The political life of the sixteenth century was dominated by the genius of a single dynasty: the Tudors. Its founder was Owen Tudor, a squire of an ancient Welsh family who was employed at the court of Henry V and eventually married his widow, Catherine of Valois. Its first monarch was Owen Tudor's grandson, Henry, Earl of Richmond, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 to become Henry VII. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, whom Richard III had succeededa fortunate event for the people of England, as it united the two parties by whom the crown had been disputed for many decades. Once Henry, who represented the House of Lancaster (whose emblem was a white rose), was joined to Elizabeth, a member of the House of York (signified by a red rose), the "Wars of the Roses" were at an end. Henry VII's bureaucratic skills then settled the kingdom in ways that allowed it to grow and become identified as a single nation, however much it also comprised different peoples: the midlands and the north were distinguished from the more populous south by dialectal forms of speech; and to the west, in Cornwall and Wales, many English subjects still spoke Gaelic. More thoroughly Gaelic were Scotland to the north and Ireland across the sea to the west. Although the Anglo-Normans had invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that the English pursued the subjugation of Ireland by establishing colonizing plantations and conducting a brutal military campaign that produced famine, massacres, and the forced relocation of people. But this supposed English fiefdom remained rebellious and effectively unconquered for Elizabeth's entire reign. Its resistance to English rule was crushed only in 1603, an event that marked the end of an independent Ireland for three hundred years. Scotland, to the far north, was a separate and generally unfriendly kingdom with strong ties to France until James VI of Scotland became James I of England. His accession to the English throne in 1603 began a process that would end with the complete union of the two kingdoms in 1707. There were also more remote regions to consider: England's colonization of the Americas began under Elizabeth I, progressed under James I, and allowed the English to think of themselves as an imperial power.
Writing history offered a way to reinforce the developing sense of nationhood, a project that was all the more appealing after the creation of an English church and the beginnings of a British empire. Medieval historians had concentrated on the actions of ambitious men and women whose lives reflected their good or bad qualities; early modern historians wrote about events and their manifold causes. William Camden's Britannia and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (the source for many of Shakespeare's plays) celebrate the deeds and the character of the early peoples of the British Isles, including the ancient origins of the English kingdom, its exemplars of heroism and villainy, its struggle for unity realized under the Tudors, and the sturdy resistance of its subjects to absolute monarchic power. The land itself became the subject of comment: William Harrison wrote a description of the English counties (included in Holinshed), and John Stow surveyed the neighborhoods of London; Michael Drayton, a Stuart poet, wrote a mythopoetic account of England's towns and countryside entitled Poly-Olbion; and Richard Hakluyt's collection of travel histories, The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, reported in magnificent detail the exploration of the New World. Accounts of this wild and fruitful land fired the imaginations of English readers, who, it was hoped, would decide to promote and even participate in the laborious task of colonization. Describing landfall on the coast of Virginia, Arthur Barlow wrote:
we found shoal water, where we smelled so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kind of odoriferous flowers....I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found. And my selfe having seen those parts of Europe that most abound, find such difference as were incredible to be written.
All these works comprising history, the description of various regions, and reports of travel have been loosely described as epic, but none of them conforms to the genre as contemporary poetics represented itexpressing heroic grandeur not only in action but also in the musical verse form and elevated language of the epic tradition.
The masterpieces of the early modern English epic are Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Spenser imitated continental models to create an English Protestant epic-romance, an optimistic projection of Elizabethan culture. The realities of Elizabeth I's reign, though far from the poet's vision of things, were nonetheless very impressive. England's cities had grown to be centers of commerce, her navy controlled the principal routes of trade, and her people pursued lucrative interests in Europe and the Americas, successfully resisting Spanish efforts to dominate world settlement and trade. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the bold explorations of such men as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh testified to the nation's seafaring power. In the figures of his poem, Spenser embodied the energies producing this expansive growth. His virtuous knights overcome monstrous threats to order, peace, and tranquillity. Aspects of the queen's own genius are reflected in his heroines. Like the warrior maiden Britomart, Elizabeth I assumed a martial character when England was in danger from abroad; like his Queen Mercilla, she could be gracious to her enemies; like the virgin Una, she stood for what the poet and most of his readers believed was the one true faith: Protestantism. And like Spenser's enigmatic and distant Queen Gloriana, the Faerie Queene of the title, Elizabeth exercised her authority and power in unpredictable ways: secrecy and dissimulation were her stock in trade. To her subjects, her majesty was awful and sometimes terrifying. But she was also mortal, and at her death, few could have foreseen the new and divided nation that came into being with the accession of James I. The new king was greeted with mixed feelings: on the one hand, his claim to the throne was not disputed; on the other hand, he came from Scotland, long an enemy of England and always the source of anxiety to those who sought dominion over the British Isles as a whole. Although he was educated by the humanist George Buchanan, whose treatises praising republican government were widely known and read, James favored absolute rule and believed that a monarch should be lex loquens, the living spirit of the law, beyond the control of Parliament and indifferent to the rights of his subjects. His personal conduct appeared to be dubious: his critics represented him as frequently unkempt and claimed that he preferred to hunt deer rather than to take charge of matters of state. Disputes with the House of Commons over money to support the Crown's activities were frequent. Reports of intrigue with Catholic Spain shattered the nation's sense of security; an attempt in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament, revealed as the Gunpowder Plot, caused a near panic. These and other kinds of unrest grew more intense when James's heir, Charles I, proved to be even more autocratic than his father. Charles's queen, Henrietta Maria, the daughter of Henry IV of France, was a Catholic, and it was rumored that she was treacherous. Religious controversy raged throughout the British Isles, and the struggle over the authority and power of the monarch culminated in a series of bloody civil wars. Across England and Scotland, forces loyal the king fought the army of Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan Member of the Commons. The war, which lasted from 1642 to 1651, ended with the defeat of the royalists.
