Tired of Tudors? Find out why the 17th century may be even better

A little come-hither from lucy hay, the countess of carlisle, painted by Anthony van dyck

A little come-hither from lucy hay, the countess of carlisle, painted by Anthony van dyck


In reading a recent reader survey by M.K. Tod for the Historical Novel Society, I was shocked to learn that the 17th century ranks 7th among time periods readers are most likely to choose when reading or purchasing historical fiction. Shocked, I say, because I've found the 17th century to be not only fascinating but important and relevant today.

In the words of J.P. Sommerville, University of Wisconsin history professor, the 17th century is “probably the most important century in the making of the modern world. It was during the 1600s that Galileo and Newton founded modern science; that Descartes began modern philosophy; that Hugo Grotius initiated international law; and that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke started modern political theory.”

Just little things like these happened in the 17th century. But wait, there’s so much more!

“The Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and others, all struggled to maintain and extend colonies and trading-posts in distant corners of the globe, with profound and permanent consequences for the whole world,” Somerville wrote.

It was a time of tremendous turmoil and brilliant discovery:

  • The little ice age was underway, creating chaos and famine

  • The Thirty Years War raged across Europe from 1618 to 1648

  • England’s bloody civil war defeated a monarchy

  • Science trumped religion for the first time to influence society

  • Agricultural and commercial changes paved the way for the Industrial Revolution

And there were sweeping changes that affect our everyday lives:

Architecture. Inigo Jones (the Banqueting Hall) and Christopher Wren (St Paul’s Cathedral) introduced magnificent architectural designs in London and throughout England that remain beautiful and influential.

Banking. In England, instead of depositing gold in the king’s mint for safety — where he might confiscate it (as Charles I did in 1640) — London merchants deposited money with goldsmiths who gave them receipts and promised to pay on demand. These were the first ‘banks’.

Food. People started eating with forks for the first time. England discovered bananas, pineapples, chocolate, coffee and tea.

Furniture. Chests of drawers became common, and Grandfather clocks popular, followed by a new arrival: the bookcase.

Medicine. Doctors learned how blood circulates around the body, and how to treat malaria with bark from the cinchona tree.

Astronomy. Though the church renounced the discoveries for most of the century, beliefs that Earth revolved around the Sun and ours was just one of many solar systems began to gain acceptance.

And of course, there were the scandals:

  • The murder of the Duke of Buckingham

  • The execution of King Charles I

  • The attempted assassination of Oliver Cromwell

  • The numerous mistresses of King Charles II

  • The indecent antics of the Earl of Rochester

I am digging deeply, discovering the greed, intrigue, rebellion, atrocities and resilience that took place in Ireland, England and Scotland. Fascinating stories abound behind those heavy embroidered curtains. To uncover truths one by one can be quite an enlightening adventure!