After more than four decades on the throne, Elizabeth I died in 1603. James VI of Scotland succeeded her without the attempted coups that many had feared. Writers jubilantly noted that the new ruler had literary inclinations. Yet both in his literary works and on the throne James expounded authoritarian theories of kingship that seemed incompatible with the English tradition of "mixed" government. Kings, James believed, derived their power from God rather than from the people. James was notorious for his financial heedlessness, and his disturbing tendency to bestow high office on good-looking male favorites. The period had complex attitudes to same-sex relationships, and James’s susceptibility to lovely, expensive youths was seen as more a political than a moral calamity. Yet James was successful in keeping England out of European wars, and encouraging colonial projects in the New World and economic growth at home. The most important religious event of James’s reign was a newly commissioned translation of the Bible.
Political and religious tensions intensified under James’s son, Charles I, who succeeded to the throne in 1625. Between 1629 and 1638, Charles attempted to rule without Parliament. Charles married the French princess Henrietta Maria, who promoted a conversion back to Catholicism. The appointment of William Laud as the archbishop of Canterbury further alienated Puritans, as Laud aligned the doctrine and ceremonies of the English church with Roman Catholicism. In 1642 a Civil War broke out between the king’s forces and armies loyal to the House of Commons. The conflict ended with Charles’s defeat and beheading in 1649. In the 1650s, as “Lord Protector,” Oliver Cromwell wielded power nearly as autocratically as Charles had done. In 1660, Parliament invited the old king’s son, Charles II, home from exile. Yet the twenty-year period between 1640 and 1660 had seen the emergence of concepts that would remain central to bourgeois thought for centuries to come: religious toleration, separation of church and state, freedom from press censorship, and popular sovereignty. Among the more radical voices to emerge in the period were those of Roger Williams, who advocated religious toleration, the Leveller, John Lilburne, who advocated universal male suffrage, and the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, who advocated Christian communism.
Early seventeenth-century writers such as John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Robert Burton inherited a system of knowledge founded on analogy, order, and hierarchy. In this system, a monarch was like God, the ruler of the universe, and also like a father, the head of the family. Yet this conceptual system was beginning to crumble in the face of the scientific and empirical approach to knowledge advocated by Francis Bacon. William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood and Galileo’s demonstration that the earth revolved around the sun disrupted long-held certainties. As ideas changed, so did the conditions of their dissemination. Although elite poets like John Donne often preferred to circulate their works in manuscript, the printing of all kinds of literary works was becoming more common. Printers and acting companies were obliged to submit works to the censor before public presentation, and those who flouted the censorship laws were subject to heavy punishment. Since overt criticism or satire of the great was dangerous, political writing before the Civil War was apt to be oblique and allegorical.
In the early seventeenth century, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert led the shift towards “new” poetic genres. These included classical elegy and satire, epigram, verse epistle, meditative religious lyric, and the country-house poem. Jonson distinguished himself as an acute observer of urban manners. He mentored a group of younger poets, including Herrick and Carew, known as the Tribe or Sons of Ben. Donne’s poetry concerns itself not with a crowded social panorama, but with a dyad—the speaker and either a woman, or God. Donne delights in making the overlap between sexual and religious love seem new and shocking, and he has been regarded as a founder of “Metaphysical” poetry. Among the “Metaphysical poets” Herbert, with his complex religious sensibility wedded to great artistic sensibility, had a profound influence on younger poets like Crashaw and Vaughan. The reigns of the first two Stuart kings also marked the entry of women in some numbers into authorship and publication.
The Civil War was disastrous for the English theater, with the closure of the playhouses in 1642. Many leading poets were staunch royalists, or Cavaliers, who suffered heavily in the war years. Yet two of the best writers of the period, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, sided with the republic. Marvell’s conflictual world-view is unmistakably a product of the Civil War decades. Milton’s loyalty to the revolution remained unwavering despite his disillusion when it failed to realize his ideals. The revolutionary era also gave new impetus to women’s writing on both sides of the political divide.