Early modern Britain is the history of the island of Great Britain roughly corresponding to the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Major historical events in Early Modern British history include the English Renaissance, the English Reformation and Scottish Reformation, the English Civil War, the Restoration of Charles II, the Glorious Revolution, the Treaty of Union, the Scottish Enlightenment and the formation of the First British Empire.
England during the Tudor period (1486–1603)
The term, “English Renaissance” is used by many historians to refer to a cultural movement in England in the 16th and 17th centuries that was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance. This movement is characterised by the flowering of English music (particularly the English adoption and development of the madrigal), notable achievements in drama (by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson), and the development of English epic poetry (most famously Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene).
The idea of the Renaissance has come under increased criticism by many cultural historians, and some have contended that the “English Renaissance” has no real tie with the artistic achievements and aims of the northern Italian artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello) who are closely identified with the Renaissance.
Other cultural historians have countered that, regardless of whether the name “renaissance” is apt, there was undeniably an artistic flowering in England under the Tudor monarchs, culminating in Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The rise of the Tudors
Some scholars date the beginning of Early Modern Britain to the end of the Wars of the Roses and the crowning of Henry Tudor in 1485 after his victory at the battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VII’s largely peaceful reign ended decades of civil war and brought the peace and stability to England that art and commerce need to thrive. A major war on English soil would not occur again until the English Civil War of the 17th century.
During this period Henry VII and his son Henry VIII greatly increased the power of the English monarchy. A similar pattern was unfolding on the continent as new technologies, such as gunpowder, and social and ideological changes undermined the power of the feudal nobility and enhanced that of the sovereign. Henry VIII also made use of the Protestant Reformation to seize the power of the Roman Catholic Church, confiscating the property of the monasteries and declaring himself the head of the new Anglican Church. Under the Tudors the English state was centralized and rationalized as a bureaucracy built up and the government became run and managed by educated functionaries. The most notable new institution was the Star Chamber.
The same forces that had reduced the power of the traditional aristocracy also served to increase the power of the commercial classes. The rise of trade and the central importance of money to the operation of the government gave this new class great power, but power that was not reflected in the government structure. This would lead to a long contest during the 17th century between the forces of the monarch and parliament.
Elizabethan era (1558–1603)
The Elizabethan Era is the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and is known to be a golden age in English history. It was the height of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of English literature and poetry. This was also the time during which Elizabethan theatre was famous and William Shakespeare, among others, composed plays that broke away from England’s past style of plays and theatre. It was an age of expansion and exploration abroad, while at home the Protestant Reformation became entrenched in the national mindset.
The Elizabethan Age is viewed so highly because of the contrasts with the periods before and after. It was a brief period of largely internal peace between the English Reformation and the battles between Protestants and Catholics and the battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the 17th century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism. England was also well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of foreign domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that would only be settled in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent, the centuries long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth’s reign.
The one great rival was Spain, with which England conflicted both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with a disastrously unsuccessful attack upon Spain, the Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589. Thereafter Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a draining guerilla war against England, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of defeats upon English forces. This badly damaged both the English Exchequer and economy that had been so carefully restored under Elizabeth’s prudent guidance. English colonisation and trade would be frustrated until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth’s death.
England during this period had a centralised, well-organised, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Economically, the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of trans-Atlantic trade.
Scotland from 15th century to 1603
Scotland advanced markedly in educational terms during the 15th century with the founding of the University of St Andrews in 1413, the University of Glasgow in 1450 and the University of Aberdeen in 1495, and with the passing of the Education Act 1496.
After the death of James III in 1488, during or after the Battle of Sauchieburn, his successor James IV successfully ended the quasi-independent rule of the Lord of the Isles, bringing the Western Isles under effective Royal control for the first time. In 1503, he married Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor, thus laying the foundation for the 17th century Union of the Crowns. James IV’s reign is often considered to be a period of cultural flourishing, and it was around this period that the European Renaissance began to infiltrate Scotland. James IV was the last known Scottish king known to speak Gaelic, although some suggest his son could also.
In 1512, under a treaty extending the Auld Alliance, all nationals of Scotland and France also became nationals of each other’s countries, a status not repealed in France until 1903 and which may never have been repealed in Scotland. However a year later, the Auld Alliance had more disastrous effects when James IV was required to launch an invasion of England to support the French when they were attacked by the English under Henry VIII. The invasion was stopped decisively at the battle of Flodden Field during which the King, many of his nobles, and over 10,000 troops—The Flowers of the Forest—were killed. The extent of the disaster impacted throughout Scotland because of the large numbers killed, and once again Scotland’s government lay in the hands of regents. The song The Flooers o’ the Forest commemorated this, an echo of the poem Y Gododdin on a similar tragedy in about 600.
When James V finally managed to escape from the custody of the regents with the aid of his redoubtable mother in 1528, he once again set about subduing the rebellious Highlands, Western and Northern isles, as his father had had to do. He married the French noblewoman Marie de Guise. His reign was fairly successful, until another disastrous campaign against England led to defeat at the battle of Solway Moss (1542). James died a short time later. The day before his death, he was brought news of the birth of an heir: a daughter, who became Mary, Queen of Scots. James is supposed to have remarked in Scots that “it cam wi a lass, it will gang wi a lass”—referring to the House of Stewart which began with Walter Stewart’s marriage to the daughter of Robert the Bruce. Once again, Scotland was in the hands of a regent, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Within two years, the Rough Wooing, Henry VIII’s military attempt to force a marriage between Mary and his son, Edward, had begun. This took the form of border skirmishing. To avoid the “rough wooing”, Mary was sent to France at the age of five, as the intended bride of the heir to the French throne. Her mother stayed in Scotland to look after the interests of Mary—and of France—although the Earl of Arran acted officially as regent.
