Merrie England - An introduction Queen Elizabeth II today reigns over a state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (abbreviated to „United Kingdom‟ or „Great Britain‟). This includes territories of: Scotland Wales England Northern Ireland. ENGLAND AND WALES: Wales had been conquered by the English in 1283. The two countries have been ruled as a single state ever since and the monarch‟s eldest son is created Prince of Wales. IRELAND: Parts of Ireland were conquered by English noble man in the 12th century. The English had gradually extended their control over Ireland from that time. But governing Ireland was always adifficult task, plagued by rebellion and poor communications.Elizabeth‟s government was by no means well established there.In fact, English rule was not securely established until Cromwellsubdued the country in 1649-50 and brought in English settlers.In 1948 an independent republic was established in the couth,leaving only the north under British rule.FRANCE: Elizabeth‟s ancestors had briefly ruled part of Franceseveral centuries previously. By Elizabeth‟s reign, England nolonger held any territory in France. Despite this, Elizabeth and hersuccessors continued to style themselves as King or Queen of“England, France, Ireland …”When Elizabeth was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, his nativekingdom was ruled separately from England. It was not until thereign of his great-grand daughter, Queen Anne, that the twocountries were united under United Kingdom of Great Britain.Ireland was formally added to the United Kingdom by an Act of FranceUnion 1801.The People of EnglandSince England has had such a dominant influence on world history in recent times, and on NewZealand society, it may come as a surprise to realise that it was a rather small country. In fact, thepresent-day United Kingdom is slightly smaller in land area than New Zealand.
At the time of our study, its population was small as well. By the accession of Elizabeth, thepopulation of England and Wales was approximately three million – about the same as New Zealand afew years ago. 85% of those people lived in rural areas and were engaged in economic activitiesassociated with farming. Villages – Centres of Rural life Most people lived in villages. Each village usually had several hundred inhabitants. Often the villages were surrounded by open communal fields divided into strips or by open moorland where sheep grazed. Increasingly however, this land was becoming ENCLOSED – that is, fenced off and farmed privately. The enclosure of land was usually unpopular as it threatened the livelihood of the village peasants. The church and the landowner‟s manor house dominated village life. The priests or minister hadhigh prestige as an educated man in a largely illiterate community. He was the mouthpiece forgovernment policy and for the local landowner and he upheld the social order. Many areas of life –marriage, morals and wills – were controlled by church courts.The local landowner extracted rents from the villagers who farmed his land. He might also employsome villages as servants in his household. Often, as Justice of the Peace, he tried his own villagerswho transgressed the law.London was the only city of significant size. In 1603 its population was about 150,000 and by 1700 thishad risen to half a million. Other centres were much smaller: Norwich and Bristol were about 30,000 York and Exeter were only about 10,000There were many links between town and country but urban society was distinct in several ways. Inparticular, there were more marked inequalities of wealth and professional people were rarely foundoutside towns.Urban poverty was a growing problem as migration from the countryside grew in the period. In manytowns, nearly two-thirds of the wealth was held by only six or seven percent of the population.A handful of wealthy families – merchants and financiers – controlled most of the towns. Often theymarried into the landed classes, thus blurring the social divisions. A growing class of professional manemerged in our period, also, including significant number of doctors, musicians and teachers in additionto the well established group of lawyers. Previously, the Church had dominated these occupations.The poorer classed included trades people, apprentices, labourers and the unemployed „beggars andvagabonds‟.Cultural LifeEducation - There were significant advances in education in this period but the levelof literacy is hard to assess. Probably about one third of the male population could atleast read and write. Generally excluded from this were the labouring poor, farmers,craftsmen and most women.
However, both elementary and grammar (secondary) schools became more numerous and of betterquality. New colleges were added to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.Many of the nobility still educated their sons at home or on neighbouring estates where they learnedskills in estate management and the classical subjects of Latin and Greek. Increasing numbers ofwealthy gentry were going to university though, and by the end of the 17th century they were cominginto contact with the new scientific thought that was emerging.The benefits of the printing press were well established so many more people were able to, and did,read. In addition, the Protestant religion encouraged learning so that people could read the Bible.For most children, however, education was practical training for their work life. They were eitherapprenticed to a trade or learnt skills from their father or mother.The Scientific Revolution -Beginning in Elizabethan times, and really taking off after 1660, was thedevelopment of modern scientific thought and method. Previously, the ancient Greek thinkers withtheir „deductive‟ methods (using reasoning rather than experiment) had held sway. But increasinglythere was an emphasis on experiment and observation.The giant of the age was Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and his philosophical counterparts were ThomasHobbs and John Locke. For the first time, the literal truth of the Bible came into doubt as the resultsof scientific thought made the stories of Genesis, for example, unacceptable as factual explanation.Yet this modern rational thinking had little impact on its own age; it was more important for the future.For most of the period both intellectuals and common people thought within the classical, religious andmusical framework of the forbears. Popular beliefs - Religious belief and superstitions will be considered in depth later, but it is important to realise that religion was an integral and essential part of daily life. Everyone went to church and the church controlled education and influenced many aspects of everyone‟s life. The most striking feature of popular belief in this age was the prevalence of magic and witchcraft. (Even Sir Isaac Newton believed in magic).Many women were cruelly treated because their neighbours believed them to be witches. When theupper class had abandoned this belief by 1700, it still persisted among the common people – thoughhistorians debate just how prevalent these beliefs and practices were.The Arts - The late 16th and 17th centuries have been called the „age of genius‟.It is impossible in this space to discuss the many „greats‟ of the age but perhapsyou will follow this up in your own reading.Generally, the arts were pleasures confined to the rich – except for music anddancing – “the joy of all people as they are today”. Even drama, once a popularand amateur spectacle, became the preserve of the elite once it becameprofessional as it did during the Elizabethan period. One development worthnoting is the beginning of newspapers in late Stuart England – which in turn,stimulated interest in „good literature‟.