The Renaissance in England

Changing attitudes

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a changing attitude to religion, part of a movement now known as the Renaissance (meaning re-birth) which affected many areas of life from art to exploration.

More on the origin of the Renaissance: Much of its impetus came from Italy, where the study of ancient Latin, and particularly Greek, manuscripts led scholars to question the ideas that the Church had for so long put forward – especially that the Catholic Church was the holder of all wisdom essential for salvation. This movement was strengthened by an influx of Eastern scholars who fled to the west, bringing with them important ancient manuscripts, when Constantinople (the modern Istanbul) fell to the invading Turks in 1453. This led to a new direction in art, where non-theological painting, drama and music all began to flourish.

These changes, while significant, were concentrated in the elite, and for the vast majority of the population life was little changed from the Middle Ages.


Information explosion

The spread of new knowledge was hugely accelerated by the invention of printing in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century (about 1450). In England, the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in London in 1476. The impact was like that of the internet today.

More on printing: Printing had actually been known in China for centuries, but not in Europe. Prior to this, texts, including such lengthy works as Bibles, had to be copied out by hand. This was usually done in monasteries under the supervision of the church. There were very few books available, and these were very expensive.

Once material was much cheaper and easy to reproduce by printing, scholars could much more easily disseminate information. Adventurous new ideas could spread, including material attacking institutions such as the church.

Advice on how to govern

Kings and courtiers began to be more aware of political theory and the need to study how to rule. One of the most famous books published during the Renaissance in Italy was Machiavelli's The Prince.


Niccolo Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469 in Florence, Italy. He was a political philosopher and diplomat during the Renaissance, and is most famous for his political treatise, The Prince (1513), which became a cornerstone of political philosophy. It was written against the backdrop of intense conflict in Italy.

How to maintain power

In The Prince, Machiavelli offered a ruler advice designed to keep that ruler in power. Machiavelli wanted to npersuade the ruler that he could best preserve his authority by:

  • The judicious use of violence
  • Respecting private property and the traditions of his subjects
  • Promoting material prosperity.

Machiavelli held that political life could not be governed by a single set of moral or religious absolutes, and that the monarch should sometimes be excused for performing acts of violence and deception that would not be ethically justifiable in private life. This suggested the need for rulers to be prepared to be devious. It was translated into English – though not printed - and certainly known in England by the time of Henry VIII.


However, ‘Machiavellian' ideas were soon seen as being despicable, and the term became synonymous with villainy. For example, in 1592 the writer Greene had one of his characters remark:

Is it pestilent Machiavellian policy that thou hast studied?

In The White Devil, Francisco's poisoning of Brachiano would have been seen as a particularly Machiavellian act, especially since the use of poison was associated with Italian rulers such as the Borgias (see Social / political context > Renaissance Italy > The Borgias). Both Francisco and Lodovico show a degree of deviousness in their plotting. This is particularly apparent in Act 4 sc 3.

The Renaissance prince


An aspect of Renaissance court life was the idea that the ideal man should be widely accomplished. Shakespeare had already suggested that these were the qualities of an ideal Renaissance prince in his earlier play Hamlet:

‘O what a noble mind …
The courtier's, soldier's, scholars' eye, tongue, sword!
Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th'observed of all observers.'

Act 3 Sc 1

Basilikon DoronAlthough James I was not physically attractive nor a soldier, he certainly saw himself as a scholar and literary artist. As well as writing about his belief in the divine right of kings (see also: Social / political context > Reign of James I > Divine right of kings) in his book Basilikon Doron, he enjoyed creating poetry, some of which was published as His Majesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Hours.


However, by the time Webster came to write:

  • The optimism of the Tudor period had given way to a degree of cynicism
  • Italian renaissance ideals were seen as corrupted, partly due to Machiavelli's ideas
  • There was disillusion with the reign of James I.

Not surprisingly, there is no well known example of a ruler who truly lived up to the desired qualities of a Renaissance prince.

This disillusion is evident in The White Devil. In Act 5 Sc 4 when Flamineo is asked if he ‘Did e'er see a sweeter prince?' His reply as an aside is:

‘I have known a poor woman's bastard better favoured.'

Flamineo shows no respect for the qualities of Francisco's heir, despite his flattering public reply.

The ‘honour' code

During the Renaissance there was a move away from the Christian ideals of brotherhood, humility and charity. Machiavelli's work was influential in this, as was another text, The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione. The idea that a nobleman was meant to be aware of his own worth and his public image became distorted into an obsession with ‘honour'. Honour relied on the good opinion of the world, rather than indicating actions of moral goodness. Thus, keeping your honour could involve bad or dishonest actions.

Honour versus Christian morality

There were a number of ways in which ‘honour' might directly contradict Christian ethics:

  • For example, the idea of endurance and dying a noble death led to an admiration for suicide, a contravention of biblical teaching
  • The nobleman also became particularly sensitive to insult (in opposition to the teachings of Jesus about humility) and would seek revenge as a result.

Sexual double standards

There was, of course, a difference between the sexes:

  • It was considered that for a man to commit adultery with a prostitute harmed no one but his wife, who was merely considered his possession
  • However, to commit adultery with another man's wife was dishonourable because it wounded the honour of another man
  • Meanwhile, women who committed adultery were always in the wrong and severely punished because they had dishonoured their husband's good name, and it was felt that the husband's governance was representative of the King's.

Jacobean melancholy

In the early part of the seventeenth century much of the literature seemed to be obsessed with physical, spiritual and moral decay. A common fictional character was the malcontent, a discontented figure who lurked in the shadows, usually sidelined from what he considered his rightful position. Although he had the moral insight to understand right and wrong actions, he generally chose the latter, and was cynical about both his own and others' motives. He frequently met a violent end, having already been implicated in the deaths of others.

The essential negativity of the malcontent character had become quite common in the plays of the period, but the melancholy attitude was becoming more widespread. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton was first published in 1621. On its surface, the book is a medical textbook in which Burton applies his large and varied learning to the subject of melancholia (which includes what is now termed clinical depression).

Though presented as a medical text, The Anatomy of Melancholy is as much a work of literature as it is a scientific or philosophical text. In it, Burton uses melancholy as the lens through which all human emotion and thought may be scrutinized.

Attitudes to death

With the growth of Renaissance humanism there had been a change, since the Middle Ages, in attitudes towards death. As the influence of the Catholic Church declined, so did its traditional emphasis on the punishments of purgatory. With the influence of Calvinistic thinking which stressed that salvation was predestined, earthly life became more important and people justified their deeds more in terms of this world than of the next. Death no longer just meant dread of judgement, but also the fear of losing the pleasures of the world.

There was much social and political upheaval during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There was almost continuous warfare in continental Europe and disease in the shape of the plague. Sudden death was not uncommon. Renaissance optimism about man's powers seemed not to be justified.


The early seventeenth century was a period of transition between the medieval and modern worlds. The stability of the Middle Ages had decayed but the new world was not yet stable. The uncertainty of this period can be seen in The White Devil through the character of Flamineo and through the attitudes to court life, warfare, morality and religion.

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