Lecture 9: The Seventeenth Century
The 1600s in England were marked by religious strife, which led to significant political and social change.
When James I became King of England in 1603, upon Elizabeth's death, he had already been King of Scotland for a number of years, and he brought with him to England some preconceived ideas about how he would rule which were not very popular in England.
In Scotland, for example, the divine right of kings was still recognized. But in England, the king and the Parliament were considered the source of laws, not the king alone. Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, resented James's attitude that their positions and decisions were dependent on royal favor. Their power lay in the fact that they were the legislative body that raised funds by levying taxes, and James' extravagance required lots of funds. Parliament attempted to restrict his spending, and in retaliation, he dissolved Parliament and levied his own, extremely unpopular, customs taxes. But eventually, even this was not enough to cover his expenses, and he was forced to call Parliament back into session and concede to them a great measure of power.
James also faced a precarious situation in his relations with other European countries, particularly Spain and Germany. The major European powers were constantly attempting to conquer each other, or at the least, maintain and extend their own influence. In addition, these struggles were complicated by religious alliances. Germany, for example, was ruled by Ferdinand II, a Catholic who was dedicated to restoring Catholicism to predominantly Protestant Central Europe. But Bohemia, a region of Germany, was governed by Frederick the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, a Protestant. In an attempt to keep peace and establish an alliance with Germany, James married his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick. When in 1619, the Protestants in Bohemia revolted against King Ferdinand, Frederick the Elector was expelled from Bohemia by Ferdinand and his Spanish allies, who also hoped to restore Catholicism to Europe, and in the process, take over more territory there. In a naive attempt to curry favor with the Spanish and get his son-in-law's lands restored to him, James travelled to Madrid to propose a marriage between his son, Charles, and the Spanish Infanta, the Princess Donna Maria, and was contemptuously dismissed. England's resulting involvement in what came to be called the Thirty Years' War was disastrous and expensive.
But James's greatest problems arose from religious conflict in Britain. When he took the throne, the Catholics and Protestants were still at odds, and to further complicate matters, the various denominations of Protestants all found each others' beliefs and practices unacceptable. James firmly allied himself with the Church of England, and determined to issue a new translation of the Bible; the King James Version appeared in 1611.
James's policies restricting religious freedom were relatively moderate for his time, and precluded the sort of wholesale persecution and death that had occurred at previous times. But even James found the Puritans to be a threat and took steps to suppress them and force them into exile. Many of them fled to the Netherlands, and from there to the New World, where, in 1630, they established the first of the New England colonies.
James also reintroduced the laws which meted out penalties for not attending Church of England services. This was a severe setback to Catholics, who felt betrayed. James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, and he had promised that when he took the throne of England, he would cease to persecute Catholics. But when he was actually crowned, he reneged on this promise.
In response, a number of men (how many and who is still a matter of debate) joined in the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605. The five core members of the group, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, and Guy Fawkes, swore to blow up James and the Parliament during the next session of Parliament. They rented a house near the Parliament House and (so the story goes--some historians doubt it) began digging a tunnel which would lead under it. But the tunnel had to be abandoned because of water seeping in. So Thomas Percy rented a cellar in the Parliament House itself, and there the conspirators hid 36 barrels of gunpowder. On Oct. 26, 1605, ten days before the session of Parliament was due to open, an anonymous letter warning of a "calamity" was delivered to a member of Parliament; the conspirators heard of the letter, but, as no action was taken, they concluded that the letter had not been believed. On Nov. 4, the night before Parliament was scheduled to meet, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellar with the tools necessary to explode the powder. He was arrested and tortured, and over the next few days he revealed details of the plot and the names of the other plotters.
At the news of Fawkes's arrest, the other conspirators fled to Staffordshire, where they were confronted several days later by the Sheriff of Worcestor and a posse. Catesby, Percy, Wright and his brother Christopher were all killed in the skirmish that followed, and the other members of the plot were rounded up over the next few weeks and imprisoned.
Thomas Wintour made a confession at the end of November. Its authenticity is still in doubt. Thomas Tresham, who was one of the plotters and was suspected of having written the anonymous letter betraying the plot, supposedly died in the Tower in December of a urinary tract infection; there is speculation that he may have been poisoned by other conspirators, or that reports of his death were false and that he was allowed by the government to escape.
All of the captured conspirators were tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. In January of 1606, they were hanged, drawn and quartered, and some of their heads were removed to be displayed on pikes.
In addition to the upheaval in Europe and England, James had his troubles in Ireland. He wanted extend Scotland's influence and establish more control over Ireland, so he established the plantation of Ulster beginning in 1610. This allowed thousands of (Protestant) Scots to settle on lands that rightly belonged to the (Catholic) Irish. To this day, the disputes that thus began between the British and the Irish, the Catholics and the Protestants, have not been resolved.
