife, who succeeded Marguerite de Valois after the annulment, and exerted her influence on behalf of the Habsburgs. Marie’s own mother, Catherine de’ Medici (grandmother to the duchess consort) was long suspected of having triggered the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a week after Henry and Marguerite de Valois were married, when all the great Protestant Huguenots were in Paris to celebrate the nuptials.
When the Flower of Paradise died the year after he became Duke, he was succeeded in 1638 by his younger brother, Charles Emmanuel II who was 4; Marie Christine would remain regent.
The Waldenses at the time were beginning a period of rare tranquility. The plague brought by the French army when it occupied the Piedmont Valleys in 1630 nearly decimated them. It reduced them to only two pastors, and they spoke only French. But the Waldenses carried on as they always did. Soon the plague left as did the French army. And by mid-decade they began settling into a quiet, undisturbed existence. But tolerance for the unassuming was not practiced. First Capuchin monks were sent as missionaries; they established monasteries in the Piedmont valleys. They attempted to have the Waldenses hand over their bibles. The Waldenses, believing they existed under the protection of the Duke, wrote Charles Emmanuel requesting he restrain the missionaries. The court’s response in the name of the Duke (who was still a minor) astonished them. First he changed the criminal procedure specifically for them: Now only one witness would be sufficient in a court against any Waldensian. Next he quartered soldiers in their houses. Then he provided that any Waldensian who converted would be free of taxes for 5 years. At the same time a judicial enquiry was instituted into the basis for existing privileges accorded Protestants. The Duke then proclaimed ever more egregious edicts: Protestants were not permitted to act as teachers, either publicly or privately. They could not hold offices of trust. Finally, they were ordered to attend Mass weekly.
In 1650 a Council of the Propagation of the Faith (De propaganda fide) was established at Turin. This local dignitaries and church figures operated as the board. They gathered large sums of money by requesting alms throughout the country. The money was used as bait for Protestant debtors or indigents to convert.
Finally, on January 25, 1655, the Duke of Savoy, not yet 25, and still under the thumb of his mother, issued the Order of Gestaldo. It commanded all Waldenses living in the communes of Lucerna, Fenile, Bubiana, Bricherasio, San Giovanni, and La Torre (the rich plain in front of the Piedmont) to quit their dwellings within three days, and retire into the Valleys of Bobbio, Angrogna, and Rora. They were also to sell their lands to bona fide Catholics within twenty days. Those who were willing to abjure the Protestant faith were exempted from the decree. Otherwise the penalty was death. The only conceivable reason to order a large population to move into the mountains in winter on three days’ notice is to provide the sheerest pretext for killing them. And that’s what the forces of Savoy did.
It must have seemed like the abomination of desolation that their savior had spoken of to his disciples. But even he warned: “[P]ray ye that your flight be not in the winter.” For certain it was that there would be for them “affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation.” (Mark 13:18-19.) For those who complied and left there was suffering. One pastor (Leger) said of his congregation of about 2,000, not one accepted the offer to convert. “I can well bear them this testimony, seeing I was their pastor for eleven years, and I knew every one of them by name; judge, reader, whether I had not cause to weep for joy, as well as for sorrow, when I saw that all the fury of these wolves was not able to influence one of these lambs, and that no earthly advantage could shake their constancy. And when I marked the traces of their blood on the snow and ice over which they had dragged their lacerated limbs, had I not cause to bless God that I had seen accomplished in their poor bodies what remained of the measure of the sufferings of Christ, and especially when I beheld this heavy cross borne by them with a fortitude so noble?” But this was just the beginning. Those that escaped united with the others just as the decree instructed. They even sent prayers to the Court and even to the Propaganda fide. But the order was just the prelude to the final destruction.
On April 17, 1655 the Marquis de Pianeza appeared before the Valleys at the head of an army of 15,000 men. It was composed of Piedmontese bandits, several companies of Bavarians, six regiments of French, and several companies of Irish, who had been banished by Cromwell after his campaign five years before. Bloody, vengeful mercenaries all. The Waldenses determined to resist and barricaded La Torre. The women had been sent into the mountains. The mercenary army stormed the barricade but was repelled after three hours of fighting. Count Amadeus of Lucerna attempted a secret flanking maneuver in the dead of night. He struck the defenders in the rear, but they pivoted, pierced his forces and escaped into the mountains. The mercenaries called it a night and retired to a local church to sing Te Deums.
