A History of 17th Century England

By Tim Lambert

England in the Early 17th Century

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. He began a new dynasty – the Stuarts.

James I never had the same charisma as Elizabeth I and never enjoyed the same popularity. However, among his achievements, he ended the long war with Spain in 1604. He was also responsible for a new translation of the Bible, the King James Version, which was published in 1611.

Meanwhile, in 1605, James survived an assassination attempt – The Gunpowder Plot

However, King James came into conflict with parliament. The cost of government (and of fighting wars) was rising but the government’s income did not keep up. Rents from royal lands could only be raised when the lease ended. Parliament was therefore in a strong position. MPs could refuse to raise money for the king unless he bowed to their demands. So the king was forced to look for new ways to raise money.

The situation was complicated by disagreements over religion. Many MPs were puritans. They wished to ‘purify’ the Church of England of its remaining Catholic elements. Although he was a Protestant James disagreed with many of their views.

Furthermore, James believed in the divine right of kings. In other words, God had chosen him to rule. James was willing to work with parliament but he believed ultimate authority rested with him.

King James I died in 1625. He was 58. His son Charles followed him.

Like his, father Charles I was a firm believer in the divine right of kings. From the start, he quarreled with parliament.

At the beginning of his reign Charles I married a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria. However, marrying a Catholic was a very unpopular move with the Puritans.

King Charles also fought unsuccessful wars. In 1625 he sent an expedition to Cadiz, which failed. Parliament strongly criticized his policies and refused to raise extra taxes to pay for the Spanish war.

Charles angrily dissolved parliament and raised money by levying forced loans. He imprisoned, without trial, anyone who refused to pay.

In 1627 an expedition was sent to La Rochelle in France. It was led by the king’s favorite the Duke of Buckingham and it failed.

By 1628 the cost of wars meant Charles was desperate for money and he was forced to call parliament. This time MPs drew up the Petition of Right, which forbade the levying of taxes without parliament’s consent. It also forbade arbitrary imprisonment.

However, the king and parliament clashed over the issue of religion. In the 17th century, religion was far more important than it is today. It was a vital part of everyday life. Furthermore, there was no toleration in matters of religion. By law, everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England (though in practice there were many Roman Catholics, especially in the Northwest).

In 1629 William Laud was Bishop of London. He was strongly opposed to the Puritans and Charles supported him wholeheartedly.

Parliament criticized Laud and Charles called it impertinence. (He did not think Parliament had any right to do so). In return, Parliament refused to grant the king taxes for more than one year. Charles sent a messenger to parliament to announce it was dissolved. However, members of the Commons physically held the speaker down until they had passed three resolutions about Laud and religion. Only then did they disband.

In 1633 Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud was determined to suppress the Puritans and he sent commissioners into almost every parish to make sure the local churches came into line.

Furthermore, the Puritans had their own preachers called lecturers. These men were independent of the Church of England. Laud tried to put a stop to these preachers – with some success.

Most of all Laud emphasized the ceremony and decoration in churches. These measures were strongly opposed by the Puritans. They feared it was the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ and Catholicism would eventually be restored in England.

Meanwhile, for 11 years, Charles ruled without parliament. This period was called the Eleven Years Tyranny. Charles had various ways of raising money without parliament’s consent. In the Middle Ages men with property worth, a certain amount of money a year were supposed to serve the king as knights. Under this old law, Charles fined their descendants for not doing so. Furthermore, all wasteland had once been royal land. In time some landowners had taken parts of it into cultivation. Charles fined them for doing so. Using these dubious methods by 1635 Charles was solvent.

However, matters came to a head in 1637. In 1634 the king began levying ship money. This was a traditional tax raised in coastal towns to enable the king to build ships when more were needed. However, in 1635 Charles began levying ship money in inland areas.

A Buckinghamshire squire called John Hampden refused to pay. In 1637 he was taken to court and although he lost his case he became a hero. Ship money was very unpopular with the propertied class.

