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Citizenship 1625-1789

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 - opens new window
The Petition of Right, 1628
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Making England a republic - opens new window
Making England a republic, 1649
Document (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 - opens new window
The purging of Parliament, 1648
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Charles I

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 system.

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 - opens new window
Army mutiny, 1649
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The press and popular politics - opens new window
The press and popular politics
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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.

Individuals and the church

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.

Charles I
Draft of the Declaration of Rights, 1689 - opens new window
Draft of the Declaration of Rights, 1689
Document (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.

Colonial revolt

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 - opens new window
Virginia adopts Declaration of Independence
Document (303k) | Transcript

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