Education: British Literature in Historical Perspective during the English Renaissance (1485-1833)

Previously on Historical Perspective…

The island of England has been invaded and conquered by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and French Normans. They have survived and adapted through a devastating plague and risen to the challenge of bettering themselves through education and religion. The peasant class is no more as a rising middle-class challenge the social order.

Now on Historical Perspective…

There was a lot going on in the world between 1485-1625, so it is no wonder that it is one of the most storied time in British history. Countless written works were produced during this time as well as about it–as well as many Oscar-winning movies. Two major movements influenced the thought and literature of this period: the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance, meaning “rebirth,” was characterized by innovations in art, science, and exploration, and a rediscovery of long-neglected classical works. Beginning in Italy, it gradually spread northward. Renaissance scholars of northern Europe, like Erasmus, attempted to reform the Catholic Church. The German theologian Martin Luther, however, initiated the movement known as the Reformation. The Reformation led to the founding of Protestantism. Luther stressed the Bible, rather than the Pope, as the source of authority and the importance of faith, rather than good works, for salvation. Of the two major English works of this period, Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible, the first is a product of the Renaissance and the second a product of the Reformation.

The Renaissance…sought to revive the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. It was a secular movement that encouraged voyages of discovery and emphasized human aspiration. During this period, the very dimensions of the world shifted and enlarged, as Europeans discovered new parts of the globe, and Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus first proposed that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. Everything exciting and enlightened seemed to be coming from Italy during this time. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, a painting still heavily guarded today, and Michelangelo painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel, a wonder that thousands still travel to Rome to see. Shakespeare gave a nod to all this greatness by setting many of his plays in Italian locations. Renaissance ideas blossomed first in the Italian city-states from 1350-1550 and then slowly spread northward giving rise to the English Renaissance from 1485-1625.

The Reformation, inspired by the ideas of the German theologian Martin Luther from 1483-1546, began in part as a reaction against what many perceived as corruption in the Catholic Church. (Priests had become corrupted by money and power. They had been exhorting taxes from the people at increasing rates and were taking bribes from the rich to secure their place in Heaven.) Reformation thinkers wanted to return to what they took to be a more pure idea of Christianity. Once again, an attempt to return to early ideas led to something new, as reformers created a denomination of Christianity known as Protestantism.

England became swept up in both of these two wider European movements, sometimes in a dramatic, even bloody, fashion. In the late 1400s, England was beginning to heal after thirty years of civil war. By the early 1500s, the country had plunged into the religious controversies of the Reformation. At the same time, the spirit of the Renaissance breathed new life into the arts.

Henry Tutor

Henry Tutor Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library

The story begins in 1485, when Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, ending a civil war and reconciling the two factions in the war, the House of York and the House of Lancaster. With him began the reign of the Tudors. His son, Henry VIII, inherited a strong, stable country, but Henry VIII himself was not a strong man.

Henry VIII was a man easily swayed by his wants, and a man who feared what others said about him. He chose commoners to take positions of importance in the court because he thought he could trust them more than the nobles, but he turned on them as well. Anyone that did not please him was subject to torture, imprisonment, banishment, or beheading. He used his power to rule by force and take whomever he wanted. His court lived in constant fear of stepping out of his favor; it was a fear that would start unraveling the strong stability his father worked to create.

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Henry VIII

Henry VIII’s particular weakness was women, and he married and left six of them during his lifetime–in addition to countless mistresses. Henry VIII married his older brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and she bore him a daughter, Mary. However, Henry then fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a beautiful lady of the court. He also wanted a male heir, which Catherine had not provided him. He, therefore, petitioned the Pope for a divorce on the grounds that his marriage to his brother’s widow was invalid.

Henry had written a treatise attacking Luther, and the Pope had designated Henry the “Defender of the Faith,” a title English monarchs retain to this day. However, when the Pope denied his petition to remarry, Henry refused to comply, marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533 and eventually severing all ties with Rome. In 1534, he established the Protestant Church of England with himself at its head. Religious affiliation and allegiance to the king were suddenly united.

To read more about Henry’s wives or the Tudor period, check out Lara Eakins’ website.

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Elizabeth I

The woman who was to become perhaps the greatest of England’s monarchs, Elizabeth I, was born to Henry and Anne Boleyn in 1533.

Before Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Catholics and Protestants struggled for control of the country, and Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne was marked by turmoil and death. When Elizabeth took power, however, she firmly established England as a Protestant nation and ushered in a golden age of prosperity and peace.

The greatest threat to her rule came in 1588, when Catholic Spain assembled an armada, or fleet of warships, to conquer England. Elizabeth rallied her people, and the English fleet, aided by bad weather, shattered the armada. This glorious moment produced a surge of spirit and sense of power that swept the entire nation.

Elizabeth I never married and had no heir. The final days of her reign were clouded with questions of who would succeed her. In 1603, James I became her successor and the first of the ill-starred Stuart line. By the end of his reign, his struggles with Parliament foreshadowed the civil war that would come during the reign of his son, Charles I.

Now on Michael Wood’s Story of England: “Henry VIII to the Industrial Revolution”

Additional Sources: Google (images), & Pearson Education, Inc. Prentice Hall Literature:The British Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2012. Pages 236-239