John Milton’s Notes Discovered

Milton and Holinshed

Holinshed’s massive account of English, Irish and Scottish history from ancient times to the reign of Elizabeth I was a major source for Shakespeare’s stories and other plays, including Macbeth. Milton himself repeatedly cited Holinshed in his Commonplace Book, to support his republican views. Researchers found that more than 90 percent of these references match marked passages in the Knight Collection’s copy of the second bound volume.

Researchers found about 100 examples in this volume alone. On page 87, a parenthetical marks a passage indicating that Henry II’s wife, Eleanor, was “enraged with her husband because he had various concubines”, which Milton notes in the Commonplace Book: “Concubinatus …turned his wife and children against our hen. 2. Holinsh. p. 87.”

And in his notes on kings and tyrants, Milton transcribes a number of details that he noted in Holinshed’s account of the deposition of Richard II, including one that Milton would later use to justify the execution of Charles I .

In the Trinity Manuscript, Milton borrowed sources from Chronicles plan a series of proposed historical dramas. Milton used two pages of material from Holinshed’s History of Scotland to describe his idea for the first of the five “Scottish Histories”, a tale of violent revenge involving a witch.


Researchers believe discovery opens new insights into MiltonIt is engagement with a major source of his writings, including Of the Reformation (1641) and British history (1670). He would have worked on both at the time – or shortly after – when he read the Chronicles.

Several of Milton’s notes cite other books known to be in his library. These include John Stow Annals, another key source of historical information. Milton also highlighted Holinshed by quoting Giovanni Villani Chronicles of Florence (Chronicles of Florence), a book that Milton included in the curriculum he developed for his nephews in the 1640s.

The notes also highlight Milton’s interest in continental poetry. Under Holinshed’s assertion that Richard the Lionheart was “not very notorious”, Milton added: “the book of Provençal poets numbers him in the catalogue, telling of his poetry and his Provençal mistresses”. Researchers believe that this book refers to the work of Jean de Nostredame. The lives of the most famous and ancient Provençal poets (Lyon, 1575), which deals with Richard’s poetry and mistresses.

Scott-Warren said: “This discovery also serves as further confirmation that Shakespeare’s First Folio belonged to Milton. Both books feature the same diving parentheses and display very comparable annotative practices. And they remind us how voracious a reader he was.