Isaac Newton

Thomas Hobbes

Robert Boyle

Colonies, culture, science and society



 1. Colonization

After the abortive attempts at settlement in Elizabeth's reign, the first successful colony established by Stuart England in America was that at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.
The settlement was led by John Smith. Initially, the settlers hoped to find precious metals, but soon they began growing tobacco.

European settlers had first cultivated tobacco in Cuba during the 1580s.
The first Virginia crop of tobacco was sold in England in 1619.
James I complained about the use of tobacco, but increased his income from import duties on it.



In 1620, English separatists (who in 1608 had fled to Holland in order to avoid persecution) emigrated to Massachusetts via Plymouth, England.
102 settlers sailed on 16 September 1620 and established Plymouth colony, 21 December 1620.

During the first winter, half the colonists died from exposure, malnutrition and illness.

A few other settlers joined the Plymouth colony during the 1620s.


In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &. Having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honour of our King and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; And by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.


 John Winthrop

In 1630, John Winthrop led the first major Puritan settlement under the auspices of the  Massachusetts Bay Company. The fleet landed at Salem but the settlement soon moved to Boston. It consisted of about one thousand settlers, and although about 200 died during the winter and as many returned to England in the Spring, about 20,000 more settlers joined them over the following decade.
Most of the settlers were poor farmers fleeing poverty in England. The only wealthy settlers were those inspired by Puritan fervor.


George Calvert,
1st Baron Baltimore
Another colony established during the 1630s was in Maryland.
George Calvert, Baron Baltimore (1580?-1632), one of James' Secretaries of State and a Privy Councillor,  converted to Catholicism in about 1625.
He wanted to establish a colony as a refuge from persecution for Roman Catholics, and at first sponsored a small settlement in Newfoundland. Its harsh climate motivated him to obtain land further south. He died before the grant of Maryland's charter (June 1632).

Other English colonies were established in Bermuda and Barbados, and Oliver Cromwell added Jamaica.
England's first colonies were established haphazardly and no real policy for their management was instituted until the Navigation Act, 1651.
The settlement of America helped fix English attention on the Atlantic, just as this area was superseding the Mediterranean basin in economic importance.

2. Literacy, education and culture

Banquetting Hall
The Banquetting Hall designed by Inigo Jones.

In 1500, roughly 10% of men and 1% of women were could read. By the outbreak of the Civil War, perhaps one in three men and one in ten women were literate. This was a significant increase.
One of the effects of expanding literacy was the growth in cheap printed matter - books, pamphlets and broadsheets.
The proportion of the English population attending university by 1640 was at its highest until the 1930s. Most of those attending were from the ranks of the gentry, but the children of yeomen, merchants and professionals were also represented.
University education was aimed largely at training ministers for the Church of England, and concentrated on logic, philosophy, and theology. Most scholarly texts were in Latin.
However, scientific subjects - especially mathematics and astronomy - began to penetrate both Oxford and Cambridge. Gresham College was founded in London to teach math and science.
Below the university level, there was an increase in the number of grammar schools, and many ministers also provided some basic education to the children of the parish. Many early-modern Englishmen were self-educated - William Shakespeare, John Lilburne, and William Walwyn, for example, never attended university.
Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both very musical, and English music flourished during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
The most important composers were:
Robert White (1538?-74)

Thomas Tallis (1505-85)

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

William Byrd (1543-1623)
The most notable English artist of the period was the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619).
The Dutch artists, Hans Holbein (1497-1543) and Anthony Van Dyke  (Antoon Van Dyck ) (1599-1641) also produced much of their best work in the employ of English monarchs.
Tudor architecture saw a major surge, as growing English wealth was poured into building construction.
St Paul's Cathedral The influential architects, Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Christopher Wren (1632-1723) flourished under Charles I and Charles II.


3. Science

John Napier
John Napier


The later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were years of great scientific advance in England. The foundations of modern mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology were laid by Tudor and Stuart Englishmen.

Modern astronomy commenced with the work of the Prussian/Polish theorist, Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). His De Revolutionibus (1543) argued (against the Ptolemaic geocentric theory) that the earth revolved around the sun. Copernicus' ideas were first mentioned in print in England in 1556, but the first systematic attempt to spread them there was made by Thomas Digges in A Perfit Description of the Coelestiall Orbes (1576).
Copernican ideas also influenced the able Elizabethan mathematician John Dee (1527- 1608). Dee was Elizabeth's personal astrologer and dabbled in alchemy, astrology, hermeticism and cabalism as well as rationalist science.
English astronomers contributed little that was original before 1660. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) used his discoveries in optics to construct the first reflecting telescope in 1668. (This was of great importance, because contemporary refracting telescopes were limited in size and poor light quality).

Robert Recorde (1510-558) was the inventor of the equal's sign =, and an early pioneer of algebra.
Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was a friend of John Dee. He made advances in algebra and applied his mathematics to gunnery and optics, as well as making some of the earliest systematic astronomical observations in England.
John Napier (1550-1617) was a Scottish mathematician who invented the logarithm to help with the complicated calculations needed to predict the date of Christ's Second Coming from the Book of Revelation. Napier laid out the use of logarithms in  his Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descripto (1614). Napier also brought the decimal point into common usage.
In 1597, Napier patented an hydraulic screw to remove water from coal mines.
A popularizer of logarithms and a mathematician in his own right was Henry Briggs (1561-1630).


