English Revolutions in the 17th Century: An Overview

This image depicts a grand coronation ceremony taking place in a large hall with Gothic architectural features, such as arched windows with tracery. The scene is filled with numerous figures dressed in period attire, suggesting a historical event. In the center, a couple is being crowned, likely the main subjects of the event, William of Orange and Mary, based on the file name. Onlookers are dressed in luxurious clothing of a bygone era, with women in gowns and men in military or court attire. The hall is adorned with a royal canopy and banners bearing heraldic symbols, emphasizing the formality and significance of the occasion. The atmosphere is solemn and ceremonial, with a sense of importance conveyed by the stately postures and attentive gazes of the assembled crowd. The painting is rendered in a realistic style with a rich palette and careful attention to detail, capturing the opulence and grandeur of the event.
The coronation of William of Orange and Mary II as monarchs of England, marking the end of the Glorious Revolution. Public domain painting by Charles Rochussen.

In the 17th century, England would experience a series of revolutions and political changes that gave rise to the country’s current political institutions. When the monarchs James I and Charles I, from the Stuart dynasty, attempted to exert more power over their subjects, their actions were promptly countered by social and political forces. A Puritan soldier, Oliver Cromwell, dethroned Charles I in the midst of the English Civil War, but then proceeded to institute an authoritarian regime not unlike that which had existed before. When Cromwell died, his son was unable to control the state, and he was replaced by King Charles II, who restored absolutist rule. Because he had no legitimate offspring, he was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II, much to the ire of the Puritans. By the end of the century, in the Glorious Revolution, upper- and middle-class politicians decided to offer the English crown to the Protestant rulers of the Netherlands. Thus, William of Orange and Mary II became co-monarchs of England, in a process that placed the power of the Parliament above that of the Monarchy.


During the 16th century, English monarchs asserted their power more and more. After winning the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), the Tudor dynasty rose to the throne and implemented absolutism in the country. These monarchs used to consult the Parliament when exercising their authority, but it was a mere formality — in fact, they did not shy away from dictating their wishes. King Henry VIII, for instance, forced the Church of England to sever ties with the Catholic Church, because he wanted to annul his first marriage and Pope Clement VII refused to do so. He was succeeded by Queen Mary I (the Bloody Mary), who attempted to reverse this religious split and thus aroused the wrath of English protestants. The English Reformation was confirmed by the subsequent queen, Elizabeth I, who also invested in increasing England’s naval power.

In 1603, the country was at a crossroads because Elizabeth I failed to produce an heir — because of this, she became known as the “Virgin Queen”. When she died, her closest relative, James I, ascended to the throne — marking the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Stuart dynasty.

Unlike the Tudors, James I was not satisfied with having royal power in practice, and having to defer to the Parliament as a matter of courtesy. Rather, he introduced a string of authoritarian measures: raising taxes on his own, interfering in free trade, engaging in a religious war against the Irish, suppressing Catholics and Puritans domestically, and dissolving both Legislative chambers. Unsurprisingly, his actions caused immediate dismay to politicians and to the population at large. There were three main conflicts within England at that time:

  • Political conflict: King James I wanted to centralize power, while the Parliament wanted to decentralize power.
  • Social conflict: The traditional nobility was favorable to the King, while the bourgeoise and the gentry was not.
  • Religious conflict: Under royal influence, the Church of England was increasingly adopting Protestant ideas, but it kept certain Catholic rituals. This placed the King at odds with both Puritans, who desired a non-Catholic church, and Catholics, who decried Protestant influences within it.

For some, life in England during the reign of James I was unbearable, and they emigrated to North America — these were the first settlers of the Thirteen Colonies. Meanwhile, others mounted a violent opposition to the King, for example, by joining the Gunpowder Plot (1605). It was a conspiracy of noble Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, who wanted to blow up the House of Lords while the monarch was there, then install his nine-year-old daughter as the new head of state. However, the authorities later learned about the plan, and it failed miserably — its main plotters, among which Guy Fawkes, were executed.

English Civil War (1642-1649)

In 1625, James I died and was replaced by his son, Charles I. He was an even more staunch advocate of absolutism than his father, and soon he implemented certain procedures that were widely despised:

  • He continued to persecute the Puritans, who kept migrating to America.
  • He increased taxes in order to finance private wars.
  • He intimidated congressmen and acted with total disregard to their power.
  • He treated Scotland with indifference, because the Puritan Scots were radicals, and viewed the King’s Church unfavorably.

The standoff between the King and the Parliament led to the passing of the Petition of Right (1628), in which parliamentarians reinforced that people had certain rights that must not be impinged on by the monarch. He was forbidden to levy duties without legislative consent, to detain people without a cause, and to billet soldiers in people’s homes without the owner’s authorization.

