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The English renaissance - historical and cultural background

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  1. Introduction
  2. The tudors
  3. Henry VII (1485-1509)
  4. Henry VIII (1509-1547)
  5. Edward VI (1547-1553)
  6. Mary I (1553-1558)
  7. Elizabeth I (1558-1603)
  8. Renaissance in England
  9. Conclusion

In 1485, Henry Tudor won the battle of Bosworth against Richard III, becoming Henry VII, the founder of one of the greatest dynasties of English history. His victory marked the end of the civil war between the noble houses of York and Lancaster known as the War of the Roses (1455-1485). To reinforce his position on the throne, the newly-risen king, who strongly believed in the political benefits of dynastic marriages, married, in 1486, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. Henry VII turned out to be a cautious and thrifty politician, trusting nobody, and concerned, above all, about reinforcing the centralized national state. That is why, he created the Court of Star Chamber, a new institution developed out of a judicial committee of the King's Council; he protected the interests of the rising bourgeoisie and of the new nobility (instead of those of the ?old' noble houses) and created the merchant fleet. The ensuing economic development and political stability at home caused literacy to extend among the people at large: reading and writing ceased to be the monopoly of the clergy, and prosperous towns founded grammar schools with the material support of the local authorities.

[...] With its spirit of inquiry and its vision of the ancient freedom of Greek and Roman thought, the Renaissance was transplanted, in early sixteenth century, from the continent to bloom afresh in England. The interest in classical learning in England was boosted by private donations of ancient manuscripts to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. ?William Grocyn, the first teacher of Oxford, Thomas Linacre, who taught Greek to Erasmus and Thomas Morus, John Colet, the founder of St-Paul's School, the first English secondary school devoted to the New Learning, established the teaching of Greek on sound principles and wrote grammatical works and translations? (Gavriliu, 2000: 72-3). [...]

[...] The first half of the century witnessed the revival of lyrical poetry through the introduction of the sonnet (Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard), the rise of the secular drama (the early comedies and tragedies) and the emergence of urbane prose (Sir Thomas Morus). Moreover, the second half of the century, and particularly its final decades, brought about an unprecedented surge of creativity, especially in poetry and drama writing: In the brief space of some ten to fifteen years, what had been until then an essentially imitative literature looking towards the continent for its models came suddenly into its own, and the poetry of Sidney and Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare not only projected England to the forefront of the European scene, but set new standards against which the drama and poetry of future generations would be judged. [...]

[...] In 1489, by the Treaty of Medina del Campo, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon and Henry VII's eldest son Arthur were to be betrothed. The two would get married in 1501, but their marital ?bliss' would be abruptly interrupted by Arthur's untimely death in 1502. As in 1496 England joined the Holy League against France, the English king sought to maintain the ?bond' with Spain by having Catherine of Aragon betrothed to Prince Henry, his second son and the future king of England. [...]

[...] It is true, however, that the queen managed to wisely keep England free from the bloody religious wars that were tearing France apart. (In 1561, a treaty was signed at Hampton Court pledging Elizabeth's support of the persecuted French Huguenots.) But the split between Protestants and Catholics deepened and would lead, in the long run, to several attempts on the queen's life. A shrewd and cautious politician (like her grandfather Henry VII), Elizabeth I mistrusted the old aristocracy, relied on new men like Sir William Cecil (ennobled as Lord Burghley in 1571, who remained the queen's chief advisor for most of her reign) and Sir Francis Walsingham (the queen's ?spymaster' and Principal Secretary of State from 1573) and she fiercely defended her throne. [...]

[...] (See also Gavriliu, 2000: 80-84 and Guy and Morrill, 1992: 45-70) As it can be seen from the above presentation of the most important achievements and failures of the Tudors, life in England during the sixteenth century was not always and for all English subjects ?prosperous': the rise of England's national self-confidence and the growth of its economic and military power were incontestable, but, as suggested by Murray Roston, there were also less ?attractive' aspects. The life style of the middle classes, in particular, improved to a certain extent, but poverty, pushing people to vagrancy and pillaging, remained a major problem. Writers, especially, benefited very little from the economic boom of the Elizabethan period and most of them struggled desperately against financial privation (1982: 2). [...]

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