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  • The Royal Society and the Provenance of Milton’s History of Britain (1670)
  • Nicholas von Maltzahn

The rapid sequence of Milton’s publications near the end of his life has often been noted, and has usually been seen as some effort by him to put his house in order in his “last days” (Parker 606 ff; Shawcross, Paradise Regain’d 16). Many signs remain, however, that any urge to publish on Milton’s part should be seen as mediated by some less personal factors, not least the pressures and demands of a changing literary marketplace, and that these late publications have a more complex relation to the print culture of the Restoration than has been supposed. This seems especially the case with his History of Britain, a work that had fallen far short of his original design for a “Univ[ersal] History of Engl[and],” as reported many years before by Theodore Haak to the educational impresario Samuel Hartlib. Their Baconian hopes for this national historian had not soon been answered: the History appeared only in 1670, and then in an abbreviated narrative “Continued [only] to the Nor man Conquest,” and further diminished by the licen ser’s hand (von Maltzahn 12–17, 28–29; Bacon 1: 511–12, 4: 308).

The History is Milton’s major prose publication in the Restoration, but given his caution in bringing his works to the press in the 1660s, he may not have ventured the work unasked. Only in 1667, with the publication of Paradise Lost by Samuel Simmons, did Milton first punctuate the silence he had held since the king’s return. His first published prose work in the Restoration is the conspicuously unobjectionable Accedence Commenc’t Grammar (1669), also printed by Simmons, which wears its republican authorship even more lightly than the epic, if still notably (Herendeen 311–12).

The next year, however, it is James Allestry, a more established bookseller and of much greater distinction, who retails Milton’s History (1670). This was work of a more republican cast, and one in which the licenser was sure to take an interest: as it proved the History would suffer some such interference in the hardening of governmental controls at the time of the Second Conventicle Act. Allestry here found himself presenting work by a notorious controversialist just when constraints on the press were being renewed after a period of comparative relaxation on the licensers’ part.

In contrast with Simmons’s links to Dissent, Allestry had been prominent as a scientific publisher with establishment connections. He is very much the “Printer to the Royal Society” he claims to be: he was second only to his frequent partner John Martyn in this respect, and found much employment from Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Society, and from Oldenburg’s correspondents at home and abroad (Pepys 8: 521; Rivington 1–6; Oldenburg 2: 446–47, 560–61, 563, 590, 647; 3: xxiii, 8, 609; 4: 279; 6: 174, 228, 628; 7: 406). As well as the serial Philosophical Transactions, a great proportion of Allestry’s hundred or more titles are works of natural philosophy. In the 1660s Allestry at first prospered with a strong list of books, especially in conjunction with Martyn, and sold from lavish premises (Mandelbrote 70). But he then encountered difficulties: he and Martyn appeared to have parted by the summer of 1666 (British Library Add. MS 4278, f. 118); they last share an issue of the Philosophical Transactions in the spring of 1667; and, much worse, Allestry lost heavily in the Great Fire, and in his last years never managed to rebuild his business to its earlier prosperity (Mandelbrote 82).

Why did Milton find a bookseller in this quarter? Allestry had never previously published any of Milton’s work, although he had published (with his frequent partner Martyn) the London edition of Claudii Salmasii ad Johannem Miltonum responsio (1660), a work Milton cannot have enjoyed. Parker suggested that Milton’s acquaintance with Allestry was of long standing and that owing to this personal connection the bookseller now “probably came to him, seeking vendible manuscripts.” And indeed, Al lestry may be the “Jacobo Bibliopolae” named over twenty years before in Milton’s...

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