English Renaissance

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The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth1England.jpg
The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England

The English Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement in England from the early 16th century to the early 17th century. [1] It is associated with the pan-European Renaissance that is usually regarded as beginning in Italy in the late 14th century. As in most of the rest of northern Europe, England saw little of these developments until more than a century later. Renaissance style and ideas, however, were slow to penetrate England, and the Elizabethan era in the second half of the 16th century is usually regarded as the height of the English Renaissance. However, many scholars see its beginnings in the early 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII. [2]


The English Renaissance is different from the Italian Renaissance in several ways. The dominant art forms of the English Renaissance were literature and music. Visual arts in the English Renaissance were much less significant than in the Italian Renaissance. The English period began far later than the Italian, which was moving into Mannerism and the Baroque by the 1550s or earlier.


England had a strong tradition of literature in the English vernacular, which gradually increased as English use of the printing press became common by the mid-16th century. [1] This tradition of literature written in English vernacular largely began with the Protestant Reformation's call to let people interpret the Bible for themselves instead of accepting the Catholic Church's interpretation. Discussions on how to translate the Bible so that it could be understood by laymen but still do justice to God's word became contentious, with people arguing how much license could be taken to impart the correct meaning without sacrificing its eloquence. The desire to let people read the Bible for themselves led William Tyndale to publish his own translation in 1526. This would become a predecessor to the King James Version of the Bible, and his works' influence on the vernacular contributed more to English than even Shakespeare.

Another early proponent of literature in the vernacular was Roger Ascham, who was tutor to Princess Elizabeth during her teenage years, and is now often called the "father of English prose." He proposed that speech was the greatest gift to man from God and to speak or write poorly was an affront. [3] The peak of English drama and theatre is said to be the Elizabethan Age; a golden age in English history where the arts, drama and creative work flourished. Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 1400 and flourished in the early Elizabethan era in England. By the time of Elizabethan literature, a vigorous literary culture in both drama and poetry included poets such as Edmund Spenser, whose verse epic The Faerie Queene had a strong influence on English literature but was eventually overshadowed by the lyrics of William Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt and others. Typically, the works of these playwrights and poets circulated in manuscript form for some time before they were published, and above all the plays of English Renaissance theatre were the outstanding legacy of the period. The works of this period are also affected by Henry VIII's declaration of independence from the Catholic Church and technological advances in sailing and cartography, which are reflected in the generally nonreligious themes and various shipwreck adventures of Shakespeare. [4]

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George Cruikshank - The First Appearance of William Shakespeare on the Stage of the Globe Theatre - Google Art Project.jpg
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William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe (disputed portrait), William Shakespeare on the Stage of the Globe Theatre painting by George Cruikshank, and Sir Francis Bacon.

The growing population of London, the growing wealth of its people, and their fondness for spectacle produced a dramatic literature of remarkable variety, quality, and extent. Genres of the period included the history play, which depicted English or European history. Shakespeare's plays about the lives of kings, such as Richard III and Henry V , belong to this category, as do Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and George Peele's Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First . History plays dealt with more recent events, like A Larum for London which dramatizes the sack of Antwerp in 1576. Tragedy was a very popular genre. Marlowe's tragedies were exceptionally successful, such as Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta . The audiences particularly liked revenge dramas, such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy . The four tragedies considered to be Shakespeare's greatest ( Hamlet , Othello , King Lear , and Macbeth ) were composed during this period. The English theatre scene, which performed both for the court and nobility in private performances and a very wide public in the theatres, was the most crowded in Europe, with a host of other playwrights as well as the giant figures of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Elizabeth herself was a product of Renaissance humanism trained by Roger Ascham, and wrote occasional poems such as "On Monsieur's Departure" at critical moments of her life. William Shakespeare, whose works include Hamlet , Romeo and Juliet , Macbeth , and A Midsummer Night's Dream , remains one of the most championed authors in English literature. The playwright and poet is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist of all time. [5] [6] [7]

Philosophers and intellectuals included Thomas More and Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes wrote on empiricism and materialism, including scientific method and social contract. [8] Bacon's works are seen as developing the scientific method and remained highly influential through the Scientific Revolution. [9] Robert Filmer wrote on the Divine Right of Kings. All the 16th century Tudor monarchs were highly educated, as was much of the nobility, and Italian literature had a considerable following, providing the sources for many of Shakespeare's plays. English thought advanced towards modern science with the Baconian Method. The language of the Book of Common Prayer , first published in 1549, and at the end of the period the Bible had enduring and profound impacts on the English consciousness.

Visual arts

Large miniature of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland by Nicholas Hilliard in 1590 after his appointment as the Queen's Champion. Nicholas Hilliard 003.jpg
Large miniature of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland by Nicholas Hilliard in 1590 after his appointment as the Queen's Champion.

