HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 1

 - General Introduction


Professor Wrightson provides an introduction to the course. He briefly discusses the main features of the political and social landscape of early modern England and then summarizes the broad social and structural changes that occurred during the period. Professor Wrightson offers some thoughts on the nature of history and the study of history and focuses, in particular, on the benefits of studying the history of early modern England. He notes that the history of Britain in this period affected many other nations, such as early America and Canada, as well as later colonies such as those in Africa and India, and that studying these events helps us to better understand ourselves in time and contextualize many of the features of modern society that we take for granted.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 1 - General Introduction

Chapter 1. Early Modern England [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Right. So this is History 251, and this morning I want simply to introduce the class and to explain what it might offer to you.

First of all, it’s obviously an outline course. It deals with a large period of history, 200-250 years, covering what I describe in the title as ‘Early Modern England’. Well, that’s a label that may or may not mean very much to you. I could have called the course ‘Tudor and Stuart England’ and indeed that term is used in the subtitle. It is about England in the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs running roughly from the 1480s to the 1710s. But to call it that might suggest that the course is structured around the rulers and that like so much history the focus is very much on the top. Well, in part it certainly is. In introducing the political narrative, which will form part of the core of the course, I’ll certainly be looking at the lives and the times of the great figures who gave their names to the age, the faces on the coins you might say. The notorious Henry VIII and his six unfortunate wives who are always difficult to remember in the right order — and Lucy, you have a helpful phrase for this, yeah?

Student: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

Professor Keith Wrightson: Okay. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived — the lucky one. Henry VIII. The stunning and rather perplexing Queen Elizabeth I — Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen. Whether you imagine her as Cate Blanchett or as Judi Dench [laughter] she still has the glamour, a woman who announced to her people early in her reign that she would “not make windows into men’s souls.” She would “not make windows into men’s souls.” And she’s continued to resist the efforts of most historians to try to make windows into hers. And then there’s the four Stuart kings. James I described at the time as “the Wisest Fool in Christendom,” a man who after an adventurous youth as King of Scotland became King of England and it was said treated every day thereafter as if it were Christmas day. Charles I, his son, whose policies precipitated Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century and who was eventually put on trial and executed by his own people in 1649. His son, Charles II, restored to the throne after ten years of republican government, Charles known as the Merry Monarch, the man who was energetic principally in his pleasures, famous for having innumerable mistresses and fourteen illegitimate children, never — though no legitimate children at all — never happier than when swanning around St. James Park with one of his mistresses and his spaniels. The — you know the King Charles spaniel — a nice, little black and white spaniel? Yeah, named after him of course. And the King looked rather like a King Charles spaniel [laughter], you know when he had his wig on — the nice, curly ears as it were and he had nice brown eyes too. [Laughter]. And then his brother, James II, former Duke of York, came to the throne and after three years was driven from it in the second English revolution of the seventeenth century, driven in to exile, later known as the King Over the Water by those who remained loyal to him. Well, it’s been said that two of the Stuart kings were politically astute but morally defective and two were virtuous men whose political ineptitude cost them the throne. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we could say of this remarkable dynasty that to lose the throne once could be considered a misfortune but to lose it twice suggests a certain amount of political ineptitude.

Well, you will hear and read about all of these people and the many others who shaped England’s public destiny and political destiny in this period, and others too — and today is September 3rd, which reminds me of Oliver Cromwell. He was born and died on September 3rd and also fought his two greatest battles on September 3rd, which is probably no coincidence. It was his lucky day. The great puritan general, the Lord Protector of the English republic between 1653 and 1658, a man described as a man of ‘agonies and exultations,’ a quite extraordinary figure. An idealist in some ways, ahead of his time on religious toleration for example, in other ways tainted by the bigotry of his age, and historically perhaps more loved and more hated than almost any other figure in British history.

