Composing Eikonoklastes was one of the first assignments John Milton undertook as Secretary for Foreign Languages to Oliver Cromwell's Council of State. He published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates in mid February of 1649, but he does not identify that work as an official assignment, and in it he never mentions King Charles by name (Fallon, "Nascent Republican Theory," 310). Indeed, in his own account of being recruited as the apologist for the new "republic" as he calls it, Milton makes it sound as if whatever work he already had begun for the government was, at least for the moment, swept aside so that he could concentrate on responding to "the King's book," Eikon Basilike, or "the pourtraicture of His sacred Maiestie in his solitudes and sufferings." In the Second Defence of the English People he describes the emergency of the moment:
when the kingdom of Charles was transformed into a republic, and the so-called Council of State, which was then for the first time established by the authority of Parliament, summoned me, though I was expecting no such event, and desired to employ my services, especially in connection with foreign affairs. Not long afterwards there appeared a book attributed to the king, and plainly written with great malice against Parliament. Bidden to reply to this, I opposed to the Eikon the Eikonoklastes, not, as I am falsely charged, "insulting the departed spirit of the king," but thinking that Queen Truth should be preferred to King Charles. Indeed, since I saw that this slander would be at hand for any calumniator, in the very introduction (and as often as I could elsewhere) I averted this reproach from myself. Then Salmasius appeared. (Yale Prose 4.1.627-28)
As Milton's own quotation makes clear, he did not succeed in averting this reproach. Nor, it must be said, did he succeed in deflating the reputation of one of the most successful propaganda pieces ever written. Other early assignments as Secretary included becoming an apologist-at-large for the new government, writing in Latin for an international audience in the Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651), translated as A Defence of the People of England. But Eikonoklastes is directed specifically at an English audience in an effort to discredit and, if possible, render ineffectual King Charles's bid to be popularly, and eventually officially, recognized as a Christian martyr.
Charles I was executed on January 30th, 1649. Eikon Basilike was published on February 10, but advance copies of the King's Book were circulating as early as February 1 (Wilcher 289). Milton's effort at official damage control did not appear until October 6, 1649. By that time, Eikon Basilike had been issued more than 50 times in close to three dozen editions (Madan). It had already been exposed as "a counterfeit" in an anonymous response called Eikon Alethine, and defended from such charges in another anonymous effort called Eikon Episte. The King's book became one of the most popular books of the age. It was published in major European translations and separate parts of it (the prayers following each chapter and the frontispiece) were printed separately many times over. Joshua Samuel Reid has graciously supplied an image of the frontispiece from his own copy (by engraver William Marshall). Cambridge University Library has a copy carefully painted in watercolor. Looking somewhat further ahead, into the Restoration, the newly re-issued Book of Common Prayer in 1662 included in its "Kalendar" a memorial day on January 30 for "K. Charles Martyr" which was not removed until 1859. The Society of King Charles the Martyr was formed in 1894; one of its stated objectives is the restoration of this memorial observation to the Book of Common Prayer.
In both the short and the rather lengthy medium terms, it would appear that Milton's effort to smash the Eikon was an utter failure. Stephen Zwicker all but suggests one good reason for this failure—a radical misalignment between the readerly intentions of those who "consumed" the king's book "as prayer and sacred history," a pious practice of mourning and meditation, and Milton's practice of "reading as combat" (Zwicker, "Passions and Occasions," 292 & 291). Since 1640, Milton had been writing almost exclusively in what Zwicker aptly terms "the language of animadversion" (290), and this mode of reading and writing took a decidedly combative turn after his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643) was so viciously attacked by his erstwhile anti-prelatical compatriots. Colasterion (1645) is is good example of the line-by-line, statement-by-statement, or as Milton would have it, lie-by-lie exposure of his adversary by combative re-reading and a relentless hermeneutics of suspicion. As a modern reader, I see and appreciate Milton's success at exposing the king's disingenuousness, his secret commitment to Roman Catholicism, and even his utter incompetence as a statesman, let alone a king. But the king's book appealed to readers with a radically different reading agenda, and Milton's tactics were woefully ill-suited to the task of changing their minds.
In fact, there's some evidence that Milton knew this even as he warms up. He compares the Eikon to Caesar's will, another of the all-time most successful propaganda pieces, and he expects "fools and silly gazers" to respond much like the ancient Roman "Vulgar audience":
And among other examples we finde, that the last will of Cæsar being read to the people, and what bounteous Legacies he had bequeath'd them, wrought more in that Vulgar audience to the avenging of his death, then all the art he could ever use, to win thir favor in his life-time. And how much their intent, who publish'd these overlate Apologies and Meditations of the dead King, drives to the same end of stirring up the people to bring him that honour, that affection, and by consequence, that revenge to his dead Corps, which he himself living could never gain to his Person, it appears both by the conceited portraiture before his Book, drawn out to the full measure of a Masking Scene, and sett there to catch fools and silly gazers.
Milton knew, even in the wake of such revolutionary success, that most "sober Englishmen" were not "sufficiently awake" to turn away the Circean cup of the king's book and so "will not be held back from running their heads into the Yoke of Bondage." Perhaps, as David Loewenstein suggests, "Milton faced a nearly impossible task," but undertook it because he was keenly aware of the fragile state of the experimental republic, one established by a military coup, not by democratic or even legitimately constitutional means (personal e-mail). The relatively small contemporary audience who could appreciate Milton's heroically iconoclastic efforts in Eikonoklastes were those with access to books, not just contemporary printed matter like the Parliamentary journals and records Milton had at his elbow while writing, but also a whole library of history, church fathers, accounts of church councils, and political theory, ancient and modern.
This edition can simulate that kind of reading experience, by tracking Milton's attention to the Eikon page by page. For this reason I have provided running links to EEBO images of a copy that was not among the very first printed. Readers will also find useful links to other contemporary documents, and wherever possible to web versions of these documents that do not require subscription as does Early English Books Online. In the long term, Milton's Eikonoklastes has met with more sympathetic readers beginning, I suspect, in the late 1680s in the run-up to the Glorious Revolution of 1689. By 1859, Charles's pose as a Christian martyr had become just embarrassing to most.
King Charles probably wrote very little of the Eikon Basilike himself, and Milton was aware of this. He may even have suspected, as it later came out, that John Gauden, a Presbyterian-associated chaplain to Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, wrote most of the book. But Milton deliberately chose to address his iconoclastic responses to the king himself, "as in his book alive," holding him responsible for everything in it, especially the adaptation of "Pammela's Prayer" from Sidney's Arcadia as if it were one of the king's own prayers during his captivity.
I hasten, however, to give Milton credit for not taking undue advantage of the cynical use the king's book makes of his children, by including a chapter addressed "To the Prince of Wales," a letter to the king from Henry, and "Relations" of the king's parting moments with Henry and Elizabeth. About the first of these, Milton discretely remarks "What the King wrote to his son, as a Father, concerns not us;" about the other documents, he is simply silent.
The copytext for the Milton Reading Room edition is the second edition of 1650, Wing / 1798:19b. A British Library copy made available by EEBO. This copy has a few handwritten corrections, all of which have been adopted and duly noted. The annotations in this text provide many links to the OED and to EEBO, both of which require subscriptions; most university libraries are subscribers, so these links will work fine when your device is connected to the library's network or to eduroam.