English Renaissance

Annie Lee | Nov 26, 2022

Table of Content


English Renaissance or Renaissance in England are historiographical designations for the people of the whole community and the artistic and cultural productions of the Renaissance in England, in the period from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century. As in the rest of the Nordic Renaissance, it is produced as an influence of the Italian Renaissance and develops with a relative delay compared to it.

Conventionally its beginning is placed in 1485, with the end of the War of the Two Roses (Battle of Bosworth) and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Its culmination is placed in the Elizabethan era (second half of the sixteenth century), continuing in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

A distinguishing feature of the English Renaissance from the Italian Renaissance is the predominance of literature and music over the visual arts, as well as its later chronology (it developed when Italy was already undergoing Mannerism and the transition to the Baroque).

The increased use of the vernacular (English) as a literary language (previously Latin and French) gradually increased as printing developed in England, becoming widespread by the mid-16th century. By the time of Elizabethan literature, a vigorous English literary culture had developed, both in poetry and drama, with authors such as Edmund Spenser, whose epic The Faerie Queene had a strong influence on later English literature, although overshadowed by the lyric poetry of William Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt, and others. Typically, his works circulated in manuscript until they went to press. The main legacy of the period was the English Renaissance theater.

The works of this period were affected by the Anglican Reformation and the Age of Discovery, which were reflected in non-religious themes and maritime adventures, such as the shipwrecks reflected in Shakespeare's plays.

The theatrical scene, both on the public stage and in court and private performances, was among the most dynamic in Europe, with authors of the stature of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Queen Elizabeth herself was a product of Renaissance Humanism, educated by Roger Ascham, and at certain points in her life she wrote occasional poetry such as On Monsieur's Departure. All Tudor royalty received a careful education, and so did most of the nobility. Italian literature was avidly followed, being among the sources of Shakespeare's work.

At the end of the 15th century there was a flourishing of humanistic studies, a new type of grammar school and new textbooks, which allowed a rapid transition from the medieval tradition to the Renaissance (John Colet, William Lily, Thomas Linacre -De emendata structura Latini sermonis libri sex, 1524-). Among the intellectuals and philosophers of the following century, Thomas More (first third of the 16th century) and Francis Bacon (late 16th and early 17th century) stood out. Progress was made towards modern science with the Baconian method, precursor of the scientific method.

The Book of Common Prayer, the first version of which was published in 1549, and later the Authorised Version or King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, had an enduring impact not only on religious matters, but on English language and thought itself.

Main literary authors

The local masters of English painting and sculpture were slow to incorporate the innovations of the Renaissance, the artists of the Tudor court being mostly foreigners, such as the outstanding figures of Hans Holbein the Younger (his main local follower was John Bettes the Elder), William Scrots or Frederick Zuccaro. There were also outstanding foreign painters whose name has not been preserved, such as the so-called Claudia "Master of the Brandon portraits", the author of the portrait of Henry VII (in some sources he is identified with Michael Sittow) or the author of the portrait of Henry Howard.

The most violent phases of the Anglican Reformation produced an intense iconoclasm that destroyed almost all medieval religious art and cut off the continuity of English painting and sculpture workshops. The pictorial production was centered on portraiture, a genre to which landscape was later added.

A local feature, which can be considered an English invention (it did not spread throughout Europe until the 18th century), was the miniature portrait, which essentially took the technique of a dying art: manuscript illumination, and transferred it to small portraits that were arranged in medallions. The genre was developed in England by foreign masters, mostly Flemish, such as the founder of the tradition, Lucas Horenbout, replaced in the late sixteenth century by local artists such as Nicholas Hilliard (his disciple was John Bettes the Younger, son of Bettes the Elder) and Isaac Oliver.

The portraits of Elizabeth I of England were strictly controlled, developing a non-realistic iconic style that persisted over time.

Italian sculpture was introduced by Pietro Torrigiano, called to England by Henry VII and Cardinal Wolsey. He realized the tomb of Doctor Young (1512) and that of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey (1512-1519). Giovanni da Majano executed polychrome terracotta medallions and the ceiling of Cardinal Wolsey's apartment at Hampton Court (from 1521). Local funerary monuments began to imitate the Italian style (sepulchres of Sir Anthony and Lady Browne at Battle, ca. 1540-1548). The ceilings of Hampton Court or the choir loft of King's College Chapel, Cambridge (1532-1536) use arabesque decoration, foliage and other Renaissance motifs, but with structural elements still Gothic (similar to the so-called Louis XII style in France). The abolition of monasteries and the prohibition of images (with Edward VI) confined sculptors to decorative tasks and funerary monuments. Under the reign of Elizabeth, German and Dutch sculptors introduced the Nordic Revival (monumental chimneys of Knole, Longford, Hatfield), making the form of the sepulchres more classical and the decoration more rigid, sometimes heavy (sepulchres of the Fetiplace at Swenecombe, 1562, and of Sir Richard Pecksall. Also working in England were Benedetto and Giovanni da Maiano.