So there are the great ones, but there’s also much more to it than can be approached by focusing on such figures alone. And if about a third of the lecture course is devoted to the political narratives and the — and understanding how they unfolded — the rest is devoted to other aspects of the period, to its religious history, to its social history, aspects of its economy, aspects of the culture of the time. These are matters which might sometimes have been vitally influenced by the decisions of rulers, but they also developed in their own independent ways and they obviously involved a far larger cast of characters. So this course is very much about the common people too and their experience of the age as well as about those who ruled them. So like one of the great Hollywood epics we have a cast of millions. That’s why I’m using the more capacious, if vaguer, label “Early Modern England,” by which I mean simply the broad period between the end of the fifteenth and the middle of the eighteenth century which saw the laying down of what were to become the essential characteristics of modern Britain in government, in religion, in economy, in social structure, in culture, in political values.

Chapter 2. Why Study Early Modern England? [00:07:23]

So I’m inviting you, then, to take a journey of the imagination through two and a half centuries. But you might say that was an awfully long time ago. This is the kind of history that’s long dead, that’s drowned in time. Why should you concern yourselves with the distant past, so remote from your own contemporary experience? Why bother with England or Britain? Why does it matter? Well, I’d say there are at least three good reasons for exploring deep history and in a way that takes us way beyond the immediacy of a more familiar historical world. First of all, because to do so is imaginatively enriching — it involves rediscovering a lost world and that takes imagination. Secondly, because it’s also intellectually demanding. All history, of course, involves us in a fairly rigorous intellectual discipline. We have to develop arguments about causation, about why things happened the way they did, and we do that by establishing a dialog between the questions that we want to ask and the evidence which the past has left to us. Well, my point is simply that that can be a peculiarly enthralling exercise for periods of the distant past for which the evidence is often ambiguous or difficult or partial, in which it’s produced by unfamiliar institutions, in which people are thinking with unfamiliar casts of mind, and we have to try to think ourselves into those minds to understand what was happening in their own terms, informing our causal arguments. That can stretch you imaginatively and intellectually. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, because it creates meaning. It helps us to understand ourselves in time in a deeper way by exposing twenty-first century attitudes and values and experiences to a much deeper comparative context. Looking at the distant past can alert us to the sheer otherness of the past, to the reality of deep and fundamental change in the course of four or five centuries and to the provisional and contingent and temporary nature of so much that we take for granted today, as well as the family resemblances which can still be found. That’s an exercise which can be enormously provocative and stimulating, a challenge that helps us understand better our own place in time.

Right. Well, the story of early modern England has got a good deal to offer in all of these respects. It can certainly capture the imagination. This was a time of great events: the Reformation, the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the foundations of the first British empire. It was a time of great personalities: the rulers that I’ve already mentioned, but also it was the age of Shakespeare, of Milton, the time of the diarist Samuel Pepys, the proto-democrat John Lilburne, the early feminist writer Mary Astell, and so one could go on. It was a time of great processes as well as events: longer-term processes, great changes in the structures of society, in economic development, in political culture, in the growth of literacy and print culture. And it’s also the period when, almost for the first time in British history, we have the evidence surviving that enables us to get to grips with the mass of the population and to explore the everyday dynamics of their lives, their relationships, their emotional palettes you might say.

It’s only from about the early sixteenth century that the sources survive in large quantities that enable imaginative historians to approach questions like how long do people live? How subject were they to early death from diseases like the plague? What age did they get married? Who chose their marriage partners? What was the quality of their family relationships? How many people could read and what did they read if they could read? How did people make their livings and how did the economy change? What were the levels of crime and violence and how well were they controlled? — and a host of other questions which are not previously accessible because we don’t have adequate sources. So one can begin to get a sense of the rest of the population, and to give you just one particular example, around about 1900 a box of papers were found in the cellars of Worcester College, Oxford, and they turned out to be the papers of the secretary of the council of Oliver Cromwell’s army, and they included a verbatim shorthand account of debates which had taken place in 1647 at the end of the Civil War when the council of the army debated the settlement of the kingdom in the aftermath of the war.

One of the extraordinary things about this verbatim account is that you hear the voices of the common soldiers. One of them who is representing a cavalry regiment keeps interrupting the debate. He keeps saying, “What has the soldier fought for all this time?” He uses the phrase again and again: “What has the soldier fought for?” And it’s thrilling because you hear for the first time the voice of the common people erupting into the councils of the nation. Well, that symbolizes in a sense what the available documents enable people to do from the sixteenth century onwards.

