The Renaissance (16th and early 17th centuries): towards the end of the Middle Ages, after the loss of the English territories in France, England suffered thirty years of civil war fought by rival aristocratic families for the throne: the Wars of the Roses. The Welsh Tudor family was victorious and proceeded to secure its position. The dynasty ruled from 1485 to 1603, and was succeeded by Scottish relatives – and former opponents – the Stuarts. The military power of the aristocracy was removed: private armies were forbidden; only the crown was entitled to raise an army. The nobility’s great economic power based on land ownership remained intact. The Tudors no longer shared power with the aristocracy, as monarchs did in the Middle Ages, but ruled alone, or absolutely. Parliament existed, was involved in the legislative process but did not determine it.
The Church of Rome was another factor limiting the king’s power which the Tudors soon dealt with. In 1531 Henry VIII set up the Church of England, with himself as head, thus nationalising religion, because Vatican politics had become a threat to him. In 1538 the English were given direct access to the bible in their own language; a year later the monasteries were suppressed. Under Henry’s daughter Mary, Catholicism was restored and Protestants persecuted: 400 were burnt as heretics. I Elizabeth’s reign, when England was under threat of invasion by Spain, Catholics were regarded as foreign agents and punished accordingly. But those protestants unwilling to accept the authority of the new state church also found themselves in trouble with the law. These became known under the general name of Puritans because they demanded that Protestantism be purified of all traces of Catholicism. They felt the reformation had not gone far enough: they wanted the hierarchy within the new church abolished, they disapproved of bishoprics, wanted ministers of religion elected by their congregations, and insisted on their right to speak out. Such freedom of speech they did not regard as a general right, but one they were entitled to as God’s personal spokespeople. Elizabeth regarded the Puritans as dangerous and took measures to minimise the threat. In general, she tried to steer a middle course between the religious extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism.
Parallel with the development of England s a modern nation came its growth as a colonial power. Ireland had been under England’s overlordship since the Middle Ages, but now it became a colony, that is occupied territory ruled in the interests of the so-called mother country. Revenue also came to the crown from trading expeditions to newly conquered overseas territories. The increase in overseas trade led to a great boom in manufacturing in England. A flourishing export trade in woollen cloth developed. The lucrative cloth trade made sheep farming more profitable than tillage: the result was the beginning of enclosures by landlords of areas traditionally used by the villagers as common lands. The crafts flourished due to the extra demand for ships, weapons, export goods of all kinds, and the condition of the common people improved compared to that of the Middle Ages. Towns and cities grew, but most of the people continued to live in rural areas.
During the 16th and early 17th centuries, therefore, the people of England transformed the basis of their national and spiritual life. They also broadened their intellectual horizons and fashioned from a newly augmented language one of the great literatures of the western world. The period is known as the Renaissance; the term Renaissance (‘rebirth’) originally indicated a revival of classical (Greek and Roman) arts and sciences after the dark ages of medieval obscurantism. Renaissance writers returned to the classical sources of ‘humane letter’ in an attempt to find new ways of generating ideas and promoting a written and spoken eloquence greater in purity than the crabbed...