English Renaissance music was more in touch with continental innovations than visual art; and it was able to survive the Reformation with relative success, even though William Byrd and other leading figures were Catholics. The Elizabethan madrigal differed from, though related to, the Italian tradition. Among the most prominent composers were Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley and John Dowland.

Although some Renaissance features can be seen in certain buildings of Henry VIII's time, such as Hampton Court Palace, the disappeared Nonsuch Palace, Sutton Place and Layer Marney Tower, the so-called "Tudor style" is essentially late Gothic. Of London's major palaces (Whitehall and Westminster) there is practically nothing left of what they were in the 16th century. Later, already in Palladian style, is the Banqueting House (Inigo Jones, 1619-1622).

It was not until the Elizabethan architecture of the late sixteenth century that a true Renaissance emerged in the architecture of England; and its direct influence did not come from Italy but from Northern Europe. The main works were large show houses or prodigy houses built for the aristocracy, characterized by large glazed openings (Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall), such as the aforementioned Hardwick Hall, Wollaton Hall, Hatfield House and Burghley House. The style continued until the early 17th century, when it became associated with Jacobean architecture. Smaller, but also of good size, residences such as Little Moreton Hall continued to be built in essentially medieval (half-timbered) style until the late 16th century. Religious architecture remained Gothic until the Reformation, a period when building activity came to an almost complete halt, although funerary monuments, chancels and other elements dating from the mid-16th century were often done in the Classical style. The few churches built at the time were in the Gothic style, such as Langley Chapel (1601).

Regardless of the evidence that under the House of Tudor there was a flowering of the arts and literature in England, culminating in the Elizabethan era with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the appropriateness of the designation of this period as "Renaissance" is questioned. The term, initially applied to Italy, derives from a much later usage, popularized from the work of Jacob Burckhardt (19th century). The concept itself has been subjected to criticism by cultural history, some of whose historians propose that the alleged "English Renaissance" has no real links to the artistic achievements and purposes of Italian artists and their visual productions. From the perspective of literary history, it could be traced back 200 years before Shakespeare, to the last decades of the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer's use of the English language of his day (Middle English) as an alternative literary language to Latin is only half a century later than Dante Alighieri's similar effort with Italian. Chaucer himself translated works by Boccaccio and Petrarch. At the same time, William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, and John Gower were also writing in English. In the 15th century, Thomas Malory (author of Le Morte D'Arthur), John Lydgate, and Thomas Hoccleve are notable figures. These examples lead some authors to question the uniqueness of the period called the "English Renaissance"; C. S. Lewis, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and Cambridge, famously told a colleague that he had "discovered" that there was no English Renaissance and that, if there had been, "it had no effect in any case".

It is also proposed that the word "Renaissance" is unnecessarily loaded with positive implications, implying a disregard for the medieval. From a "gendered" perspective it has even been asked "Renaissance for whom?", pointing out that the social status of women worsened.

It is much more frequent in recent Anglo-Saxon historiography to use the concept Early Modern (equivalent to the period that continental European historiography calls "Modern Age", since in the English historiographic tradition the Contemporary Age -Late Modern- is not differentiated), which emphasizes the transitional character towards the "modern world", with less positive or negative connotations.

For Oscar Wilde, the "English Renaissance" was the one he saw taking place in his own time, the second half of the 19th century, with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement:


  1. English Renaissance
  2. Renacimiento inglés
  3. ^ a b Key features of Renaissance culture Andrew Dickson, "An English Renaissance: Key features of Renaissance culture". British Library online, 2017
  4. ^ "English Renaissance", Poetry Foundation online
  5. ^ 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
  6. a b Strong, Roy, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture. London and New York City, 1969.
  7. a et b Thoorens 1967, p. 150-155.
  8. Phillips 1973.
  9. Collectif 2000, Tudor England: An Encyclopedia, p. 489.
  10. a et b Duart 1993, p. 1337-1349.

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