Birth of John Milton

The poet and philosopher was born on December 9th, 1608.

Portrait of Milton c. 1629, National Portrait Gallery, London. Unknown artist (detail)
Portrait of Milton c. 1629, National Portrait Gallery, London. Unknown artist (detail)

In the early years of the reign of James I, on a winter morning, a baby son was born to the Milton family in a substantial wooden house in Bread Street in the City of London. Their oldest son, he was christened John, after his father, in nearby All Hallows Church, which was destroyed fifty-eight years later in the Great Fire. John was then the most popular Christian name in England. A child’s godparents were called ‘gossips’ in those days and there would have been a cheerful party, or ‘gossiping’, after the baptism.

The elder John Milton, now in his middle forties, had set up a successful business as a professional scrivener (a cross between a notary, a money-lender, an investment broker and an estate agent) and married Sara Jeffreys, daughter of a merchant tailor. The Bread Street household included Sara’s widowed mother. The family were comfortably off at a time when the City was booming and A. N. Wilson has called the younger Milton ‘perhaps the most beautiful of capitalism’s first-fruits’. The elder John Milton loved music, wrote well-regarded songs and taught his son to sing and play; but for the boy’s main education he engaged a private tutor named Thomas Young, later master of Jesus College, Cambridge.

Young John, who was slightly built and cherubically attractive, started his schooling at home at about the age of five and from eleven went to a famous nearby institution, St Paul’s School. In her recent biography, Anna Beer has pointed out that young boys were then expected to master and memorize vast amounts of information. The pressure put on them would horrify people now, but John took to his schooling like a duck to water. He learned Latin, Greek, French, Italian and some Hebrew, and often worked by candlelight until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. He later believed this had damaged his eyes (he eventually went blind). He particularly loved Spenser’s Faerie Queen and he was writing poetry himself by the age of fifteen.

Milton was sixteen when he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625. His nickname at Cambridge was ‘lady’ because of his slenderness and delicate complexion, but he was a good fencer and in his own opinion a match for anyone. Early poems included a sonnet to Shakespeare in 1630 (‘Dear son of memory, great heir of fame … Thou in our wonder and astonishment hast built thyself a live-long monument’) and On having arrived at the age of Twenty-Three in 1631 (‘My hasting days fly on with full career, but my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th’). Bud and blossom were going to be plentifully evident in time and John Milton would certainly build himself a lasting monument.

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