Worse in 1637 King Charles and Laud enraged the Scots by proposing religious changes in Scotland. Laud and Charles tried to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland. There were riots in Edinburgh. In February 1638 Scottish nobles and ministers signed a document called the National Covenant.

Charles made two attempts to bring the Scots to heel. Both were humiliating failures. The first Bishops War of 1639 ended with the peace of Berwick but it was only breathing space for both sides.

In April 1640 Charles summoned parliament again, hoping they would agree to raise money for his Scottish campaign. Instead, parliament simply discussed its many grievances. Charles dissolved parliament on 5 May and it became known as the Short Parliament because it met for such a short time.

The Second Bishops War followed in 1640. In August 1640 the Scots invaded England and they captured Newcastle. Charles was forced to make peace with the Scots. By the treaty, they occupied Durham and Northumberland. Charles was forced to pay their army’s costs.

Finally, in August 1641, Charles was forced to abandon all attempts to impose religious changes on Scotland. In return, the Scots withdrew from northern England.

Meanwhile, desperate for money, Charles was forced to call parliament again in November 1640. This parliament became known as the Long Parliament.

Parliament passed the Triennial Act, which stated that parliament must be called every three years. A Dissolution Act stated that parliament could not be dissolved without its consent.

Fining people who had not obtained knighthoods was declared illegal, and so was fining landowners who had encroached on royal land. Ship money was also abolished

Parliament also took revenge on the king’s hated adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. They passed a special act declaring Strafford was a traitor. The people of London took to the streets demanding his execution. Charles feared for his and his family’s safety and he was forced to sign the act. Strafford was executed on 12 May 1641.

Unfortunately, parliament was then divided. Opposition to the king was led by John Pym but many began to fear he was going too far.

In November 1641 a list of grievances called the Grand Remonstrance was drawn up but it was passed by only 11 votes. Pym then demanded that the king hand over control of the militia. For many, that was a step too far. They feared that Pym might replace arbitrary royal government with something worse.

Meanwhile, parliament and the country split cover religion. Some wanted to return the Church of England to the state of affairs before Laud. Others wanted to abolish bishops completely. The country was becoming dangerously divided.

In January 1642 Charles made the situation worse by entering the Commons and attempting to arrest 5 MPs for treason. (They had already fled). No king had entered the Commons before and his actions caused outrage. Once again Charles feared for his safety and he left London.

In March 1642 Parliament declared that its ordinances were valid laws and they did not require royal assent.

In April 1642 the king then tried to seize arms in Hull but he was refused entry to the town. Meanwhile, in London parliament began raising an army. (Although most of the House of Lords went over to the king). The king also began raising an army and he set up his standard at Nottingham in August.

The English Civil War

From the start, parliament had several advantages. Firstly it held London and the customs dues from the port were an important source of money.

Thirdly the navy supported parliament and made it difficult for the king to receive help from abroad.

The king advanced towards London but he was stopped at Turnham Green on 13 November 1642.

Then, in September 1643, the parliamentarians persuaded the Scots to intervene on their behalf by promising to make England Presbyterian (a Presbyterian church is one organized without bishops). A Scottish army entered England in January 1644.

The parliamentarians then decided to reform their army. In December 1644 they passed the Self Denying Ordinance, which stated that all MPs (except Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton) must give up their commands. Early in 1645 parliamentary forces were reorganized and became the New Model Army.

Afterward, the parliamentarians slowly gathered strength. Finally, in May 1646 the king surrendered to the Scots.

Meanwhile following the civil war radical ideas flourished. In November 1646 a man named John Lilburne, one of a group of radicals called the Levellers published a tract called London’s Liberty in Chains. He demanded a republic and the abolition of the House of Lords. He also said that all men should be allowed to vote and there should be religious freedom.

Meanwhile, in December 1647, Charles made a secret agreement with the Scots. They agreed to invade England on his behalf. However, Oliver Cromwell crushed an army of Scots and English royalists at Preston.

