Hobbes on the English Civil War

Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth or The Long Parliament (England, late 1660s?)   MS 13

Oxford, St John’s College, MS 13, fol. 34r. Detail on the impeachment of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, in 1640

In Behemoth or the Long Parliament, the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) discusses the English Civil War (1642-1651). It is his ‘only composition to address directly the history of the events which formed the context of his writings on sovereignty and the government of the Church, [and] it closely reflects the personal and political uncertainties of the period of its composition’ (Seaward, p. 1). Dividing the subject matter into four sections, called ‘dialogues’ in MS 13, Hobbes’s work covers the timespan from 1637 to 1660.

St John’s manuscript, one of only seven still in existence, is a significant textual witness of Behemoth and as such forms the base text for Paul Seaward’s critical edition published by Oxford University Press in 2010. This ‘presentation copy’ (Seaward, p. 13) was written down by James Wheldon, the steward of the Earl of Devonshire and Hobbes’s assistant, with whom he had worked before (Seaward, p. 72). The manuscript also includes corrections and deletions by Thomas Hobbes himself, such as ‘fo. 4r, on the jure divino powers of the bishops; fos. 33v–34r, on parliamentary assemblies and on the Lords and the impeachment of Strafford; and fo. 45r, on the government of Egypt in the time of Moses’ (Seaward, pp. 72-3).

It is not certain when exactly this manuscript copy was produced, but the work as such may have been written between 1666 and 1668 (Seaward, p. 70; cf. pp. 6-10). Publishing Behemoth was not straightforward for Hobbes. In fact, the king’s well-documented refusal to consent to its publication appears to be the very reason why the copy now at St John’s was produced in the first place. Our manuscript was prepared for Sir Henry Bennet, Baron of Arlington, who, as Secretary of State, was responsible for licencing ‘Books of History, Affairs of State, &c.’ (Licencing Act of 1662). Eventually, Behemoth was first published without Hobbes’s approval before his death in December 1679, while the first ‘official’ edition from his publisher, the London bookseller William Crooke, appeared in 1682 (Seaward, pp. 14-16).

We do not know much about the provenance history of MS 13, but in 1706 it was given to St John’s by Charles Wheatly (1686-1742), who joined the College in 1705 as a Founder’s Kin. In the past, a Founders Kin was someone who got a place to study at St John’s because they were able to prove their descent from the College’s founder, Thomas White.


Hobbes, Thomas, Behemoth or the Long Parliament, ed. Paul Seaward, The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, v. 10 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010). Licencing Act of 1662 at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp428-435 [accessed 5/12/22]

Find the original Book of the Month feature here.

Return to this exhibition’s homepage here.

One thought on “Hobbes on the English Civil War

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: