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The English Renaissance

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The English Renaissance

The word ‘renaissance’ comes from the French for ‘rebirth’, so it was a fitting name for the artistic and cultural transformation of Europe from the late 14th to the early 17th Century. What was specific about the English Renaissance, and how did England change artistically, culturally, and economically?

The English Renaissance Summary

The Renaissance started in Italy in the late 14th Century and spread across Europe, marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. Exactly when the Renaissance began in England depends on who you listen to, and there is no consensus among historians and scholars. Some put the beginning of the English Renaissance at 1485, with the rise of the Tudor dynasty, while others put it around 1520, during Henry VIII’s reign. What is certain is that the second half of the 16th century, during Elizabeth I’s reign was the height of the English Renaissance.

Differences between the English and Italian Renaissance

Although the Renaissance started in Italy, the specifics of the period varied, and England went through its own ‘rebirth’, which differed from Italy in the following ways:

  1. The dominant art forms in England were literature and music.

  2. Visual arts, such as drawing and sculpting, were much less significant in England than Italy.

  3. The Renaissance period in England began much later than in Italy. By the 1550s, when the English Renaissance had barely begun, the Italian Renaissance had already moved into Mannerism, known as the Late Renaissance, and the Baroque style.

Literature in the English Renaissance Period

England already had a strong tradition of literature in the English language, which intensified when printing became common during the mid-16th century. The rise of printing led to literature in the English language gaining international prestige.

Did you know? A goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440 in Germany. His Gutenberg Bible was the first-ever printed version of the Bible.

Literature in the English language

The tradition of literature in the English language mainly began with the Protestant Reformation. Before this, works had been written in Latin – a language many English people did not speak. During the Reformation, it was believed that people should be able to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than accepting the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Latin version.

In 1526, William Tyndale published his translation of the English Bible. His work influenced the King James Version of the Bible; this achievement made Tyndale’s influence on the use of the English language in literature even more significant than that of Shakespeare.

Another person who supported the English language in literature was Roger Ascham, who is often called the ‘father of English prose.’ Ascham was a tutor to Elizabeth I during her teenage years, and she wrote occasional poems herself, such as ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’.

Literature, Poetry, and Politics in the English Renaissance

What is the connection between literature, poetry, and politics in the English Renaissance?


With the Renaissance came a new emphasis on humanism and individuality. Writers also started to satirise (ridicule) existing institutions such as the Church, and their works became secular, leading to a revival of three types of English literature listed below.

Humanism

Humanism, or Renaissance humanism, was an intellectual movement that celebrated the advancement of humanity, with a renewed interest in the classical Roman and Greek world as its basis.

Secular

Not connected to religious or spiritual matters

  1. Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetics and the rhythmic qualities of language. It is set in lines and verses rather than paragraphs. Examples of poetry include sonnets and limericks.
  2. Prose is a form of written or spoken language, and it typically exhibits a natural flow of speech and grammatical structure. Prose can be fiction or non-fiction. Examples of prose include novels.
  3. Drama is a form combined with music and dance. Playwrights write these plays, which are intended to be performed in theatres. For a long time, nearly all drama was in verse form.

    Examples include the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

While these types of literature were nothing new, people’s changing outlook on life inspired them.

Elizabethan literature in the English Renaissance period

Elizabethan literature in the English Renaissance period refers to the works produced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In this period, writers such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Roger Ascham, and William Shakespeare flourished. The Elizabethan age saw the rise of poetry, such as sonnets. It was a golden age of drama, and it inspired a wide variety of prose.

William Shakespeare

While there are many notable writers from this period, the most famous name of all is William Shakespeare. This playwright and poet is widely regarded, back then and today, as the greatest dramatist of all time. His most famous works include:

  • Hamlet
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Othello
  • King Lear

Did you know? Shakespeare is often called ‘England’s national poet’, and the ‘Bard of Avon’ (or simply ‘the Bard’).

The English Renaissance Portrait of William Shakespeare StudySmarterPortrait of William Shakespeare by John Taylor, 1610, Wikimedia Commons

Theatre during the English Renaissance Period

The English theatre scene was a popular place to be. Plays were performed both in private for the court and nobility and for the general public. What type of plays were common during the Renaissance period? Let’s find out in the table below.

TypeExplanationExample
HistoricalPlays that depicted English or European history

Richard III - Shakespeare

Tragedy: a tragedy of circumstancePlays that explore the tragic consequences of birthrights, particularly for monarchsRomeo and Juliet - Shakespeare
Tragedy: a tragedy of miscalculation Plays in which the main character’s error in judgement has tragic consequences

Dr Faustus - Christopher Marlowe

Tragedy: revenge playPlays in which the main character seeks revenge for either an imagined or actual injury

The Spanish King Lear - Thomas Kyd

ComedyComedic plays; a sub-genre was created called ‘city comedy’, a satire of life in London, fashioned after Roman New Comedy.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday - Thomas Dekker

Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the famous Globe Theatre and continue to be performed worldwide today.

