Seventeenth Century

“Charles I (1600-49)” by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, 1635. Wikimedia Commons.


by D.J. Kingdon

The 17th Century in English history can be marked with numerous upheavals, with even greater engagement with the wider world and with rapid changes in commerce, science, society and religion. It was a century that was easily broken into two parts: before the Civil War and the Interregnum and after those events. Trade across continents opened expansively with cargo moving across the world and across the Atlantic. Cultures began to intermingle and bought goods from each other. In the New World which was rapidly becoming colonized, settlers found that their villages were inhabited by those of various European countries. They realised that in order to colonize this “land of opportunity”, they had to work together.  In Europe, Galileo and Kepler were busy with their  revolutionary theories on heliocentrism and planetary motion which were not without controversy. Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity while being known as a very gifted theologian and writer. As Protestant “minimalism” became more anchored in Europe, the Catholic Church countered with the opposite: its funding of the “baroque”or the elaborate and exaggerated in its buildings and arts and music. This grand century of reason, science and the colonisation of new lands was occurring parallel with yet another century of political and religious struggle in England.

It is important to remember that the influence of the Elizabethan Age did not end with Elizabeth’s death in 1603. It continued on into the early part of the 17th Century with Francis Bacon (who lived until 1626) being its most important writer and essayist. He wrote on a remarkable range of topics: law, science, mythology, philosophy, ethics and religion. Bacon wrote over seventy works, but only 20 were published in his lifetime. Shakespeare wrote his first play, Henry IV (Part I), in 1590 and in the new century he wrote 20 of his 37 plays. His last play was written in 1513, a few years before his death. So, the “Golden Age of Elizabeth” continued a decade or two into the tumult that was to grip England for the middle part of the 1600’s. The religious and political extremism of the mid-century curtailed the wit and and high ideals that had been exhibited in writings at its beginning. It was not until the succession of Charles II, and the Restoration period that writers would feel free again to create the heroic world of a Milton or the comedy of a William Wycherly.


After the Tudors: The Stuarts

Elizabeth I died childless in 1603 and James I of England (who had been James the VI of Scotland before taking the British throne) succeeded his cousin. He was not a Tudor, he was a Stuart. He was also the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. James came to the throne at the tender age of one, after his mother’s forced abdication. Unlike his mother, he was raised a staunch Protestant. James was also the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland which meant that James was to eventually claim the three thrones as his right. James, through this lineage, was able to do what no other ruler could do before him: he unified England, Scotland and Ireland thereby calling himself “The King of Great Britain and Ireland” though Parliament did not agree with this new title. Nevertheless, he reigned over all  three kingdoms until his death in 1625. This was to be later coined the Jacobean era. This was the same King James who oversaw the translation of a Bible for the common people which was published in 1611 and is still in publication today. This Bible served to strengthen Protestantism, but it also was responsible for introducing hundreds of phrases and idioms into the English language. The King James Bible influenced many writers during the period soon after its publication, among these was John Milton.

Soon after James’ succession to the throne, he was met with much resistance. In 1605, a group of angry English Catholics who disagreed with James’ lack of tolerance for the Catholic Church plotted to blow up the House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plot was uncovered and at midnight the night before the opening, authorities discovered a man by the name of Guy Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament building.  That was enough explosive to have reduced the building to ashes. All the men involved were executed and to this day, the fifth of November is termed “Guy Fawkes Night” and is commemorated with bonfires, firecrackers and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. But the dissent with James did not end there. Many of the English resented having a Scottish king and they felt that they had been “invaded” by the Scots . A plot to bomb the homes of prominent  Scottish residents was discovered and stopped. This discovery shocked the English and brought James a lot of sympathy. But it was not enough to stop the series of wars that were to come.


 The English Civil War

The foment that had been brewing between Catholics and Protestants for well over a century, long before Elizabeth I, finally led to a series of three wars which have been simply known as “The English Civil War”. After the death of James I, his son, Charles I came to power as the new King of England, Ireland and Scotland. He was quick to exercise his “divine right of kings” as he proceeded to dissolve one Parliament and marry a  Spanish Catholic a year after he took the throne. His arrogance and lack of humility angered the English and his marriage was not popular among his subjects. Charles continued these impulsive actions with his pro-Catholic stance and dissolved another two more Parliaments, ruling ten years without a Parliament at all. It was the Scots’ military incursion as far south as Durham during the “Bishop’s War” that finally sent Charles back to convene Parliament so that he could finance a defence. The Parliament agreed as long as he gave in to their demands. One of them was that it would be forbidden for him to dissolve Parliament again without their permission. This was the beginning of what is now termed “The Long Parliament” because the Parliament sat from 1640 through 1660 without dissolution.

