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Reuben P. Halleck

Subject Matter and Aim.—The history of English literature traces the development of the best poetry and prose written in English by the inhabitants of the British Isles. For more than twelve hundred years the Anglo-Saxon race has been producing this great literature, which includes among its achievements the incomparable work of Shakespeare.

The Norman Conquest.—The overthrow of the Saxon rule in England by William the Conqueror in 1066 was an event of vast importance to English literature. The Normans (Norsemen or Northmen), as they were called, a term which shows their northern extraction, were originally of the same blood as the English race. They settled in France in the ninth century, married French wives, and adopted the French language. In 1066 their leader, Duke William, and his army crossed the English Channel and won the battle of Hastings, in which Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was killed.

The Course of English History.—The century and a half that followed the death of Chaucer appealed especially to Shakespeare. He wrote or helped to edit five plays that deal with this period,—Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Richard III., and Henry VIII. While these plays do not give an absolutely accurate presentation of the history of the time, they show rare sympathy in catching the spirit of the age, and they leave many unusually vivid impressions.

The Reign of Elizabeth.—Queen Elizabeth, who ranks among the greatest of the world's rulers, was the daughter of Henry VIII. and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth reigned as queen of England from 1558 until her death in 1603. The remarkable allowances which she made for difference of opinion showed that she felt the spirit of the Renaissance. She loved England, and her most important acts were guided, not by selfish personal motives, but by a strong desire to make England a great nation.

History of the Period.—James I. (1603-1625), son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and the first of the Stuart line to reign in England, succeeded Elizabeth. His stubbornness and folly not only ended the intense patriotic feeling of the previous reign, but laid the foundation for the deadly conflict that resulted. In fifty-four years after the defeat of the Armada, England was plunged into civil war.

History of the Period.—This chapter opens with the Restoration of Charles II. (1660-1685) in 1660 and ends before the appearance, in 1740, of a new literary creation, Richardson's Pamela, the novel of domestic life and character. This period is often called the age of Dryden and Pope, the two chief poets of the time. When Oliver Cromwell died, the restoration of the monarchy was inevitable. The protest against the Puritanic view of life had become strong.

The Colonial Expansion of England.—The most important movements in English history during the second forty years of the eighteenth century are connected with colonial expansion. In 1739 friction between England and Spain over colonial trade forced Robert Walpole, the prime minister, into a war which was not successfully prosecuted, and which compelled him to resign in 1742. The humorous statement that he “abdicated,” contains a large element of truth, for he had been a much more important ruler than the king.

History of the Period.—Much of the English history of this period was affected directly or indirectly by the French Revolution (1789). The object of this movement was to free men from oppression by the aristocracy and to restore to them their natural rights. The new watchwords were “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” The professed principles of the French revolutionists were in many respects similar to those embodied in the American Declaration of Independence.

History of the Period.—In the two periods of English history most remarkable for their accomplishment, the Elizabethan and the Victorian, the throne was occupied by women. Queen Victoria, the granddaughter of George III., ruled from 1837 to the beginning of 1901. Her long reign of sixty-three years may be said to close with the end of the nineteenth century.

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