Visual Arts during the English Renaissance period

As we mentioned before, England experienced the Renaissance later than other countries such as Italy. It was particularly slow to adopt the Renaissance styles in the visual arts. Many of the artists during the Tudor reign were foreigners.

A prime example of a foreign artist is Hans Holbein the Younger, a German painter and printmaker. Holbein the Younger is considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the 16th century. In 1535, he became the King’s Painter to King Henry VIII, where he produced many paintings and portraits.

The English Renaissance Hans Holbein the Younger self-portrait StudySmarterHans Holbein the Younger, self-portrait, 1542–43, Wikimedia Commons The English Renaissance Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger StudySmarterHenry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, around 1537, Wikimedia Commons

An interesting invention was the ‘portrait miniature’, a small portrait that could be worn and carried around in lockets. Foreign artists invented them in England, which spread all over Europe by the 18th century.

Another interesting fact is that sculptures weren’t produced in England, unlike in Italy. Artists such as Donatello made the famous ‘David’ during the Italian Renaissance, but this art form was never popularised in the North of Europe.

Music during the English Renaissance period

In contrast to the visual arts, English Renaissance music kept in touch with musical developments on the European continent. The musical aesthetics in England and Italy were very similar. One of the primary forms of music that came to England from Italy was the madrigal genre, a type of secular vocal composition.

The leading English composers of the time were:

William Byrd (c. 1539/43–1623)

  • He is considered one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance period.

  • He made music in the following styles: sacred and secular polyphony (music made up of several parts) and consort (instrumental ensemble).

  • Early in his career, he produced sacred music for Anglican services; later in life, he became a Roman Catholic and made music for sacred Catholic services.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505–1585)

  • He was a highly regarded composer, who composed and performed for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

  • He was an organist and famed for his original voice.

Thomas Morley (c.1557–1602)

  • He was an English composer, theorist, singer, and organist.

  • He was also one of the foremost members of the English Madrigal School.

John Dowland (1563–1626)

  • He was either an English or Irish Renaissance composer, lute player, and singer.

  • The lute song was the most popular in secular music in the English Renaissance.

  • Dowland is known today for his melancholy songs such as ‘Come, heavy sleep’ and ‘Flow my tears’.

Some early Renaissance composers also wrote in a late Medieval style, making them transitional figures. Two critical examples were Leonel Power and John Dunstaple/Dunstable, the latter being famous not only in England throughout continental Europe.

Attitudes during the English Renaissance period: Humanism

Humanism led to people’s renewed interests in classical education, including philosophy, history and physics. Before the English Renaissance, people were more focused on heaven and the afterlife in the Middle Ages. They tended to believe that their life was simply a test of their goodness.

However, this view changed after experiencing the widespread deaths of the Black Death (bubonic plague). People began to think more about the ‘now’. This re-education led to discoveries and developments all over Europe, such as the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass.

The Economy during the English Renaissance period

During the Renaissance period, the European economy grew exponentially. Population growth, improvements in banking, expanding trade routes, and new manufacturing systems increased commercial activities.

The new discoveries and exploration that came with the popularity of humanism further influenced this.

Did you know? The House of Medici was an Italian banking family and political dynasty that gathered prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici during the first half of the 15th century. During that time, it became the largest bank in Europe.

Why did the English Renaissance end?

The Renaissance ended in the 17th century. Considering the Renaissance took place all over Europe, but on different timelines, scholars believe that the end of the Renaissance was the result of various factors.

  • By the end of the 15th century, several wars plagued the Italian peninsula, causing great instability in the region.

  • There was a period of economic decline after trade routes changed, leading to less funding from wealthy benefactors, as money had to go elsewhere.

  • The Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Reformation, meant that the Catholic Church censored artists and writers in response to the Protestant Reformation, thus preventing artists from being creative. As a result, they were producing less.

  • In 1545, the Council of Trent introduced the Roman Inquisition. Humanism and all views that questioned the Catholic Church were considered heresy (religious beliefs that went against the Church), and heresy was punishable by death.

  • By the early 17th century, the Renaissance movement died out and gave way to the Age of Enlightenment.

Age of Enlightenment

An intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18h centuries.

Historiography of the English Renaissance period

The term Renaissance was not given to this period in history until the 19th century. Today, several historians and scholars are disputing that there even was a Renaissance in England!