Secondly, looking at early modern England can engage the intellect. The historical literature is exceptionally rich. It’s very large, created by generations of historians from all over the English-speaking world, and quite a few of them or significant of them were Yale scholars. This literature has produced many of the classic works of historical writing in the English language and it’s also proved to be restless and innovative and rather argumentative. All of the recent movements in historical research and writing are represented amongst its practitioners; mainstream political and constitutional history, gender history, the ‘new social history,’ the ‘new cultural history’ influenced by critical theory, what people now describe as the ‘new political history’ which tries to reintegrate social and political development. All of this is represented and much more. Since the 1960s in particular it’s been one of the most vigorous of historical traditions. There’s plenty there to engage the intellect, whatever it is that you happen to be most interested in.

And thirdly, it helps to understand ourselves in time. Of course, all periods of history do that, but the events of the early modern period have a peculiar resonance. The events and processes of these centuries are of more than merely historical interest. If you’re concerned with the institutions of representative government and how they came into being for the first time; if you’re concerned with the notion of the rule of law; if you’re concerned with the structures and dynamics of a capitalist market economy; if you’re interested in concepts of individual liberty and collective responsibility, or with the excesses of religious fanaticism, or with innumerable social and cultural attitudes which continue to echo in our own relationships and in our own time, if we only know how to recognize them, and if you’re concerned with the language itself, then early modern England has got a great deal to say to you. It’s because these issues are so alive in the literature of the period that the literature is so rich, and it’s for that reason also that it’s very much an international literature.

These issues concern scholars from all over the world and there’s a further dimension to that too, which is that a great deal of what happened in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England later impacted upon a much wider world. The history of early modern England is, by extension, very much a part not only of British history but also of American and Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand history. It’s got things to say about the history of India and of Africa. Some of the things that happened in this period left their fingerprints all over the world in all kinds of ways. They — it certainly left its fingerprints on New Haven to come close to home. If you look around the town and you look at the churches: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptists, Quakers, all of these religious traditions have their origins in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Or if you look at the street names. Running out of Broadway we have Goffe, Whalley, and Dixwell streets, all three of them named after three of the men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I in 1649 and later hid out in New Haven, which was a radically puritan colony which gave them asylum after the return of the king. Our suburb of Hamden is named after John Hampden who, in 1637, stood up against the policies of King Charles I and tried to fight him in a landmark legal case. And if you start turning to other place names in Connecticut it just gets ridiculous. We have New London, okay, as old London. We have Norwich, or ‘Norrich’ as it’s pronounced in England, it’s up there. New Haven itself is down here. We have Litchfield, that’s over there. And we have Durham — is up there. And we have Stamford, which is there, yeah. We have Greenwich, which is over here. Same place names, they’re just in a different configuration and, in a sense, that’s symbolic of the relationship between British and early modern — early American history: same names, different configuration, slightly different meanings. So in a sense a good deal of this is American history by extension and of consequence to everyone who’s become involved in America’s story over the last two and half centuries. To explore it is to explore part of your own identity.

Chapter 3. A New Historiography [00:19:49]

Right. Well, this course is intended to provide an introduction to all of this. It’s up to date. It’s also intended to be very inclusive in its range and contents. We’ll run through from the late fifteenth century to the early eighteenth century. We’ll look at the momentous changes and innovations which took place. In 1500, England was very much a personal monarchy. The king really ruled. By 1700, it’s a constitutional monarchy in which the center of political life was a permanently sitting elected parliament and it’s become not simply the Kingdom of England but the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In 1500, England was part of Catholic Christendom, practicing a very lively and vital form of late medieval Catholicism. By 1700, the country was aggressively Protestant with an established Church of England which could no longer contain all the varieties of Protestant denominations which had emerged, leading to the granting finally of religious toleration in the late seventeenth century. In 1500, it was largely a localized economy of peasant families and urban craftsmen. By 1700, it was a highly commercialized market economy, capitalistic in structure and engaged in trade with a much larger world, especially with the East and with the Atlantic. In 1500, it’s a world of rural communities and small towns with only one significant city, London. By 1700, it was the most rapidly urbanizing country in Europe, London had become the biggest city in Europe and a kind of prototype metropolis. In 1700, London was regarded as a kind of a shock city the way people thought about New York in the mid-twentieth century. In 1500, most people were illiterate. By 1700, literacy was widespread. There was a vigorous print culture including the first English language newspapers. And so one could go on and on, pointing the contrast between the beginning and the end of the period.

