After more than four decades on the throne, Elizabeth I died in 1603. James VI of Scotland succeeded her, becoming James I and establishing the Stuart dynasty. Unlike Elizabeth I, who managed a "mixed" government of Monarch, Lords, and Commons, James I advocated the divine rights of the kings as God's deputies and fathers of their people. By comparison with Elizabeth's, James's court was disorderly, indecorous, and in constant financial crisis. At court, same-sex expressions of love suffused with eroticism were common, inspiring rumors of homosexual activities. Religion became a means of maintaining social and political order, and King James sponsored an English translation of the Christian version of the Bible. James I was succeeded by Charles I, who ruled with consistency and inflexibility. He dissolved Parliament on three occasions, governing through a much-hated cabinet council. Charles I married the French princess Henrietta Maria, who promoted a conversion back to Catholicism. The appointment of William Laud as the archbishop of Canterbury allowed for the rapid growth of a high-Anglican faction within the church whose ceremony, ritual, and doctrine more closely resembled Roman Catholicism.

The court was an important site of literary activity. Queen Anne helped give prominence and a distinctive form to the masque, traditionally presented at Christmastide. The customary end to court masques included the masquers unmasking themselves and dancing with the other courtiers, symbolizing the fusion of the ideal world and the Stuart court. Beyond the court, noble families patronized poets and playwrights. The interrelated Sidneys at Penshurst and Herberts at Wilton were particularly prominent in patronage. The church also promoted writing. London became an important center for civic entertainments, bookselling, and theater. Major playwrights of the period include William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Samuel Webster; Ben Jonson, along with John Donne and George Herbert, was also a major poet. The Jacobean era saw the publication of works by female authors, such as Dorothy Leigh, Rachel Speght, Aemilia Lanyer, Lady Mary Wroth, and Elizabeth Cary (Lady Falkland).

Convened in 1640, the "Long Parliament" inspired a revolution and the king's execution. The Parliament's objects, however, were to abolish extra-legal taxes and courts, secure and expand its rights in the face of the king's absolutism, bring to trial the king's hated ministers, Strafford and Laud, rein in the bishop's power, and remain in session until they themselves agreed to disband. Charles I was beheaded on 27 January 1649, accused of being a "Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and Public Enemy." The Scots and Irish immediately declared his exiled son as Charles II and gathered armies to invade England. Charles II, however, did not arrive in England until 1660. In the interim, Oliver Cromwell had served as Protector under England's first written constitution.

One of the first acts of Parliament after 1642 was the abolishment of public sports and staged plays, which were considered unsuitable to the tumultuous period. Although London theaters were closed, dramatic literature continued to be published. Cavalier poets, often living in exile, wrote volumes of poetry celebrating royalist culture, courtly ideals of the good life, and loyalty to the king, emphasizing themes of carpe diem, friendship, hospitality, and retirement. Thomas Hobbes, living in exile in Paris, wrote his materialist philosophy and psychology, critique of language, and Leviathan, his analysis and defense of absolute and indivisible sovereignty based on social contract. The omnipotent prose genre of the revolutionary era was the polemic tract, addressing all aspects of religious, social, and political controversies.

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