A HISTORY OF 17TH CENTURY ENGLAND
By Tim Lambert
England in the Early 17th Century
In 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. He began a new dynasty - the Stuarts.
James I never had the same charisma as Elizabeth I and never enjoyed the same popularity. However among his achievements he ended the long war with Spain in 1604. He was also responsible for a new translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which was published in 1611.
Meanwhile in 1605 James survived an assassination attempt - The Gunpowder Plot
However King James came into conflict with parliament. The cost of government (and of fighting wars) was rising but the government's income did not keep up. Rents from royal lands could only be raised when the lease ended. Parliament was therefore in a strong position. MPs could refuse to raise money for the king unless he bowed to their demands. So the king was forced to look for new ways to raise money.
The situation was complicated by disagreements over religion. Many MPs were puritans. They wished to 'purify' the Church of England of its remaining Catholic elements. Although he was a Protestant James disagreed with many of their views.
Furthermore James believed in the divine right of kings. In other words God had chosen him to rule. James was willing to work with parliament but he believed ultimate authority rested with him.
King James I died in 1625. He was 58. His son Charles followed him.
Like his father Charles I was firm believer in the divine right of kings. From the start he quarreled with parliament.
At the beginning of his reign Charles I married a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. However marrying a Catholic was very unpopular move with the Puritans.
King Charles also fought unsuccessful wars. In 1625 he sent an expedition to Cadiz, which ended in failure. Parliament strongly criticized his policies and refused to raise extra taxes to pay for the Spanish war.
Charles angrily dissolved parliament and raised money by levying forced loans. He imprisoned, without trial, anyone who refused to pay.
In 1627 an expedition was sent to La Rochelle in France. It was led by the king's favorite the Duke of Buckingham and it ended in failure.
By 1628 the cost of wars meant Charles was desperate for money and he was forced to call parliament. This time MPs drew up the Petition of Right, which forbade the levying of taxes without parliament's consent. It also forbade arbitrary imprisonment.
However king and parliament clashed over the issue of religion. In the 17th century religion was far more important than it is today. It was a vital part of everyday life. Furthermore there was no toleration in matters of religion. By law everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England (though in practice there were many Roman Catholics especially in the Northwest).
In 1629 William Laud was Bishop of London. He was strongly opposed to the Puritans and Charles supported him wholeheartedly.
Parliament criticized Laud and Charles called it impertinence. (He did not think parliament had any right to do so). In return parliament refused to grant the king taxes for more than one year. Charles sent a messenger to parliament to announce it was dissolved. However members of the Commons physically held the speaker down until they had passed three resolutions about Laud and religion. Only then did they disband.
In 1633 Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was determined to suppress the Puritans and he sent commissioners into almost every parish to make sure the local churches came into line.
Furthermore the Puritans had their own preachers called lecturers. These men were independent of the Church of England. Laud tried to put a stop to these preachers - with some success.
Most of all Laud emphasized the ceremony and decoration in churches. These measures were strongly opposed by the Puritans. They feared it was the 'thin edge of the wedge' and Catholicism would eventually be restored in England.
Meanwhile for 11 years Charles ruled without parliament. This period was called the eleven years tyranny. Charles had various ways of raising money without parliament's consent. In the Middle Ages men with property worth a certain amount of money a year were supposed to serve the king as knights. Under this old law Charles fined their descendants for not doing so. Furthermore all wasteland had once been royal land. In time some landowners had taken parts of it into cultivation. Charles fined them for doing so. Using these dubious methods by 1635 Charles was solvent.
However matters came to a head in 1637. In 1634 the king began levying ship money. This was a traditional tax raised in coastal towns to enable the king to build ships when more were needed. However in 1635 Charles began levying ship money in inland areas.
A Buckinghamshire squire called John Hampden refused to pay. In 1637 he was taken to court and although he lost his case he became a hero. Ship money was very unpopular with the propertied class.
Worse in 1637 King Charles and Laud enraged the Scots by proposing religious changes in Scotland. Laud and Charles tried to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland. There were riots in Edinburgh. In February 1638 Scottish nobles and ministers signed a document called the National Covenant.
Charles made two attempts to bring the Scots to heel. Both were humiliating failures. The first Bishops War of 1639 ended with the peace of Berwick but it was only a breathing space for both sides.
In April 1640 Charles summoned parliament again, hoping they would agree to raise money for his Scottish campaign. Instead parliament simply discussed its many grievances. Charles dissolved parliament on 5 May and it became known as the Short parliament because it met for such a short time.
