The Stuart era began when James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, succeeded Elizabeth I. The last Tudor queen had died childless in 1603. James’s ascension to the throne conjoined the two long-warring nations of England and Scotland. The Stuart period witnessed intense religious and political conflicts, which shifted power from the monarchy to Parliament. Meanwhile, discoveries and innovations transformed science, architecture and everyday life.
A NEW DYNASTY :
The shrewd James I (r.1603–25), who was also James VI of Scotland (and the son of Elizabeth I’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots), successfully conjoined the two long-warring nations of England and Scotland.
Despite threats to his reign, including the Gunpowder Plot (1605), he maintained peace at home and abroad.
James’s glamorous elder son Prince Henry died in 1612, leaving his younger son, Charles I (r.1625–49), to succeed.
This sober, ceremonious monarch was devoted to the arts and to the Anglican Church, and acutely conscious of his divine right to rule.
ROYAL DECREE AND CIVIL WAR:
Impatient with parliamentary control, Charles ruled by royal decree (without Parliament) from 1629 until 1640. His subjects became increasingly exasperated by the taxes he levied on them, and by the suppression of Puritanism by William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
After the fiasco of the Bishops’ Wars with the Scots of 1639–40 (provoked by the imposition of Charles’s religious reforms), the king was forced to recall Parliament in a bid to raise money. Frustration boiled over as Charles refused to give Parliament real power in State and Church. Both sides armed themselves, and despite a widespread desire for compromise, civil war broke out in August 1642.
The civil wars and their aftermath were calamitous. They killed a far greater proportion of the populations of England, Scotland and (especially) Ireland than the First World War. Many castles were pressed into active service for the first time since the Middle Ages and many – like Scarborough in North Yorkshire – underwent epic sieges.
A KING CONDEMNED:
By 1647 Parliament’s New Model Army, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had defeated King Charles. He was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, but under the cover of peace negotiations, he secretly worked to provoke a Second Civil War, which broke out 1648. Parliament was again victorious, and this time the army accordingly insisted (despite moderate protests) on his trial, condemnation and execution in 1649.
The unprecedented public beheading of a monarch sent shockwaves through Britain and Europe. In 1651, with Scots support, the future Charles II mounted a hopeless invasion of what was now a republic, the English Commonwealth (1649–53). Defeated, he escaped to France after famously hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel in Shropshire.
THE INTERREGNUM :
The period after Charles’s execution, known as the Interregnum, saw the loosening of government and Church control. In response, there was an unprecedented ferment of revolutionary ideas, which were spread by an explosion of pamphlets. Radical religious sects proliferated, many expecting the imminent Second Coming of Christ. The Levellers demanded votes for all men and universal religious tolerance.
Oliver Cromwell, who ruled as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 until 1658, personally favoured toleration of all religions despite his own radical Puritanism. But he used military power to preserve both the fruits of his Civil War victory and national stability, commanding the confidence of both army and civil government.
At his death, this stability collapsed. Charles II was invited to return, and resumed the throne in triumph in May 1660.
SUCCESSION AND UNION:
The joint rule of William III (1689–1702) and Mary II (1689–94) brought peace to England, although in Ireland and Scotland James’s supporters fought on. The Act of Settlement (1701) ensured the succession of Mary’s sister, Anne – rather than James II, his son or any other Catholic claimant – and ultimately the ‘Protestant Succession’ of the House of Hanover. This was all the more necessary since none of Anne’s 18 children reached maturity.
During Anne’s reign (1702–14) the Duke of Marlborough won famous victories against Louis XIV of France, but the most significant political event during her time on the throne was the Act of Union with Scotland (1707). For the first time, England was part of a unified Great Britain.