England was slow to produce visual arts in Renaissance styles, and the artists of the Tudor court were mainly imported foreigners until after the end of the Renaissance; Hans Holbein was the outstanding figure. The English Reformation produced a huge programme of iconoclasm that destroyed almost all medieval religious art, and all but ended the skill of painting in England; English art was to be dominated by portrait painting, and then later landscape art, for centuries to come.

The significant English invention was the portrait miniature, which essentially took the techniques of the dying art of the illuminated manuscript and transferred them to small portraits worn in lockets. Though the form was developed in England by foreign artists, mostly Flemish like Lucas Horenbout, the somewhat undistinguished founder of the tradition, by the late 16th century natives such as Nicolas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver produced the finest work, even as the best producers of larger portraits in oil were still foreigners. The portrait miniature had spread all over Europe by the 18th century.

The portraiture of Elizabeth I was carefully controlled and developed into an elaborate and wholly un-realist iconic style, that has succeeded in creating enduring images. The many portraits drove the evolution of English royal portraits in the Early Modern period. Even the earliest portraits of Elizabeth I contain symbolic objects such as roses and prayer books that would have carried meaning to viewers of her day. Later portraits of Elizabeth layer the iconography of empireglobes, crowns, swords and columns—and representations of virginity and purity—such as moons and pearls—with classical allusions to present a complex "story" that conveyed to Elizabethan era viewers the majesty and significance of their Virgin Queen. The Armada Portrait is an allegorical panel painting depicting the queen surrounded by symbols of empire against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.


English Renaissance music kept in touch with continental developments far more than visual art, and managed to survive the Reformation relatively successfully, though William Byrd (c.1539/40 or 1543 – 1623) and other major figures were Catholic. The Elizabethan madrigal was distinct from, but related to, the Italian tradition. Thomas Tallis, (c.1505 –1585 Thomas Morley (1557 or 1558 – 1602)), and John Dowland (1563 – 1626) were other leading English composers.

The key composers from the early Renaissance era also wrote in a late Medieval style, and as such, they are transitional figures. Leonel Power (c. 1370s or 1380s–1445) was an English composer of the late medieval and early Renaissance music eras. Along with John Dunstaple, he was one of the major figures in English music in the early 15th century. [10] [11] Power is the composer best represented in the Old Hall Manuscript. Power was one of the first composers to set separate movements of the ordinary of the mass which were thematically unified and intended for contiguous performance. The Old Hall Manuscript contains his mass based on the Marian antiphon, Alma Redemptoris Mater, in which the antiphon is stated literally in the tenor voice in each movement, without melodic ornaments. This is the only cyclic setting of the mass ordinary which can be attributed to him. [12] He wrote mass cycles, fragments, and single movements and a variety of other sacred works.

John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) (c. 1390–1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late medieval era and early Renaissance periods. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a near-contemporary of Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School. Dunstaple's influence on the continent's musical vocabulary was enormous, particularly considering the relative paucity of his (attributable) works. He was recognized for possessing something never heard before in music of the Burgundian School: la contenance angloise ("the English countenance"), a term used by the poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des Dames.

The colossal polychoral productions of the Venetian School had been anticipated in the works of Thomas Tallis, and the Palestrina style from the Roman School had already been absorbed prior to the publication of Musica transalpina, in the music of masters such as William Byrd.

The Italian and English Renaissances were similar in sharing a specific musical aesthetic. In the late 16th century Italy was the musical center of Europe, and one of the principal forms which emerged from that singular explosion of musical creativity was the madrigal. In 1588, Nicholas Yonge published in England the Musica transalpina—a collection of Italian madrigals that had been Anglicized—an event which began a vogue of madrigal in England which was almost unmatched in the Renaissance in being an instantaneous adoption of an idea, from another country, adapted to local aesthetics. English poetry was exactly at the right stage of development for this transplantation to occur, since forms such as the sonnet were uniquely adapted to setting as madrigals; indeed, the sonnet was already well developed in Italy. Composers such as Thomas Morley, the only contemporary composer to set Shakespeare, and whose work survives, published collections of their own, roughly in the Italian manner but yet with a unique Englishness; interest in the compositions of the English Madrigal School has enjoyed a considerable revival in recent decades.


