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Society, Culture, and Fashion in Jacobean England

Sara Morrow, Aida Vega Felgueroso
  • Author
    Sara Morrow

    Sara has a B.A. in archaeology from the University of Virginia, and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Notre Dame. She is a licensed teacher in grade 6-12 social studies, and has over 10 years of education experience. She is currently an Apprentice Harpsichord Maker at Colonial Williamsburg.

  • Instructor
    Aida Vega Felgueroso

    Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

Learn about the Jacobean era in English history. Explore fashion trends in the Jacobean period and look at how cultural norms changed during Jacobean England. Updated: 04/11/2022

Introduction to the Jacobean Era in England

1603 engraving of King James I of England.

1603 Engraving of King James I

King James I of England ascended to the English throne after Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603, thus ending the Elizabethan era. James in Latin is Jacobus, which is why the period of King James' rule, between 1603 and 1625, is known as the Jacobean period. King James was King of Scotland prior to taking the throne, and his reign marks the first unification of England and Scotland under one ruler.

Styles of culture, art, clothing, and architecture in Jacobean England were influenced by the Renaissance, or rebirth of art, across Europe which began in the 14th century. Styles after 1600, are referred to as the Baroque style which was heavily ornate and dramatic.

The Jacobean Era

The Jacobean Era is a period of English history that coincides with the reign of James I. It's commonly understood that this era goes from 1603 to 1625. It was the era following the Elizabethan Era, that of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the predecessor of James I.

During the Jacobean Era, there was a great development in the decorative arts, science, and in architecture. It should not be forgotten that at this time William Shakespeare wrote some of his most important works, such as King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest.

Let's see how society was in these years, such as what objects and behaviors were fashionable and how people dressed.

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  • 0:04 The Jacobean Era
  • 0:44 Jacobean Era Society
  • 2:27 Jacobean Era Fashion
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Politics and Policy in the Jacobean Period

King James' reign in the Jacobean era was marked by intense conflict between protestant and catholic states across Europe. One of the bloodiest wars in European history, the Thirty Years War, was fought between 1618 and 1648. While the war began over religion, its lasting impact would be about the sovereignty of individual states in Europe.

Early in King James's reign, a group of English Catholics led by Guy Fawkes attempted to destroy Parliament and assassinate the king in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Since King Henry VIII, the monarch of England was head of the state and the protestant Church of England. During the reign of James' predecessors Queen Elizabeth and Henry VIII, England broke from the Catholic church and adopted Protestantism, known as the Reformation. The protestant Church of England became the official religion, and the reigning monarch the head of the church. Following the reformation Catholics were marginalized and excluded from public office, they were forced to worship in secret. By King James' reign many Catholics who had not converted to Protestantism wished to see the monarchy restored to the catholic faith. So on November 5, 1605 Guy Fawkes and a small group of conspirators planted barrels of gunpowder under the parliament building in an attempt to blow it up. The plot was exposed, and the conspirators were arrested, tried, and hanged for treason against the crown.

In 1607, with a charter from King James, the Virginia Company of London established the first permanent English settlement in North America. In honor of the reigning monarch, they called this site Jamestown, and named the colony ''Virginia'' after Queen Elizabeth, known as the virgin queen. Jamestown was the first successful attempt to establish a colony in North America and marked the beginning of English colonization. Jamestown would also be the first site of democracy in North America, following the first meeting of the House of Burgess in 1619.

Society and Culture in Jacobean England

Jacobean England was a hierarchical society with strict social classes arranged in tiers like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid were members of the English aristocracy, the royal court, and landowners, and at the bottom were servants, everyday workers, and farmers who did not own the land they worked on. There was also a middle class of skilled tradespeople and merchants. Gender roles in Jacobean society were also fairly strict. Men could own property, land, and hold political positions but women could not if they were married. Women in the lower classes could rarely read and write, but wealthy women were educated and had leisure time to learn music and foreign languages. Women of all classes took care of children and ran the household.