Yet Charles I continued to pursue policies that pitted him against his subjects. Because Puritan Scots felt neglected by the monarchy, they declared the independence of the region. In retaliation, the King asked the Parliament to mobilize the Army’s troops in order to fight against the rebels. Even though he lacked congressional approval, Charles I decided to launch an invasion of Scotland using his own private guards. The utter failure of this endeavor made him try to negotiate with the politicians one more time and, when that failed too, he carried out an attack against the parliament, trying to arrest its leaders. This was the catalyst for the English Civil War (1642-1649), fought by two sides:

  • Royalists: They supported the King and the Anglican Church, and their forces usually rode horses. Because of this and because of their attire, they were pejoratively named “Cavaliers” by their opponents.
  • Parliamentarians: They supported the Parliament and mostly supported the formation of a constitutional monarchy in England, what made them get the endorsement of the Puritans. Because they had short hair that was cut close to their heads, they became derisively known as the “Roundheads”.

A minority wing of the Parliamentarians, called the Independent Puritans, did not approve of keeping Charles I in power, even if his powers were to be constrained by a constitution, and they upheld freedom of religion for all faiths. They were led by Oliver Cromwell, a politician and a soldier that had had an undistinguished career thus far. Yet the tide was turning in their favor, because the first centrally-funded and professional military force in England was theirs: the New Model Army. Cromwell’s troops had adequate equipment and operated wherever they were needed — because of this, they won the conflict.

A portrait of a man with a solemn expression, featuring a 17th-century hairstyle with shoulder-length curls parting in the middle. He has a prominent nose, a small mouth, and wears a plain white collar over a dark, armoured outfit with a rounded shoulder plate reflecting light, indicating a metallic surface. The background is plain and dark, focusing attention on the subject. The painting style is realistic with fine details, particularly on the facial features and the texture of the armour.
A portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Public domain painting by Samuel Cooper.

Following the military victory, the Independent Puritans then turned to building a new government, above the ashes of the monarchy. Under the authority of Colonel Thomas Pride, they conducted a purge in the Parliament, expelling all politicians that rejected bringing Charles I to justice. Those who survived the purge formed the Rump Parliament — one that was entirely favorable to the provisional government. Cromwell himself oversaw the conviction of the King for high treason and commanded his execution by beheading. Finally, when all opposition was stifled and the old monarch was long gone, Cromwell then instituted the Commonwealth of England: an oligarchic republic.

Commonwealth of England (1649-1660)

The Commonwealth of England was born as an oligarchic republic, for it was controlled by a handful of elites. However, this changed in 1653, a few years after Oliver Cromwell rose to power. Cromwell mobilized the Army and disbanded the Barebone’s Parliament — the successor to the Rump Parliament and an attempt to stabilize the English political establishment. He was appointed Lord Protector and became a dictator in practice, because his office was for life and hereditary.

Cromwell’s government acted violently against all opponents:

  • It was ruthless against Catholics and Anglicans. However, it refrained from designating Puritanism as the official state religion — much to the chagrin of Puritans. Instead, Protestant faiths would be allowed freedom of religion.
  • It waged wars against Ireland and Scotland: The Irish Catholics refused to recognize the new regime, but English troops brutally reconquered the country. Soon after, the Scots rebelled because they loathed Cromwell’s interference in their affairs, including in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. They proclaimed Charles II, the son of the late Charles I, as King, but English troops succeeded in crushing this rebellion as well.
  • It vigorously repressed the activities of both Diggers and Levellers: The former were defenders of land reform and called themselves “true levellers”, while the latter espoused reforms that would bring about political equality.

The authoritarian tendencies of the government, nevertheless, should not obscure the fact that England prospered under Cromwell’s authority. Some of the highlights of the period were:

  • Greater trade freedom.
  • Advances in education: Cromwell inaugurated new schools, colleges and academies in which the sciences and technology took a precedence. This contrasted the religious control of educational entities in the past.
  • Navigation Acts: The government mandated that English products had to be transported only by English ships or by the ships of the buyers. In practical terms, these laws meant that English merchants would generally be paid both for the products they sold and for the freight costs.
  • Maritime expansion: Because of the capital inflow brought about by the Navigation Acts, England was able to foster a naval industry and a war navy.
  • Military victories against the Netherlands and Spain: Shipping companies from these countries resented the Navigation Acts, and trade disputes culminated in armed confrontations. The English won both the Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) and the First Anglo-Spanish War (1654–1660). Within the context of the latter, the English annexed Jamaica, then a Spanish colony.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died of natural causes and left behind his son, Richard Cromwell, in charge of the country. However, Richard was respected by neither the political establishment nor the military leadership. Given his lack of authority, he was unable to mediate strained relations between the Parliament and the Army. In April 1859, he bowed to military pressure and dissolved the Parliament, but congressmen soon regrouped. Afterwards, he acknowledged his inability to govern England and resigned in exchange for a pension.

After Richard’s ousting, Charles II profited from the power vacuum to issue the Declaration of Breda, pardoning all crimes that had been committed from the English Civil War up to that moment. Many politicians and military officers rallied in favor of this Declaration, in order to prevent chaos and lawlessness from prevailing. Consequently, Charles II was proclaimed the legitimate King of England since the death of his father — erasing the memory of Cromwell “as if the last nineteen years had never happened”, in the words of historian Tim Harris.

