Stuart monarchy

The accession of James I

Elizabeth I reigned until 1603, when she was succeeded by her Protestant relative, King James VI of Scotland, a member of the Stuart family.

James IAlthough his mother, Mary Queen of Scots had been a Catholic, James was brought up as a Protestant after she was arrested and forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son. Meanwhile Mary, under house arrest in England, was implicated in Catholic plots against Elizabeth, who eventually signed the order for Mary's execution in 1587. Her son James now became a clear candidate to be heir to the throne of England when Elizabeth died – which is exactly what happened in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England as well.

Jacobean society

A changed perspective

Elizabeth was a Tudor. Her Scottish cousin, James, was a Stuart and came from a very different background. Scotland was considerably more feudal, with more power centred on the sovereign. It was also much less ostentatious and less advanced in the arts, though certainly as well advanced in various branches of learning, including science, theology and philosophy. In fact, education was taken far more seriously there by the whole population.

A change in mood

Sir Walter RaleighThe atmosphere at court changed markedly, as did the mood of the country. Old favourites were demoted. In 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, a one-time favourite of Elizabeth's, was executed on something of a trumped-up charge. People began to emigrate, especially the Puritans to New England, and others to Virginia. The philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a mid-century philosopher, was highly pessimistic: life was ‘nasty, brutish and short'.

The advance of science

On the other hand, English learning began to take science seriously. Francis Bacon's ground-breaking works on the scientific method were widely read and he eventually became Lord Chancellor. Mathematics was an important part of the study of Cambridge undergraduates. Out of this, the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science emerged after the Civil War, led by such famous scientists as Sir Isaac Newton.

Law and punishment

In James' England, the King was, in theory, not in absolute control, as he had judges and magistrates to apply his laws. However, James believed strongly in his ‘divine right' as a ruler (see also Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings) and that his will should be seen as supreme.

Laws were harsh. The death penalty could be applied for what would today be regarded as minor offences, Pilloryand public whippings and hangings were common. Miscreants could also be branded, have their ears cut off, or be set in the stocks or pillory. James I himself believed in witchcraft, and under his rule many so-called witches were executed by hanging or burning.

The legal system in England at the time was one of local constables and assize courts. Penalties for breaking the law  could involve whipping, imprisonment and beheading.

Marriage laws and customs

Although the Church expected people to marry using a religious service, and the Book of Common Prayer set out a service of Holy Matrimony (marriage), there were also other forms of betrothal recognised by English common law.

  • ‘Sponsalia per verbi de praesenti' literally meant ‘espousal (i.e., marriage) by the word given at the present time'. Those who made this promise to each other were regarded as legally married, whether or not they then went through the consecration of a church marriage.
  • ‘Sponsalia per verba de futuro', was an agreement to marry in the future. This agreement could be put aside if certain conditions, such as an agreed dowry, were not fulfilled, however those who entered into a ‘de futuro' agreement could not break it if their relationship was physically consummated.

Religious initiatives

Elizabeth I had seen the need to keep a middle way or via media, as it was called:

  • She didn't care for the Puritans
  • She was afraid of the Catholics, because she saw them as plotting with England's great enemy, Spain, to overthrow her
  • She didn't like other smaller Protestant groups. They were allowed to exist but their members could not hold public office or to get a university degree.

James I wished to unite the Church of England and the Reformed (or Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. There was also still religious turmoil between Protestants and Catholics:

  • Having been brought up as a Protestant, and as a strong opponent of his mother's Catholicism, James faced opposition in England from the Catholic families who resented another Protestant ruler

  • In 1605, a group of conspirators placed barrels of gunpowder under the House of Parliament, hoping to blow up the King and his senior ministers

  • However, the plot (still known today as the Gunpowder Plot) was discovered and the conspirators arrested and executed. One of them, Guy Fawkes, gives his name to the ‘guy' still burnt on bonfires in England on Guy Fawkes' Night every year – November 5th.

Charles I, James' son, married a Catholic, so when he became king, he was prepared to allow Catholics some leeway. He also tried to encourage the Church of England to become more Catholic in its liturgy. His agent for doing this was Archbishop Laud. Unfortunately, the Puritans had had high hopes under James and they bitterly resented this move away from more Protestant models.

War and after

Eventually, the English Civil War broke out, which resulted in a Commonwealth being established under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was an Independent, which meant:

  • He belonged to the small group of Protestants outside the Church of England

  • He didn't believe in a state church at all, which in those days was quite revolutionary

  • He didn't believe in bishops.

During the decade of the Commonwealth period, the 1650s, people were allowed to worship in greater freedom (except for the Catholics). A number of new, and sometimes quite unorthodox, churches were set up, including the Quakers, a group who were often harassed.

Under the later Stuart kings

When the Stuarts were restored to the throne, the Church of England reasserted itself. The smaller Protestant groups were heavily controlled and their ministers or clergy often lost their jobs. One of these was a Baptist preacher called John Bunyan. When thrown into prison, he wrote The Pilgrim's Progress, one of the most famous Christian works of fiction ever written.

Greater tolerance

When William and Mary came to the throne, toleration was extended to everyone to worship as they wanted. However, it was not until 150 years later that it became possible for non-Anglicans to hold public office or get a degree from an English university.

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