Religion was integrated into all aspects of life. The Church of England reigned supreme, and most English citizens were Anglican. Catholics who wished to practice their faith had to do so in secret. Superstitions were widely believed including belief in witchcraft. King James himself attended witchcraft trials and supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft. He wrote a tract about the threat of witchcraft entitled Daemonologie in 1597, that inspired Shakespeare witches in Macbeth.

Illustration of witches from Daemonologie (1597)

Illustration from Daemonologie (1597)

Culture and Art in the Jacobean Era

Culture and art flourished in Jacobean England and developments in science, literature, art, and architecture had a lasting impact on English society.

In science during the Jacobean period, the Copernican revolution introduced the concept that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Copernicus, an Italian astronomer, upended previous thoughts that the universe revolved around the earth. He also argued that the earth rotated on an axis and gradually shifted resulting in different seasons.

Francis Bacon, an English writer and philosopher, contributed to the development of the scientific method and inductive reasoning. He wrote, 'For no one successfully investigates the nature of a thing in the thing itself; the inquiry must be enlarged to things that have more in common with it," meaning that the scientist could induce broader conclusions from their observations.

In literature, William Shakespeare wrote many of his best known tragedies during King James's reign. John Donne was a prominent poet, and is often considered the greatest poet in the English Language from this time. Perhaps the most lasting impact in literature was the development of the King James Version of the bible, printed in 1611, which would be the dominant protestant religious text until the 20th century.

Architecture in the Jacobean period was more extravagant than the previous era, with larger and taller exterior facades and elaborately carved wood panel interiors. Architect and designer Inigo Jones is notable for introducing renaissance characteristics into his design of the banqueting house at Whitehall, London. Renaissance design included realistic portrayals of people and objects in art, and balanced proportions and symmetry in architecture. While the advancements in artistic realism of the renaissance continued, baroque art and architecture appealed to the viewer's emotions as well as intellect, and brought more drama and movement. A great example is Jacobean furniture which was large and heavy, usually of oak wood, and included bulbous columns and intricate carvings. Even embroidery on clothing, accessories, and furniture upholstery followed the ornate style with layers of flowery and intricate designs.

Jacobean interior of Kirklees Park Yorkshire with ornate woodwork and high style carved furniture

Jacobean Interior Woodwork

Jacobean Era Society

The society of the Jacobean Era was very hierarchical. It was a society organized as a pyramid: at the top sat the king and the royal family; a little lower, the aristocrats; then the ministers; finally, the popular classes. During the reign of James I, the basic structure of this pyramid did not change, but little by little, a middle class coming from the nascent industry and merchant class was able to gain more and save money, subsequently raising their social capital.

Men and women had very different roles. The men worked outside the home. The women looked after the house and the children and were subordinate to the men. Most of the children's education was done in homes, especially if families were accommodated. But more and more people were able to start sending their children to schools. Also, here the difference between boys and girls was seen. Once elementary education had been completed, the boys continued to study but the girls were taught to govern a house, cook, sew, and perform other household tasks.

Religion had an important role in society at this time. In England, most of the population was of Anglican religion and was intolerant against the Catholics, as they were in the time of Elizabeth I. On the other hand, besides practicing the official religion, the majority of the population had numerous superstitions. Almost everyone believed in witchcraft. It was believed that witches signed pacts with the devil and, in return for their loyalty, the devil gave them powers. They could inflict misfortune on people if they so chose. Along with witchcraft came the witch-hunt. The 17th century was a time when there were many persecutions against witches and witchcraft.

Jacobean Era Fashion

In the Jacobean Era there was an English transition from the styles of the Renaissance to those of the Baroque period.

The Renaissance style seeks balance and is inspired by classical antiquity, ancient Greece, and Rome. The Baroque is a more variegated style, full of ornaments and curves. It is very ornate. This transition can be seen in some aspects of fashion, such as furniture or needlework. An observer can see the simplicity of the Elizabethan Era change by gaining adornment and excess.

