Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

The Great Drama of the Stuart Period

Stuart Kings and Queens


The Stuart period begins with the accession of James I, and ends with the death of his great-granddaughter, Queen Anne. It covers a little more than a century, so that the "Age of the Stuarts" and the "Seventeenth Century" mean practically the same thing.

The Stuarts had been kings in Scotland for more than two hundred years. They became kings of England because the Tudors left no direct heirs. They ceased to be kings because they entered into conflict with Parliament, and Parliament proved too strong for them.

The period is one of the richest in all our long history. It is full of stirring incidents; plots, insurrections, civil wars, revolutions, restorations, follow one another with startling rapidity. The political changes were so important that they have affected the whole life of the nation, and their consequences can be seen in the government of every civilised country to-day.

The fortunes of the reigning family, the Stuarts, were so striking that they have furnished material for hundreds of romances and stories. The mother of James I, Mary Queen of Scots, had been beheaded by Elizabeth; yet James, on the death of Elizabeth, was raised from the throne of a small, wild, poor, and turbulent country, to be the ruler of three kingdoms, at a time when the rest of Europe was so distracted by war and civil strife that he might have become one of the greatest monarchs in Christendom, But "the wisest fool in Christendom," as a French king called James I, achieved nothing, and his son, Charles I, after vainly attempting to rule as a despot, like the kings of France or Spain, ended his days on the scaffold—the only king in all our history publicly put to death. His two sons, Charles II and James II, spent nearly half their lives as exiles and wanderers. Both lived to be kings; but one of them, James II, driven from his throne and country, lived out his old age as a pensioner at the Court of his cousin, England's greatest enemy, Louis XIV of France.

Nevertheless, both the daughters of James II became queens of England. Mary, with her husband, James's own nephew, reigned whilst her father was in exile at a foreign Court. Anne was made queen by an Act of Parliament, which excluded James's son, for by that time Parliament was strong enough to make and unmake sovereigns.

Whether on the throne or off, the Stuarts were born to wring trouble into England. Civil war had brought one king to the block. Revolution had driven another from the throne. Yet for two more generations the plots and insurrections of the "Jacobites"—those who upheld the cause of the dethroned and exiled Stuarts—kept their Hanoverian successors, George I and George II, constantly on the watch.

One event of the seventeenth century can never be forgotten. Only once in a thousand years has the succession of kings and queens in England been broken; and that was in the eleven years from 1649 to 1660, when the monarchy was thrown down and a Republic or Commonwealth was set up. That fact alone tells us much, for such great changes never occur without great causes. The whole history of the seventeenth century centres round the long and mighty struggle between king and Church on the one side, and Parliament and Puritans on the other. The events of the whole period may be pictured as the five acts of a great drama.

In the first act, the actors take their places on the stage, and the cause of strife appears. James I and Charles I, with their courtiers and statesmen, find themselves more and more opposed to the Commons in Parliament; whilst the bishops are opposed to the Puritans. King and Church join hands. Charles, with his bold statesman, the Earl of Strafford, and Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, are joined by all who rally to the cry of "Church and Crown." Opposed to them stand those who wish for government by Parliament, and a reformed "Puritan" Church. John Pym, John Hampden, John Eliot, and Oliver Cromwell stand forth as the leaders of a new Church and a new State.

In the second act, the country is a field of battle for seven weary years. Parliament triumphs over the king; the army triumphs over Parliament; Cromwell, the successful general, triumphs over both Parliament, and army, and becomes the dictator of England, under the title of Protector of the Commonwealth, and England for eleven years has no king.

In the third act, the chief figure is Cromwell. Like a giant he struggles to create a new England. The king is dead; the royal family is in exile; the old Church of England is silenced; the Cavaliers, or followers of the Stuarts, are deprived of all power and their estates impoverished. The protector, with the aid of his Puritan soldiers, enforces order, and attempts to rule England with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. For ten years a small religious sect, the Independents, armed and led by a great general and statesman, hold the chief power in the realm. The death of Cromwell is the end of the third act.

In the fourth act all is quickly changed. The stern and sombre Puritan gives place to the "Merrie Monarch," Charles II, who is restored to the throne of his ancestors. The Church of England is restored too, and in its triumph the Church once more turns to persecuting Puritan clergymen and preachers—John Bunyan amongst others.

