English Renaissance

The English Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement in England dating from the late 15th to the early 17th century. It is associated with the pan-European Renaissance that is usually regarded as beginning in Italy in the late 14th century. Like most of northern Europe, England saw little of these developments until more than a century later. The beginning of the English Renaissance is often taken, as a convenience, to be 1485, when the Battle of Bosworth Field ended the Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the Tudor Dynasty. Renaissance style and ideas, however, were slow to penetrate England, and the Elizabethan era in the second half of the 16th century is usually regarded as the height of the English Renaissance.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, standing in a white embroidered gown with large bustle and sleeves and small waist, with a high lace collar.  She is holding a folded fan and a pair of gloves, and standing on top of a world map.  Thunder clouds appear over her left shoulder, and breaking sun over her right.

Queen Elizabeth I standing on a map of England

The English Renaissance is different from the Italian Renaissance in several ways. The dominant art forms of the English Renaissance were literature and music. Visual arts in the English Renaissance were much less significant than in the Italian Renaissance. The English period began far later than the Italian, which is usually considered to begin in the late 14th century, and was moving into Mannerism and the Baroque by the 1550s or earlier. In contrast, the English Renaissance can only be said to begin, shakily, in the 1520s, and continued until perhaps 1620.



England had a strong tradition of literature in the English vernacular, which gradually increased as English use of the printing press became common by the mid 16th century. By the time of Elizabethan literature a vigorous literary culture in both drama and poetry included poets such as Edmund Spenser, whose verse epic The Faerie Queene had a strong influence on English literature but was eventually overshadowed by the lyrics of William Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt and others. Typically, the works of these playwrights and poets circulated in manuscript form for some time before they were published, and above all the plays of English Renaissance theatre were the outstanding legacy of the period.

The English theatre scene, which performed both for the court and nobility in private performances, and a very wide public in the theatres, was the most crowded in Europe, with a host of other playwrights as well as the giant figures of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Elizabeth herself was a product of Renaissance humanism trained by Roger Ascham, and wrote occasional poems such as On Monsieur’s Departure at critical moments of her life. Philosophers and intellectuals included Thomas More and Francis Bacon. All the 16th century Tudor monarchs were highly educated, as was much of the nobility, and Italian literature had a considerable following, providing the sources for many of Shakespeare’s plays. English thought advanced towards modern science with the Baconian Method, a forerunner of the Scientific Method. The language of the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, and at the end of the period the Authorised Version (“King James Version” to Americans) of the Bible (1611) had enduring impacts on the English consciousness.

Criticism of the idea of the English Renaissance

Oil painting of a young man lying on the ground in a forest.  His head is propped on his bent arm, and he is covered by a shield.  In the background is a plumed horse in blue armor, a squire, and hunting apparatus

Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, circa 1610-14

The notion of calling this period “The Renaissance” is a modern invention, having been popularized by the historian Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century. The idea of the Renaissance has come under increased criticism by many cultural historians, and some have contended that the “English Renaissance” has no real tie with the artistic achievements and aims of the Italian artists (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello) who are closely identified with Renaissance visual art. Whereas from the perspective of literary history, England had already experienced a flourishing of literature over 200 years before the time of Shakespeare, during the last decades of the fourteenth century. Geoffrey Chaucer’s popularizing of English as a medium of literary composition rather than Latin occurred only 50 years after Dante had started using Italian for serious poetry, and Chaucer translated works by both Boccaccio and Petrarch into Middle English. At the same time William Langland, author ofPiers Plowman, and John Gower were also writing in English. In the fifteenth century, Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur, was a notable figure. For this reason, scholars find the singularity of the period called the English Renaissance questionable; C. S. Lewis, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge, famously remarked to a colleague that he had “discovered” that there was no English Renaissance, and that if there had been one, it had “no effect whatsoever.”

Historians have also begun to consider the word “Renaissance” as an unnecessarily loaded word that implies an unambiguously positive “rebirth” from the supposedly more primitive Middle Ages. Some historians have asked the question “a renaissance for whom?,” pointing out, for example, that the status of women in society arguably declined during the Renaissance. Many historians and cultural historians now prefer to use the term “early modern” for this period, a term that highlights the period as a transitional one that led to the modern world, but attempts to avoid positive or negative connotations.

Other cultural historians have countered that, regardless of whether the name “renaissance” is apt, there was undeniably an artistic flowering in England under the Tudor monarchs, culminating in Shakespeare and his contemporaries.


Major English Renaissance authors

The major literary figures in the English Renaissance include:

  • Francis Bacon
  • Francis Beaumont
  • George Chapman
  • Thomas Dekker
  • John Donne
  • John Fletcher
  • John Ford
  • Ben Jonson
  • Thomas Kyd
  • Christopher Marlowe
  • Philip Massinger
  • Thomas Middleton
  • Thomas More
  • Thomas Nashe
  • William Rowley
  • William Shakespeare
  • James Shirley
  • Philip Sidney
  • Edmund Spenser
  • John Webster
  • Thomas Wyatt
  • William Tyndale