Stuarts
Boscobel House and a descendant of the oak tree in which Charles II hid from Parliamentarian forces in 1651

An Introduction to Stuart England (1603–1714)

The Stuart era began when James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, succeded Elizabeth I. The last Tudor queen had died childless in 1603. James's ascention to the throne conjoined the two long-warring nations of England and Scotland.

The Stuart period witnessed intense religious and political conflicts, which shifted power from the monarchy to parliament. Meanwhile, discoveries and innovations transformed science, architecture and everyday life.

James VI of Scotland and I of England
James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, becoming James I of England. His reign brought the two kingdoms under one crown. This detail is from a portrait at Audley End House by an unknown artist.

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, including 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.

Charles I
King Charles I, painted in 1631.
© Universal History Archive/Getty Images

ROYAL DECREE AND CIVIL WAR

Impatient with parliamentary control, Charles ruled by royal decree (without Parliament) from 1629 until 1640. His subjects became increasingly exasperated by the taxes he levied on them, and by the suppression of Puritanism by William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

After the fiasco of the Bishops’ Wars with the Scots of 1639–40 (provoked by the imposition of Charles’ religious reforms), the king was forced to recall Parliament in a bid to raise money. Frustration boiled over as Charles refused to give Parliament real power in State and Church. 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. They killed 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 – underwent epic sieges.

A KING CONDEMNED

By 1647 Parliament’s New Model Army, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had defeated King Charles. He was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, but under the cover of peace negotiations, he secretly worked to provoke a Second Civil War, which broke out 1648. Parliament was again victorious, and this time the 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, the future Charles II mounted a hopeless invasion of what was now a republic, the English Commonwealth (1649–53). Defeated, he escaped to France after famously hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel in Shropshire.

Oliver Cromwell
A leading military and political figure during the Civil Wars, Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector in 1653. He presided over the newly created English republic until his death in 1658; the monarchy was restored 18 months later. This portrait, attributed to Jonathan Richardson, is at Boscobel House, Shropshire.

THE INTERREGNUM

The period after Charles’ execution, known as the Interregnum, saw the loosening of government and Church control. In response, there was 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 tolerance.

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.

Mary II
This portrait of Mary II, painted about 1685, is now at Kenwood House, London. Mary ruled England as joint monarch with her husband, William III, after her father, James II, was overthrown. Although she and her husband were, in theory, equal rulers, Mary ceded much of her authority to William.

RESTORATION AND REVOLUTION

Vividly chronicled in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Charles II’s reign (1660–85) is remembered for its racy court, the revival of theatres, and new developments 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 illegitimate Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth. But Judge Jeffreys’s brutal Bloody Assizes – the trials of the rebels – and James’s Catholicising policies made the king increasingly unpopular.

The birth of James II’s male heir 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 James’s 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.

During Anne’s reign (1702–14) the Duke of Marlborough won famous victories against Louis XIV of France, but the most significant political event during her time on the throne was the Act of Union with Scotland (1707). For the first time, England was part of a unified Great Britain.

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  • Stuarts: Parks and Gardens

    The influence of the great formal gardens of the Renaissance gradually gave way to the opulence of the Baroque during the Stuart period. 

  • Stuarts: War

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  • Previous Era: Tudors

    England underwent huge changes during the reigns of three generations of Tudor monarchs. Henry VIII ushered in a new state religion, and the increasing confidence of the state coincided with the growth of a distinctively English culture.

  • Next Era: Georgians

    When Queen Anne died in 1714 with no surviving children, the German Hanoverians were brought in to succeed her. This began the Georgian age – named after the first four Hanovarian kings, all called George.

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