At the death of James I in 1625, the throne passed to his son, Charles I. He was unpopular with Parliament even before he took the throne because of his friendship with the Duke of Buckingham (his father's best friend and, some say, James's lover) and his marriage: in the wake of the humiliating rejection by Spain, James had arranged for Charles a marriage to French Catholic Princess Henrietta Maria. Parliament refused to allot him any money until he dismissed Buckingham, and in retaliation, Charles dismissed Parliament, but was forced to recall them to raise revenue. The members of Parliament immediately pressured Charles into accepting a Petition of Right, which guaranteed certain basic rights to the English people; these later became the basis of the United States's Bill of Rights.
Charles again dissolved Parliament and tried to rule without it, but his onerous taxation policies alienated the population. He created even more dissent when he increased the power of the clergy, who began arresting and torturing Puritans. Nevertheless, by 1635, his government was relatively stable.
But then, there was the matter of Scotland. Charles, although born there, had little understanding of the country. His attempts to unite the various religious factions and force the Scottish Church to conform to Church of England practices created a revolution. In July 1637, the first reading of the Revised Prayer Book for Scotland created a riot. The Bishop of Brechin conducted his service with a pair of loaded pistols aimed at the congregation.
The clergy met in Edinburgh to draw up a manifesto of its beliefs and goals; this document was called "The Tables." In effect, it declared Scotland independent of England, and refused to recognize Charles's religious authority. Charles revoked the authority of Scotland's General Assembly and declared war.
This was a mistake; Charles's forces were easily defeated by the experienced soldiers of the Scottish army. The First Bishops' War, as it was called, was settled by the Pacification of Berwick, in which Charles reluctantly restored the power of the Scottish General Assembly (or Scottish Parliament).
When the Scottish Parliament attempted to further weaken Charles's control and strengthen its own, Charles again resorted to arms, and the Second Bishops' War began. Charles was forced to call the British Parliament back into session in order to raise an army of his own. Parliament took advantage of Charles's weakness to impeach and execute some of Charles's supporters, and to pass a law stating that no more than three years could pass between Parliaments, and that it could not be adjourned by the King, but only by its own consent.
Now, Charles went to Scotland to try to gain support against his own Parliament. He distributed titles and lands and gave the General Assembly all the authority it wanted. Charles gained enough support in Scotland to win several important victories against the British army, when war broke out in 1642.
But now the British Parliament sought help in Scotland too, and since the Scots were divided in their support of Charles, they got it. The Scots would provide an army, and in return, the Parliament would pay the government 30,000 pounds per month, guarantee them religious autonomy, and eradicate "popery and prelacy"; this referred not only to Catholics but to High Church (Episcopalian) denominations.
Charles's forces (the Royalist Forces) were defeated at Marston Moor by the Parliamentary Army (heavily supplemented by Scotsmen), led by Oliver Cromwell. The Highlanders (who had traditionally been at odds with the Lowlanders of Scotland) raised an army to try to help Charles, but Cromwell's army was too much for the Royalist forces, even with their help. Charles was defeated and turned over to Parliament in 1646. Charles was tried for treason and executed in 1649, in his own banquet hall.
Cromwell and the Republican Government
History's opinion on Cromwell is divided. Some see him as a ruthless tyrant; others, as a brilliant ruler who brought peace and unity to Great Britain.
Oliver Cromwell was born April 25, 1599, in Huntingdon. He was raised in a family of country Puritans. In 1616, he entered Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge. His early years appear to have been quite ordinary, but at the age of 27, he had a religious revelation and thereafter felt it was his duty to uphold and spread the word of God. Nevertheless, he was a quiet man; he farmed, prayed, fasted, and occasionally spoke at church services. He became a justice of the peace and once rounded up the men drinking in a local tavern and forced them to sing a hymn. He was elected to Parliament for Huntingdon in 1628, and was elected as the representative for Cambridge in 1640. When the Revolution against Charles began in 1642, Cromwell became a member of the Parliamentary Army. He rose quickly through its ranks and showed a gift for military strategy. He created his own regiment of a thousand hand-picked Puritan farmers who were used to the countryside. Under his iron discipline, they would recite the Westminster Confession and march into battle signing the Psalms of David. They prayed, paid fines for drunkenness and profanity and were never defeated.
Due to his successes, Cromwell was named commander-in-chief, and after Charles was defeated and executed, Cromwell emerged as the new leader of the Parliament. Under his leadership, the "Rump Parliament" abolished the monarchy and then, for good measure, abolished the House of Lords.
On New Year's Day 1651, Scotland crowned Charles II King of Scotland and raised an army to defend him. Cromwell commanded an army which crushed the Scottish resistance, and Charles II fled to France. In 1652, he forced the Scottish to sign a Treaty of Union with England, which made Scotland part of the Commonwealth.
Cromwell also ruthlessly subdued resistance in Ireland and forced it to accept the authority of England. He confiscated and sold large Irish properties to English landlords, further antagonizing the Irish.
