The Restoration and the eighteenth century brought vast changes to the island of Great Britain, which became a single nation after 1707. The national population nearly doubled in the period, reaching ten million. Change came most dramatically to cities: in London, new theaters, coffeehouses, concert halls, pleasure gardens, picture exhibitions and shopping districts gave life a feeling of bustle and friction. Civil society also linked people to an increasingly global economy, as they shopped for diverse goods from around the world.
The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought hope to a divided nation, but no political settlement could be stable until religious issues had been resolved. In the 1660s, parliament reimposed the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and barred Nonconformists from holding religious meetings outside of the established church. The jails were filled with preachers like John Bunyan who refused to be silenced. A series of religion-fuelled crises forced Charles to dissolve Parliament, and led to the division of the country between two new political parties: Tories, who supported the king, and the Whigs, the king’s opponents. Neither party proved able to live with the Catholic James II, who came to the throne in 1685 and was soon accused of filling the government and army with his coreligionists. Secret negotiations paved the way for the Dutchman William of Orange, a champion of Protestantism and the husband of James’s Protestant daughter Mary. For more than half a century some loyal Jacobites (from Latin Jacobus, James), especially in Scotland, continued to support the deposed James II and his heirs. Nonetheless, the coming of William and Mary in 1688—the so-called Glorious Revolution—came to be seen as the beginning of a stabilized, unified Great Britain. The 1689 Bill of Rights limited the powers of the Crown and reaffirmed the supremacy of Parliament, while the Toleration Act of the same year granted a limited freedom of worship to Dissenters (though not to Catholics or Jews).
In the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), England and its allies defeated France and Spain. As these commercial rivals were weakened and war gains including new colonies flowed in, the Whig lords and London merchants supporting the war grew rich. In the eighteenth century, the Whigs generally stood for the new “moneyed interest,” while the Tories stood for tradition, affirming landownership as the proper basis of wealth, power and privilege. The long reign of George III (1760-1820) saw both the emergence of Britain as a colonial power and the cry for a new social order based on liberty and radical reform. The wealth brought to England by industrialism and foreign trade had not spread to the great mass of the poor. New forms of religious devotion sprang up amid Britain’s material success. The campaign to abolish slavery and the slave trade was driven largely by a passion to save souls.
Following the Restoration, French and Italian musicians, as well as painters from the Low Countries, migrated to England, contributing to a revolution in aesthetic tastes. The same period witnessed the triumph of the scientific revolution; Charles II chartered the Royal Society for the Improving of Human Knowledge in 1662. Encounters with little known societies in the Far East, Africa, and the Americas enlarged Europeans’ understanding of human norms. The widespread devotion to direct observation of experience established empiricism, as employed by John Locke, as the dominant intellectual attitude of the age. Yet perhaps the most momentous new intellectual movement was a powerful strain of feminism, championed by Mary Astell. The old hierarchical system had tended to subordinate individuals to their social rank or station. By the end of the eighteenth century many issues of politics and the law had come to revolve around rights, rather than traditions.
Publishing boomed in eighteenth-century Britain, in part because of a loosening of legal restraints on printing. The rise in literacy was also a factor; by the end of the eighteenth century 60-70 percent of men could read, with a smaller but still significant percentage of women. The literary market began to sustain the first true professional class of authors in British history. Aphra Behn was the first woman to make her living from writing, though she and successors like Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood were denounced for their scandalous works and lives.
The literature appearing between 1660 and 1785 divides conveniently into three lesser periods of about forty years each. The first, extending to the death of Dryden in 1700 is characterized by an effort to bring a new refinement to English literature according to sound critical principles of what is fine and right. Poetry and prose come to be characterized by an easy, sociable style, while in the theater comedy is triumphant. The second period, ending with the deaths of Pope in 1744 and Swift in 1745, reaches out to a wider circle of readers, with special satirical attention to what is unfitting and wrong. Deeply conservative but also playful, the finest works of this brilliant generation of writers cast a strange light on modern times by viewing them through the screen of classical myths and forms. The third period, concluding with the death of Johnson in 1784 and the publication of Cowper’s The Task in 1785, confronts the old principles with revolutionary ideas that would come to the fore in the Romantic period. A respect for the good judgement of ordinary people, and for standards of taste and behavior independent of social status, marks many writers of the age. Throughout the larger period, what poets most tried to see and represent was nature, understood as the universal and permanent elements in human experience.