top of page

Astell's World: Kings and Controversy

While reading and enjoying On Paradise Row does not require any knowledge of British history, readers might be interested in a bit of background in order to appreciate Mary Astell's world.

Historical Timeline: Kings, Queens and a Few Notable Disasters (Political and Natural)


James I (ruled 1603 – 1625) was the first Stuart monarch of England, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors. (As James VI, he had been king of Scotland since 1567, when he was just thirteen months old). James married Anne of Denmark in 1589.


Charles I (ruled 1625 – 1649) was the son of James I and Anne of Denmark. Charles married Henrietta Maria of France in 1625. In 1642, after political and religious tensions resulted in a breakdown of the relationship between king and Parliament, a series of civil wars erupted in England. Suffering a military defeat, the king was taken captive in 1646. He was accused of treason, tried, convicted, and executed at Whitehall on 30 January 1649.


The Interregnum (30 January 1649 – 29 May 1660) is the period between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of the English monarchy with the return of the deposed king’s son to the throne. During this period, the former kingdom was governed as a republic, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. When Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard inherited the title of Lord Protector, but after 264 days, the younger Cromwell resigned, and by 25 April 1660, Parliament resolved to restore the monarchy.


Charles II (ruled 1660 – 1685) was the son of the executed Charles I. Though the Restoration period begins with Charles II’s return to England on 25 May 1660, legal documents from his reign are dated as if he had succeeded his father in 1649. Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662.  


The Great Fire of London (September 1666) burned for five days, gutting much of the city proper, the area within the old Roman walls. The fire destroyed some 13,200 homes, 87 churches, 44 livery halls, historic city gates, and many other important structures, including the Fleet Prison and the Royal Exchange. About 100,000 people were left homeless. Although many contemporaries judged the death toll negligible, the truth is that the number of people who perished in the fire is unknown.


James II (ruled 1685 – 1688) succeeded his brother, Charles II, on the English throne, but in December of 1688, he was deposed. In exile in France (and under the protection of Louis XIV), the Catholic king would live until 1701. Just months before the so-called Glorious Revolution that resulted in James’s flight front the country, the king’s second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward Stuart, who was thus briefly Prince of Wales. After the death of James II in 1701, the younger James claimed the throne as James III of England. Despite numerous attempts, he was never successful in his efforts to gain the English throne.


After the deposition of James II, Mary Stuart (ruled 1688 – 1694) and her husband, William of Orange (ruled 1688 – 1702), succeeded to the throne as Mary II and William III of England. Mary Stuart was the eldest surviving child of James II and his first wife, Anne Hyde. William of Orange was her first cousin (William’s mother was Mary Henrietta, the eldest daughter of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria). Mary and William ruled as joint monarchs, but after Mary’s death in 1694, William continued to rule alone until his death in 1702.


The Nine Years’ War (1688 – 1697) was a conflict that involved France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, and Savoy, in addition to England. It was fought on land and on sea, on the European continent as well as in North America and India. During these years, William III left England each spring on campaign and returned in the fall.


After Mary II’s death in 1694, the English throne did not pass immediately to her younger sister, Anne, but to Mary’s husband. There was resistance to William’s sole rule, and the relationship between the king and his wife’s sister was contentious. Meanwhile, followers of the deposed Catholic king agitated for the restoration of James II or his heir—James Francis Stuart, that is, not Anne. The Jacobite plan to assassinate William in 1696 reduced opposition to the Protestant king’s rule, but it did not resolve his conflicts with Anne.


With the Great Recoinage of 1696, Parliament attempted to remedy “the ill state of the coin of the kingdom.” As the price of silver rose in the 1690s, old coins were “clipped” (that is, their edges were snipped off), and the silver was sold. Thus a coin’s face value no longer reflected the value of its metal content.

As a result, by 1695, the shortage of small-denomination coins made everyday transactions difficult. A Commission on the Coinage was established, and in January 1696, Parliament passed the Act for Remedying the Ill State of the Coin of the Kingdom. But the Great Recoinage was not a success. The Royal Mint was unprepared for the necessary re-coinage, and by late 1696, the shortage of small-value coins led to a whole host of economic problems.


Anne Stuart (1702 – 1714) finally succeeded to the English throne after the death of her brother-in-law, William III. Anne was the younger of James II’s surviving daughters by his first wife, Anne Hyde. Anne had married George of Denmark in 1683; despite at least seventeen pregnancies, she had no surviving children at the time of her death. (Of her known pregnancies between 1684 and 1700, twelve ended in miscarriages. Of five liveborn children, only one, William, survived infancy, but he died in 1700, at age 11.)


No Stuart monarch followed Queen Anne onto the English throne—instead of her Catholic half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart, she was succeeded by George of Hanover. His claim to the English throne came through his mother, Sophia of Hanover—she was the granddaughter of James I. (Sophia’s mother was Elizabeth Stuart, queen of Bohemia, the sister of King Charles I).


Whigs and Tories


Political factions that grew into political parties, the Whigs and the Tories have their origins in the Exclusion Crisis of Charles II’s reign. Whigs supported the exclusion of the king’s Catholic brother, James, from succession to the English throne, while Tories recognized the legitimate rights of James to succeed his brother and opposed the efforts in Parliament to pass a bill to exclude him from the succession. King Charles was able to dissolve Parliament in 1681, thus ensuring the bill could not become law.

In very general terms, Whigs opposed the idea of an absolutist monarchy, were proponents of the power of Parliament, and favored religious toleration (for Protestants, not for Catholics—which is why they supported the exclusion of James from the line of succession). Tories (like Mary Astell) resisted efforts to limit the powers of the monarch and were devoted to the Church of England and suspicious of dissenters.


The rival factions were briefly united in the events that led to James II’s deposition (or abdication, depending on who was describing it) although Tories supported his daughter Mary’s sole rule (with her husband, William, perhaps, as regent, effectively governing with Mary as a nominal sovereign) while Whigs supported electing William of Orange as sole monarch. William refused any solution that left him without political power, and Mary refused any solution that denied her husband’s power as king. Compromise resulted in the joint monarchy, the solution laid out in the 1689 Declaration of Right: “The sole and full exercise of the regal power be only in and executed by the said Prince of Orange in the names of the said Prince and Princess during their joint lives.” However, having sworn oaths of allegiance to James, Tory churchmen were hesitant about swearing an oath of allegiance to the new monarchs, resulting in another source of political conflict.


After the Jacobite plot to assassinate William in 1696, a new oath was devised, this one insisting that William, now sole ruler, was the “lawful and rightful king.”

Laws and Institutions


Poor Laws


A good survey of the history of the poor laws and poor relief is found online at “The Old Poor Law,” The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution. At this site you will also find the full text of the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the 1662 Poor Relief Act (often known as the Settlement and Removal Act). Information about the 1691 Act, which dealt with issue of establishing settlement, is also there.


Information is also found online at “The Poor Law and Charity,” London Lives, 1690-1800: Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis. In addition to an overview of the poor laws and settlement, this site discusses poor relief and charity, begging and vagrancy, and parish relief, as well as including transcripts of settlement and vagrancy examinations.


Also useful and accessible is E. M. Leonard’s The Early History of English Poor Relief (Cambridge: University Pres, 1900).


Act of Toleration (1689)


Passed by Parliament in 1689, after the deposition/abdication of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, this act allowed Nonconformists (English Protestants whose beliefs and practices did not conform to the doctrines of the established Church of England) to practice their distinct brand of Protestantism in their own places of worship and with their own preachers—though they were still required to swear an oath of allegiance to the king. They were still denied political offices, however. The act did not extend toleration to Catholics, however. The act kept in place previous requirements for church attendance: “all the laws made and provided for the frequenting of divine service on the Lord’s Day commonly called Sunday shall be still in force, and executed against all persons that offend against the said laws.”


Slaves and Slavery


Slavery existed in England before the Norman Conquest—Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes in England all bought and sold slaves. In the Domesday Book, recording results of the census that William the Conqueror compiled after the Norman Conquest, about ten percent of the population were counted as slaves. By about the year 1200, however, the practice had died out, although no law abolishing it was passed until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made the purchase and ownership of slaves illegal within the British empire.


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, enslaved men and women from both the continent and the colonies were brought to England—since there were no laws governing the practice of slavery, their status was ambiguous. The issue did come before the courts, however. The line quoted in Chapter 16 by Hortense Mancini— ‘England is too pure an air for slaves to breathe in’—comes from the complicated 1637 Star Chamber proceedings against the printer John Lilburne. After Lilburne refused to answer questions, the court ordered his imprisonment; he was to be held, whipped, pilloried, and fined until he answered. In 1640, after the Long Parliament convened, Lilburne’s release was ordered and the judges of the Star Chamber who had sentenced him were impeached. To support their argument that these judges had violated the law, members of the Commons cited the case of “one Cartwright,” who, during the eleventh year of the reign of Elizabeth I (1569), “brought a slave from Russia” into England. Questioned for “whipping” of this “slave,” “it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.” (The decision seemed to focus on Cartwright’s “whipping” of his “slave”—whipping that was deemed “painful and shameful”—rather than the institution of slavery itself.)

However compelling the case of “one Cartwright” may have been in the Lilburne decision of 1640, and despite its frequent mention, no contemporary record or report on this trial has been found. The Cartwright “case” would also be cited as precedent in the Somerset Case of 1772, which held that chattel slavery was not supported in common law in England, though its status elsewhere in the British Empire was unclear. Though an important decision in the abolitionist movement, the Somerset Case did not mean that there were no longer to be slaves in England—slaves continued to be brought into England from the colonies, and escaped slaves continued to be tracked and recaptured. Nor did the decision end the slave trade.

William III, king of England
bottom of page