The story of these and other massive transformations used to be told as a kind of a triumphalist story, an unfolding of British destiny, what people refer to as ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, a very nationalistic take on the history of this period. It traced the growth from the sixteenth century of political liberty, religious freedom, economic opulence, and world power as a kind of steady upward ascent. Sometimes it had to be hard fought against the forces of tyranny or superstition or backwardness, but in a sense it was portrayed as being almost preordained, a kind of English version of manifest destiny. Well, since the 1950s, the perspective has changed massively. Britain’s place in the world has changed. People think about its history differently. New forms of history have been pioneered. Other voices are now heard, especially the voices of the losers in these processes, all the people who only had a subordinate place in these achievements. As a result, we’ve now got a less one-sided and, in many ways, a more mature historiography. We’ve got over the old tendency to strut and swagger about Britain’s historical role. The changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now seem very far from preordained and, as I say, the less one-sided perspective reveals the losses as well as the gains, the failures and the crimes as well as the achievements. The point is it’s all part of the story and it’s all available to be studied.

Well, let’s look briefly at the syllabus. It’s roughly chronological. There’s a timeline running through the whole thing, but as it develops there are overlaps. I planned it as a kind of building up of layers of knowledge, each one acting as a kind of stepping stone to the next. In the earliest lectures, lectures two to six, I’ll concentrate on trying to establish some of the contexts of society, economy and government as they were in the early sixteenth century. I’ll be looking at the household, at local communities, at people’s social and economic roles and relationships, at the structures of power and authority as they were at the time of kings Henry VII and Henry VIII, roughly between the 1480s and the 1540s. That’s to establish the context because, as has been said, the discipline of history is essentially a discipline of context. Facts acquire their meaning only when one understands the context which helps us to grasp their meaning. So we’ll set up the context. Then from lecture seven we move into the tracing of change. Lectures seven and eight will look at the impact of the Reformation and the opening up of religious divisions between the 1530s and the 1550s. In lecture nine, we’ll pause to look at some of the problems which were produced by the massive population growth which began in the sixteenth century and the economic stirring which that produced.

In lectures ten and eleven, I’ll look at the England of Elizabeth I, focusing on the problems in religion and in government policy faced by the Queen, the struggle for stability in the immensely insecure environment which she inherited, and then in lectures twelve and thirteen I’ll go on to look at some of the principal features of social change under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts, looking at roughly the 1580s through to the 1630s, a period of major transition in society and economy. Lectures fourteen through seventeen will look at various aspects of social and cultural change in the same period, the late Elizabethan, early Stuart period. I’ll look at the witch craze of that time. I’ll look at crime and disorder, at popular protest and rebellion and at literacy and education. Then lectures eighteen to nineteen, we’ll come to the religious and political tensions of the early seventeenth century which eventually exploded in 1642 into the civil wars — which I’ll look at in lectures twenty and twenty-one — and the establishment after the execution of King Charles the First of the English Republic which lasted until 1660. Lecture twenty-two will look at the restored monarchy after 1660, tracing it up to the revolution of 1688. Lecture twenty-three will look at the rapid economic development of the late seventeenth century which provided the resources to back the matter I’ll treat in lecture twenty-four, which was the creation of a new state structure and the emergence of Britain as a significant world power.

So that’s the rough timeline. Those are the issues which will be covered. Obviously, the course has an essentially narrative structure but it’s also very much an analytical narrative. It’s about trying to understand how all of these changes intersected with each other, how they influenced each other over time. And I suppose that’s what really interests me, trying to grasp the wholeness of the process of historical change, how it all fits together, and that’s the best reason for doing an outline course of this kind. It enables you to see these developments in the round; all the different aspects; how they intersect.

