Paradise Lost – Better to reign in hell than serve in paradise! – Finding the tomb of Milton.

One of the perks of doing guided tours is coming across unexpected treasures.  Many of the places I visit are off the usual tourist-track but no matter how many times I go out on walks, I find new things almost every day.

A few weeks ago on one such occasion I was scouting out a tour route for my new John Wesley Methodist Walking Tour of London when I found myself with a little bit of time inside St. Giles Cripplegate.

This particular St. Giles has a long and torrid history, most recently heavily damaged in WW2 bombings and thus standing amongst what was the new post-modern Barbican estate.   It is a little unusual to find such an interesting church between what I at least would call ugly 1960’s era architecture and the remains of the old Roman Wall but such are the unique contrasts that make London interesting.

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St Giles Cripplegate amongst the Barbican estate.  The long history of the church is evident from the various building styles from repairs of various era’s.

In fact the Cripplegate part of the name comes from the fact that the church was originally built next to one of the old Roman gates into the City of London, namely the rather sorrowful sounding Cripplegate.

Amongst the many fine statues inside the church I noticed that there seemed to be something of a cult following to the writer Milton.  I’ve been a big fan of Milton for many years.  Firstly he is mention in Star Trek which is all I really needed to become interested in him but more objectively, he work was required reading in my classics and politics classes at University.

Of course I knew he had to be buried somewhere and if I really wanted to look up the place then I could easily have done so.  There are at least hundreds of churches in London (I’d expect thousands) and to look up everyone of interest to me would be an almost never ending job and so I don’t and instead prefer to happen across them almost accidentally or when I have reason to incorporate them into a new tour.

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John Milton

John Milton was born in 1608 and was educated at St Paul’s School in London before studying languages at Cambridge University for seven years. In 1638 he travelled to Italy – where he may have met Galileo and on his return to England  Milton became a fierce exponent of Cromwell.

In 1643 at the age of 33, he married the 17 year-old Mary Powell but their marriage lasted only a month after she paid a visit to her Royalist family and never returned. However, when the Royalist cause started to decline she begged to be taken back and Milton agreed. Mary died in childbirth in 1652. He also lost his second wife Catharine Woodcock in childbirth. He married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, in 1662.

By the age of 43 Milton was blind and as a result he was forced to dictate his poetry though it did inspire one of his greatest works.

Following the execution of Charles I Milton published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates – arguing that power resided in the hands of the people. As a result he was appointed secretary for foreign languages to Cromwell’s Council of State. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, he lost his position and was briefly arrested.

For the last twelve years of his life Milton lived in Bunhill Row, Finsbury. It was here that he started his epic poem Paradise Lost and the sequel Paradise Regained. However, during the Great Plague he moved out to a cottage at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire – where the poem was completed.

Milton’s use of blank verse was hugely influential for subsequent poets and he was pretty much the first poet to write in non-rhyming verse.

Milton died of gout in 1674 and there is a commemorative window to Milton in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey.

Milton was and indeed still is an incredibly well read writer and was read and appreciated across Europe which made him rich enough to ensure his children were able to concentrate on the Classics too.  Perhaps it was due to his wealth that during the 1790’s, while repairs were being made to the chancel, the coffin of John Milton was exhumed by St Giles’ historically unscrupulous verger.  The great poet on public display with the verger charging interested parties first 6d, later 2d, and finally the price of a pint of ale for a peek. This led to his teeth, hair and one rib being purloined for souvenirs before he was reburied, and the contemporary poet William Cowper wrote, ‘Ill fare the hands that heaved the stones, where Milton’s ashes lay! That trembled not to grasp his bones, and steal his dust away!’

Being dedicated to the cause, Milton is even said to be responsible for introducing certain words relating to freedom and liberty into the English language.    His most famous work is of course Paradise Lost.

The Devil (Satan/Lucifer) is the first major character introduced in the poem. He was once the most beautiful of all angels, and is a tragic figure who famously declares: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Following his failed rebellion against God, he is cast out from Heaven and condemned to Hell. Satan’s desire to rebel against his creator stems from his unwillingness to be subjugated by God and his Son, claiming that angels are “self-begot, self-raised,”and thereby denying God’s authority over them as their creator.

Satan is deeply arrogant, albeit powerful and charismatic. Satan’s persuasive powers are evident throughout the book; not only is he cunning and deceptive, but he is also able to rally the fallen angels to continue in the rebellion after their agonizing defeat in the Angelic War. He argues that God rules as a tyrant and that all the angels ought to rule as gods. Though commonly understood to be the antagonising force in Paradise Lost, Satan may be best defined as a tragic or Hellenic hero. According to William McCollom, one quality of the classical tragic hero is that he is not perfectly good and that his defeat is caused by a tragic flaw, as Satan causes both the downfall of man and the eternal damnation of his fellow fallen angels despite his dedication to his comrades. In addition, Satan’s Hellenic qualities, such as his immense courage and, perhaps, lack of completely defined morals compound his tragic nature.

John Dryden described Paradise Lost as: ‘one of the greatest, most noble and sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.‘  But Dr Johnson (do read my post on him through the link) was less enamoured by it and famously said: ‘Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again.

These days I sometimes think the famous quote has allegories to Brexit but Whatever your take on Paradise Lost, it can’t be disputed what an incredible influence Milton has had, all the way up to the 23rd century!!!  I was thrilled to be able to visiting his resting place after all these years.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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3 Responses to Paradise Lost – Better to reign in hell than serve in paradise! – Finding the tomb of Milton.

  1. Francis says:

    A brilliant post. Never knew Milton was in St Giles. Truly a great poet though often accused of distorting the English language with his latinisms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank-you, I’m glad you like it. I was surprised too. There were quite a few statues around including some of King Charles too which I’ll have to get to the bottom off. I think I saw a statue of Milton there last year but for some reason didn’t investigate it properly. I will have to dig out my 25 year old copy of Paradise Lost!

      Like

    • So many of these churches would in other places be national monuments or treasures and the art or tombs would be in national collections. It’s incredible how rich in history and heritage terms the average British church can be, even this somewhat forgotten and battered one.

      Like

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