In 1653, the Parliament offered him the British Crown; he turned it down and accepted instead the title "Lord Protector." Under the "protectorate," as his government was called, religious tolerance was extended to all except Roman Catholics. Jews, who had been expelled from England under Edward I in the 13th century, were allowed back into England. He also granted congregations the right to choose their own form of worship, no longer requiring that all use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
In 1655, after a Royalist uprising, Cromwell divided England into eleven military districts; most were governed by puritannical army colonels, who were responsible for creating the so-called "blue laws," under which drinking, gambling, and swearing were punishable by fines or imprisonment. In some areas, even taking a walk on Sunday was outlawed. These new governors were almost universally unpopular, and were dismissed in 1657.
Cromwell died September 3, 1658, at Whitehall. His death is supposed by most historians to have been caused by malaria, although a new (and debatable) theory has been advanced which posits that he was poisoned by his doctor as part of a royalist plot.
Cromwell was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard, who was not interested in the job; nor did he have the experience necessary to govern a nation. He left London and went to live on his farm, ignoring the demands of government. Into this vacuum stepped General Monck, who had served loyally under Cromwell in Scotland. He assembled a Parliament and invited Charles II to return as King. Charles accepted and was crowned in 1660.
In 1661, after loyalties had shifted back to the monarchy, Cromwell's body was exhumed and "executed": he was hanged as a traitor; his body was buried beneath the gallows at Tyburn and his head was mounted on a pike above Westminster. In 1960, his head was bequeathed to his old college at Cambridge and buried near the Sidney Sussex College chapel.
The Metaphysical Poets
Critic and scholar H. J. C. Grierson has defined metaphysical poetry in this way: "Metaphysical Poetry, in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which...has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and of the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence...The distinctive note of 'metaphysical' poetry is the blend of passionate feeling and paradoxical ratiocination."
The term "metaphysical" is misleading, because it gives the impression that metaphysical poetry discusses the nature of the universe. In this case, "metaphysical" refers to style, not subject matter. The metaphysicals were looking for a connection between emotion and intellectual concepts; they connect the abstract with the concrete, the sublime with the commonplace, the emotional with the rational. Metaphysical poetry is self-conscious and analytic:
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limmes [limbs] of flesh, and else could nothing doe [do],
More subtile [subtle] then the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too...
This passage is from Donne's "Aire and Angels," and it presents, as so many of Donne's poems do, a logical argument designed to persuade: the soul must be housed in a body or it can do nothing; the soul is the source of love; love, like the soul, must "take" a body, or, like the soul, it cannot reveal itself. It is not an appeal to the emotions, but to the intellect of its audience.
One of the most striking characteristics of metaphysical poetry is its deliberately odd or shocking juxtaposition of images and ideas. In "Hymne to God My God, in my Sicknesse" for example, Donne compares the human body to a map:
Whilst my Physitians by their love are growne
Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne
That this is my South-west discoverie
Per fretum febris, by these streights to die,
I joy, that in these straits, I see my West;
For, though theire currants yeeld returne to none,
What shall my West hurt me? As West and East
In all flatt Maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the Resurrection.
The metaphysical poets were rebelling against the established literary traditions of the Elizabethan era. In the metaphysical poets, especially in their love poetry, there is an attempt to write about the ugly as it coexists with the beautiful; the dissonant as it coexists with the melodious; the physical as it coexists with the spiritual. Wonder and awe have not completely given way to cynicism, but innocence has been lost, and emotion is submissive to logic, as Herbert Read says: "Metaphysical poetry is determined logically: its emotion is a joy that comes with the triumph of reason, and is not a simple instinctive ecstasy."
The central figure in the group of poets who are referred to as "metaphysical" is John Donne, not necessarily because he is typical of the genre (each poet brings his own unique qualities to the poetry), but because he is the most "metaphysical," and because he was the most influential of the group.
Critics have never known what to make of Donne. Some accuse him of poetic sins such as faulty meter, and others argue that his philosophy is shallow and inconsistent, even blasphemous. Albert C. Baugh says that the only purpose of Donne's imagery is to make his poetry "appear more thoughtful than it is...What this most metaphysical of all poets lacked was a little real philosophy, an ability to come to terms with his world and trust his own reason and his faith..." On the other hand, Joan Bennett argues that in much of Donne's poetry, "The interplay of sound and meaning is masterful," and that in many of his poems, there is a "successful fusion of wit and passion...He rescued English love poetry from the monotony which was threatening to engulf it at the end of the sixteenth century."
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Metaphysical Poets, by Helen C. White.
2. Six Metaphysical Poets: A Reader's Guide, by George Williamson.
3. Five Metaphysical Poets, by Joan Bennett
4. A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh
5. "England: A Narrative History," by Peter Williams, on the Go Brittania website: http://www.britannia.com/history/narintrohist.html