Social History of England - 17th Century

17th Century

England was wracked by civil war over religious issues. Prosperity generally continued in both rural areas and the growing towns, as well as the great metropolis of London.

The English civil war was far from just a conflict between two religious faiths, and indeed it had much more to do with divisions within the one Protestant religion. The austere, fundamentalist Puritanism on the one side was opposed to what it saw as the crypto-Catholic decadence of the Anglican church on the other. Divisions also formed along the lines of the common people and the gentry, and between the country and city dwellers. It was a conflict that was bound to disturb all parts of society, and a frequent slogan of the time was "the world turned upside down".

In 1660 the Restoration was a quick transition back to the high church Stuarts. Public opinion reacted against the puritanism of the Puritans, such as the banning of traditional pastimes of gambling, cockfights, the theatre and even Christmas celebrations. The arrival of Charles II—The Merry Monarch—brought a relief from the warlike and then strict society that people had lived in for several years. The theatre returned, along with expensive fashions such as the periwig and even more expensive commodities from overseas. The British Empire grew rapidly after 1600, and along with wealth returning to the country, expensive luxury items were also appearing. Sugar and coffee from the East Indies, tea from India and slaves (brought from Africa to the sugar colonies, along with some enslaved servants in England itself) formed the backbone of imperial trade.

One in nine Englishmen lived in London near the end of the Stuart period. However plagues were even more deadly in a crowded city—the only remedy was to move to isolated rural areas, as Isaac Newton of Cambridge University did in 1664-66 as the Great Plague of London killed as many as 100,000 Londoners. The fast-growing metropolis was the center of politics, high society and business. As a major port and hub of trade, goods from all over were for sale. Coffee houses were becoming the centres of business and social life, and it has also been suggested that tea might have played its own part in making Britain powerful, as the antiseptic qualities of tea allowed people to live closer together, protecting them from germs, and making the Industrial Revolution possible. These products can be considered as beginning the consumer society which, while it promoted trade and brought development and riches to society.

The King James Bible became a major influence on English literature, language and thought for centuries to come. Newspapers, were new and soon became important tools of social discourse and the diarists of the time such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn are some of the best sources we have of everyday life in Restoration England.

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