Around 1641, Parliament sent a list of grievances to the King called “The Grand Remonstrance”. It divided the Parliament because many saw it as a document that was too puritanical and populist in tone. Charles was angered by these grievances and marched soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest the MP’s who had been instrumental in drafting the missive. But they had already fled. Charles knew he had lost control over Parliament and the City of London, so he also left the capital to go into hiding.

Eventually, these grievances against the King led to a division among the English, a division that led to the formation of two armies: the Royalists (who gained the support of Catholics, anti-Puritans, anti-populists, and the nobility in the north and west) and the Parliamentarians (who were supported by the middle class, the merchants and the staunch Protestants in the south and east). These civil wars were devastating to the English.

In 1649, Charles I was found guilty of treason and executed. It was then that England became known as a Commonwealth. This left Charles II, son of the previous monarch as ruler and he immediately made an alliance with Ireland and Scotland. Oliver Cromwell, who was heading the Parliamentarian troops responded to this by invading Ireland and killing a fourth of its population. He then entered Scotland and took Edinburgh.  Charles II also landed in Scotland to lead uprisings against Cromwell’s forces. But Cromwell pursued the King’s regiments and defeated them in 1651. This ended the Civil War. Charles II fled to France, leaving Oliver Cromwell as leader of the country.


The Interregnum

Because England had never had rule without a kingship, and Cromwell was now the head of state, Parliamentarians in the “Rump Parliament” (the leftover MPs after the war) could not agree  with Cromwell on how to rule the Commonwealth. The army was the most powerful group in the country at that point, so they took control of the Commonwealth and declared Cromwell “Lord Protector”. This meant that while he was not a king, per se, he ruled as one. Effectively, what Cromwell did was rule the Commonwealth with a number of major-generals which meant it left England as a military dictatorship. Cromwell allowed more religious freedom for Protestants but as an avowed Puritan he introduced many “moral laws” which forbade people to dance, to attend the theatre, to make music, to drink, and even to celebrate Christmas. The arts and literature suffered during this time and the frivolity and flowering of the arts enjoyed during the Elizabethan period became a faint memory. Upon Cromwell’s death, in 1658, he was succeeded by his son, Richard who was then named the new “Lord Protector.” However, Richard had none of the political prowess of his father, nor the ambition or leadership capabilities. After a series of very inept political moves and equally inept decisions,  he tended his resignation which was accepted and he left for France. He was only in power for nine months.


The Restoration

In 1660, soon after the exit of Richard Cromwell, Puritanism was outlawed in England, not by the King, but by Parliament. Charles the II who had fled after the Civil War was invited to return to England to assume the monarchy.  Charles II was the antithesis to the grim puritanical Cromwell. He was called the “merry monarch”. He was a very agreeable ruler. He believed that in the matters of religion one should simply “live and let live”. He arrived in great splendour in England as he had been well-schooled in Versailles by Louis XIV where he had spent his early exile. He and Louis were good friends.  Taverns, brothels, racing arenas and theatres reopened under Charles II. There was even a special “Theatre Royal” opened in Drury Lane. The extroverted King enjoyed walking in the park with his spaniels trailing behind him and it is said he often would stop to chat with the people he met on his walks. The reinstatement of Charles II as king led to a resurgence of the arts and culture that had been obscured with years of war and another decade of Cromwell’s grim “moral laws”. Alas, though Charles II was a colourful figure and a patron of the arts, his seventeen mistresses and his extravagant lifestyle soon led him to come to loggerheads with Parliament over his expenditures. Added to this expense was that London was hit with a plague in 1665 that killed at least 68,000 people (though some estimated that it was twice that). Then the next year, a great fire swept London gutting the medieval city within the old Roman wall destroying a great many of the houses within the area. It is estimated that almost 70,000 houses were destroyed. If this was not enough, the following year, the Dutch sailed up the Thames, burned thirteen navy ships and took the navy flagship The Royal Charles as a souvenir. England had been brought to its knees and Charles’ hedonistic lifestyle was blamed.

Charles II later died without any legitimate heirs (though he had fifteen illegitimate children) and on his deathbed converted to Catholicism because he had promised Louis the XIV that when he found a good time to do it, he would. A deathbed conversion seemed convenient. Charles II made his exit with no doubt a huge crowd of mistresses and children there to bid him adieu.