The Second Bishops War followed in 1640. In August 1640 the Scots invaded England and they captured Newcastle. Charles was forced to make peace with the Scots. By the treaty they occupied Durham and Northumberland. Charles was forced to pay their army's costs.
Finally in August 1641 Charles was forced to abandon all attempts to impose religious changes on Scotland. In return the Scots withdrew from northern England.
Meanwhile, desperate for money, Charles was forced to call parliament again in November 1640. This parliament became known as the Long Parliament.
Parliament passed the Triennial Act, which stated that parliament must be called every three years. A Dissolution Act stated that parliament could not be dissolved without its consent.
Fining people who had not obtained knighthoods was declared illegal. So was fining landowners who had encroached on royal land. Ship money was also abolished
Parliament also took revenge on the king's hated adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. They passed a special act declaring Strafford was a traitor. The people of London took to the streets demanding his execution. Charles feared for his and his families safety and he was forced to sign the act. Strafford was executed on 12 may 1641.
Unfortunately parliament then divided. Opposition to the king was led by John Pym but many began to fear he was going too far.
In November 1641 a list of grievances called the Grand Remonstrance was drawn up but it was passed by only 11 votes. Pym then demanded that the king hand over control of the militia. For many that was a step too far. They feared that Pym might replace arbitrary royal government with something worse.
Meanwhile parliament and the country split cover religion. Some wanted to return the Church of England to the state of affairs before Laud. Others wanted to abolish bishops completely. The country was becoming dangerously divided.
In January 1642 Charles made the situation worse by highhandedly entering the Commons and attempting to arrest 5 MPs for treason. (They had already fled). No king had entered the Commons before and his actions caused outrage.
Once again Charles feared for his safety and he left London.
In March 1642 Parliament declared that its ordinances were valid laws and they did not require the royal assent.
In April 1642 the king then tried to seize arms in Hull but he was refused entry to the town.
Meanwhile in London parliament began raising an army. (Although most of the House of Lords went over to the king). The king also began raising an army and he set up his standard at Nottingham in August.
The English Civil War
However most people were reluctant to take sides in a civil war and wished to stay neutral. Yet gradually people were sucked in.
From the start parliament had several advantages. Firstly it held London and the customs dues from the port were an important source of money.
Secondly most of the Southeast and East of England supported parliament. In the 17th century they were the richest and most densely populated parts of the country. Wales, most of northern England and most of the Southwest supported the king but they were poor and thinly populated.
Thirdly the navy supported parliament and made it difficult for the king to receive help from abroad.
The first clash of the civil war took place at Powicke Bridge near Worcester. It was only a skirmish but it ended in royalist victory. The first major battle took place at Edgehill near Banbury. On 23 October 1642 the parliamentarians started by firing artillery. Prince Rupert, the king's nephew then led a cavalry charge. They chased the parliamentary cavalry off the field. Then infantry then fought but neither side could gain the upper hand. By the time the royalist cavalry returned to the field it was growing dark so the battle ended indecisively.
The king advanced towards London but he was stopped at Turnham Green on 13 November 1642.
In 1643 things went better for the king. His army won a victory at Adwalton Moor in Yorkshire in June 1643. They also won battles at Landsdown Hill near Bath and at Roundway Down in July 1643. However in September 1643 the first battle of Newbury proved indecisive. However the parliamentarians won a victory at Winceby in Lincolnshire on 11 October 1643.
Then, in September 1643, the parliamentarians persuaded the Scots to intervene on their behalf by promising to make England Presbyterian (a Presbyterian church is one organised without bishops). A Scottish army entered England in January 1644.
On 2 July 1644 the royalists were severely defeated at the battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire. Following this battle the parliamentarians captured all of Northern England. (Although the royalists did win a victory at Lostwithiel on 2 September 1644.
The parliamentarians then decided to reform their army. In December 1644 they passed the Self Denying Ordinance, which stated that all MPs (except Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton) must give up their commands. Early in 1645 parliamentary forces were reorganized and became the New Model Army.
The New Model Army crushed the royalists at the battle of Naseby in June 1645 and at Langport, near Yeovil in July 1645.
Afterwards the parliamentarians slowly gathered strength. Finally in May 1646 the king surrendered to the Scots.
The Scots eventually handed the king over to parliament. That left the problem what to do with the king? Most people did not wish to abolish the monarchy but it was difficult to keep the king but limit his power. Charles made things worse, as usual, by being obstinate and refusing to compromise.
Meanwhile following civil war radical ideas flourished. In November 1646 a man named John Lilburne, one of a group of radicals called the Levellers published a tract called London's Liberty in Chains. He demanded a republic and the abolition of the House of Lords. He also said that all men should be allowed to vote and their should be religious freedom.