Despite some buildings in a partly Renaissance style from the reign of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), notably Hampton Court Palace (begun in 1515), the vanished Nonsuch Palace, Sutton Place and Layer Marney Tower, it was not until the Elizabethan architecture of the end of the century that a true Renaissance style emerged. The wool trade, which had carried the economic life of England in the late medieval period, was no longer as prosperous as it had been and there was less disposable wealth for architectural projects. Under Elizabeth, farming was encouraged resulting in a recovery that put a vast amount of wealth into the hands of a large number of people. Elizabeth built no new palaces, instead encouraging her courtiers to build extravagantly and house her on her summer progresses. A large number of small houses were built, and at the same time many country mansions were constructed. Many of the earlier medieval or Tudor manors were remodelled and modernised during Elizabeth's reign. Civic and institutional buildings were also becoming increasingly common. [13]

The most famous buildings, of a type called the prodigy house, are large show houses constructed for courtiers, and characterised by lavish use of glass, as at "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall", Wollaton Hall and Hatfield House and Burghley House, the style continuing into the early 17th century before developing into Jacobean architecture. Lesser, but still large, houses like Little Moreton Hall continued to be constructed and expanded in essentially medieval half-timbered styles until the late 16th century. Church architecture essentially continued in the late medieval Perpendicular Gothic style until the Reformation, and then stopped almost completely, although church monuments, screens and other fittings often had classical styles from about the mid-century. The few new church buildings post-Reformation were usually still Gothic in style, as in Langley Chapel of 1601. [14]

It was also at this time that the long gallery became popular in English manor houses, often displaying painting collections and decorated ceilings. This was apparently mainly used for walking in, and a growing range of parlours and withdrawing rooms supplemented the main living room for the family, the great chamber. The great hall was now mostly used by the servants, and as an impressive point of entry to the house. [13]

Major English Renaissance authors

Major literary figures in the English Renaissance include:

See also

Related Research Articles

Renaissance music Western musical period between the 15th and 17th centuries

Renaissance music is traditionally understood to cover European music of the 15th and 16th centuries, later than the Renaissance era as it is understood in other disciplines. Rather than starting from the early 14th-century ars nova, the Trecento music was treated by musicology as a coda to Medieval music and the new era dated from the rise of triadic harmony and the spread of the ' contenance angloise ' style from Britain to the Burgundian School. A convenient watershed for its end is the adoption of basso continuo at the beginning of the Baroque period.

English Renaissance theatre Theatre of England between 1562 and 1642

English Renaissance theatre, also known as Renaissance English theatre and Elizabethan theatre, refers to the theatre of England between 1558 and 1642.

Elizabethan era Epoch in English history marked by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603)

The Elizabethan era is the epoch in the Tudor period of the history of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history. The symbol of Britannia was first used in 1572, and often thereafter, to mark the Elizabethan age as a renaissance that inspired national pride through classical ideals, international expansion, and naval triumph over Spain.

English drama

Drama was introduced to Britain from Europe by the Romans, and auditoriums were constructed across the country for this purpose.

A. L. Rowse 20th-century British author and historian

Alfred Leslie Rowse was a British historian and writer, best known for his work on Elizabethan England.

Shakespearean history Shakespeares history plays

In the First Folio, the plays of William Shakespeare were grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. The histories—along with those of contemporary Renaissance playwrights—help define the genre of history plays. The Shakespearean histories are biographies of English kings of the previous four centuries and include the standalones King John, Edward III and Henry VIII as well as a continuous sequence of eight plays. These last are considered to have been composed in two cycles. The so-called first tetralogy, apparently written in the early 1590s, covers the Wars of the Roses saga and includes Henry VI, Parts I, II & III and Richard III. The second tetralogy, finished in 1599 and including Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II and Henry V, is frequently called the Henriad after its protagonist Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

Northern Renaissance Renaissance that occurred in the European countries north of the Alps

The Northern Renaissance was the Renaissance that occurred in Europe north of the Alps. From the last years of the 15th century, its Renaissance spread around Europe. Called the Northern Renaissance because it occurred north of the Italian Renaissance, this period became the German, French, English, Low Countries, Polish Renaissances and in turn other national and localized movements, each with different attributes.

Thomas Morley English composer, organist and editor

Thomas Morley was an English composer, theorist, singer and organist of the Renaissance. He was one of the foremost members of the English Madrigal School. Referring to the strong Italian influence on the English madrigal, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that Morley was "chiefly responsible for grafting the Italian shoot on to the native stock and initiating the curiously brief but brilliant flowering of the madrigal that constitutes one of the most colourful episodes in the history of English music."

Tudor period Historical era in England coinciding with the rule of the Tudor dynasty

The Tudor period occurred between 1485 and 1603 in England and Wales and includes the Elizabethan period during the reign of Elizabeth I until 1603. The Tudor period coincides with the dynasty of the House of Tudor in England that began with the reign of Henry VII. Historian John Guy (1988) argued that "England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors" than at any time since the Roman occupation.

Elizabethan literature

Elizabethan literature refers to bodies of work produced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), and is one of the most splendid ages of English literature. In addition to drama and the theatre, it saw a flowering of poetry, with new forms like the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse, as well as prose, including historical chronicles, pamphlets, and the first English novels. Major writers include William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Hooker, Ben Jonson, Philip Sidney and Thomas Kyd.

