The seventeenth century is one of the most dynamic and eventful periods of British history. Such a dynamic period of political, religious, social, economic and cultural upheaval, changes and development did not fail to attract the attention of the greatest literary minds of the seventeenth century. From Jacobean court masques to Interregnum Protestant polemic and Restoration satires, the literature of this period engages the principal issues of seventeenth century public and private life.
It began with the inauguration of a new, foreign dynasty, the Stuarts, following the death of Elizabeth I (and with her, the Tudor line) in 1603. Her successor James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England) had ruled Scotland effectively for almost thirty years, and during his reign over England encountered many of the same problems found north of the border - conflict within the Church, financial constraint, difficulties with parliaments and aristocratic division in government. James was also a king with a number of serious shortfalls, in particular a predilection for favourites, wanton extravagance, However for all of this James left England to his son and successor Charles I in a better condition than he had inherited it. Under Charles, royal authority in all three kingdoms collapsed as his subjects rebelled against his arbitrary government and drive for uniformity in Church and state. Thus it is in the reign Charles I that the most monumental change in British history during the seventeenth century really began. In 1642, Parliament went to war with and defeated its King over a complex combination of political and religious issues. After failing to achieve a working settlement, in 1649 a radical minority of the political nation, let alone of the population as a whole, signed the death warrant that authorised the execution of Charles. We cannot comprehend the psychological impact this event would have had on contemporaries. What followed was indeed for many the 'World Turned Upside Down' as monarchy and Anglicanism, for many the very lynchpins of the State, were removed and a Commonwealth declared. For a decade England was ruled without a king and Scotland and Ireland were conquered by the Interregnum regimes. After the death of Oliver Cromwell the weaknesses of the Protectorate state became apparent. The Army staged yet another coup d'etat with the difference that this time it was to lead to the Restoration of Stuart monarchy in 1660.
Charles II returned to England from the Continent and ruled England until his death twenty-five years later. Under Charles II many of the old problems were papered over - notably the position of Parliament, the settlement of the Church of England and the prerogative rights of the crown. The succession became an important political issue once again in English public life as the nominated heir revealed his Catholicism. The attempts of Parliament to prevent James II from taking the throne led Charles II to rule without parliaments during the latter part of his reign and the formation of political 'parties', the Whigs and the Tories [see Glossary].
We leave the period in 1688 with another historical turning-point, the Glorious Revolution. It is often said that England experienced two revolutions during the seventeenth century, one bloody and the other bloodless. James II fled his throne in 1688 after the arrival of William of Orange from the Dutch Republic, leaving Parliament to mould a settlement with William on its own terms. The Revolution of 1688 has traditionally been cast as a tuning-point in English history as England was transformed into a major European power with a sound financial footing. The Succession issue continued to be a political issue under William III, Anne and the Hanoverians as MPs deliberated over the legitimacy of a monarch effectively chosen by Parliament. But consideration of the political and constitutional history of England during this period alone does not suitably complement the literature of the period. Though writers such as Andrew Marvell, John Dryden and John Milton were often involved directly with the central issues of their times in their life as in their work, to understand these issues and to come to terms with the environment in which literary works were produced and from where much inspiration came, there has to be further consideration of seventeenth century society.
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