The army now felt that parliament was being too lenient with the king. They occupied London and Colonel Thomas Pride ejected about 140 members of the Commons. This action was called ‘Pride’s Purge’. It left a ‘rump parliament’ of about 60 members.

Charles I was beheaded on 30 January 1649. On 17 March 1649 parliament passed an act abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords.

The Interregnum

Most of the parliament wanted to make the Church of England Presbyterian. Furthermore, attendance at Church of England services would remain compulsory. The army disagreed. They wanted the freedom to worship as they pleased.

However, Charles II then started another war. He agreed with the Scots and in 1650 he landed in Scotland. Cromwell and his army advanced into Scotland and in September 1650 they crushed the Scots at Dunbar. Cromwell then crossed the Firth of Forth, leaving the road to England open.

A new constitution was drawn up called the Instrument of Government. Cromwell was made Lord Protector. At first, he ruled with a council but in September 1654 a new parliament was called. However, the Protectorate Parliament refused to accept the Instrument of Government so Cromwell dissolved it in January 1655.

Oliver Cromwell

Then in 1655, the country was divided into 11 districts. Each district was ruled by a Major-General. However, in 1656, another parliament was called. However, this time some members were excluded as ‘unfit persons’.

However, when parliament reconvened in January 1658 the members who were excluded in 1656 were allowed to take the seats. This time the members attacked the new arrangements (they would not accept the newly nominated upper house) and Cromwell dissolved parliament again in February 1658.

Oliver Cromwell appointed his son Richard as his successor. However, Richard was a shy, unambitious man and he resigned in May 1659.

The Long Parliament voted to disband and hold fresh elections for a new parliament. This one became known as the Convention Parliament.

The Convention Parliament declared that the government of England should be King, Lords, and Commons. Finally, on 25 May 1660, Charles II landed at Dover.

England in the late 17th Century

In 1662 he married a Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. However, Charles had many mistresses.

They passed a series of acts called the Clarendon Code, a series of laws to persecute non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). The Corporation Act of 1661 said that all officials in towns must be members of the Church of England.

Finally, the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade non-Anglican ministers to come within 5 miles of incorporated towns. (Towns with a mayor and corporation). However, these measures did not stop the non-conformists from meeting or preaching.

In 1670 Charles made a secret treaty with Louis XIV of France. It was called the Treaty of Dover. By it, Louis promised to give Charles money (so he was no longer dependent on parliament). Charles agreed to join Louis in another war with Holland and announce he was a Roman Catholic (Louis promised to send 6,000 men if the people rebelled when he did so).

Meanwhile, in 1672 Charles II issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence suspending the laws against nonconformists. (Charles believed that as king he had the right to suspend laws).

In 1673 they passed the Test Act, which banned nonconformists and Catholics from holding public office.

Meanwhile, there was the question of exclusion. Charles II had no legitimate children and when he died his Catholic brother James was next in line for the throne. Some people, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, said James should be excluded from the succession. They were known as Whigs.

King Charles II died in 1685. He was 54.

Furthermore in 1679 parliament passed the Act of Habeas Corpus forbidding imprisonment without trial.

Following the death of Charles II in 1685 his brother James became king. However, Charles II’s illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth landed in Dorset and led a rebellion in Southwest England. He was proclaimed king in Taunton but his army was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoor. Afterward, George Jeffreys (1648-1689), known as the hanging judge presided over a series of trials known as the Bloody Assizes. About 300 people were hanged and hundreds more were transported to the West Indies.

The Revolution of 1688

In 1687 he went further and issued a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all laws against Catholics and Protestant non-Anglicans. In 1688 he ordered the Church of England clergy to read the declaration from the churches.

Worse in June 1688, James had a son. The people of England were willing to tolerate James as long as he did not have a Catholic heir. However, his son would certainly be brought up a Catholic and would, of course, succeed his father.

Parliament declared that the throne was vacant. William and Mary were declared joint monarchs. (Although Mary died in 1694).

Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Non-conformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers and preachers. However, they could not hold government positions or attend university.

Last revised 2023