Hutton Ronald - A brief History of Britain 1485-1660

Author : Hutton Ronald
Title : A brief History of Britain 1485-1660 The tudor & Stuart dynasties
Year : 2008

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Introduction. On 22 August 1485, the English king Richard III led a characteristically reckless and courageous charge into the centre of the army that opposed him on Bosworth Field, trying to win the battle at a stroke by cutting down his rival for the throne, Henry Tudor. His gamble failed, and he was killed instead, thereby ending both his reign and his dynasty. Whatever passed through his mind in his final few frantic minutes of life, as steel weapons sliced into his body, we can be certain that one thing did not: that he had just brought to a close in England a period of history called the Middle Ages. Yet, ever since the nineteenth century, that has been regarded as the greatest single significance of that moment. By contrast, when Charles I stepped out on to a scaffold in Whitehall on a bitterly cold day at the end of January 1649, he must have been very conscious that an epoch would end when he died at the hands of the executioner who awaited him there. Not only was the judicial murder of a king at the hands of his subjects quite unprecedented in European history, but Charles could be sure that with him would perish the English monarchy, the House of Lords and a national church which demanded a monopoly of his subjects’ religious loyalties and which was focused on bishops, cathedrals and ceremonies. What happened when the blades carved into Richard was a change of kings; when the one fell on Charles’s neck a whole system of government and ideology, in place for a thousand years, died with him. No large span of British history, however, traditionally ends in 1649. This is because the revolution that occurred then is seen as a temporary aberration in the national story, ushering in a short-lived and uncharacteristic experiment which lasted only ten years before monarchy, Lords and church were restored together in 1660 and – the implication runs – British normality with them. That is why this later date is commonly seen as the watershed of the century, and the beginning of the end of the early modern period in England; a commencement of the process of settling down after the huge changes of the previous 200 years. It may therefore be seen that a book with the prescribed title Britain 1485–1660, delineated by its need to fit into a series, immediately imposes certain crucial presuppositions. One is that high politics, and especially the affairs of central government and the monarchs who led it, are going to be the main motivating and determining factor of the book. Another is that British history is essentially organic, conservative and cumulative, with radical change played down. If economic, social and cultural history were to be the main subject matter, then the dates concerned would make no sense at all, and others, such as the blunter ‘1500–1700’ would be chosen instead. The title also ensures that England will be the nation at centre-stage, because in Scottish history the date 1485 has virtually no significance. There was a change of King of Scots in 1488, but it made relatively little difference, and most Scottish historians, even of high politics, would choose a different dividing line, such as 1500. ...

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