Today (August 27) in London History – the book burning

On August 27th, 1660 London burned books. Two of them were books written by England’s greatest epic poet, John Milton. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Here’s some food for thought.

For centuries the hangman in London was kept very busy. 

He had a regular intake of passengers that he had to see to – get them launched into eternity. And of course there were several execution sites that had to be attended to. Tyburn was of course the most famous but it wasn’t the only show in town. It was going on all over London. The famous ones – in addition to Tyburn – were the Tower of course. Those were mostly beheadings. And Execution Dock for pirates. Smithfield for heretics and witches. Smithfield’s were mostly burnings at the stake. Then there was Lincoln’s Inn Fields. And St Paul’s Churchyard. And Tower Hill. The list goes on and on. All over London, not least because it was common practice to execute people in the place where they’d committed the capital crime. 

Now I’ve left out one of the biggies. Newgate. Outside the prison. It got promoted when smart London moved far enough west and didn’t like it one bit that the goings-on at Tyburn were regularly transforming their neighbourhood into Gehenna on the green. You know that biblical word Gehenna? It means the abode of the damned in the afterlife. And it pretty well describes the mayhem and pandemonium of execution days at Tyburn.

It was an early example of Nimby-ism. Nimby’s an English acronym for Not in My Back Yard. 

Anyway, the upshot was that Tyburn got closed down when smart London got out that way. Executions were moved to the area right in front of Newgate Prison. In the very heart of the city of London. Mind you, not that executions in the City were a new treat for London. London had had plenty of experience – centuries of experience – widespread experience – in that area of human experiment, endeavour and activity. But closing Tyburn – that gave the City of London star billing in the biggest show in town. 

In just over a century over a thousand Londoners were despatched in front of Newgate Prison. 

Anyway, yes, the hangman was kept busy. But there’s something else, the hangman had to be a jack of all trades. Because it wasn’t just hanging people – he was sometimes called on to burn books. Now here’s that first food for thought morsel – which event do you think attracted more spectators – seeing a man or a woman or a teenager hanged? Or seeing a bunch of books be executed – burned at the stake?

Yes, I think you know the answer to that one.

Anyway, let’s get to our date. August 27th, 1660. And let’s introduce our principal. John Milton. After Shakespeare, the greatest poet this country ever produced. And sure enough, merry old England burned the books – some of them – of the second greatest poet in the annals of English Literature. How’s that for a badge of honour? Something to be proud of.

They were burned there, in front of Newgate prison. The burning of books – the killing and stabbing and imprisoning and exiling of authors – it’s deeply shaming. That’s right out of the playbook of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Or Franco’s Spain. Or Middle Eastern mullah-crazed theocracies. 

Anyway, let’s get au fait with the story. Milton wasn’t an ivory tower poet. He was Cromwell’s Latin secretary. No question about it, he was political. A liberal. His pen was the sharpest blade in the case. With it he slashed away at unwarrantable power, political or ecclesiastical. 

But Cromwell died. The whole project – the Commonwealth of England – “common wealth” it’s a potent word – the whole project, this country as a republic – came unstuck. Monarchy was on its way back. And Milton had, in his writings, time and again inveighed against kings, against monarchy. Those sentiments weren’t going to sit well with those who were getting back in the saddle. 

And talk about asking for trouble – not pulling in his horns – shortly before Charles II’s return Milton upped his anti-Monarchy ante. He wrote a letter to General Monk. General Monk was the power broker, he had – to use Stalin’s term – the divisions. He had the army. His support was what made the Restoration – Charles II’s return – possible. Milton addresses to General Monk a piece entitled The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Monk has already decided he’s going to do for the Commonwealth. And this blind old egghead is telling him to do an about-face.

Milton was either insanely courageous or astonishingly naive or just plain foolish. There was no question which way the wind was blowing. Let’s timeline it. On May 29th Charles II was back in Whitehall Palace and parliament was busying itself voting the death penalty for the judges who’d condemned his father, Charles I, to death. Two and a half weeks later Parliament gets around to books. It humbly – what an adverb – it humbly beseeches his Majesty – what a noun, still very much in use of course – it humbly beseeches his Majesty to issue a proclamation calling in certain books which defended the regicide sentence, and to order them to be burned by the common hangman. John Milton is the author of two of those condemned books.

Two weeks later Charles II orders the Attorney General to prepare that proclamation. Seven weeks later – August 13th – that proclamation is printed, distributed and reprinted in all the newspapers. 

And let’s remember that all of this ferment – this red glare of revenge – is going right next door to the neighbourhood Milton’s living in. He puts himself effectively into house arrest. Feels – rightly so I should think – that he mustn’t allow himself to be seen outside. That was how it was, remember, for Salmon Rushdie back when Satanic Verses was published. And, well…  no need to say any more on that count.

Anyway, in the end, Milton flees his house. Goes into a kind of internal exile. Goes to ground, hides over in the Little Britain area. Seeks asylum with a friend in Bartholomew Close. As it happens just a stone’s throw away from where his books will shortly be burned. 

And, we’re told, his friends arranged a mock funeral. Fortunately for Milton – and for us, for English Literature – Charles II was bone idle and anything but a fanatic. Word got to the Merry Monarch that the blind old poet had had a mock funeral. Charles II roared with laughter. It was said the Merry Monarch “applauded his policy in escaping the punishment of death by a seasonable show of dying.”

Basically, there wasn’t a serious attempt to track Milton and bring him to justice – if justice is the word. In effect, Charles II said, “oh, let the old geezer go.” Three days after the book burning there was an Act of Indemnity that was, in effect, a Get Out of Jail Card for John Milton. And just as well, too – because thanks to Charles II’s slackness we have the greatest poem in the English language, Paradise Lost. Think of Milton just a few years later, up all night composing – composing it in his mind, he was completely blind, couldn’t write it down. That in itself is astonishing, what’s almost equally astonishing was that he was one of the rare beings who needed very little sleep – so think of him up most of the night, composing, and then waking his daughters, and saying to them, “milk me, milk me.”

He’d recite what he’d composed. And they’d write it down. And we have – in consequence – Paradise Lost. And Paradise Regained.

A Today in London recommendation? Let’s make it today in Cambridge. Starts in London though. John Milton attended Christs College Cambridge. 

Simon Law – who gets more rave reviews than any other London Walks guide – does a brilliant day trip to Cambridge. Milton figures in that trip. Simon will be running three more of them this Summer 2022 season: September 7th, September 21st and October 5th. Highest possible recommendation. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *