Friday, March 21, 2014

17th & 18th Century England: Histories Informing One Another

17th & 18th Century England - Philippa Jane Keyworth17th & 18th Century England - Philippa Jane Keyworth17th & 18th Century England - Philippa Jane Keyworth
By Philippa Jane Keyworth

During my studies at university I have become rather addicted to research. Now, don’t get me wrong, before I started studying my history degree I did do research for my novels….when I had to. You see, research always seemed a hassle when I was writing. I would be flying along, tapping out my story or scrawling it in illegible handwriting, and to stop and check a date or what my character would wear to the theatre in 1815 was just a hindrance to the flow.

There it is. I have been honest about it; research was to me a hindrance, not a love. In some ways it still is, but since starting at university, my whole view of history has changed, and with it so has my aversion to research, an activity so many other historical fiction authors love!

So what is university doing to change my view of research? Well, quite simply, it is showing me the interconnection of the past and how histories inform each other, and this has become very evident as I've looked at the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England.

The seventeenth century saw a period of rapid population expansion. London’s population grew from 80,000 to 400,000 in the hundred years between 1550-1650. This population boom put pressure on the economy. Slow economic growth meant a lack of job opportunities and food supplies.

Seventeenth century England still relied heavily upon it’s agriculture to provide food, and a series of bad harvests in the 1620s, 1630s and 1640s saw starvation and the rural poor moving into cities in order to find either work or poor relief, thus increasing the risk of plague and civil unrest.

Though the scientific revolution took place during this century, England was still far off from expanding their exports beyond the dominating wool product, and equally far off from increasing domestic manufacturing through the use of new technologies.

The economic and social pressures were added to by the religious turmoil of the day. Catholics and Protestants were still at loggerheads, and the monarchy did not help matters. The Civil War punctuated the mid 1600s, turning fathers against sons and mothers against daughters.

And then, to top it all off, in 1688, the Glorious Revolution took place. Thank goodness it was a bloodless revolution! It was the beginning of the truly constitutional monarchy; some say the start of the Enlightenment. All in all, when taking a very broad overview, the seventeenth century is not one I would have particularly liked to make my home in, and it stands in huge contrast to its descendant, the eighteenth century.

Dorothy Marshall dubs the eighteenth century as ‘… ‘the Age of Challenge Contrast and Compromise.’’ Most of all, in comparison to many of the preceding centuries, the eighteenth was one of relative stability. Though there were bad harvests they did not repeat themselves incessantly as they had before and therefore did not cause the mass starvation of previous centuries. Outbreaks of plague began to lessen, none decimating the population as they had in the fourteenth century. The monarchy was now constitutional, established with William III, and continued without abusing the English people to the same extent of Charles I and his penchant for prerogative taxation.

Even religion changed. Enlightened thought was a new philosophy running through the courts of Europe, preaching equality between men, God as benevolent not malevolent, and pleasure as the highest achievement.

The still growing population was now supported by an expanding economy. As Beverly Lemire surmises in her article on the second hand clothes trade, the general standard of living was higher. Labourers now had surplus income not needing to be spent on essentials such as food. The new money went on luxuries like jewellery and clothing. The rise of consumerism had begun and the working and middling classes began their ascent through society.

Towards the end of the century the industrialisation of Britain began. Silk throwing factories, spinning machines, all of them made lighter work, created more jobs in cities and moved people away from their rural crafts to begin massive urbanisation.

However, the eighteenth century, like the seventeenth, was not without its turmoil. The American Revolution of 1775 saw the outworking of Enlightened thought and the loss of the English colonies. It also resulted in the bankruptcy of the French government, one of the factors that sparked the French Revolution of 1789. This in turn sparked a series of European wars.

It is narrow-minded and terribly whiggish to think that history is simply a recording of human progress, however, it is hard to view the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without coming to similar conclusions.

What can be seen most however, is the insight into how histories interconnect and inform one another. Without the religious persecutions of the previous two centuries, one could argue the Enlightenment would not have come about. Without religious persecution, the colonies of America might never have attracted so many brilliant-minded people, nor perhaps would the colonies have cast off their kin across the Atlantic. Without the American Revolution, the French government may not have become bankrupt and thus a large factor on the run up to the French Revolution would have been taken out of play. Without the rapid expansion of the population of the seventeenth century, eighteenth century England would not have had to improve manufacturing techniques, grow industry and the economy and thus begin the industrialisation of England which would eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution.

I realise this is all conjecture on my part but it does fascinate and show that history is interconnected. So, I’ll end this post by saying, I cannot deny it, the more I see histories informing each other, the more I want to research!


The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 by Barry Coward

Eighteenth Century England by Dorothy Marshall


Philippa Jane Keyworth, known to her friends as Pip, has been writing since she was twelve in every notebook she could find. Whilst she dabbles in a variety of genres, it was the encouragement of a friend to watch a film adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that would start the beginning of her love affair with the British Regency. Her debut novel, The Widow's Redeemer (Madison Street Publishing, 2012), is a traditional Regency romance bringing to life the romance between a young widow with an indomitable spirit and a wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.

The Widow's Redeemer - Regency Romance - Philippa Jane Keyworth

The Widow's Redeemer @ Amazon UK

The Widow's Redeemer @ Amazon USA

1 comment:

  1. Hi Philippa,

    I agree with most of what you have written, but I would like to add a little to it. The seventeenth century began the Farming Revolution, which ran through the nineteenth century. Here was the time when enclosures, and changing landscapes for the betterment of increase and better quality animal stock and crops began. There was the Irish famine during the eighteenth century, which was catastrophic. And, just a final note, the 1680's to 1815 usually constitutes what is known as the long eighteenth century.

    However, I am really happy that you are doing research because I hate reading a book when I know their information is inaccurate. I am critiquing a play right now that has several time-line inaccuracies - but otherwise is fantastic, but it drives me crazy when I get to those points.

    You can see my extensive research on eighteenth century farming on my blog at


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