An engraving of a medallion or coin featuring  James II of England on the face, framed by the inscription "IACOBUS II DEI GRA ANG SCOT FRAN ET HIB REX" ("James II, by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, [France?], and [Hibernia]"). On the back, there is a scene of a naval battle behind a set of Roman style armaments beneath the inscription "GENUS ANTIQUUM".

Controversy, Control, and Revolution

Paradise Lost and the Politics of Print in the Reign of James II

Curated by Greg McNamara
Summer 2021

Greg McNamara holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and more recently earned his MLIS after teaching at the university level for more than two decades.  Assembling an exhibit of materials from the time of James II featuring a unique edition of Paradise Lost was a natural extension of Dr. McNamara’s experience studying and teaching the ages of Shakespeare and Milton through the lens of political and cultural history.

The publication in 1688 of the fourth edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost by three distinct groups of printers and publishers was a remarkable statement on the reign of James II in light of the disputes and impending revolution that loomed over England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Paradise Lost is above all a work of political allegory commenting extensively on absolute monarchy and free will in the wake of the English Revolution, Commonwealth Period, and Restoration of the monarchy, 1642-1660.  John Milton (b. 1608—d.1674) served the court and commonwealth until he was both physically and politically unable to continue, at which point he completed his poetic vision blind and out of favor.  Paradise Lost, first published in 1667 in ten books and then in its better known twelve-book second edition in 1674 is a poem specifically and purposefully commenting on events of the mid-seventeenth century yet almost prescient with respect to its application to the end of that same century long after Milton had died.

The 1688 Paradise Lost, the first version of the poem released in folio form and illustrated, can be profitably viewed as a work of intellectual and socio-political history to be considered in the context of the crises of the later Stuart monarchy, just as the poem must certainly be read as a meditation on the fall of Charles I in 1649 and the reestablishment of monarchy under Charles II in 1660.

This collection of printed books, pamphlets, and broadsides documents in part the end of absolute monarchy in England and the simultaneous conclusion of post-restoration Stuart rule.  The ascendance of James II to the throne following the death of Charles II in 1685 provoked revolution in the form of the Monmouth Rebellion and widespread violent action throughout the kingdom: James’ public Catholicism and strong ties with France set against strong Church of England sentiments among parliament and the nobility fueled the atmosphere of distrust which escalated from before 1685 until late 1688.

This exhibit features four sections for consideration associated with the fourth edition of Paradise Lost as part of a deeply felt and adventurous expression of the cultural milieu; yet the featured works are independent political tracts without great literary pretense.  The collection includes:

1. documents of control from the royal court insisting upon unpopular forms of religious tolerance and monarchy by divine right under James II;
2. sermons and arguments of support  preached before James II and later published;
3. pamphlets and works revealing conflicting opinions and the licensed and unlicensed power of speech and print in public and in church, 1685-1688; and
4. political declarations from the court and court abroad speaking to the inevitable but complex deposition and forced exile of James II and the politically sophisticated ascension of William III and Mary II near the time James’ deposition in 1688.