British Renaissance and Reformation
Learn about the British Renaissance and Reformation, a period of England’s history marked by cultural renewal and religious turmoil as the country emerged from the medieval period. Scholars debate when the Renaissance in England began, with some pinpointing the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485, while others suggest it didn’t begin until the mid-1500s. The end of the period is also subject to debate, although many scholars pinpoint the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603—which ushered in the Stuart kings and the religious wars that occurred during their reigns—as an event that kick-started the transition out of the Renaissance in England.
Known as the Early Modern period, it was a time when the island nation embraced the cultural renewal that had begun nearly two centuries earlier in Italy, which in England manifested most prominently in its tremendous output of literature and drama. Playwright William Shakespeare, who was active between 1589 and 1613, is Renaissance England’s most famous author, but there were many important English authors working at this time, including fellow playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and poets John Donne, John Milton, and Edmund Spenser. England also produced important thinkers during the English Renaissance, such as Francis Bacon, whose ideas would be critical to the development of the scientific method, and Thomas More, whose book Utopia would be influential in the development of communism.
Advancements during this period weren’t limited to just ideas and literary works. New navigation technologies permitted England to join Spain and Portugal in exploring the world in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the most famous of English explorers being Francis Drake. This exploration led to the start of what would become the mighty British Empire, with the establishment of England’s first colony in the New World: the island of Newfoundland in 1583. As England’s maritime power grew, so did its trade power. The East India Company, which was chartered in 1600, would become the most powerful trading company in the world. English merchant activities across the globe included trafficking in African slaves, beginning in 1562.
This era was also marked by the Reformation, a religious revolution that challenged the Catholic Church’s authority in Europe, resulting in the establishment of Protestantism. The Reformation in England climaxed when King Henry VIII reacted to the Pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment of his marriage by establishing the Anglican Church with himself as the head in 1534. The Protestant faith would be further cemented during the brief reign of Henry’s successor, Edward VI (1547–1553), but came under attack by the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553–1558), who was able to reestablish Catholicism as England’s dominant faith. Following Mary’s death in 1558, her half-sister, Elizabeth, succeeded to the throne and gradually restored Protestantism as the dominant religion of her domain.