Furthermore the army fell out with parliament. By the spring of 1647 the soldier's pay was heavily in arrears and they were not happy. In April 1647 parliament voted to disband the army and give them no more than 6 weeks pay. However the army refused to disband.
The Second English Civil War
Meanwhile in December 1647 Charles made a secret agreement with the Scots. They agreed to invade England on his behalf. However Oliver Cromwell crushed an army of Scots and English royalists at Preston.
A royalist uprising also took place in Kent. However the royalists failed to capture London and instead they marched to Colchester where they were besieged and finally defeated.
The army now felt that parliament was being too lenient with the king. They occupied London and Colonel Thomas Pride ejected about 140 members of the Commons. This action was called 'Pride's Purge'. It left a 'rump parliament' of about 60 members.
In January 1649 Charles was put on trial for treason. He was found guilty on 27 January 1649 and he was beheaded outside Whitehall on 30 January 1649.
On 17 March 1649 parliament passed an act abolishing monarchy and the House of Lords.
Under Charles I those who disagreed with the Church of England were persecuted. However following the civil war they flourished. Independent churches formed.
Most of parliament wanted to make the Church of England Presbyterian. Furthermore attendance at Church of England services would remain compulsory. The army disagreed. They wanted the freedom to worship as they pleased.
After the execution of Charles I the Rump Parliament continued to meet but the army effectively held power. The most powerful general was Oliver Cromwell.
However Charles II then started another war. He made an agreement with the Scots and in 1650 he landed in Scotland. Cromwell and his army advanced into Scotland and in September 1650 they crushed the Scots at Dunbar. Cromwell then crossed the Firth of Forth, leaving the road to England open.
In 1651, led by Charles II the Scots then invaded England. However very few Englishmen supported the invasion and Cromwell routed the Scottish army at Worcester in September 1651. Charles II fled. He managed to escape to France. However until 1660 Scotland was occupied by an English army.
The Rump parliament failed to undertake political and religious reforms so the army grew impatient. The army finally closed the Rump parliament in April 1653. The independent churches were asked to nominate men who they thought would be suitable MPs. The army then selected some of them to be MPs. This nominated parliament was called the Barebones Parliament after a member called Praise-God Barbon. However it proved just as unsatisfactory as the old Rump Parliament and it was dissolved in December 1653.
A new constitution was drawn up called the Instrument of Government. Cromwell was made Lord Protector. At first he ruled with a council but in September 1654 a new parliament was called. However the Protectorate Parliament refused to accept the Instrument of Government so Cromwell dissolved it in January 1655.
In 1654 there was a local uprising in Salisbury but it was quickly crushed.
Meanwhile in 1652-1654 England fought a war with the Dutch.
Then in 1655 the country was divided into 11 districts. Each district was ruled by a Major-General. However in 1656 another parliament was called. However this time some members were excluded as 'unfit persons'.In 1657 the remaining members drew up a Humble Petition and Advice to Cromwell. They suggested the old system of a parliament with two houses should be revived but this time the Lord Protector would appoint members of the upper house. They also offered Cromwell the crown. He refused but he accepted the rest of the agreement. The rule of the Major-generals ended in 1657.
However when parliament reconvened in January 1658 the members who were excluded in 1656 were allowed to take the seats. This time the members attacked the new arrangements (they would not accept the new nominated upper house) and Cromwell dissolved parliament again in February 1658.
Finally Cromwell died on 3 September 1658. He was 59.
Oliver Cromwell appointed his son Richard his successor. However Richard was a shy, unambitious man and he resigned in May 1659.
Finally in February 1660 General Monck, who commanded the English army stationed in Scotland marched south. He entered London in February 1660. Monck recalled the surviving members of the Long Parliament, which first met in 1640.
The Long Parliament voted to disband and hold fresh elections for a new parliament. This one became known as the Convention parliament.
Meanwhile, in April 1660 Charles II issued a declaration from the Dutch town of Breda. He promised a general pardon (except for the regicides who were responsible for the death of his father) and freedom of religion.
The Convention Parliament declared that the government of England should be King, Lords and Commons. Finally on 25 May 1660 Charles II landed at Dover.
England in the Late 17th Century
King Charles II was not particularly religious but as far as he had any religion he secretly leaned to Roman Catholicism. (He had to keep this very quiet as he feared the people would rebel if they found out).
In 1662 he married a Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. However Charles had many mistresses.