Jacobean furniture was large, heavy, and ornate. It was made with very resistant materials, usually oak or pine wood. The most often created furniture were large chairs, tables, chests, and cupboards. As the technique to make them was very simple, carved scrolls, incisions, and other adornments were added to them. In addition, some of the furniture was painted. For upholstery, fabrics of very good quality were used: linen, silk, velvet, or leather.

Needlework was very fashionable at this time. People made embroidery of great quality and delicacy. Flowers, birds, and fruits were often embroidered. The embroideries were used to decorate the houses, to upholster furniture, or to decorate the objects of daily use. Jacobean-style embroidery was much appreciated in later times, and the needlework of this era influenced the work that came into fashion after it.

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Video Transcript

The Jacobean Era

The Jacobean Era is a period of English history that coincides with the reign of James I. It's commonly understood that this era goes from 1603 to 1625. It was the era following the Elizabethan Era, that of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the predecessor of James I.

During the Jacobean Era, there was a great development in the decorative arts, science, and in architecture. It should not be forgotten that at this time William Shakespeare wrote some of his most important works, such as King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest.

Let's see how society was in these years, such as what objects and behaviors were fashionable and how people dressed.

Jacobean Era Society

The society of the Jacobean Era was very hierarchical. It was a society organized as a pyramid: at the top sat the king and the royal family; a little lower, the aristocrats; then the ministers; finally, the popular classes. During the reign of James I, the basic structure of this pyramid did not change, but little by little, a middle class coming from the nascent industry and merchant class was able to gain more and save money, subsequently raising their social capital.

Men and women had very different roles. The men worked outside the home. The women looked after the house and the children and were subordinate to the men. Most of the children's education was done in homes, especially if families were accommodated. But more and more people were able to start sending their children to schools. Also, here the difference between boys and girls was seen. Once elementary education had been completed, the boys continued to study but the girls were taught to govern a house, cook, sew, and perform other household tasks.

Religion had an important role in society at this time. In England, most of the population was of Anglican religion and was intolerant against the Catholics, as they were in the time of Elizabeth I. On the other hand, besides practicing the official religion, the majority of the population had numerous superstitions. Almost everyone believed in witchcraft. It was believed that witches signed pacts with the devil and, in return for their loyalty, the devil gave them powers. They could inflict misfortune on people if they so chose. Along with witchcraft came the witch-hunt. The 17th century was a time when there were many persecutions against witches and witchcraft.

Jacobean Era Fashion

In the Jacobean Era there was an English transition from the styles of the Renaissance to those of the Baroque period.

The Renaissance style seeks balance and is inspired by classical antiquity, ancient Greece, and Rome. The Baroque is a more variegated style, full of ornaments and curves. It is very ornate. This transition can be seen in some aspects of fashion, such as furniture or needlework. An observer can see the simplicity of the Elizabethan Era change by gaining adornment and excess.

Jacobean furniture was large, heavy, and ornate. It was made with very resistant materials, usually oak or pine wood. The most often created furniture were large chairs, tables, chests, and cupboards. As the technique to make them was very simple, carved scrolls, incisions, and other adornments were added to them. In addition, some of the furniture was painted. For upholstery, fabrics of very good quality were used: linen, silk, velvet, or leather.

Needlework was very fashionable at this time. People made embroidery of great quality and delicacy. Flowers, birds, and fruits were often embroidered. The embroideries were used to decorate the houses, to upholster furniture, or to decorate the objects of daily use. Jacobean-style embroidery was much appreciated in later times, and the needlework of this era influenced the work that came into fashion after it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What's the difference between Elizabethan and Jacobean?

The Elizabethan era coincides with the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) and the Jacobean era coincides with the reign of King James (1603-1625).

What was society like in the Jacobean era?

Society was hierarchical, like a pyramid, with wealthy aristocrats at the top, merchants in the middle, and working class people and servants at the bottom. Gender roles were structured as well with men working outside the house in business and politics and women performing housework and taking care of children.

When was the Jacobean period?

The Jacobean period began in 1603 when King James became King of England, and lasted until his death in 1625. It was preceded by the Elizabethan Period.

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