Commonwealth Period in English Literature

The Commonwealth Period in English literature, a distinctive and tumultuous period in the country’s history, is defined by its political backdrop and repercussions. The Republican governance that was established after King Charles I’s execution during this 1649–1660 time frame marked a shift from monarchical control. The English Civil War, a protracted, catastrophic battle that had torn the country apart, had ended when the Commonwealth Period began.

This conflict was fought between Parliamentarians, who wanted more political influence and religious change, and Royalists, who backed the monarchy and its established power. King Charles I’s execution in 1649 marked the end of this conflict and marked a radical break from centuries of monarchical governance in England. This execution was a turning point in history that led to the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell’s direction and altered the cultural and political circumstances of the country. The literature of the Commonwealth Period reflects this turbulent context by examining themes of political upheaval, religious passion, and the pursuit of stability at a period of significant change.

Cultural and Historical Background

The growing impact of Puritanism was one of this era’s most significant characteristics. Puritans, who upheld strict religious beliefs and worked to reform the Church of England, were crucial in establishing the social, moral, and cultural norms of the Commonwealth era. Their emphasis on morality, simplicity, and religious piety had a significant impact. Beyond theological issues, this Puritan influence had a big impact on a lot of different areas of life, including politics, education, and cultural expression.

Puritan principles led to the suppression of many creative and recreational pursuits because they were seen as morally destructive. Puritans held that entertainment and the arts frequently promoted moral slackness and diverted people from their spiritual obligations. In order to promote a more solemn and subdued social atmosphere, theaters were shut down and traditional social events were cut back. That is why, the Commonwealth Period saw a sharp decline in the vibrant cultural environment of earlier times due to the prohibition of artistic and theatrical activity.

Literature of the Commonwealth Period

Poetry of Dissent and Controversy

The Commonwealth Period is known for its distinctive style of poetry, which captures dissent and controversy while providing deep insights into the political and religious issues of the age. Poets of this period were intensely conscious of the turbulent terrain and utilized their verses to address the significant changes taking place in England. They participated in the discussion of the pressing political and religious issues, expressing their divergent opinions and questioning accepted conventions. Poetry evolved into a tool that poets could use to tackle the complicated issues of this period of acute intellectual and ideological change.

John Milton was one of the most significant writers in this literary period. His writings, particularly the epic masterwork “Paradise Lost,” serve as an excellent example of the complexity and depth of the political and religious discussions that characterized the Commonwealth Period. Themes of human agency, the nature of evil, and the consequences of disobedience are all explored by Milton in “Paradise Lost,” all of which resonated with the unstable circumstances of the Commonwealth era. Furthermore, Milton’s “Areopagitica,” a defense of freedom of expression, became the foundation of arguments for free speech and open conversation at this time.

Read More: Milton’s Grand Style in Paradise Lost

Religious and Philosophical Prose

The Commonwealth Period was characterized by strong theological disputes and the publication of treatises that addressed difficult issues of faith, government, and personal conscience. A flurry of religious inquiry was stimulated by the period’s turbulent ecclesiastical atmosphere, which was characterized by the emergence of Puritanism and the destruction of the Church of England’s established structure. Scholars like Richard Baxter and John Owen participated in theological debates on a variety of subjects, including salvation, church structure, and the role of the individual in issues of religion. These treatises represented the theological plurality and fervor of the time, when several religious factions sought to express their beliefs and proclaim their ideals for the church and society.

John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is among the most enduring and illustrative pieces of Christian literature from the Commonwealth Period. The theological and intellectual ideals of the day were captured in this allegorical story, which served as both a religious and philosophical masterpiece. Christian’s journey served as a metaphor for Bunyan’s exploration of spiritual truths, obstacles to faith, and the quest for salvation. Readers looking for spiritual direction and comfort amidst the significant upheavals and difficulties of the Commonwealth era found “The Pilgrim’s Progress” to be of great resonance. In addition to making a significant contribution to the theological and philosophical debate of the day, Bunyan’s writing also received long-lasting literary praise, becoming a pillar of English literature and a representation of the spiritual search that characterized the time.

