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
English agricultural had once been dominated by farm types growing
on land owned by others. The landowners discovered they could
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
become leaders in New World, and those who had no economic opportunity
at home could
chance at even becoming wealthy in New World. Likewise religious
Puritans, Catholics) could go to new world instead of causing problems
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
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.
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
arbitrary taxes, etc.). These were good provisions in a way, but
facing real trouble, didn't want his hands tied and refused to grant
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
Illegal? No: existing laws gave him some loopholes. He
could tax those
not showing up to have title of nobility confirmed. He could tax
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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.
1. It was a revolution without bloodshed (except for James'
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.