Since 1485, English (and later British) cultural periods have been named after the monarch or group of monarchs who occupied the throne. Each era celebrated triumphs, witnessed disasters, endured inequality, fought for change, made advancements in science, and saw literature blossom. Here's a quick guide to each one.
1. The Tudor Era (1485–1558): The Age of Religious Upheaval
Henry VII’s (reigned 1485-1509) victory at the Battle of Bosworth marked the end of the medieval Plantagenet age and raised an obscure Welsh nobleman to the crown of England.
Much of the Tudor era was dominated by the religious upheaval caused by the English reformation [PDF]. When the Pope refused to annul the marriage between Henry VIII (reigned 1509–1547) and Catherine of Aragon, the king took matters into his own hands and made himself head of the Church in England. It allowed him to marry Anne Boleyn (and, as a bonus, dissolve the monasteries and seize their assets), but it also opened the door to the Protestant religion in England.
Henry never fully embraced Protestantism in its entirety, unlike his son Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553) whose short reign saw a push for more radical reforms. His Protestant advisors tried to hold onto power by conspiring to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne after his early death. But England rose up in support of Mary Tudor, and Jane’s reign ended after only nine days. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London—and might have survived had her father not supported Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion (an attempt to stop Mary’s Spanish marriage, overthrow the government, and set Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth on the throne instead). Mary had Jane executed in February 1554; she was only 16 years old.
Mary I (reigned1553–1558), England’s first Queen Regnant, set about undoing her brother’s work with the counter-reformation. She died five years after ascending the throne, unpopular and disillusioned, and has been remembered ever since (somewhat unfairly) as Bloody Mary.
Despite so much religious strife, the Tudor era saw the birth of the English Renaissance. It became common for books to be printed in the English vernacular, especially the bible, plus there was an upsurge in political pamphlets and theological treatises as more people sought to understand their changing society. There was also a growth in music, and the shift away from medieval iconography saw the rise in realistic portraiture, now available to anyone from the king to the burgeoning middle-class.
2. The Elizabethan Era (1558–1603): The Age of Discovery
Elizabeth Tudor’s route to the English throne was not easy. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed when she was just a child; Elizabeth was then declared the illegitimate daughter of a traitor, though Henry VIII still recognized her as his own. She was later briefly embroiled in—and imprisoned for—a plot to put her on the throne instead of her half-sister, Mary I. She rose to power after Mary named her as heir, and her reign came to symbolize a golden age that was so distinct from its predecessor, it’s remembered as an era in its own right.
Elizabeth was a complex character, both determined, astute, and politically shrewd, and yet wracked by doubt, procrastination, and paranoia. She rejected a marriage that would have seen her husband crowned king and instead chose to depict herself as the Virgin Queen and mother of her people, declaring that “I am already bound unto an Husband, namely, the Kingdome of England.”
Elizabeth’s great nemesis was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had her eyes on the English crown and was imprisoned in England for 19 years. After Mary became embroiled in the Babington Plot—which planned to make her queen—Elizabeth signed her death warrant in 1587, admitting that “so long as there is life in her, there is hope; so as they live in hope, we live in fear.”
Danger also came from overseas. In 1588, England’s fledgling navy managed to fight off the Spanish Armada thanks to a new design of ship and sympathetic weather. This prevented a Catholic invasion and kept Elizabeth on her throne.
The Elizabethan era saw England beginning to look beyond Europe and toward the New World. Privateers such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh set out to match the earlier Spanish explorers. The English were soon founding new settlements, including in Virginia in 1587. It was also the beginning of Empire and the English slave trade.
Unlike her siblings, Elizabeth found a religious compromise between the Protestant and Catholic churches, embodied in the Act of Uniformity (1559). This established Protestantism as England’s official faith but allowed individuals to find a middle way. The continued execution of Catholics was done on the grounds of their treason rather than their religion, and Elizabeth made a point of declaring that she did not want to “make windows into men's souls ... there is only one Jesus Christ and all the rest is a dispute over trifles.”
The era's relative political stability allowed science, art, music, and literature to flourish. The Elizabethan age saw the first purpose-built theater in 1576, the invention of miniature portraiture, and a change in architecture from the defensive castle to the country house. It was also the age of William Shakespeare, whose first play was performed sometime around 1590.
