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Big Idea Overview and Resources

Big Idea 1: Puritanism and the Civil War
Big Idea 2: The Restoration
Big Idea 3: The English Enlightenment and Neoclassicism

Big Idea 1: Puritanism and the Civil War


The Royalists and the Puritans both believed that all authority came from God. However, the disagreement between these two groups about how God’s authority showed itself in the world led to a violent civil war

Puritanism was a radical form of Calvinistic Protestantism, and its followers acknowledged only the “pure” word of God in biblical interpretations. Puritans also believed that eliminating Catholic doctrines and rites would lead to the purification of the Church of England. Puritan thinkers embraced a liberal, balanced political stance that tempered religious intolerance. Puritans such as John Milton valued civil liberties and were passionate about defending their beliefs.

Puritans and other nonconformists—Protestants who did not conform to the rites of the official Church of England—had made life difficult for the monarchy ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. King James I, who attempted to establish closer ties with Catholic Spain, battled regularly with Parliament and the House of Commons, with its large Puritan contingent. This divisiveness led to questions over authority and ultimately war between the Royalist and Parliamentary forces.

Royalist forces, or those who sided with the monarchy, were victorious at the beginning of the war. However, the Parliamentary army became stronger under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. In June 1645, Cromwell led the Parliamentarians to victory in the Battle of Naseby. The king was tried for treason in 1649 and condemned to death, and the Parliamentarians gained control.

Cromwell was a complex leader who was both admired and hated. He preached and practiced religious tolerance for all except Catholics. Under his rule, any artifact associated with Catholicism was destroyed. The economy was stable, but music and theater were banned. Some consider Cromwell’s government a military dicatorship. After his death in 1658, the monarchy regained power, and Charles II returned to rule in May 1660.

Web Resources

John Milton & Seventeenth-Century Culture
This Web site contains information about the life of poet John Milton, covering his early years, his role in the English civil war, and the writing of his masterpiece Paradise Lost.

Church and State Monarchs and Leaders: Oliver Cromwell
This Web site provides biographical information about Oliver Cromwell, expanding on his roles as Parliament member, statesmen, ruler, and soldier.

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Big Idea 2: The Restoration


After twenty years of turmoil, England was ripe for a return to better times. People welcomed King Charles II with open arms as he traveled through England to reclaim his throne. Writers and artists who previously had enjoyed the support of the monarch for their efforts also looked forward to his restoration. John Dryden, a young poet who earlier had contributed work to a memorial volume for Oliver Cromwell, now wrote poems in celebration of the king. Dryden became England’s first official poet laureate in 1668.

Charles II was known as “the merry monarch.” He was good natured and enjoyed pleasures of all kinds. He brought joy back into the lives of his subjects, whose existence had become dreary under restrictive Puritan rule. Holiday celebrations, horse racing, betting, music, and theater returned. Restoration dramas—bawdy, witty, and amoral—became wildly popular. The plays, which reflected cynical frivolity in matters of love and money, became even more scandalous when women appeared on stage for the first time. During this era, prolific playwright Aphra Behn became first woman in England to make her living as a professional writer.

This new age of irreverence and immorality did not sit well with the Puritans, who perhaps viewed the bubonic plague outbreak in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 as retribution from God. The plague, which primarily affected the poor, likely killed more than 100,000 people. The Great Fire affected rich and poor alike and destroyed most of old London. The king took a vigorous interest in rebuilding the city in fire-resistant stone, and he gave primary responsibility to Sir Christopher Wren for executing his plan. Wren, an astronomer, proved to be England’s greatest civic architect.

Web Resources

Charles II and the Restoration of the Monarchy 1660
This Web site features a time line of events in British history, including links to information about historical events that occurred during the Restoration.

Kings and Queens of the Royal Kingdom (from 1603): The Stuarts
This Web site contains information about the rule of Charles II, in addition to a link about the Stuart dynasty, which reigned in England from 1603 to 1714.

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Big Idea 3: The English Enlightenment and Neoclassicism


Many eighteenth-century intellectuals were Deists, or people who did not believe in God in the context of supernatural revelation or the teachings of the church. Rather, Deists base their belief in God on reason and observation and use these means to study the laws that govern the physical universe. Known as Enlightenment, this movement brought the Western world into a new age of creative scientific inquiry and intellectual freedom.

A group of “natural philosophers” known as the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge were granted a charter by Charles II after his return to the throne. The group, inspired by Francis Bacon’s inductive approach to knowledge, studied nature with an emphasis on observation and experimentation and counted Isaac Newton among its members. The society started one of the first scientific journals, Philosophical Transactions, a publication whose style still continues to influence English prose today, particularly in the fields of science, philosophy, and journalism.

Philosophers and poets joined scientists in their study of universal laws of nature. Also believing nature to be rational, orderly, and governed by natural laws, poets decided that the purpose of art was to imitate nature.

Eighteenth-century writers began to apply the norms of classical Greek and Roman literature to their own work. Neoclassical writers looked to ancient texts, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, for natural laws that govern why audiences laugh at comedy and cry in response to tragedy.

In his satire The Battle of the Books, Jonathan Swift brought the conflict between ancients and moderns to life. At the end, characters such as Homer and Aristotle are battling Dryden and Milton. Some writers believed that satire could encourage people to improve their behavior by pointing out human vices and faults.

Web Resources

Neoclassicism: An Introduction
The Victorian Web introduces the English Neoclassical movement and features links to an overview of the eighteenth century, in addition to information on the lives and careers of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

The Royal Society
This Web site provides a historical overview of the Royal Society of London and features links to biographies of early members, such as Christopher Wren.

NOW with Bill Moyers: Who’s Laughing Now? American Political Satire
This Web site features links to information about well-known political satirists, including Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers.

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