|The years between 1625 and 1789 witnessed profound
changes in Britain, in terms of the exercise of authority and
the position of individuals in society. Constitutionally, this
period witnessed the transition from a monarchy based upon ideas
of Divine Right to a parliamentary system based upon notions
of accountable government. Politically, it saw the gradual emergence
of the popular press and of popular opinion as a force in public
life. Socially, it was a period marked by the sweeping away
of the remnants of feudal society, and the development of new
industries and new centres of population growth, which were
relatively free from traditional forms of influence and power.
So far as religion was concerned, it involved negotiating the
implications of the Reformation and confronting a variety of
beliefs and forms of worship. In all of these areas, questions
of citizenship proved vital.
The Petition of Right, 1628
(349k) | Transcript
Making England a republic, 1649
(131k) | Transcript
Asserting parliamentary power
Central to such changes was the challenge to the authority
of the monarch by Parliament. It was felt that an imbalance
existed between the Crown and Westminster; and that thanks
to taking advice from 'evil' counsellors, instead of the Commons
and the Lords, Charles I was pursuing unwelcome policies.
As a result, the mid 17th century saw attempts to reassert
parliamentary power. This was most obvious in response to
royal attempts to raise money without parliamentary approval,
which led to the formulation of powerful statements of parliamentary
privileges, as well as bitter legal battles. It also proved
crucial to the Civil War, of which one of the lasting outcomes
was the decline in feudal forms of finance, in favour of taxation
by parliamentary means.
|More broadly, the challenge to the monarch involved
a determination to widen the range of issues that Parliament
was free to discuss, to increase its ability to criticise the
royal court, and eventually to hold the king to account for
his actions. Both in theory and in practice, the 17th century
demonstrated that Parliament could remove monarchs and choose
new ones, and could remodel the constitution in order to curtail
the authority of the Crown.
The purging of Parliament, 1648
Unifying the United Kingdom
One of the keys to the transformation of society, and the
position of subjects and citizens within it, was the spread
of central authority and the growth of the state. Concerns
about matters such as political and religious unrest, security
within Europe and the completing of the Reformation - not
to mention improved communication and transport infrastructures
and the economic changes that they brought about - contributed
to the decline of the Scottish clans and the incorporation
of Ireland and Scotland into the Westminster parliamentary
The people and Parliament
Another vital aspect of the transformation of political life
during the 17th and 18th centuries was the emergence of 'the
people' as a political force. Those who paid taxes and who
fought in wars felt increasingly inclined to reappraise the
meaning of political representation, participation and accountability.
Once it became widely accepted that parliamentary authority
was founded upon popular power, it was only a matter of time
before the people exerted their influence. They sought to
punish those in Parliament by whom they felt betrayed and
resisted policies with which they disagreed - especially taxes
that they considered iniquitous and oppressive.
Army mutiny, 1649
The press and popular politics
|More generally, they began to demand that the
political system be made more representative and more accountable.
Crucial to such changes was the emergence of new forms of political
activism - not just in terms of the rise of the political 'mob'
but also in terms of the growth of the press, which enabled
the spread of information regarding political affairs and parliamentary
business and created a medium through which popular voices could
be heard widely for the first time.
The interaction between individual citizens and political
authority - whether royal or parliamentary - involved issues
of a religious as well as a political nature. These centred
upon the extent to which attempts were made to impose and
enforce uniformity of religious worship. Although the Reformation
had elevated the status of the individual conscience, religion
was intimately associated with political life and social order,
and the difficulty lay in how to recognise the diversity of
religious opinions, and how to tolerate such differences,
without undermining the national church or civil order.
Draft of the Declaration of Rights,
(165k) | Transcript
|The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed
protracted struggles over the treatment of those who refused
to swear allegiance to public authorities, including those whose
beliefs were non-Christian. Such struggles brought into focus
issues relating to the nature of good citizenship, the power
of the state to impose either uniformity or toleration, and
the right of individuals to follow their own beliefs.
Towards the end of the 18th century, such issues and arguments
found new outlets and new forms. The geographical scope of
British authority, which had spread vastly during the previous
century, met a dramatic challenge in the American colonies,
and brought old ideas and issues into focus once again. George
III's colonial subjects reinvigorated debates relating to
the power of citizens, the accountability of public authorities,
and the legitimacy of taxation without representation. Ultimately,
they revived notions of the popular origins of political authority,
and of the possibility of reinventing the nature of government
when faced with tyranny and oppression.
Virginia adopts Declaration of Independence
(303k) | Transcript
back to top of page