Key Themes and Characteristics

Exploration of Political and Religious Ideals

Reflecting the volatile and transformational nature of the time, the Commonwealth Period in English literature was characterized by an in-depth study of political and theological principles. Discussions regarding government and individual freedom were one major issue. After the monarchy was overthrown and a republic was founded, new issues regarding the function of the government and the rights of its people emerged in English society. The nature of political power, the boundaries of governance, and the duties of rulers and citizens were major subjects of debate among writers and intellectuals. These discussions created the intellectual foundation for democratic and republican principles to emerge, which would go on to influence political thought for centuries to come. John Milton’s writings, especially his book “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” were representative of this issue since he upheld the legality of overthrowing oppressive rulers and argued for the legitimacy of a people’s right to self-government. The literature of the Commonwealth Period became known for its examination of government and individual freedom, which was a reflection of the significant political upheavals occurring at the time.

Read More: Reformation in English Literature

The relationship between political order and religion was another major issue. Questions of religious belief and practice became more prominent in political debate with the emergence of Puritanism and the founding of the Commonwealth. The question of how religious ideas should influence governmental structure and ruler behavior has been debated by authors. This issue permeated philosophical discussions regarding the moral foundations of political power. The interaction between religion and the political system was explored in the writings of this time period, including Milton’s “Areopagitica” and works by other religious and political intellectuals. They questioned the necessity of a religious foundation for governance, the propriety of enforcing religious conformity, and the viability of accommodating religious plurality within a republic. The investigation of these intricate and interconnected subjects highlighted the Commonwealth Period’s intellectual depth and ideological diversity, making it a crucial period in the development of political and religious thinking in England.

Suppression of Artistic Expression

The Puritan principles that predominated during the Commonwealth Period directly contributed to the suppression of artistic expression. A stringent version of Protestantism known as Puritanism tried to purify the Church of England by eradicating perceived corruption and placing a focus on moral and theological purity. This religious movement had a significant impact on English society, culture, and the arts. Many creative and recreational pursuits, especially those connected to theater, were seen by Puritans as morally corrupting and diverting from spiritual matters. Thereby they deliberately tried to stifle these forms of expression. Theaters were shut down, and various types of amusement and celebration were curtailed to promote a more solemn and subdued cultural environment.

The literary and cultural climate of the time was significantly impacted by this suppression. Puritan principles imposed restrictions on writers and artists, and they frequently found alternate means to communicate their ideas. The change from secular to religious themes in literature and the arts was one important result. Many writers turned to religious themes and allegory as a source of expression once traditional entertainment and secular narrative were suppressed. This change is best illustrated by John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” which employed allegorical narrative to teach significant religious and moral teachings. Other authors, who reflected the prevailing ethos of the time, wrote on moral and religious issues in their writings.

Notable Figures of the Commonwealth Period

A number of noteworthy figures contributed to religious and literary expression throughout the Commonwealth Period in English literature, profoundly influencing the intellectual and cultural milieu of their day.

John Milton was a genius poet, essayist, and pamphleteer whose works captured the turbulent spirit of the Commonwealth. He is perhaps one of the most renowned individuals from this time period. The complex theological and political topics he explored in his epic poem “Paradise Lost” were the essence of evil, human agency, and the effects of rebellion. Milton promoted free speech and the unrestricted flow of ideas in his prose, especially in “Areopagitica,” and he argued that these aspects are crucial in a republican society.

Another notable author from the Commonwealth Era, John Bunyan, wrote the epic allegorical work “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” This classic work truly reflected the moral and religious ambitions of the day and gave readers a spiritual journey through the struggles and victories of the protagonist, Christian. An example of the enduring power of spiritual narrative, Bunyan’s allegory is now considered a masterpiece of Christian literature.

Known for his lyrical poetry and political works, Andrew Marvell demonstrated a deep involvement with the political and theological issues of the day. His poems frequently combined introspective meditation with larger societal issues, capturing the ambiguities and complexities of the Commonwealth period.

A well-known Puritan theologian named Richard Baxter wrote a number of theological treatises that addressed questions of salvation, religion, and church organization. His writings, such as “The Reformed Pastor,” are still studied today for their insights into pastoral care and Puritan theology.


In conclusion, the Commonwealth Period in English literature, which covers from 1649 to 1660, is characterized by political upheaval, intense religious fervor, and in-depth intellectual inquiry. The literature of this time period is characterized by major themes of political opposition, discussions of governance and individual liberty, the interaction between faith and political order, and the repression of artistic expression.

Leave a Comment