Jacobean era

From New World Encyclopedia

Jacobean Era
James I of England 1603 – 1625
Preceded by Elizabethan era
Followed by Caroline era
Monarch King James I

The Jacobean era refers to a period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of King James I (1603-1625). The Jacobean era succeeds the Elizabethan era and precedes the Caroline era, and specifically denotes a style of architecture, visual arts, decorative arts, and literature that is predominant of that period.

James I ruled at a time when the fallout from the Reformation was still impacting on society, with rulers changing from one Church to another, and insisting on religious conformity. James I was caught up in this situation of flux. He was, however, a committed Protestant and the Bible translation that he commissioned, known as the King James' or the Authorized Version, has subsequently given millions of English-speakers direct access to the Bible instead of having to rely on a priest explaining the text to them in Latin. The impact on Western culture has been inestimable.

The word "Jacobean" is derived from the Hebrew name Jacob, which is the original form of the English name James.

Highlights of the Jacobean Era

The practical, if not formal, unification of England and Scotland under one ruler was a development of the first order of importance for both nations, and would shape their existence to the present day. Another development of crucial significance was the foundation of the first British colonies on the North American continent, at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, in Newfoundland in 1610, and at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620, which laid the foundation for future British settlement and the eventual formation of both Canada and the United States of America.

Gunpowder Plot

The most notorious event of James's reign occurred on November 5, 1605. On that date, a group of English Catholics (including the infamous Guy Fawkes) attempted to blow up the King and Parliament in the Palace of Westminster. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed attempt to kill the Protestant King James I of England, his family, and most of the Protestant aristocracy in one fell swoop by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening. The conspirators had further planned to abduct any of the royal children not present in Parliament and to incite a revolt in the Midlands.

The Gunpowder Plot was one of a series of unsuccessful assassination attempts against James I, and followed the Main Plot and Bye Plot of 1603. Many believe the Gunpowder Plot to have been part of the Counter-Reformation.

The aims of the conspirators were to perpetrate a heinous crime that would invoke a total revolution in the government of England leading to the installation of a Catholic monarch. Instead, the failure of this intended treasonous act of regicide, that is, the murder of royalty, put many loyal Catholics in position to receive even greater religious persecution. Before this period, Catholicism had been associated with Spain and the evils of the Inquisition, but after the plot, Catholic became synonymous with treasonous.

Thirty Years' War

The marriage of James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to Frederick V, Elector Palatine on February 14, 1613, was more than the social event of the era; the couple's union had important political and military implications. Frederick and Elizabeth's election as King and Queen of Bohemia in 1619, and the conflict that resulted, marked the beginning of the disastrous Thirty Years' War.

The major impact of the Thirty Years' War, in which mercenary armies were extensively used, was the devastation of entire regions scavenged bare by the foraging armies. Episodes of widespread famine and disease devastated the population of the German states and, to a lesser extent, the Low Countries and Italy, while bankrupting many of the powers involved.[1] Some of the conflicts that triggered the war continued unresolved for a much longer time. The war ended with the Treaty of Münster, a part of the wider Peace of Westphalia.[2]

King James' determination to avoid involvement in the continental conflict, even during the "war fever" of 1623, appears in retrospect as one of the most significant, and most positive, aspects of his reign.

Before their Bohemian adventure, Elizabeth and Frederick were the focus of an outburst of romantic idealism. Even after the negative turn in their fortunes, the couple were the center of an intellectual circle that involved significant figures like Comenius and Samuel Hartlib, who would in time have positive impacts on English society.[3]

Royal finances

Political events and developments of the Jacobean era cannot be understood apart from the economic and financial situation. James had inherited a debt of £350,000 from Queen Elizabeth; by 1608, the debt had risen to £1,400,000 and was increasing by £140,000 annually. Through a crash program of selling off Royal demesnes, Lord Treasurer Robert Cecil reduced the debt to £300,000 and the annual deficit to £46,000 by 1610—but could not follow the same method of relief much farther. The result was a series of tense and often failed negotiations with Parliament for financial supports, a situation that deteriorated over the reigns of James and his son and heir Charles I until the crisis of the English Civil War.[4]

The Jacobean era ended with a severe economic depression in 1620–1626, complicated by a serious outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1625.


In literature, some of Shakespeare's most powerful plays were written in that period (for example The Tempest, King Lear, and Macbeth), as well as powerful works by John Webster and Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson also contributed to some of the era's best poetry, together with the Cavalier poets. In prose, the most representative works are found in those of the philosopher Francis Bacon and the King James Bible.

Jonson was also an important innovator in the specialized literary sub-genre of the masque, which went through an intense development in the Jacobean era. His name is linked with that of Inigo Jones as co-developers of the literary and visual/technical aspects of this hybrid art. The high costs of these spectacles, however, positioned the Stuarts far from the relative frugality of Elizabeth's reign, and alienated the middle classes and the Puritans with a prospect of waste and self-indulgent excess.


Francis Bacon had a strong influence in the development of modern science, which was entering a key phase in this era, as the work of Johannes Kepler, in Germany, and Galileo Galilei, in Italy, brought the Copernican revolution to a new level of development. Bacon laid a foundation, and was a powerful and persuasive advocate, for objective inquiry about the natural world in place of the Medieval scholastic authoritarianism that still influenced the culture of British society in his lifetime. On practical rather than general levels, much work was done in the areas of navigation, cartography, and surveying—John Widdowes' A Description of the World (1621) was one significant volume in this area—as well as in continuing William Gilbert's work on magnetism from the previous reign. Scholarship and the sciences, or "natural philosophy," had important royal patrons in this era—primarily the King's son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the king's wife, Anne of Denmark; the Danish Court, from which she derived, had a strong patronage tradition in intellectual matters.


The fine arts were dominated by foreign talent during the Jacobean era, as was true of the Tudor and Stuart periods in general. Daniel Mytens was the most prominent portrait painter during the reign of James, as Anthony van Dyck would be under the coming reign of his son. Yet the slow development of a native school of painting, which had made progress in the previous reign, continued under James, producing figures like Robert Peake the Elder (died 1619), William Larkin (fl. 1609–19), and Sir Nathaniel Bacon (1585–1627). Some would also claim, as part of this trend, Cornelius Johnson, or Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, (1593–1661), born and trained in London and active through the first two Stuart reigns.[5]

Emergence of tobacco

In the domain of customs, manners, and everyday life, the Jacobean era saw a sweeping change with the growing prevalence of tobacco use. James I published his A Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1604, but the book had no discernible effect; by 1612, London had 7000 tobacconists and smoking houses. The Virginia colony survived because the English had acquired the nicotine habit.


  1. Spiritus Temporis, Thirty Years' War—Political consequences. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  2. Discovery, Avoiding a Thirty Years War. Retrieved May 25, 2008.
  3. Frances A. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).
  4. Melissa D. Aaron, Global Economics (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2003).
  5. Eliis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790, 4th edition (New York: Viking Penguin, 1978).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aaron, Melissa D. Global Economics. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2003. ISBN 9780874138771.
  • Taylor, Alan. Jacobean Visions: Webster, Hitchcock & Google Culture. New York: P. Lang, 2007. ISBN 3631562276.
  • Waterhouse, Eliis. Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790, 4th edition. New York: Viking Penguin, 1978.
  • Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. ISBN 9780710073808.


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