Meanwhile parliament was determined to crack down on the many independent churches that had sprung up during the interregnum and make Anglicanism the state religion again.
They passed a series of acts called the Clarendon code, a series of laws to persecute non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). The Corporation Act of 1661 said that all officials in towns must be members of the Church of England.
The Act of Uniformity 1662 said that all clergy must use the Book of Common Prayer. About 2,000 clergy who disagreed resigned. Furthermore the Conventicle Act of 1664 forbade unauthorized religious meetings of more than 5 people unless they were all of the same household.
Finally the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade non-Anglican ministers to come within 5 miles of incorporated towns. (Towns with a mayor and corporation). However these measures did not stop the non-conformists meeting or preaching.
A history of Christianity in England
Meanwhile England fought another was with the Dutch in 1665-1667.
In 1670 Charles made a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. It was called the Treaty of Dover. By it Louis promised to give Charles money (so he was no longer dependent on parliament). Charles agreed to join with Louis in another war with Holland and to announce he was a Roman Catholic (Louis promised to send 6,000 men if the people rebelled when he did so).
However the war with Holland, which began in 1672, proved to be far more expensive than anticipated and the money from Louis XIV was not enough. Eventually Charles was forced to call parliament.
Meanwhile in 1672 Charles II issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence suspending the laws against non-conformists. (Charles believed that as king he had the right to suspend laws).
Parliament angrily declared that the king had no right to grant exemption from the law to non-conformists and Catholics.
In 1673 they passed the Test Act, which banned non-conformists and Catholics from holding public office.
In 1678 two liars, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge claimed there was a 'Popish' (Catholic) plot to assassinate Charles II and replace him with his brother James who was openly Catholic. The government began investigating their claims. One of the magistrates who investigated, called Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was murdered. It was said to be the work of Catholics. In the panic that followed many innocent Catholics were convicted of treason and executed.
Meanwhile there was the question of exclusion. Charles II had no legitimate children and when he died his Catholic brother James was next in line for the throne. Some people, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, said James should be excluded from the succession. They were known as Whigs.
Charles II strongly resisted them. In 1679 when parliament proposed to exclude James from the succession he simply dissolved parliament. In 1681 another parliament planned to exclude James. Once again Charles dismissed parliament and for the last 4 years of his reign ruled without it.
King Charles II died in 1685. He was 54.
Despite the religious conflicts the English economy boomed in Charles II's reign. Trade and commerce thrived. Although most people still made their living from farming trade now became an increasingly important part of English life. Industries like coal and iron also expanded rapidly.
Furthermore in 1679 parliament passed the Act of Habeas Corpus forbidding imprisonment without trial.
Meanwhile in the late 17th century science flourished. From 1645 a group of mathematicians and philosophers began to meet to discuss scientific subjects. In 1662 King Charles II gave them a royal charter. They became the Royal Society of London for the advancement of Natural Knowledge. Perhaps the greatest scientist of 17th century England was Isaac Newton.
Following the death of Charles II in 1685 his brother James became king. However Charles II's illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth landed in Dorset and led a rebellion in Southwest England. He was proclaimed king in Taunton but his army was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoor. Afterwards George Jeffreys (1648-1689), known as the hanging judge presided over a series of trials known as the Bloody Assizes. About 300 people were hanged and hundreds more were transported to the West Indies.
The Glorious Revolution
King James II promptly alienated the people by appointing Catholics to powerful and important positions.
In 1687 he went further and issued a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all laws against Catholics and Protestant non-Anglicans. In 1688 he ordered the Church of England clergy to read the declaration from the churches.
However in 1688 7 bishops wrote to James and asked to him to revise his policy on religion. They were arrested and put on trial for libel but they were acquitted to general rejoicing.
Worse in June 1688 James had a son. The people of England were willing to tolerate James as long as he did not have a Catholic heir. However his son would certainly be brought up a Catholic and would, of course, succeed his father.
Seven powerful nobles then stepped in. They invited the Dutchman William of Orange, husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, to come to England with an army and promised to support him. William landed in Devon in November and in December James II fled to France.
Parliament declared that the throne was vacant. William and Mary were declared joint monarchs. (Although Mary died in 1694).
The Bill of Rights (1689) said that no Catholic could become king or queen. No king could marry a Catholic. Furthermore the king could not suspend laws or levy loans or taxes without parliament's consent.
Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Non-conformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers and preachers. However they could not hold government positions or attend university.
Life in 17th century England
A History of 16th Century England
A History of 18th Century England
A History of 19th Century England
A short biography of Isaac Newton
A short biography of John Milton