Lived in a cottage in Chalfont St Giles during the 1665 London plague. It is thought that he put the finishing touches to his major work Paradise Lost during his stay there
9th December 1608
9th or 10th November 1674
John Milton was born and lived most of his life in London.
After St Paul’s School, Milton attended Christ’s College, Cambridge. He abandoned a career in the Church to spend 6 years studying privately at the family home in Horton near Eton in Berkshire. After his mother’s death – her memorial plaque can be seen in Horton church - Milton travelled in Italy for about 18 months before returning to England just as the Civil War broke out.
In 1642 Milton, then aged 34, suddenly married 17 year old Mary Powell whose father owed him money. For some time Milton continued to take private pupils, but he had entered the political field with the publication of anti-prelatical tracts, followed by pamphlets on divorce; he also published a collection of his juvenile poems. However in 1649, during the trial of Charles I, Milton wrote the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates which argued that it was lawful to depose and put to death a tyrant king.
Possibly as a result of this he was invited to become the Secretary for Foreign Tongues to Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State. This post he held until blindness overtook him in 1652, a disastrous year in which his wife and his little son died. Left with three very young daughters Milton continued to work but with assistance from Andrew Marvell, who eventually replaced him.
In November 1656 Milton married Katherine Woodcock but by the end of 1658 tragedy struck again for both she and their newly born daughter were dead.
The Commonwealth was coming to an end, and the restoration of Charles II in 1660 put Miltonin great danger; some of his works were burnt by the public hangman, and he was briefly imprisoned. On his release he lived quietly in London, and in 1663 he married 25 year old Elizabeth Minshull.
In 1665 he fled to a cottage in Chalfont St Giles during the appalling outbreak of the plague. It was here that he showed his completed epic poem Paradise Lost to Thomas Ellwood, a local Quaker and former pupil who had found the “pretty box in Giles Chalfont” for him. Here he may also have started Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Milton’s blindness meant that he had to remember works until he was able to dictate them to someone. It is thought that whilst at the cottage he probably lived downstairs, being unable to get upstairs safely without guidance. There is one room within the cottage that has been kept as close as possible to its state when he lived there.
Milton returned to London just before the great fire of 1666 but the property in which he lived was not touched by the fire. He was however impoverished, having lost much of his investments during the Civil War, and he continued to live quietly just outside the northern wall of the city in Bunhill Fields.
He died in November 1674 and was survived by his 3rd wife and his three daughters.
Milton’s influence through the ages has been enormous, and extends to present day writers such as Philip Pullman, and the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion who recently said of him that he was “magnificently great on a European scale” and that Paradise Lost is “the best poem ever written in the English language”.
Biography: A Life of John Milton by A.N. Wilson, published by Pimlico 2002
Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles: maintained by a private trust and open to the general public from March to the end of October, 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday. The cottage is probably 16th century although parts of it may be older. Visitors can see four ground floor rooms, and there is a large and charming garden. This is the only one of his many homes that remains standing.
Chalfont St Giles is a traditional English village of great charm retaining the village green and pond; it has often been used for television and films [such as Dad’s Army]. The parish church is of traditional flint construction, and has interesting 14thcentury paintings. The sanctuary contains a wall tablet in memory of Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, the friend and patron of Captain James Cook.
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