British History (15th-18th Centuries)

15th century 16th century
17th century 18th century

15th century

The reign of Henry IV (1421-1471), who married Margaret, daughter of René of Anjou, was marked by defeats in France and the loss of the markets of Guyenne and Flanders. At the beginning of the l5th century royal patronage declined. A grave political crisis, the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), ruined the aristocracy and strengthened the power of the throne. With the Tudors (Henry VII, 1485-1509) commercial and industrial development began.

John Lydgate (c. 1370 - c. 1450) adapted Boccaccio. Printing was established in the second half of the l5th century.

John Dunstable (1370-1453), mathematician, astronomer and musician of great melodic invention and clever counterpoint, a disciple of the Italian composers of madrigals, was to have a great influence.

16th century

Absolutism of the monarchy triumphed with Henry VIII, 1509-1547; Edward VI, died 1553; Mary Tudor, died 1558 (married Philip II of Spain; loss of Calais, 1558); Elizabeth, died 1603. Maritime power developed (voyages of Drake, 1577; of Walter Raleigh, 1586 and 1595; annihilation of the enormous Spanish Armada, 1588).

The religious problems determined politics. Henry VIII broke away from Catholicism, 1535. By the Act of Supremacy, the king became head of the Church of England. The monasteries were suppressed (1536-1539). Catholicism, restored under Mary, unleashed a persecution of the Protestants. Humanism was very much alive around Henry VIII; Cardinal Wolsey (d. 1530), Thomas More (d. 1535) were friends of Erasmus who visited England between 1495 and 1514 (In Praise of Folly, 1509) as did Luis Vives (about 1522-1530). The poets Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard wrote sonnets in the Italian manner. The Elizabethan period was the golden age of English literature (Spenser, Philip Sidney, the 'poets of love') with Christopher Marlowe and the genius Shakespeare. Music held a high place; Henry VIII was a composer. The school of virginals and madrigals was important; W. Byrd (1543-1623) was the organist of the Chapel Royal.

17th century

On the death of Elizabeth I (1603), England had consolidated her economic prosperity and had won victory for Anglicanism. James I (1603-1625) compromised these results and gave precedence to Scottish interests. Charles I (1625-1649) married Henry IV's daughter, fought against Spain, sent ships to help the Huguenots at La Rochelle, quarrelled with Parliament, and was beheaded in 1649. The Commonwealth was proclaimed, the moving spirit of which was Cromwell (1599-1658). The Navigation Act of 1651 gave a new impetus to trade and to England's political power. The Restoration was brought about in 1660 with Charles II (1660-1685); landowners received large compensation, Parliament restored the traditional Anglican Church. The king negotiated with Spain, Louis XIV and the United Provinces, but then lapsed into an anti-Spanish and anti-Dutch policy and allied with Portugal (1662). The annexing of Tangier and Bombay hampered Dutch trade. After the war with Holland (1665-1667) the Catholic policy (1668-1673) of Charles II, who had worked for the Pope and Louis XIV, alienated the people. On his death in 1685, English opinion became definitively in favour of Holland against France. The succession crisis lasted from 1678 to 1685. James II (1685-1688), a Catholic, provoked the 1688 revolution which finally imposed Protestantism and parliamentary authority. William of Orange profited from this; he and his wife Mary reigned over England as joint rulers and continued the struggle against France. In 1693, freedom of the press and the founding of the Bank of England.

Colonial success continued in the 17th century with the setting up of trading stations in Madras (1639), Bombay (1661), Calcutta (1686), with the Barbados (1605), the Bermuda islands (1612) and Jamaica (1655) seized from the Spanish.

In literature and science, besides her great poets (Milton, 1608-1674; Dryden, 1631-1700), England made an important contribution to the evolution of ideas in Europe with her philosophers (Francis Bacon and his essays, 1597; John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690) who, in establishing the experimental method and sensualism, prepared the way for modern positivism and science (in 1625, Harvey discovered the circulation of blood; in 1686, Newton propounded the law of gravity).

In music Robert Jones, Campion and Rosseter wrote books of ayres (a kind of court air). Masques (allegorical or mythological entertainments) were staged at court (sumptuous décors by Inigo Jones). Theatrical music was developed by Matthew Locke (1630-1677) and especially by Purcell (1659-1695), influenced by Lully, Monteverdi and the Venetians.

18th century

Queen Anne (1702-1714), daughter of James II, succeeded William III; she waged war against France and acquired Gibraltar, and she saw Scotland and England united to form Great Britain (Act of Union, 1707). George I (1714-1727) succeeded her, and was succeeded by George II (17271760) who took part in the War of the Austrian Succession, ended by the Treaty of Aachen (1748). George III (1760-1820) was opposed to the French Revolution; war with France began in 1793. During the reigns of the three Georges internal affairs were characterised by the growing importance of Parliament and the office of Prime Minister (Robert Walpole, 1721-1742; William Pitt the Elder, 1757-1761 ; William Pitt the Younger, 1784-1801), by economic changes which culminated in large estates where new methods of agriculture were adopted which transformed the countryside (gentlemen farmers) and by the development of trade and mechanised industry (particularly in textiles and metallurgy), which made England the strongest economic power in Europe in the l8th century (Adam Smith's treatise on the Wealth of Nations).

The religious revival was brought about by Wesley and the Methodists.

The Treaty of Utrecht confirmed England's possession of Minorca, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Between 1757 and 1759 Lord Clive founded the British Empire in India. North America became a vast British colony; by the Peace of Paris (1763) she obtained Canada. When, however, Britain tried to make the American colonists bear the burden of the public debt they revolted and Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the United States in 1783.


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