England was perhaps the most outstanding example of a state in which the absolutist form of monarchy resolutely failed during the seventeenth century, and yet the state itself emerged all the stronger. Ironically, the two most powerful states in Europe during the following century were absolutist France and its political opposite, the first major constitutional monarchy in Europe: the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Some of the characteristics that historians often associate with modernity are representative governments, capitalist economies, and (relative, in the case of early-modern states) religious toleration. All of those things first converged in England at the end of the seventeenth and start of the eighteenth centuries. Likewise, England would eventually evolve from an important but secondary state in terms of its power and influence to the most powerful nation in the world in the nineteenth century. For those reasons it is worthwhile to devote considerable attention to the case of English politics during that period.
The irony of the fact that England was the first state to move toward "modern" patterns and political dominance is that, at the start of the seventeenth century, England was a relative backwater. Its population was only a quarter of that of France and its monarchy was comparatively weak; precisely as France was reorganizing along absolutist lines, England’s monarchy was beset by powerful landowners with traditional privileges they were totally unwilling to relinquish. The English monarchy ran a kingdom with various ethnicities and divided religious loyalties, many of whom were hostile to the monarchy itself. It was an unlikely candidate for what would one day be the most powerful “Great Power” in Europe.
The English King Henry VIII had broken the official English church - renamed the Church of England - away from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s. In the process, he had seized an enormous amount of wealth from English Catholic institutions, mostly monasteries, and used it to fund his own military buildup. Subsequently, his daughter Elizabeth I was able to build up an effective navy (based at least initially on converted merchant vessels) that fought off the Spanish Armada in 1588. While Elizabeth’s long reign (r. 1558 – 1603) coincided with a golden age of English culture, most notably with the works of Shakespeare, the money plundered from Catholic coffers had run out by the end of it.
Despite Elizabeth’s relative toleration of religious difference, Great Britain remained profoundly divided. The Church of England was the nominal church of the entire realm, and only Anglicans could hold public office as judges or members of the British parliament, a law-making body dominated by the gentry class of landowners. In turn, the church was itself divided between an “high church” faction that was in favor of all of the trappings of Catholic ritual versus a “Puritan” faction that wanted an austere, moralistic approach to Christianity more similar to Calvinism than to Catholicism. The Puritans were, in fact, Calvinist in their beliefs (concerning the Elect, predestination, and so on), but were still considered to be full members of the church. Meanwhile, Scotland was overwhelmingly Presbyterian (Scottish Calvinist), and Ireland - which had been colonized by the English starting in the sixteenth century - was overwhelmingly Catholic. Within English society there were numerous Catholics as well, most of whom remained fairly clandestine in their worship out of fear of persecution.
Thus, the monarchy oversaw a divided society. It was also relatively poor, with the English crown overseeing a small bureaucracy and no official standing army. The only way to raise revenue from the rest of the country was to raise royal taxes, which were resisted by the very proud and defensive gentry class (the landowners) as well as the titled nobility. The traditional right of parliament was to approve or reject taxes, but an open question as of the early seventeenth century was whether it had the right to set laws as well. The bottom line is that English kings or queens could not force lawmakers to grant them taxes without having to beg, plead, cajole, and bargain. In turn, the stability of government depended on cooperation between the Crown and the House of Commons, the larger of the two legal bodies in the parliament, which was populated by members of the gentry.