For several days the army skirmished with the very short-handed Waldenses defenders but were each time beaten down from the heights. And then Pianeza announced he was willing to treat. At the conference he impressed upon the Waldenses representatives his pacifistic aims. Previous atrocities were not ordered by him. He was only looking for a few possible criminals among their midst. It was either owing to an other-worldly ability to practice Christian forgiveness or a fatal naiveté or a secret suicidal urge, but the representatives trusted him, and invited his troops into their midst on top of the mountain. The heights had only two escape routes; one was impassable in winter, the other was being fortified while the soldiers fraternized with their intended victims for two days. On Saturday April 24, 1655 4:00 a.m. a signal was given from La Torre, and the horror beyond imagining began.
The eye-witness accounts were stunning. And even in a world where death had ridden triumphantly over the continent for half a century, the abomination perpetrated was of an order not ever seen. One survivor wrote:
“Nothing now was to be seen but the face of horror and despair, blood stained the floors of the houses, dead bodies bestrewed the streets, groans and cries were heard from all parts. Some armed themselves, and skirmished with the troops; and many, with their families, fled to the mountains. In one village they cruelly tormented one hundred and fifty women and children after the men were fled, beheading the women, and dashing out the brains of the children. In the towns of Vilario and Bobbio, most of those who refused to go to Mass, who were upwards of fifteen years of age, they crucified with their heads downwards; and the greatest number of those who were under that age were strangled”
The soldiers were to dispatch the inhabitants, and then a priest and monk were to set the house on fire. Pastor Leger described it: “Our Valley of Lucerna, which was like a Goshen, was now converted into a Mount Etna, darting forth cinders and fire and flames. The earth resembled a furnace, and the air was filled with a darkness like that of Egypt, which might be felt, from the smoke of towns, villages, temples, mansions, granges, and buildings, all burning in the flames of the Vatican.” But that is too literary a description. The soldiers soon grew weary of simple slaughter and devised ingenious ways to vastly compound their crime, to their infernal amusement.
An old woman was sliced with a sickle and then beheaded. An old man was tied to donkeys and dragged through the streets. Breasts were cut off of a woman and fried and served as food. Women were mutilated and left to bleed to death in the snow. Men were tied up and thrown down cliffs where they would live in agony until they died of starvation. A woman was flayed alive. An old man was garroted so violently that his head came off. A woman was impaled length-wise through her body and the pole was planted in the ground so that she would die in that position. A man was cut into such small pieces that the soldiers laughed that they had “minced” him. Women and children were thrown down the cliffs their heads having been bashed in. One man was captured with his four sons. The soldiers asked him to convert and hacked his first three to pieces when he refused. After the fourth refusal a soldier picked up his last son by the legs and bashed his brains out. “My hand trembles,” says Leger, “so that I scarce can hold the pen, and my tears mingle in torrents with my ink, while I write the deeds of these children of darkness—blacker even than the Prince of Darkness himself.”
“Oh that my head were waters,” wrote Leger, “and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” “It was then,” he adds, “that the fugitives, who had been snatched as brands from the burning, could address God in the words of the 79th Psalm …” To counter the brazen denials of Pianeza, Leger went from village to village to accumulate written testimonies of as many of the survivors as he could. Those depositions were given to Samuel Morland, sent by Cromwell to investigate, and they are now at Cambridge. Morland would write the history of the affair in English.
The news of this atrocity spread first to the Swiss cantons and then ignited Protestant Europe. And Cromwell was shocked most of all. Cromwell wrote a protest to the duke, and on May 25 requested Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin to intervene. The same day he wrote to the heads of the Protestant state to urge united actions. He sent Samuel Morland with the letter to Louis and Mazarin and a speech to Charles Emmanuel reproving him. Cromwell sent £2000 to Geneva to set up fund for relief of the survivors.
Milton, who undoubtedly assisted in all this correspondence, was probably overwhelmed. He had long warmly regarded the Waldenses. In the Commonplace Book he kept during his private studies after leaving Cambridge he mentions each of the three histories of the sect (William B. Hunter, “Milton and the Waldensians,” 11 Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, at 153 (Winter 1971)). On his Grand Tour he visited Savoy briefly. In the work that brought him to the attention of Parliament, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he refers to the Waldenses for the proposition that war for the defense of religion was justified. In Eikonoklastes he refers to the Waldenses to show their ancient “protestant” roots and to argue that Protestants are the least militant of all peoples. And Milton’s own religion (as shown in later works) clearly resembles that which the Waldenses would display in their later history.
But even if there was no record that Milton had admired the Waldenses the sonnet he wrote to commemorate the atrocity would show all that was needful. It is a masterful piece of gravity and restrained anger. It is perhaps the first, and in any event one of the best, pieces of protest literature ever written. The work cemented the Waldenses and their tragedy into the memory of mankind. And it would be a turning point in Milton’s poetry.
from Poems (1673)
[numbered XV in the 1673 collection]
by John Milton
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.