3. The Stuart Era (1603–1714): The Age of Civil War
The Stuart family had already ruled Scotland for 232 years when James VI became James I of England (reigned 1603–1625). Their tenure of the English crown was marked by confrontation, civil war, religious intolerance, and political upheaval.
The transition was initially peaceful. But the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 demonstrated that religious fanaticism was still very much alive. Thirteen conspirators (of whom Guy Fawkes is the best remembered) attempted to blow up the king and parliament. Although the plot was foiled, it's still commemorated in Britain every November 5.
Violent upheaval continued in the form of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. James was succeeded by his son Charles I (reigned 1625–1649), whose belief in the divine right of kings put him on a collision course with the growing power of Parliament. Conflict over taxation, religion, and royal power finally erupted into civil war. Charles was executed for treason in 1649.
For the next 11 years, England was a republic with Oliver Cromwell at its head, king in all but name, until Charles I's son, Charles II (reigned 1649–1685), was invited to return in 1660. As well as the Restoration, the decade saw two other significant events. In 1665, the Great Plague swept through England, killing 68,596 people in London alone—around 15 percent of the city's population. A year later, the capital was ravaged by the Great Fire of London when sparks from a baker’s oven ignited a blaze that destroyed over 13,000 medieval houses, the Royal Exchange, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “Lord! what sad sight it was by moone-light to see, the whole City almost on fire …”
Religious unrest continued under Charles II’s reign. Although the throne passed peacefully to his Catholic brother, within three years James II (reigned 1685–1688) was deposed in the Glorious Revolution. This time the monarchy survived, and the later Stuart period was overseen by James’s two daughters. Mary II (reigned 1689–1694) co-ruled with her husband, William III (reigned 1689–1702), and then Queen Anne (reigned 1702–1714) became the first monarch of the kingdom of Great Britain when the Act of Union was passed in 1707.
Despite all this turbulence, the Stuart era featured numerous advancements in science, art, and architecture. Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt much of London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral. In science, Sir Isacc Newton used mathematics to define gravity, color, and the speed of sound; Robert Boyle pioneered modern chemistry; and Edmond Halley calculated the parabolic orbits of comets, including the one that bears his name.
4. The Georgian Era (1714–1837): The Age of Science and Reason
With the 1701 Act of Settlement determining that only a Protestant could inherit the throne, Georg of Hanover became George I of Great Britain (reigned 1714–1727) despite there being more than 50 claimants ahead of him. George II (reigned 1727–1760), George III (reigned 1760–1820), and George IV (reigned 1820–1830) followed before William IV (reigned 1830–1837) ended the era in 1837.
Although the monarchy’s reputation reached an all-time low during the Georgian era thanks to uncharismatic kings, extreme gluttony, and tales of scandal and murder, it was one of the most progressive. George I’s pertinacity to delegate helped develop the role of British Prime Minister; in 1774, Ignatius Sancho became the first Black Briton to cast his vote; and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801 along with the current national flag (the Union Jack).
Britain's Industrial Revolution kicked off during the Georgian period. The introduction of steam engines gradually allowed for bigger, more efficient machines, public railways, and steamboats, all underpinned by coal. Economic growth meant that changes to the electoral system were inevitable as the new and powerful middle-class emerged, resulting in the Great Reform Act of 1832. There was also a growing social consciousness about the slave trade, leading to its abolition across the Empire in 1833.
The Georgian period revived the age-old tensions between England and France, resulting in two of Britain’s most celebrated battles: the naval Battle of Trafalgar (1805), at which the national hero Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed, and the Battle of Waterloo (1815), where a combination of European forces led by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, defeated the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. But Britain’s growing military power could not prevent the loss of the American colonies by 1783.
The Romantic movement, which encompassed poetry, music, art, and philosophy, arose during the Georgian era. The first novel, Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, and the 18th century saw a rapid rise in the medium, including Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
5. The Victorian Era (1837–1901): The Age of Industry and Invention
Alexandrina of Kent’s coronation as Queen Victoria began one of the most transformative periods in British history.
Victorian Britain was a place of contradictions. There were those who became super wealthy through mills, manufacturing, and trade, but there were also the extremely poor, who starved in plain sight. Wage rates increased, but men, women, and children were expected to work long hours in dangerous and overcrowded conditions. It was not unusual for a child to lose a limb from crawling under a loom. As people flooded into the cities, slums became “crannies of obscure misery.” Sanitation was so poor that cholera killed thousands.