Scientific method:

Economic factors stimulated invention, experimentation, and discovery, because rising population and prices rewarded agricultural and manufacturing innovation. But this was not a sufficient condition for scientific advance - historically  Malthusian collapse has been a more common response. But crucially, early seventeenth-century England also saw the development of scientific method, most especially in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon was one of the first systematically to argue that deduction from first principles (the method of logic) was not the only source of reliable knowledge. Instead, induction (drawing general conclusions from observation and experiment - that is the empirical approach to learning) was for Bacon the best way to discover truths about nature. Bacon thought that less time should be spent debating philosophical and theological abstractions, and more devoted to examining the world. In this way, natural forces could be harnessed to improve all peoples' lives.

"As in the little, so in the great world, reason will tell you that old age or antiquity is to be accounted by the farther distance from the beginning and the nearer approach to the end,— the times wherein we now live being in propriety of speech the most ancient since the world’s creation."

George Hakewill, An Apologie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World. London (1627).

Bacon was optimistic that the advance of learning and of quality of life would proceed hand-in-hand; this contrasted with a widespread Renaissance view that the world was steadily decaying. The pessimists held that the modern world was inferior to the ancient world in learning and almost all other respects.
 In 1627, George Hakewill argued that the modern world was superior to the ancient world and improving further. By the eighteenth century, this had become the standard view of intellectuals.

Induction was employed to great effect by William Gilbert (1544-1603) in his great study of magnetism, De Magnete (1600). It gave the first rational explanation of why the needle in a compass pointed north/south. Gilbert summarised all existing knowledge about magnetism, and added to it by carefully-designed experiments. (Gilbert's view of the earth as one large magnet influenced Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and his astronomical theories of planetary motion.)



Another follower of Francis Bacon was Samuel Hartlib (1600?-1662). Like Bacon, he believed that pooling ideas and knowledge would help advance science and technology. He formed a large circle of correspondents both in England and on the Continent, and exchanged information on everything from scientific theory to attempts to end religious schism.
Hartlib published Samuel Hartlib His legacie (1651) in which he expounded new farming methods (especially rotation of crops) observed by Sir Richard Weston in Flanders - then at the forefront of agricultural innovation.
Sir Robert Boyle (1627-91), a member of Hartlib's circle, was the chemist and naturalist who framed Boyle's Law (PV=k; the volume of a fixed quantity of gas varies inversely with pressure). Boyle was particularly skilled at designing experiments - for example, to test the truth of hypotheses about pneumatics and the properties of a vacuum. Deeply religious, Boyle published a number of tracts attempting to defend the compatibility of revealed religion with science and reason.  
Boyle collaborated with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who designed the air pump that Boyle used in his experiments. Hooke also worked on capillary action and optics, and quarreled bitterly with some of the greatest scientists of the day.

Another friend of Samuel Hartlib was William Petty (1623-87) a pioneer of statistics. A great admirer of Bacon's theories, he spent his life accumulating information on many subjects. He was interested in medicine and and physics as well as mathematics and demography. His Political Arithmetick (1680) was a seminal work of economics, demography and statistics.
Biology and medicine:

William Harvey (1578-1657)

William Harvey (1578-1657) discovered the circulation of the blood by the beating of the heart. He published this theory in 1628 as De motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus, Anatomica Exercitatio (An anatomical study of the motion of the heart and of blood in animals).
Harvey's theory was such a radical break with ancient medicine that he aroused controversy, Nonetheless, his skill was recognised by both James I and Charles I, who appointed him a royal physician.
In 1638, Harvey outlined his theory of reproduction in De generatione; it marked another advance in modern medical theory.


The Royal Society.
The Royal Society is the world's oldest national scientific academy. It was founded in 1660 to discuss scientific theories and share the results of research and experiments.
The early contributors to the proceedings of the Royal Society  included many of Hartlib's associates - William Petty, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton.
At the beginning of our period, England was a scientific backwater, but from the mid-seventeenth century science flourished in England.


4. Radical thought

The 1640s and 1650s's saw an explosion of debate and dissent in England. There was no effective censorship and great social and political disruption.
Religious fundamentalists and millenarians attacked secular knowledge and institutions of learning such as the universities.
The Quakers objected to state support of the Church and called social hierarchy into question.

Other radicals, especially Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, advanced communist theories. They believed that heaven could be built on earth, if only property were held in common, not privately. The Diggers tried to persuade labourers to abandon paid employment and cultivate common land. A few communes (about 10) were established in 1649 and 1650, in particular a colony at St George's Hill, Surrey under Winstanley. Some communes were dispersed by the army, the rest collapsed.
Gerard Winstanley did produce one of the first systematic attacks on private property, and can be seen as the first communist. He was an early advocate for the complete equality of women.  Winstanley has lived on in modern myth despite the fact that his thought was so profoundly linked to his religious convictions.


"Take notice that England is not a free people till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons, and so live as comfortably as the landlords that live in their enclosures."

Gerard Winstanley, The True Levellers' standard advanced (1649).



Another innovative theorist was James Harrington (1611-77). He was one of the first to insist on the important links between economic and political power. He explained the origins of the Civil War in terms of the shift of power from crown to gentry as a result of the redistribution of land after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Harrington published The Commonwealth of Oceana in 1656. It recommended a republican government with an elaborate system of checks and balances to prevent tyranny. His views influenced the framers of the American Constitution.

The law is but words and paper without the hands and swords of men.

Harrington, Oceana (1656).



Still more innovative and influential was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes regarded people as basically selfish. He thought that without firm government, chaos soon followed, and regarded the English Civil War as a clear example of this. The only way to prevent a repetition of such strife was absolute government.

'No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

Thomas Hobbes on life in a state of anarchy, Leviathan (1651).


Thomas Hobbes also regarded religious dissent as a key cause of the Civil War, and insisted that religion should be completely under the control and interpretation of the secular authorities.
For Hobbes self-defense and self-preservation were the reason why government was established and the only reason why the people could ever resist their ruler.


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