Stuart Restoration (1660-1688)

Charles II was restored to the throne under the promise that he would forgo despotic tendencies. Yet soon after his restoration, the King carried out certain actions intended to reassert his power. He ordered the exhumation of Oliver Cromwell’s body, so that it was subjected to a posthumous execution for high treason. Other bodies were exhumed and desecrated as well. In addition, he imprisoned many of those who had tried to kill him in the past. These measures cast a shadow over his reign’s future.

The King’s biggest disagreement with the Parliament was in terms of religious tolerance, for which he advocated, while parliamentarians did not. They enacted the Clarendon Code, intended to curb non-adherence to the Anglican Church, and Charles II acquiesced to them for a certain time. In 1672, he attempted to introduce religious freedom by decree, but was thwarted by the Parliament.

The English Parliament generally supported Charles II, but part of it had reservations about his Catholic brother, James II, who was next in line for succession. The lawmakers were split into two factions:

  • Tories: Mostly Conservative Catholics, who were favored by the King.
  • Whigs: Mostly Puritans who supported the Exclusion Bills, seeking to remove James II from the line of succession, and who feared that, by favoring Catholics, the King would soon find himself subservient to the Pope.

Charles II was vehemently opposed to preventing his brother from inheriting the Crown, and he became more and more authoritarian as a result of this. He oversaw the prosecution of many rivals and the seizure of their properties. Also, he intervened in the Judiciary by replacing judges and sheriffs at will, and by packing popular juries with his supporters, to ensure any convictions he wanted. However, the King passed away without leaving any descendants, besides his illegitimate offspring with mistresses, and James II acceded to the throne.

Glorious Revolution (1688)

From 1685 onwards, James II held the English Crown and he mostly maintained the policies of his late brother: absolutism and the favoring of Catholics. At first, the new monarch enjoyed widespread support in England, Scotland and Ireland. This can be partly explained by the supposed political stability ensured by royal power, or by the fact that his presumptive heir was Mary II, wife of William of Orange, the Dutch monarch — and both of them were of Protestant faith.

However, James II conceived a child with his Catholic second wife. The newborn displaced Mary II in the line of succession and carried the risk of consolidating a Catholic dynasty in England. This was deemed unacceptable by the Protestants, and they ultimately rose in revolt.

The Glorious Revolution is called as such because it was relatively bloodless. While the Dutch fought a war against the French, William of Orange concluded that he needed actual English support — rather than neutrality. Yet James II was not willing to go that far, and the Dutch monarch began to harbor reservations about him. His concern was the possibility of facing an Anglo-French alliance, even though he was assured that such an arrangement would not prosper. In order to forestall a potential English military initiative and to protect English Protestants, the Dutch mounted an invasion of England in November 1688.

This is a vibrant historical painting depicting the landing of William of Orange in England. The scene is bustling with activity and set against a backdrop of a cloudy sky and distant cliffs. Multiple sailing ships adorned with flags are anchored near the shore. In the foreground, a prominent boat filled with soldiers and a flag bearing a coat of arms approaches the beach. Other small boats are also making their way to land. Figures onshore, some on horseback, are actively welcoming the newcomers. The choppy waters of the sea and the dynamic poses of the people suggest the urgency and importance of the event. The artwork captures a significant moment with a sense of movement and anticipation.
The landing of William of Orange in the English county of Devon. Public domain painting by Hoynck van Papendrecht, J.

The invasion changed the balance of forces in England, because James II suddenly found himself in need of support from those he had alienated during his reign. In particular both the Puritans and the parliamentarians would demand significant concessions were they to help the King remain in power. William advanced into London while James II went into exile. Then, a group of upper- and middle-class politicians decided to offer the English Crown to both William and Mary. They accepted this offer and became co-monarchs of England.

Besides the change in the throne, the Glorious Revolution’s main achievement was placing the power of the Parliament above that of the monarch. To that effect, the Parliament soon approved some pieces of legislation:

  • Per the budget law, Treasury budget authorizations were limited to one-year periods, in order to prevent the government to operate without congressional oversight.
  • According to the Toleration Act, freedom of religion was guaranteed for all citizens — except those of Catholic or Unitary faith.
  • According to the Bill of Rights of 16 December, 1689, all citizens had a series of inalienable rights and monarchs had limited power.


The English Revolutions of the 17th century began with the struggle against the authoritarian practices of the Tudor dynasty, and ended with the ascension of William of Orange and Mary II to the English throne, with limited power. Over the course of the century, political divisions within the country were largely influenced by religious divisions — with Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants each promoting their own interests. Thanks to the Glorious Revolution, in particular, there emerged a clear alternative to the theory of the divine rights of kings — because William and Mary derived their legitimacy from parliamentary support. This development would later influence the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and many other social movements across the world.




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