So far the, course of events had been, (i) Preparation, (ii) Strife, (iii) the Triumph of Puritanism, (iv) the Triumph of the restored Church and king. The last act was (v) Reconciliation. This last revolution, that of 1689, preserved the monarchy, but preserved Parliament too, with all its rights. It preserved the national Church, but it also preserved the Nonconformist Churches. Persecution gave place to toleration for all but Roman Catholics. In all its main points the settlement of 1689, in both Church and State, is the settlement ender which we still live.

The age was essentially one of conflict and revolution, and such things try the temper and character of a nation. Englishmen may well, therefore, be proud that, even in the hour of strife and civil war, her soldiers and statesmen were of noble mould. Few men could escape the struggle, and everyman risked his life for the cause in which he believed.

Eliot, the first leader of the Commons, died in the Tower. Strafford, the king's faithful and brave, but misguided servant, died like his master, Charles, on the scaffold. Archbishop Laud paid for his zeal by his life. Hampden died of the wounds he received on the battlefield. Falkland, one of the noblest of the king's supporters, rushed to a welcome death at Newbury. Rupert, the prince of Cavaliers, and Cromwell, the great captain of the Roundheads, came almost unharmed through a hundred fierce fights. Never did men take up arms with purer motives on both sides, and never was civil war waged with greater courage and humanity.

John Evelyn


Even apart from the severe conflicts and passions of the age, it was very rich in great and noble names. Shakespeare's finest work belongs as much to James's reign as to Elizabeth's. Raleigh, the last of the great Elizabethan adventurers, lived until 1618. Bacon wrote his greatest works, and Ben Jonson his greatest plays, after Elizabeth's death. Milton lived through the Civil War and far into the reign of Charles II. In this age Bunyan produced his "Pilgrim's Progress." In this age George Fox founded the "Society of Friends." The events of the time and the character of the people are handed down to us by famous writers of diaries like Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn; historians like Lord Clarendon; writers of memoirs like Mrs. Hutchinson; chroniclers like Rushworth. We can thus read in the words of eye-witnesses the whole story of the century.

John Evelyn himself saw the meeting of the famous Long Parliament in 1640, with the king riding in state to its opening. Six months afterwards, "on the 12th of May," he writes, "I beheld on Tower Hill the fatal stroke which severed the wisest head in England from the shoulders of the Earl of Strafford." He saw the beginning of the Civil War, and then went abroad. But he was in England on the 30th of January, 1649, the day of the king's execution, and kept himself indoors, fasting and praying. He saw too "the superb funeral of the protector, Oliver, lying in effigy, in royal robes and crowned with a crown, sceptre, and globe, like a king." In 1660 he was present at the entry of Charles II into London. "I stood in the Strand and beheld it, and blessed God."

Many other less pleasing sights he witnessed; for example, in 1665, when the Great Plague was raging in London. In 1666 he saw the "whole south part of the city burning, from Cheapside to the Thames and all along Cornhill, Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracious Street, and so along to Baynard's Castle, and now taking hold of St. Paul's Church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly."

"God grant," he says, "mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame." Again, he tells us of a year later, when the Dutch sailed up to Chatham,, "a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw, and a dishonour never to be wiped off."

Nearly twenty years later, on the death of Charles II, he says, "I can never forget the inexpressible luxury and profaneness, gaming, and all dissoluteness, and total forgetfulness of God, it being Sunday evening six days before the king's death, which I was witness of . . . a French boy singing love songs, in that glorious gallery [in Whitehall], whilst about twenty of the great courtiers and dissolute persons were at a game of Basset round a large table, a bank of at least 2,000 in gold before them. . . Six days later was all in the dust."

Hardly any event of note did he miss, and as a very old man, in 1704, he saw the rejoicings on the news of the Battle of Blenheim, and "the queen in a rich coach with eight horses none with her but the Duchess of Marlborough."

An age cannot be lacking in interest that includes Gun-powder Plot and the Battle of Blenheim, three revolutions, a long civil war, insurrections and, plots without number; and which could produce characters as diverse as Laud and George Fox; Strafford and John Lilburne, the Leveller; Pym, the first leader of the House of Commons, and Montrose, the royalist poet and Cavalier; Charles II, and John Milton. Nor can the age that saw the establishment of Parliamentary government, and the beginnings of our American Colonies, be wanting in importance in the history of the world.

It is of this famous age that the following chapters will tell you.

NOTE.—This Chapter should be read again, after the last chapter of the book.