Milton and the Bishop of Exeter

Milton and the South West

John Milton, the 17th century poet best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost has numerous links with the West Country that have remained unexplored.

As part of the Eleventh International Milton Symposium, at the University of Exeter on 20 – 24 July, scholars from across the world will focus on his life and works in both poetry and prose.

Exeter is a pertinent location in which to celebrate the legacy of Milton who became embroiled in a public dispute with the Bishop of Exeter, Joseph Hall. The quarrel was over church worship and the behaviour of the clergy.

During the Civil War of 1640s there was considerable strife between the Church of England and various reformist groups such as the Puritans and between the monarchy and parliament. Milton was a champion of free speech and the freedom of the press, and much of his work advocated a high degree of civil liberty for humankind against the various forms of tyranny and oppression, both ecclesiastical and governmental. 

Christina Ryan, a third year English Literature student at the University of Exeter explained: “Milton and the Bishop of Exeter exchanged a number of controversial prose tracts in print, disputing the nature of worship and denouncing each other. Exeter Cathedral has an original copy of the Bishop’s 1642 tract A Modest Confutation of a slanderous and scurrilous libel (1642), which directly confronted Milton and his peers’ beliefs.”

She added: “Being able to view such significant and relevant documents at first hand is a really exciting opportunity for anyone interested in Milton and the civil and religious conflicts of the English Civil War. Milton’s radical political and religious opinions make him one of our nation’s most exciting and influential poets and the Joseph Hall (Bishop of Exeter) tracts place the South West at the heart of a pivotal point of English history.”

Exeter Cathedral still holds many of Bishop Hall’s original prose pamphlets. Throughout the week of the Symposium there will be a public exhibition in the Cathedral of the historical pamphlets which illustrate the antagonism between the Bishop and Milton and his defence of free speech.

Karen Edwards, Professor of English at the University of Exeter and co-chair of the organising committee said: “The International Milton Symposium is a fantastic opportunity for the Centre for Early Modern Studies here at the University of Exeter to gain scholarly recognition, and for the city to show off its beauty and cultural treasures to a diverse international audience.”

As part of the Milton celebrations, the Renaissance choral ensemble the ‘Tallis Scholar’s’ will perform a special public concert at Exeter Cathedral, on 21 July at 19:30. With pieces by notable Renaissance composers, including Monteverdi, Weekes, and Gibbons, this unique performance will also include music composed by the father of the great English poet, John Milton. Tickets for the public can be purchased on the Cathedral website or on the night of the event.

Date: 7 July 2015

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