[Revised and partly edited, January 20, 2004, September 17, 2008 and September 14, 2012]

17th century England was troubled by the same kinds of problems as the rest of Europe--political , economic, and social tension made worse by religious division.  The English parliament, which should have been an instrument for peaceful change, often only made things worse.  Even competent rulers and officials had trouble governing the country.  But surprisingly enough, by the end of the 17th century, the English had found a lasting solution to the problems that confronted them.

I.  English problems

England tended to have the same kind of economic problems as the rest of Europe (rapid inflation brought on by the influx of New World gold, loss of real wages, etc.).  A particular problem for English rulers was that royal revenue tended to be insufficient to meet new demands placed on them  Also, changes in agriculture created problems.  English agricultural had once been dominated by farm types growing grain on land owned by others.  The landowners discovered they could make more money by enclosing their land and devoting it raising sheep.  But this was less labor intensive, and there was no longer a living on the farm for many, many Englishmen. 

Economic problems/changes led to social tension.  Those forced off the farms tended to go to the towns and cities to look for work, and the large numbers of people competing for jobs put further downward pressure on wages.  Naturally enough, working-class people were unhappy, and, while unable to lead any kind of movement for change, they might well provide cannon-fodder for more priviliged people who might be trying to stir things up. The more privileged types had the same grievances as their equivalents in the rest of Europe.  A rising middle class wanted more say in government, while nobles might want to gain back some of their lost privileges.

Economic and social tension, then meant political tension as well, and there is always some potential for civil war in England throught this period.  In addition, there was increased potential for war with other countries. Friction over trade/colonies could easily lead to war with France, the Netherlands, or Spain at any time in this period.  Even closer to home, Scotland and Ireland were potentially troublesome, and obvious allies to any continental enemy England might have to face.

The potential for religious trouble was also great.  In his break from the Catholic church, Henry VIII had created a very unstable religious situation.  Henry had no doctrinal problems with Catholicism: he separated from the Roman church only so he could get a divorce from his wife Catherine.  But the structrual changes he made to the English church (now called the Anglican church or the Church of England or--in this country--Episcopalians) meant that the ruler of England now also was head of the church, and so every time the ruler changed, there might be a major change in religion. After Henry's death, Edward (his son) was dominated by advisors who pushed England toward Calvinism. When Edward died, Mary (Henry's daughter by the divorced Catherine) shifted religious policy toward Catholicism. When Mary died, Elizabeth (another of Henry's daughters) had no patience with either extreme.  The result of Henry's changes: an Anglican/Catholic/Puritan split that eventually led to religious civil war.

However, during the last years of the 16th century, the problems weren't so bad because England had particularly able ruler, one of finest in English history,
Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  Elizabeth had lots of things going for her:

All this meant  that, while other European countries went through periods of religious civil war, England has a (relative) Golden Age--an age the produceds figures like Shakespeare.

One problem remained: would Elizabeth have a decent successor?  Elizabeth never married and had no child. Her advisors partly solved the succession problem by preparing for a transfer of the crown to a distant cousin of Elizabeth (1st cousin twice removed, I believe), the Scottish king (James VI when we think of him as a Scottish monarch) who now becomes the first of our Stuart monarchs of England, James I (when we think of him as an English king).  Now how's that for potentially confusing!

James I [James VI of Scotland] (1603-1625)

James seemed in some ways ideal for continuing Elizabeth's program.  He continued exploration and colonization of the New World (e.g., Jamestown).  Such colonies were an important social and religious safety valve. Dissatisfied citizens could become leaders in New World, and those who had no economic opportunity at home could have chance at even becoming wealthy in New World.  Likewise religious groups (Pilgrims, Puritans, Catholics) could go to new world instead of causing problems at home.

James also tried to continue Elizabeth's latitudinarian policy in religion.  The KJV version of the Bible contributed greatly to Christian unity, and, whatever differences English speaking Chrisitans might have, for the next three centuries they at least shared a common Bible translation.  James had specifically asked his translators for a version of the Bible all could agree on, and the translators did this by relying on direct, literal translation from Greek and Hebrew rather than resorting to potentially controversial "interpretation" in place of translation.  No "dynamic equivalence" garbage for them!!!

Also, because James was already King of Scotland, the potential for English/Scottish conflict seemed finished.  

Unfortunately for James, the religious situation began to get out of hand despite his best efforts.  Adding to religious tension: the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Some Catholics had thought James would attempt to reunite with Roman Catholic church.  When he didn't, some Catholic extremists were angry and wanted to kill James and the parliamentary leaders who might block a return to Catholicism. Llttle by little, they smuggled gunpowder into basement of Parliament, planning to blow it up.  The plot was discovered before it could come off, and Guy Fawkes (one of the conspirators) was caught red handed! The plotters were executed, but that wasn't the end of the story.  Because of the plot, many Englishmen began to really hate Catholics. "Guy Fawkes Day" became a national celebration ("Please to remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot.  I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot). 

Because Catholicism was now hated, James and his successors were under constant pressure to help the Protestant cause on the European continent (e.g., supporing the Protestants in the Thirty Years' War).  This was potentially very expensive, and, with already limited revenue, a real problem for English kings.

Also a problem, anti-Catholic sentiment led to the growth of Puritanism, a movement wanting to "purify" the church of England by removing all things associated with Catholic tradition (e.g., Christmas!).