In response, social reform and philanthropy became key principles of Victorian thinking. Various charities and institutions that still exist today were created to alleviate poverty, care for the sick, and abolish slavery worldwide. Legislation was passed to protect child laborers, provide free education, improve public health, establish a professional police force, reform prisons, and introduce safety measures in mines, factories, and mills.
Britain was now the dominant global power. The country used its navy to build an empire that encompassed a quarter of the world’s population and provided the raw materials for manufacturing back home. Everyday items such as postage stamps, Christmas cards, photographs, bicycles, post boxes, and telephones made their first appearance in Britain during the Victorian era. Scientific advancements included the introduction of anaesthesia (1846) and antiseptic (1865) during surgery, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1856), and the use of forensic fingerprinting (1901).
Reading underwent a huge upsurge thanks to increased schooling, raised literacy levels, and civil and philanthropic investment in libraries. Penny dreadfuls thrilled readers with tales of the supernatural. Many authors, including Charles Dickens, serialized their work in weekly magazines so readers could spread the cost of buying them. Victorian social reform was reflected in the novels of Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, a genre known as the Condition of England Novel. Sherlock Holmes arrived on the crime-solving scene in 1887.
6. The Edwardian Era (1901–1914): The Age of Social Reform
Edward VII (reigned 1901–1910), the first king of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, had spent the previous 59 years as the playboy Prince of Wales, famous for his wayward lifestyle and succession of mistresses. He wasn't expected to be a particularly good king, but his reign proved a remarkable success. Edward was able to re-establish the popularity of the monarchy, which had ebbed away during his mother’s long period of reclusive mourning. Although he died in 1910, it's generally accepted that the Edwardian age lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Political reforms continued through the Victorian era, but property qualifications still prevented most working-class men from having the vote. Women also continued to be disenfranchised. The Edwardian period saw a growing call for female suffrage, led by the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies and the more radical and violent Women’s Social and Political Union. In law, single women were still not recognized and married women would usually lose custody of their children in any dispute with their husband.
The Edwardian period included some of the most important social reforms in British history, which put the country on the path to the welfare state: Between 1906 and 1914, David Lloyd George's determination to “lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor” oversaw legislation that introduced free school meals, the minimum wage, old age pensions, the Children’s Charter, the National Insurance Act 1911, and Labor Exchanges.
Britain still retained its global empire, but the United States and Germany threatened its place at the forefront of world trade. Its previous policy of global isolation was now abandoned, and alliances formed with France and Germany only cemented the growing mistrust with the latter. When the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914, Europe’s tangled web of treaties and alliances led to the First World War.
Literature saw a blossoming of children’s books, many still read today, such as Peter Pan in The Little White Bird (1902), Five Children and It (1902), The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Railway Children (1906), The Wind in the Willows (1908), and The Secret Garden (1910).
7. The Windsor Era (1917-Present): An Age of Innovation
George V (reigned 1910–1936) came to the throne as a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but would end it as the founder of the House of Windsor. He chose the new name in 1917 when it became necessary for him to distance himself from his German ancestry.
Britain and its allies emerged from World War I victorious but not unscathed. The interwar years were ones of economic depression, mass unemployment, the General Strike (1926), and a slump in trade. Yet the war played a part in advancing political ideas that had stalled during the Edwardian era. The Representation of the People Act (1918) finally enshrined in law the principle of one-man-one-vote and the first group of women (those over 30 who met certain property requirements) were enfranchised. Full female suffrage equal to men’s was achieved in 1928. Politics was no longer dominated by the wealthy, landed, or aristocratic. In 1924, the Labour Party (born from working-class trade union movements) formed its first government. The first female Prime Minister took office in 1979.
The monarchy suffered a constitutional crisis in 1936 when George V’s eldest son Edward VIII (reigned 1936) abdicated to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson, leaving his younger brother Albert as George VI (reigned 1936–1952).
Meanwhile, Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 had begun the road to war. By the end of the decade he had annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite both attempts at appeasement and explicit warnings, when the German army marched into Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war. By 1940, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, rationing had been introduced, the Home Guard was created, and the Blitz had begun. The post-World War II years brought the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948
Technological innovations continue to skyrocket. Within decades, science saw space exploration, nuclear power, and the discovery of DNA. In the cinema we have progressed from silent movies to talking pictures to streaming services; music has moved from vinyl records to CDs to streaming; and entertainment involves the internet, computer games, and virtual reality.