Medieval to Modern
The period 1500 to 1750 was one of great change in Britain. The end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the early modern period saw the emergence of many of the features of the United Kingdom that we know today. Historian Barry Coward sums it up: 'The Reformation of the 16th century shaped the Christian religion in this country. The system of government developed out of revolutions in the 17th century. The United Kingdom itself evolved, stage by stage, to become a single state in the 18th century.'
The period is not just about religion and politics; it is also about people. As Barry Coward says, 'Great characters like Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I stand out in the 16th century, along with committed religious campaigners like William Tyndale.
Complex characters like Charles I and Oliver Cromwell shaped the history of the 17th century, together with controversial characters like William of Orange. All of these people have left us their letters, their speeches, their Acts of Parliament, their portraits, and of course their critics'. Without this evidence we would know nothing about them and this project would not have been possible!
In the early 16th century there was no such place as Britain. Historian Barry Coward again: 'Wales was joined with England in the 1530s. The Scots agreed to join a United Kingdom in 1707, although the decision was not popular with many Scots. By this time too, after a long period of brutal violence, Ireland came under England's control'.Letters, reports and other documents allow historians to piece together the talks, wars and treaties which created the United Kingdom.
Between 1500 and 1750 government changed dramatically.'In 1500 Kings and Queens ruled as well as reigned. They made decisions without talking to Parliament. They were the government of the country.' Today we have their proclamations, coins, paintings and even notes from their meetings to help us to understand how they ruled.
Two and a half centuries later, rule by the monarch alone was a thing of the past. Monarchs were still important but they ruled together with Parliament.Broadsheets, speeches, ballads and many other sources tell of the rise of Parliament and the reduction of the power of the monarchy. 'Central government became much more developed, with administration more like ours today than the system of loyal servants in 1500.'
In 1500 almost everyone in Britain was a Roman Catholic. If you disagreed with the Church you risked prison, torture and even execution. Yet by 1750 this situation was completely different. 'The country was officially Protestant and the head of the church was the monarch, not the Pope. Also, by this time far fewer people were punished for their religious views'.This dramatic change is well documented through the words of the major campaigners, the records of government action and the crumbling remains of once-magnificent monasteries around the country.
A Britain of Contrasts
Of course, the history of this period is not just about Parliament, religion and wars. As we do today, most people just lived their daily lives. 'There were great contrasts in society. While the rich feasted, beggars were chased out of town for being lazy scroungers. Towns, especially London, grew rich on trade and commerce, but in the 17th century the capital was devastated by fire and plague.'
Culture and Society
The cultural life of Britain in these 250 years was extremely rich. Art, architecture, literature and music all flourished. The first news pamphlet appeared in 1513 with an eye-witness account of a battle. The new technology of printing meant that ideas and news spread more rapidly and ordinary people were better informed than ever before.
So, by 1750 a modern country was developing. The great changes within Britain affected the rest of the world. Between 1750 and 1900 the United Kingdom would have the first industrial revolution and carve out a vast empire.
Barry Coward concludes that 'from being a small country on the edge of Europe in 1500 Britain had emerged as a superpower by the middle of the 18th century.'