One of the main praises of the English Renaissance was the flourishing of English literature. However, England had already experienced such a flourishing over 200 years before Shakespeare. One notable figure was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), who wrote the famous Canterbury Tales, already using English in his literature rather than Latin. The emphasis of the English Renaissance was on literature, but there had already been a ‘rebirth’ in English literature well before the English Renaissance.

C.S. Lewis, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature, famously said that there was no English Renaissance, and if there was, it had ‘no effect whatsoever.’

Did you know? Professor, C.S. Lewis was also a famous writer. He is the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.

What would you argue? Was there an English Renaissance or not?

The English Renaissance - Key Takeaways

  • The Renaissance was a period of European cultural, artistic, political, and economic rebirth.
  • The Renaissance started in Italy in the 14th century, spread across Europe, and lasted until the 17th century.
  • The English Renaissance started either in 1485 or around the 1520s, depending on historians’ views.
  • England already had a strong tradition of literature in the English language, but it became even more common and prominent in the mid-16th century.
  • The concept of humanism was critical to the English Renaissance period, changing people’s outlook on life.
  • The English Renaissance saw the emergence of notable figures such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
  • Visual arts were not as big in England compared to Italy, with most visual arts only being portraits.
  • Some historians argue that the English Renaissance did not even happen.

Frequently Asked Questions about The English Renaissance

It was a cultural and artistic movement in England from the late 15th/early 16th to the early 17th century.

For most scholars, the English Renaissance started in 1485, with the rise of the Tudor dynasty.

It was known as the era in which the modern sense of English poetry began.

The English Renaissance was decadent, often exploring religious themes with a completely different approach than the traditional religious poets. Another essential characteristic of the English Renaissance was humanism – a more optimistic outlook on humanity.

English literature gained greater psychological complexity. During the Renaissance, drama became secularised, meaning that plays no longer had religious topics.

Final The English Renaissance Quiz

Question

What is the definition of the Renaissance?

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Answer

It was a period of European cultural, artistic, and economic rebirth, or re-discovery.

Show question

Question

When did the English Renaissance start?

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Answer

There is no general consensus and it depends on which view you share. It either starts in 1485 or around the 1520s.

Show question

Question

What are the three main differences between the English and the Italian Renaissance?

Show answer

Answer

  1. The dominant art forms in England were literature and music.
  2. Visual arts, such as drawing and sculpting, were less significant in England than in Italy.
  3. The Renaissance period in England began much later than in Italy. By the 1550s, when the English Renaissance had barely started, the Italian Renaissance had already moved into Mannerism, known as the Late Renaissance, and the Baroque style.

Show question

Question

Which notable writer published his own Bible translation in 1526?

Show answer

Answer

William Tyndale

Show question

Question

Who was ‘the father of prose’?

Show answer

Answer

Roger Ascham

Show question

Question

Name a poem that Elizabeth I wrote.


Show answer

Answer

On Monsieur’s Departure

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Question

Name four writers that flourished under the reign of Elizabeth I.

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Answer

1. Sir Philip Sidney

2. Edmund Spenser

3. Roger Ascham

4. William Shakespeare

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Question

Name three famous examples of Shakespeare's works.

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Answer

Any three of:

1. Hamlet

2. Romeo and Juliet

3. Macbeth

4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

5. Othello

6. King Lear

Show question

Question

What are the three types of literature that were most common during the English Renaissance?

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Answer

  1. Poetry
  2. Prose
  3. Drama

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Question

What is the name of the period that comes after the end of the Renaissance in the seventeenth century?

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Answer

Age of Enlightenment

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Question

Which different genres of theatre emerged during the English Renaissance?

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Answer

  • History plays
  • A renewed interest in tragedy
  • Revenge dramas

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Question

Which four tragedies Shakespeare composed are considered his greatest?

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Answer

  1. Hamlet
  2. Othello
  3. King Lear
  4. Macbeth

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Question

Name a famous portrait painter from the Tudor reign.

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Answer

Hans Holbein the Younger

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Question

What type of portrait painting was invented in England?

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Answer

Portrait miniature, where a miniature portrait would be worn in a locket.

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Question

Name two leading English composers of the time.

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Answer

Any two of:

  1. William Byrd
  2. Thomas Tallis
  3. Thomas Morley
  4. John Dowland

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Question

Who was the English composer that composed in the polyphonic music style?

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Answer

John Dunstaple (also spelled John Dunstable).

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Question

What is humanism?

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Answer

It is a philosophical view that focuses on life in the present rather than the afterlife. It led to a revival of classical education.

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