Henriad Shakespeares second historical tetralogy

In Shakespearean scholarship, Henriad refers to a group of William Shakespeare's history plays. It is sometimes used to refer to a group of four plays, but some sources and scholars use the term to refer to eight plays. In the 19th century, Algernon Charles Swinburne used the term to refer to three plays, but that use is not current.

Music in the Elizabethan era Period in the musical history of the Kingdom of England

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English art and high culture reached a pinnacle known as the height of the English Renaissance. Elizabethan music experienced a shift in popularity from sacred to secular music and the rise of instrumental music. Professional musicians were employed by the Church of England, the nobility, and the rising middle-class.

Thomas Watson (1555–1592) was an English poet and translator, and the pioneer of the English madrigal. His lyrics aside, he wrote largely in Latin, also being the first to translate Sophocles's Antigone from Greek. His incorporation of Italianate forms into English lyric verse influenced a generation of English writers, including Shakespeare, who was referred to in 1595 by William Covell as "Watson's heyre" (heir). He wrote both English and Latin compositions, and was particularly admired for the Latin. His unusual 18-line sonnets were influential, although the form was not generally taken up.

Paul H. Kocher American scholar of literature and Tolkien

Paul Harold Kocher was an American scholar, writer, and professor of English. He wrote extensively on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien as well as on Elizabethan English drama, philosophy, religion, and medicine. His numerous publications include studies of Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon. He also authored books on the Franciscan missions of 18th- and 19th-century California.

<i>Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay</i> Play written by Robert Greene

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, originally entitled The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay, is an Elizabethan era stage play, a comedy written by Robert Greene. Widely regarded as Greene's best and most significant play, it has received more critical attention than any other of Greene's dramas.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the Renaissance:

Early music of the British Isles Aspect of history

Early music of Britain and Ireland, from the earliest recorded times until the beginnings of the Baroque in the 17th century, was a diverse and rich culture, including sacred and secular music and ranging from the popular to the elite. Each of the major nations of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales retained unique forms of music and of instrumentation, but British music was highly influenced by continental developments, while British composers made an important contribution to many of the major movements in early music in Europe, including the polyphony of the Ars Nova and laid some of the foundations of later national and international classical music. Musicians from the British Isles also developed some distinctive forms of music, including Celtic chant, the Contenance Angloise, the rota, polyphonic votive antiphons, and the carol in the medieval era and English madrigals, lute ayres, and masques in the Renaissance era, which would lead to the development of English language opera at the height of the Baroque in the 18th century.

History of the Shakespeare authorship question

Note: In compliance with the accepted terminology used within the Shakespeare authorship question, this article uses the term "Stratfordian" to refer to the position that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the primary author of the plays and poems traditionally attributed to him. The term "anti-Stratfordian" is used to refer to the theory that some other author, or authors, wrote the works.

History (theatrical genre) Theatrical genre

History is one of the three main genres in Western theatre alongside tragedy and comedy, although it originated, in its modern form, thousands of years later than the other primary genres. For this reason, it is often treated as a subset of tragedy. A play in this genre is known as a history play and is based on a historical narrative, often set in the medieval or early modern past. History emerged as a distinct genre from tragedy in Renaissance England. The best known examples of the genre are the history plays written by William Shakespeare, whose plays still serve to define the genre. History plays also appear elsewhere in British and Western literature, such as Thomas Heywood's Edward IV, Schiller's Mary Stuart or the Dutch genre Gijsbrecht van Aemstel.

This is an alphabetical index of articles related to the Renaissance.


  1. 1 2 Key features of Renaissance culture Andrew Dickson, "An English Renaissance: Key features of Renaissance culture". British Library online, 2017
  2. "English Renaissance", Poetry Foundation online
  3. DAY, GARY. (2008). ENGLISH RENAISSANCE CRITICISM. In Literary Criticism: A New History (pp. 111-155). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r2248.8
  4. "Life in Renaissance England". www.uh.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
  5. "William Shakespeare (English author)". Britannica Online encyclopedia. Retrieved 26 February 2006.
  6. MSN Encarta Encyclopedia article on Shakespeare. Archived from the original on 9 February 2006. Retrieved 26 February 2006.
  7. Rogers 2001 , p. 135.
  8. Rowse 1971 , p. 48.
  9. Klein, Jürgen (2012), "Francis Bacon", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 17 January 2020
  10. Stolba 1990, p. 140.
  11. Emmerson and Clayton-Emmerson 2006, 544.
  12. Bent n.d.
  13. 1 2 "Architectural Style : Tudor and Elizabethan". www.buildinghistory.org. Retrieved 2021-05-01.
  14. Airs, Malcolm, The Buildings of Britain, A Guide and Gazetteer, Tudor and Jacobean, especially chapters 1, 3 and 8, 1982, Barrie & Jenkins (London), ISBN   0-09-147831-6

Further reading