Thomas Ellwood


Thomas Ellwood was an convert to Quakerism, younger than George Fox, Margaret Felland James Nayler and contemporary with William Penn. Unlike Penn and others, Ellwood did not emigrate to America, and in his later years became one of the elder statesmen of the Quaker movement in England. His autobiography, is a devotional classic and an essential source about the early Quaker movement, and has been almost continuously in print since its first publication in 1714.

In 1661 and 1662 Ellwood spent several months studying Latin with John Milton, before ill health forced him to leave London. Ellwood does not explicitly describe the writing of Paradise Lost, but it would be surprising if he was not involved. First, because Milton was notorious for dictating what he wrote to anyone handy at the time of composition, and because Ellwood was among the first to be shown the finished manuscript (see below).

There is a fascinating online exhibition of the surviving manuscript copy of Paradise Lost. All that survives in manuscript is Book I, written in fair copy by an unknown scribe, and corrected in about five different autographs.

Ellwood and Milton maintained an acquaintance, and in 1665 Milton asked Ellwood’s assistance finding him a house outside of London to escape from the plague. Ellwood found a cottage in Chalfont St Giles, a little over a mile from Bottrell’s Farm, where he was living as tutor to Isaac Penington’s children. That house, which still stands, looks as I describe it in the play. It is run by a trust, and is open for visitors from March through October.

Ellwood, along with Isaac Penington and eight other of their Quaker brethren, was arrested in Aylesbury on the first of July. A facsimile of their charge-sheet is on display at Milton’s cottage. Ellwood records in his biography that Milton (and Elizabeth) also arrived in Chalfont St Giles on the first of July, so that he did not see them until September, when he was released from gaol. In the show I use the late-seventeenth century confusion between calendrical systems to buy Ellwood a ten-day holiday in Milton’s home before his arrest.

Following Ellwood’s imprisonment, he visited Milton in September 1665, and was given the manuscript of Paradise Lost to take away and read. Upon returning the book to Milton, Elwood relates the scene that follows:

Open QuotesHe asked me how I liked it and what I thought of it, which I modestly but freely told him, and after some further discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, “‘Thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost,’ but what hast thou to say of ‘Paradise Found?’” He made me no answer, but sat some time in a muse; then brake off that discourse, and fell upon another subject.Close Quotes

In the show, I combine the two visits into one, and significantly alter the meaning of Ellwood’s question, but the conversation itself follows Ellwood’s account verbatim.

Ellwood, for all his undoubted virtues, was not a gifted writer. Observe his (at one time) quite popular Epitaph of Milton, which contains the deathless lines:

Open Quotes Invention never higher rose
In poetic strayns, or prose.
In tongues he so much skill had gott,
He might be call’d the polyglot.Close Quotes

Adapting Ellwood’s prose for the stage was at times a challenge. I quickly found that it required a good deal of re-writing to make it flow at all. With every revision of the script Ellwood’s stories have strayed further and further from his original words, without -- I hope! -- losing their original flavour, or too much of Ellwood’s own character.