In 1547, after the death of Henry VIII, forces under the English regent Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset were victorious at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the climax of the Rough Wooing and followed up by occupying Edinburgh. However it was to no avail since much of Scotland was still an unstable environment. She did not do well and after only seven turbulent years, at the end of which Protestants had gained complete control of Scotland, she had perforce to abdicate. Imprisoned for a time in Loch Leven Castle, she eventually escaped and attempted to regain the throne by force. After her defeat at the Battle of Langside in 1568 she took refuge in England, leaving her young son, James VI, in the hands of regents. In England she became a focal point for Catholic conspirators and was eventually executed on the orders of her kinswoman Elizabeth I.
During the 16th century, Scotland underwent a Protestant Reformation. In the earlier part of the century, the teachings of first Martin Luther and then John Calvin began to influence Scotland. the execution of a number of Protestant preachers, most notably the Lutheran influenced Patrick Hamilton in 1528 and later the proto-Calvinist George Wishart in 1546 who was burnt at the stake in St. Andrews by Cardinal Beaton for heresy, did nothing to stem the growth of these ideas. Beaton was assassinated shortly after the execution of George Wishart.
The eventual Reformation of the Scottish Church followed a brief civil war in 1559–60, in which English intervention on the Protestant side was decisive. A Reformed confession of faith was adopted by Parliament in 1560, while the young Mary, Queen of Scots, was still in France. The most influential figure was John Knox, who had been a disciple of both John Calvin and George Wishart. Roman Catholicism was not totally eliminated, and remained strong particularly in parts of the highlands.
The Reformation remained somewhat precarious through the reign of Queen Mary, who remained Roman Catholic but tolerated Protestantism. Following her deposition in 1567, her infant son James VI was raised as a Protestant. In 1603, following the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I, the crown of England passed to James. He took the title James I of England and James VI of Scotland, thus unifying these two countries under his personal rule. For a time, this remained the only political connection between two independent nations, but it foreshadowed the eventual 1707 union of Scotland and England under the banner of the Great Britain.
Union of the Crowns
The Union of the Crowns refers to the accession of James VI, King of Scots, to the throne of England as James I, in March 1603, thus uniting Scotland and England under one monarch. This followed the death of his unmarried and childless cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. The term itself, though now generally accepted, is misleading; for properly speaking this was merely a personal or dynastic union, the Crowns remaining both distinct and separate until the Acts of Union in 1707 during the reign of the last monarch of the Stuart Dynasty, Queen Anne.
This event was the result of an event in August 1503: James IV, King of Scots, married Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII of England as a consequence of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, concluded the previous year which, in theory, ended centuries of English-Scottish rivalry. This marriage merged the Stuarts with England’s Tudor line of succession. Almost 100 years later, in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I of England, it was clear to all that James of Scots, the great-grandson of James IV and Margaret Tudor, was the most acceptable heir.
From 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth I’s life, certain English politicians, notably her chief minister Sir Robert Cecil, maintained a secret correspondence with James in order to prepare in advance for a smooth succession. Cecil advised James not to press the matter of the succession upon the queen but simply to treat her with kindness and respect. The approach proved effective: “I trust that you will not doubt,” Elizabeth wrote to James, “but that your last letters are so acceptably taken as my thanks cannot be lacking for the same, but yield them you in grateful sort.” In March 1603, with the queen clearly dying, Cecil sent James a draft proclamation of his accession to the English throne. Strategic fortresses were put on alert, and London placed under guard. Elizabeth died in the early hours of 24 March. Within eight hours, James was proclaimed king in London, the news received without protest or disturbance.
The Jacobean era refers to a period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of James I (1603–1625). The Jacobean era succeeds the Elizabethan era and precedes the Caroline era, and specifically denotes a style of architecture, visual arts, decorative arts, and literature that is predominant of that period.
The Caroline era refers to a period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of Charles I (1625—1642). The Caroline era succeeds the Jacobean era, the reign of Charles’s father James I (1603–1625); it was succeeded by the English Civil War (1642–1651) and the English Interregnum (1651–1660).
English Civil War
The English Civil War consisted of a series of armed conflicts and political machinations that took place between Parliamentarians (known as Roundheads) and Royalists (known as Cavaliers) between 1642 and 1651. The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) civil wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third war (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The Civil War ended with the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. The Diggers were a group begun by Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 who attempted to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based upon their ideas for the creation of small egalitarian rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.
The English Interregnum was the period of parliamentary and military rule in the land occupied by modern-day England and Wales after the English Civil War. It began with the regicide of Charles I in 1649 and ended with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II, and the replacement of the English monarchy with first the Commonwealth of England (1649–1653) and then with a Protectorate (1653–1659), under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell, followed by the Protectorate under Richard Cromwell from 1658 to 1659 and the second period of the Commonwealth of England from 1659 until 1660. The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England came to an end, and the victors consolidated the already-established Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Constitutionally, the wars established a precedent that British monarchs could not govern without the consent of Parliament, although this concept became firmly established only with the deposition of James II of England, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the passage of the English Bill of Rights, and the Hanoverian succession. For the remainder of the century, Britain was ruled by William III of England, until 1694 jointly with his wife and first cousin, the daughter of James II, Mary II of England.