In 1649, Charles I was captured and executed by order of Parliament, and England began to be governed as a republic. She was no longer a kingdom but a Commonwealth, and this period in her history is known as the Interregnum, the period between kingdoms. The long-advocated change, now a reality, could hardly have begun in a more shocking way. The monarchy had always been regarded as a sacred office and institution, as Shakespeare's Richard II had said:
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
But in the course of half a century, the people had proved themselves to be a sovereign power, and it was politically irrelevant that Charles, on the block, exemplified regal self-control. As the Parliamentarian poet Andrew Marvell later wrote of the king's execution:
He nothing common did or mean
The conflict itself, its causes, and its outcome have been variously interpreted. As a revolution in government, it was defined by common lawyers, energized by Puritan enthusiasm, and motivated by widespread hatred of Stuart autocracy. As a religious and cultural struggle, it has been described as the War of Three Kingdoms, comprising the resistance of Scots Presbyterians and Irish Catholics to the centralizing control of the English church and government. But whatever its historical character, the Civil War marked England's transition to a society in which the absolute rule of a monarch was no longer a possibility. The people themselves had acquired a political voice. To some extent, this was a religious voice: Puritans who professed a belief in congregational church government were generally proponents of republican rule. Their dedication to the ideal of a society of equals under the law was shared by men and women of other sects: the Levellers, led by John Lilburne, who argued for a written constitution, universal manhood suffrage, and religious toleration; the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, who proposed to institute a communistic society in the wastelands they were ploughing and cultivating; the Quakers, led by George Fox, who rejected all forms of church order in deference to the inner light of an individual conscience and, insisting on social equality, refused to take off their hats before gentry or nobility; and the Ranters, who denied the authority of Scripture and saw God everywhere in nature. Without widespread acceptance of the egalitarian concept that had initiated the Protestant reformationall believers are members of a real though invisible priesthoodit is hard to see how the move from a monarchy to a representative and republican government could have taken place.
The most comprehensive contemporary history of the Civil War, The True Historical Narrative of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, was not published before 1704, but the troubled period found an oblique commentary in what is arguably England's greatest and certainly most humanistic epic poem: Milton's Paradise Lost, in print by 1667. Milton's career was inextricably bound up with the fate of the Commonwealth. Educated at Cambridge and with his reputation as a poet well established, Milton had begun to contribute to a defense of Puritanism and the creation of a republican government by 1649. Despite worsening eyesight, he published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a sustained and eloquent apology for tyrannicide, after the execution of Charles I; and in his Eikonoklastes ("image-breaker"), written after he was made Latin secretary to the new executive, the Council of State, Milton derided attempts by royalists to celebrate Charles I in their pamphlet Eikon Basilike ("image of a king"). In 1660, disturbed by the proposed restoration of Charles Stuart, soon to be Charles II, Miltonnow completely blindpublished his last political treatise, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Commonwealth. It represented the case for a republicanism that had already lost most of its popularity: the government of the Commonwealth had adopted measures that resembled the autocratic rule of the monarchy it had overthrown. Meanwhile, the composition of Paradise Lost was underway. Indebted to many of Spenser's themes in The Faerie Queene, Milton infused his subjectthe fall of the rebellious angels and the exile from paradise of the disobedient Adam and Evewith the spirit of the account in Genesis. His poem is the product of a doubly dark vision of life. Sightless and suffering again what he felt were the constraints of a monarchy, Milton shaped his story of exile from Paradise to speak of his own and England's loss of innocence and painful acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil during the Civil War, the Interregnum, and the Restoration. His Paradise Lost and its sequel, Paradise Regained, are poems that express the most provocative ambiguities of contemporary English culture; they wereand still arepraised as rivaling the epics of Homer, Virgil, and Dante in their power and scope.