The Stuart period witnessed the Great Plague, the Fire of London, religious and political upheaval, the English Civil Wars, a republic and the restoration of the Crown
It was a frosty morning on 30 January 1649, as Charles I stepped outside the Banqueting House in London’s Whitehall. The king was to be executed on a charge of high treason “against the realm of England” and he wore two shirts lest he shiver and appear to be afraid. Plunged into uncharted territory, the whole country shivered instead. The idea of an all-powerful, unquestionable sovereign was dead.
The Stuart period witnessed plague, fire, religious and political upheaval, civil wars, a short-lived republic and the restoration of the Crown – all within little more than a century. The shocking regicide of Charles I, midway through, marked a dark yet crucial step on the long road to constitutional monarchy.
Everything had boded so well in 1603 as England’s Crown passed peacefully from Queen Elizabeth I to her cousin King James VI of Scotland, now also James I of England (it took the 1707 Act of Union to officially incorporate the two countries). But James was soon arguing with parliament over finances, religion and power. The Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up king and parliament in 1605 temporarily drew monarch and MPs closer, but the Stuarts’ absolutist belief that sovereigns took their authority from God alone made continuing confrontation inevitable.
English Civil Wars
Disputes in the reign of James’ son Charles I erupted into a series of bloody civil wars, firstly with the Scots in 1639, and later in Ireland and England too. When the parliamentary Roundheads’ New Model Army eventually prevailed over the Royalist Cavaliers, Charles met his death, declaring himself “the martyr of the people”.
Spearheaded by Oliver Cromwell, the 11-year experiment with republicanism failed and, in 1660, the dead king’s son, Charles II, was restored. With the “Merry Monarch” came a fun, racy culture, captured in Samuel Pepys’ famous diaries, though he lamented “the lewdness and beggary of the court, which I am feared will bring all to ruin again”.
In fact, the next seismic change came with the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when Protestant factions ousted Charles II’s Roman Catholic successor, James II, giving the throne to James’ Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, followed by Mary’s sister, Queen Anne. The taming of the monarchy continued with the 1689 Bill of Rights, while the Act of Settlement in 1701 ensured only Protestants could hold the throne.
In the wider world, the Stuart era saw Britain engage in wars with Spain, France and the Dutch, and establish the settlement of Jamestown, North America in 1607. Thirteen years later, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in search of religious freedom to New England.
An age of genius
At home, theatre, arts and sciences flourished: James I commissioned a new English translation of the Bible, Inigo Jones pioneered Palladian architecture, Christopher Wren helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. Dryden, Bunyan and Milton penned their masterpieces; Isaac Newton formulated his theories on gravity; the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, was founded in 1660. It was an age of genius, as well as one of chaos.
Words: Diana Wright
Read more in our British monarchy series
The Modern Era, 1901-today: see the Oct/Nov 2017 issue of Discover Britain