The Stuart era – and particularly the cataclysmic Civil War – saw intense religious and political conflicts, which shifted power from monarch to parliament and eventually divided Anglicans and Nonconformists. Discoveries and innovations transformed science, architecture and everyday life.
A NEW DYNASTY
The shrewd James I (r.1603–25), who was also James VI of Scotland (and the son of Elizabeth I’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots), successfully conjoined the two long-warring nations of England and Scotland. Despite threats to his reign, notably the Gunpowder Plot (1605), he maintained peace at home and abroad.
James’s glamorous elder son, Prince Henry, died in 1612, leaving his younger son, Charles I (r.1625–49), to succeed. This sober, ceremonious monarch was devoted to the arts and to the Anglican Church, and acutely conscious of his ‘divine right’ to rule.
ROYAL DECREE AND CIVIL WAR
Impatient with parliamentary control, Charles ruled by royal decree (without Parliament) from 1629 until 1640. The financial exactions of his ministers and the authoritarian suppression of Puritanism by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, exasperated his subjects.
After the fiasco of the Bishops’ Wars with the Scots of 1639–40 (provoked by the king’s imposition of his religious reforms) Charles was forced to recall Parliament in a bid to raise money. Pent-up resentment boiled over as Parliament demanded real power in both State and Church, which Charles refused. Both sides armed themselves, and despite a widespread desire for compromise civil war broke out in August 1642.
The civil wars and their aftermath were calamitous, killing a far greater proportion of the populations of England, Scotland and (especially) Ireland than the First World War. Many castles were pressed into active service for the first time since the Middle Ages and many – like Scarborough in North Yorkshire – saw epic sieges.
A KING CONDEMNED
By 1647 Parliament’s New Model Army, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had defeated King Charles. Confined at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, under cover of peace negotiations he secretly fomented a Second Civil War in 1648. The infuriated army accordingly insisted (despite ‘moderate’ protests) on his trial, condemnation and execution in 1649.
The unprecedented public beheading of a monarch sent shockwaves through Britain and Europe. In 1651, with Scots support, his son, the future Charles II, mounted a hopeless invasion of what was now a republic, the English Commonwealth (1649–53), ruled by Parliament. Defeated, he narrowly escaped to exile in France after famously hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel in Shropshire.
The loosening of government and Church control during the Interregnum (the period between Charles I’s execution in 1649 and Charles II’s restoration in 1660) released an unprecedented ferment of revolutionary ideas, which were spread by an explosion of pamphlets. Radical religious sects proliferated, many expecting the imminent Second Coming of Christ. The Levellers demanded for votes for all men and universal religious toleration.
Oliver Cromwell, who ruled as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653–8), personally favoured toleration of all religions despite his own radical Puritanism. But he used military power to preserve both the fruits of his Civil War victory and national stability, commanding the confidence of both army and civil government.
At his death, this stability collapsed. Charles II was invited to return, and resumed the throne in triumph in May 1660.
RESTORATION AND REVOLUTION
Vividly chronicled by Samuel Pepys, Charles II’s reign (1660–85) is remembered for its racy court, the revival of theatres, and new fashions in art, daily life and architecture, exemplified by Sir Christopher Wren’s London churches. It also saw notable scientific advances, fostered by the Royal Society.
Following the serial disasters of the Great Plague (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666) and the humiliating Dutch raid on the Medway (1667), the latter years of Charles’s reign were dominated by attempts to exclude his openly Catholic brother James from the succession.
James II (r.1685–8) did succeed, however. His army easily defeated the rebellion (1685) of Charles’s Protestant illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. But its aftermath, of Judge Jeffreys’s brutal ‘Bloody Assizes’ – the trials of the rebels – and James’s Catholicising policies, increased the king’s unpopularity.
After the birth of a male heir to James II made a continuation of Catholic rule more likely, a group of prominent Protestants invited James’s Dutch Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange – who was married to his eldest daughter, Mary – to intervene. William duly invaded in 1688, James fled, and William and Mary were crowned the following year.
SUCCESSION AND UNION
The joint rule of William III (1689–1702) and Mary II (1689–94) brought peace to England, though in Ireland and Scotland James’s supporters fought on. The Act of Settlement (1701) ensured the succession of Mary’s sister, Anne – rather than James II, his son or any other Catholic claimant – and ultimately the ‘Protestant Succession’ of the House of Hanover. This was all the more necessary since none of Anne’s 18 children reached maturity.
Anne’s reign (1702–14) was adorned by the Duke of Marlborough’s European victories. But its most significant political event was the Act of Union with Scotland (1707), making England part of a unified Great Britain.