Chapter 4. Logistics [00:28:37]

Now the readings which are suggested on the syllabus will help you hopefully to do all of that. They’ve been chosen quite carefully. The three textbooks are available from the Yale bookstore. The course packet of additional selections from various books and articles is available from Docuprint down on Whitney, the address is given on the syllabus and the phone number, and all of these works are also on reserve in the library, in Sterling. The reading runs at about 100 to 150 pages a week.

Now some of the readings you’ll find are quite demanding, but I make no apologies for that. You can say it’s a mark of respect for the capabilities of the students that I’m setting some pretty challenging stuff at times. But if you follow the readings as we go through you should build up a coherent grasp of the whole period in its different aspects and be introduced to the work of some of the best historians currently writing about it. In a sense it’s a course in good, lucid, robust historical prose. The readings and the lectures together will provide the basis for the section discussions which will tend to develop and add to the lecture themes rather than simply repeating to them — repeating them — and two of the sections will be visits to the British Art Center to look at some of the visual evidence there. Those visits have to be on a Friday morning and they are optional; they’re not part of the examinable nature of the course but they’re there if you’re interested and would like to go along.

Okay. Within the sense of the whole period, which I hope you’ll develop, you’ll be asked to do two pieces of more detailed work, a shorter paper of about five pages and a longer one of about ten pages, the first due in week seven, the second due in week fourteen. This should give you an opportunity to develop personal interests. You can have a completely free choice of topic. You can write your papers about any aspect of the period that you find interesting and you want to pursue more deeply. I’ll give out, in a couple of weeks’ time, a list of topics that might interest you, but feel free to bring forward suggestions of your own that you’d like to investigate, or things you might pick up from lectures that you want to take further and so forth. I’ll also issue a longer bibliography which will help to prepare for those papers and which will also include material. If you’d like to look at the history of Scotland or Ireland or Wales, then there’ll be material there on their developments also. All you need to do about the papers is to consult with me or with the teaching fellows to get advice on the best reading for researching the papers and subject to that you have a free hand, whether that’s some of the classical issues of the period or whether it’s other things that you simply have to — happen to have an interest in. Last year someone was interested in public health and ended up doing work on the plague and early public health measures, for example. We had a person also who was interested in pregnancy and childbirth. Well, you can do that. There’s a literature on it and so forth, whatever it happens to be. The overall assessment will be 15% for participation and discussion, 20% for the short paper, 40% for the long paper, and 25% for the final exam, which will be an exam in which you’ll be required to write two essays from quite a large choice of about twenty topics covering the whole range.

Okay. Finally, let me introduce the teaching fellows. We have Courtney Thomas and Lucy Kaufman and Justin DuRivage. All of us will be available to assist you in section discussions of course. We’ve scheduled seven sections with quite a wide spread of times which hopefully will cater for everyone who’s interested, and we will be available, of course, in office hours. The teaching fellows will explain their office hours when sections begin in third week. I’ll be available usually on Tuesdays between five and seven and on Thursdays between two and four - p.m. in both cases. Right, other times by appointment and of course we’re all available by e-mail when necessary. Throughout, the basic teaching philosophy for this course is quite simple. First of all, history should be challenging but it can also be fun and, secondly, if students are going to do well they deserve attention; so if you want it you can have it.

Okay. So this is a terrific period to study. It has a terrific literature to work on. Yale has a long and distinguished tradition in this field and fabulous resources for studying it in the libraries, in the British Art Center, in the special collections. My objective is simply to encourage you to engage with this field and to use these resources and to do well, to achieve your potential and to enjoy it. I’ve been teaching and researching and writing about this period for about forty years. Courtney and Lucy and Justin have been at it less long but they know their stuff. We have three teaching fellows who really know their stuff. They have their own special interests but they’re very familiar with the whole picture. We are in a position to guide you and help you get the most out of this course, and no doubt in engaging in discussion with you and in discussing your paper topics and so forth we will also learn from you. People new to the subject always see things that one’s missed no matter how long one’s been working on it. So we’ll be happy to do all of that. So if the course attracts you, take it and use it and use us to develop your knowledge and your skills. That’s what we’re here for, and if anyone wants to ask any particular questions just come on up at the end. Okay?

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]