The Restoration brought much needed life back into the arts and writing. That period is most characterised by its plays especially its comedies which are still being produced today. It was a time of novelty and change and relaxation after the difficult decades before. But mostly, it was a time of  the reclamation of writing and the arts which had been largely ignored because of war and forbidden because of Puritanism.  Aside from the witty Restoration comedies, the prose that has endured as classics from that period are John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poetry most known from that time is that of John Dryden.


The Glorious Revolution

Because there was no direct male heir to the throne, James II, brother to Charles II came to rule. He was a very openly devout Catholic and he was unapologetic about it. The English were not open to having a Catholic monarch rule over their very Protestant country. The succession of James II to the throne led to the “Exclusion Crisis” which divided Parliament among the Tories and the Whigs. The Tories wanted James to rule and the Whigs wanted to “exclude” James from succession. This led to the “Monmouth Rebellion” which was organised by James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son) to stop James from ruling. It was unsuccessful and the Duke was beheaded. James II then executed 320 supporters of the Duke of Monmouth and then sent another 800 to the West Indies, which with its primitive conditions was tantamount to a death sentence. James II used this opportunity to consolidate his power and to exercise more of his “divine right of kings”. He dismissed the Earl of Rochester, Lord of the Treasury, when he would not recant Anglicanism. He used his power to appoint Roman Catholics to top posts. Everything that Elizabeth I had done to keep Protestantism as the religion of England was being stripped. More than that, Catholicism was being imposed without any tolerance for opposition. When James II had a son, and it was clear that there was another Catholic-in-waiting to succeed to the English throne, Parliament and the English had reached their boiling point. It was clear that James II believed as King he had the right to impose his will on all matters and that he was nothing short of a despot who would stop at nothing to get his way.

A list of grievances was drawn up against James II including: cruel and unusual punishments (he had people who opposed him hanged, drawn and quartered), he suspended laws passed by Parliament, he intimidated Anglican bishops, he kept invoking his divine right as king and usurping Parliamentary law.  As Parliament (along with other  influential  leaders in England) searched for some way to depose the king, it came to their attention that James II had a daughter who was a Protestant and who was married to William III, Prince of Orange and a Dutch Statdtholder (official). William had been the son of Mary, the daughter of Charles I. He was also a Protestant. William and Mary (his spouse) were first cousins. In a very bold move, the majority in Parliament decided to invite William and Mary to “invade” England and depose James II as ruler. In 1688, William landed in Brixham on the southern coast of England and James II was sent fleeing. James mounted an offence to regain the Crown in 1690 in Ireland. But William fought back and defeated him at the Battle of Boyne in eastern Ireland. James II went into hiding in France. Though the “Glorious Revolution” is termed a bloodless revolution, there were Jacobite uprisings and loss of life in skirmishes in Ireland and Scotland by loyalists to James II.


The Declaration of Rights

The Revolution brought about sweeping changes especially in limiting the power of the monarch and in ensuring the rights of the people. The Declaration of Rights had these important tenets included:

The Limitation of the Monarch’s Powers

When William and Mary succeeded to the throne of England as co-regents, they had to agree to certain terms put forth by Parliament. These terms (included in the Declaration of Rights)  were to forever change the English monarchy and its powers. William and Mary agreed to a limitation of their powers and they acknowledged the lawmaking authority of Parliament. This guaranteed that the Parliamentary law was supreme, not the monarch’s will. Parliament would make the laws from that time forward. The monarchs would no longer impose laws at will. And they also declared that there could never be another Catholic monarch again nor could a monarch marry a Catholic.

For the Common People

For the English people, among the rights guaranteed were: that Parliament was to hold free elections (with no monarch involved in any part of the election in any way); that Parliament was to meet frequently and regularly (not just when a monarch called them to convene) and Parliamentarians had the right to free speech within the chamber and in public; that Protestants could have arms for their defence suitable to their condition as allowed by law (it was only Catholics who had had rights to bear arms at that time); they had the right to petition; they had a right to reasonable bail fees, no excessive fines and no unusual punishments (those were now illegal) and they had a right to qualified jurors.

There is no doubt that this revolutionary document was a precursor to the American “Bill of Rights” which was to come a century later.

The 17th century was one that started with the glory of  the court of Elizabeth I and ended with the monarchy stripped of all its power except for ceremony. As the famous bard who ushered in the 17th century once wrote:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries…and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures.” (Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3, 218-224)

The English people took the current and gained their liberty from centuries of royal oppression. While there were still more battles to be fought, they would now be fought on a more just and level ground.


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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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