The problems faced by James grew greater under his son and successor Charles I.
IV.  Charles I (1625-1649)

Charles was under constant pressure to help protestants in France and the Holy Roman Empire, but parliament wouldn't vote to provide the funds to support the wars they themselves insisted need to be fought.  Even worse, there were insufficient forces to properly prepare for what looked like an inevitable war with Spain. When Charles summoned parliament to ask for the authority to collect more tax revenue, parliament refused: they wanted first Charles agreement to what they called the Petition of Right, an agreement from the king that he would not resort to arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, arbitrary taxes, etc.).  These were good provisions in a way, but Charles, facing real trouble, didn't want his hands tied and refused to grant the petition. 

Eventually, Charles in frustration decided to do without parliament, bringing about the period of his "personal rule," 1629-1640.  Parliament didn't meet for more than ten years, and Charles collected taxes without parliamentary authorization.  Illegal?  No: existing laws gave him some loopholes.  He could tax those not showing up to have title of nobility confirmed.  He could tax on those not going to church.  He could extend other taxes as well--and he could do without.  Charles was overall a pretty frugal monarch, making do with the limited resources at his disposal. 

But Charles made a bad mistake.  Engcouraged by Biship Laud, Charles tried to unite the churches of England and Scotland by imposing theAnglican prayer book on the Scots.  The Scots were angry, and began a rebellion. Charles didn't have the resources to deal with problem, so, at long last, he called parliament into session again.

 The "Long Parliament," began in 1640--right where parliament had left of in 1629. Would parliament agree to increased tax revenue?  Not unless the king consented to the Petition of Right!  What can the King do?  Charles sends his most trusted minister (Wentworth) to parliament--and parliament indicts him, having Wentworth put on trial. It's obvious Wentworth isn't going to be convicted, so Parliament ends the trial, tries Wentworth itself--and orders him to be executed!  The King might have intervened, by Wentworth himself was willing to give up his life, telling Charles not to try to save him.  Wentworth probably thought his blood would appease the opponents of royal authority.  In this he was wrong: give sharks a taste of blood and they want more.

Not only did Parliament order the execution of Wentworth,  members of parliament were encouraging and supporting the Scottish rebellion.  Well, enough is enough.  Charles ending up sending his soldiers in the parliament building itself with orders to arrest treasonous members of parliament.  This was a mistake: Charles angered the London mob by his actions, and touched of riots which drove him out of London.

Once outside London, Charles made preparations for a come-back, gathering sufficient forces to reclaim London and re-establish his authority. Parliament  was in trouble, and needed an army of its own. They get one. The key figure here: Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell put together from the ranks of his fellow Puritans. an army of Puritans, convinced they are fighting for kingdom of God against forces of darkness.  The well disciplined, highly motivated "New Model Army" eventually defeated Charles' forces.  Charles was captured and parliament was in control. But parliament  needed now a competent executive.  They turn to Cromwell, giving him the title Lord Protector. 

Cromwell takes his job seriously, protecting England from:

V.  Charles II (1660-1685)

Is some ways, it looked like Charles might have an easy time of it.  He was a very popuuar monarch. Most English were glad to have a king again, and glad the Puritans were not in control anymore.  After 18 years of Puritan austerity, it was party time in England, and the leading partier was Charles himself. He's sometimes called the "merrie monarch" --with good reason.  He certainly was no Puritan.  He carried on a very public affair with the actress Nell Gwynn, and it didn't seem to hurt his popularity at all.

But the religious situation still wasn't stable.  Charles had to deal, first of all, with an anti-Puritan movement.  Parliament passes the Clarendon code that created lasting trouble for "non-comformists," those who won't go along with the Church of England and its liturgy.  They can't hold political office and suffer other losses of privilege. On the other hand, there is sill a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment as well.  A man named Titus Oates persuaded a lot of people that there had been a "Popish plot" to kill the king. Anti-Catholic hysteria led to at least 15 totally unjustifed executions.  Oates was a liar, and Charles knew it: but he couldn't protect the victims.  The interesting thing is that some anti-Catholics really did plot to kill the king, who had strong Catholic leanings himself.

In any case, high religious tension made it harder to govern than it might have been, and was one of the reasons Charles and parliament had a major falling out.with pariament, and, from 1679-1685 he doesn't bother to call parliament into session.

VI. James II (1685-1688)

Charles's successor, his brother James, is another example of the problems English monarchs faced as a result of religion.  James himself had converted to Catholicism, something parliament found hard to take. Because his older daughters (Mary and Anne) were good protestants and because James was old, parliament tolerated having a Catholic king for the time being. Mary was married to one of leading protestant leaders on continent (William of Orange), and most were convinced that there would be a protestant leader in short order.  But then James fathered a son who, by English law, took precedence over his sisters. The son was going to raised Catholic, and this was too much for the anti-Catholics.  They had to get rid of James! But who would replace him?  Parliament asks Mary and her husband William to replace James.  This leads to...

VII.  The Glorious Revolution (1688)

Most revolutions are not glorious: they are bloody, unpleasant, and achieve little good.  This revolution really was glorious.  Why?

1.  It was a revolution without bloodshed (except for James' bloody nose).
2.  Almost by accident, the British had solved their political problems--king and parliament would work together.  France had solved its problems with an absolute monarchy: England now solves its problems with a limited monarchy--with kings recognizing the perogatives of parliament.  They also recognize the rights of people as a whole, agreeing to the Bill of Rights of 1689: document little known to most Americans, but the document that inspires our own Bill of Rights.

See the  English Bill of Rights--1689.

The Glorious Revolution meant that, in a certain sense, the English had solved their political problems.  There would be plenty of differences of opinion and plenty of conlicts, but now these problems would *always* be resolved the the pariamentary systerm, never through violence.  No more civil war, no more revolution--for more than three centuries now!  A pretty good solution I'd say.