or the golden age
Religion was the overarching question of the age. ‘Bloody’ Mary had returned authority over the English church to Rome; Elizabeth took it back for the crown (to do otherwise would have been an admission of illegitimacy in any case). For a decade she followed a careful middle path, eschewing the extreme Protestant route her brother Edward had seemed destined to follow (indeed those at the far reach of that extreme were the only purely religious martyrs of her reign – four Anabaptists burned at the stake), and retaining certain Catholic elements of ceremony and symbolism.
But Elizabeth’s church was Protestant, a situation confirmed by the Pope finally excommunicating her in 1570, an act that for ambitious European monarchs declared open season on the English crown. Her loyalties were seen too in some of the limited foreign adventures in mainland Europe undertaken in her reign: support sent to the Huguenots in France; and covert then overt support for the Protestant cause in the Spanish Netherlands that so piqued King Philip of Spain.
Just as the Pope’s action pushed Elizabeth and England ever more irrevocably to the Protestant side, so too did the series of plots and risings against her following it: the rising of the Northern Earls in 1569 that shook the land; the Ridolfi plot in 1572; Throckmorton in 1584, Parry the following year; and Babbington the year after that. The Catholic threat was tied up with the presence of Mary Queen of Scots on English soil for two decades: Mary was the heir apparent, and as a Catholic offered a focus for such plotting, in which she foolishly and typically joined. Though Elizabeth wavered for years, it was inevitable that Mary would at some point have to be executed to remove that focus.
It is tempting to dismiss the internal threats to Elizabeth as minor, but for years she slept with a sword beneath her pillow; and one assassination attempt got very close, a shot from the shore missing her by inches and wounding a bargeman as she travelled on the Thames . The Northern Earls who rebelled in 1569 in particular garnered great support for a time, and for once Elizabeth deviated from a conciliatory path, insisting that rebels be hanged on every village green where they had gathered during the revolt.
But nobody would dismiss the threat from King Philip of Spain as minor. Philip, rabidly anti-Protestant, saw the re-conversion of England to his Catholic faith as a crusade, Pope Sixtus supporting this view. Philip’s mighty Armada was not intended to take on the English at sea: it was due to land a force of some 50,000 men in England; the Spanish were by far the best soldiers of their day, and had they secured a bridgehead they would have very probably conquered the country – many English fled inland when the signal fires were lit, fearing the consequences of a landing.
A combination of factors secured an English victory over the Armada, among them poor Spanish leadership, Medina Sidonia being no seaman; the lack of manoeuvrability of some of the larger Spanish vessels, and their relatively poor capabilities at sea with cannon; the successful English tactic of breaking the hitherto impregnable Spanish crescent formation with fireships; and a year earlier, Drake ’s attack on Cadiz spoiling preparations for the great fleet’s voyage. But it was the exceptional storms of 1588 that wrecked the Spanish vessels fleeing around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and reduced Philip’s Invincible Armada to a few battered and broken survivors; in other words luck played a huge part in England’s survival as an independent power.
Elizabeth generally preferred to avoid conflicts, fearing the creation of a grand Catholic coalition against her Protestant state should she become too embroiled in European dynastic and political matters. Calais had been lost in Mary’s reign, and rather than any burning desire to regain that foothold in mainland Europe (unlikely too as Elizabeth inherited a ruined treasury and a stagnant economy) the country began to turn westwards for its adventures: this was the era of Drake circumnavigating the globe in The Golden Hind (originally The Pelican, which was deemed too ignoble a name when it returned home for a royal welcome); of Martin Frobisher and his three voyages to search for the Northwest Passage; of Raleigh founding the colony of Virginia; and of Hawkins beginning the slave trade that was to fuel British economic power for centuries to come, leaving a stain on our nation for even longer.
The English severance from mainland Europe, seen in that loss of Calais and the religious divide, was further emphasized by Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, claiming to be married to her people (though a truer view would see that every potential suitor brought potential danger – the Earl of Leicester ’s rebellion showing this as well as any other). With the defeat of the Armada a vision of England still shared by many today, of the country being apart from Europe, was strengthened.
The debts Elizabeth inherited focussed her mind, and those of her advisors such as Sir Thomas Gresham and Sir Thomas Smith, on economic recovery. Avoiding wars was not sufficient to restore economic stability, though it certainly helped as lower taxes here than in Europe meant increased investment. The cloth industry was established as a motor of prosperity (albeit relative prosperity – the vast majority of the population remained poor agricultural workers). England’s status as a trading nation was furthered by contacts with those as far afield as the Tsar of Muscovy and the Great Mogul. Gresham established the Royal Exchange, altering the financing of business ventures thenceforth, and he and Smith reformed the currency.
Of course some of the economic boosts to Elizabeth’s and the nation’s treasury came from a second aspect of her growing status as a seafaring country: piracy, or privateering, the difference largely inconsequential. The Spanish and Portuguese were ahead of the English in exploiting the New World, so the English exploited their returning treasure ships, Drake and Raleigh gaining notoriety in the Iberian Peninsula and celebrity in England for their raids on ships at sea and Spanish colonies alike.
When she came to the throne Elizabeth had never owned a pair of silk stockings, having been kept in relative poverty by Mary and Edward. She retained a degree of frugality in her approach to finance, like her grandfather Henry VII at one point even auditing the royal accounts herself. Famously, though she made one of the great patriotic speeches at Tilbury as her forces were about to face the Spanish, she sold those same forces munitions at inflated rates! But Elizabeth learned too the value of display: she had thousands of dresses, used as part of the communication to her people of who she was, the magnificent queen at the heart of the nation. Her many portraits reflect this magnificence, another propaganda method of the day, showing a carefully controlled view of the monarch to her subjects.
Though the defeat of the Armada was of enormous significance, and England’s reaching out to the New World arguably of greater import still, the Elizabethan era is perhaps most associated within the national consciousness with the flowering of culture – the belated English Renaissance. Art, music, architecture and above all literature here enjoyed a golden period of creativity, with geniuses whose works are still revered, especially for the specifically English character of those works
In the artistic field perhaps the greatest name of Elizabeth’s reign was Nicholas Hilliard, who took a jeweller’s skills and applied them to the creation of miniatures, including some fabulous depictions of the queen herself after he was appointed court artist. The miniature became a very English art-form thanks to Hilliard’s work and his writings on his style and method - the avoidance of shadow in particular.
The musical world of the Elizabethans was enlivened by two of our greatest composers, Thomas Tallis (though he also served three earlier monarchs) and his pupil William Byrd. English organ music developed a very identifiable style; the motet and madrigal were likewise made great art; a separate church gained its own church music.
Economic development in Elizabethan times undoubtedly allowed English architecture to blossom – wealthy patrons demanded a built environment reflecting the growing confidence of a nation and their own personal success. Great examples of this trend can still be seen today: Hardwick Hall with its at that time unprecedented use of vast areas of glass designed to demonstrate the great wealth of its owner, Bess of Hardwick; Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire ; and Longleat , all of those three buildings the work of the great Robert Smythson; and to the list add the supreme elegance of Burghley House . When Henry VIII wanted to produce his most noteworthy building, Nonsuch Palace, he relied totally on Italian influences; when the great buildings of Elizabeth’s age were created, they were undoubtedly English.
But if art, architecture and music blossomed in Elizabeth’s time, literature soared to a totally unprecedented extent. It provided us with Christopher Marlowe with his development of blank verse and willingness to explore the violent in his works. Thomas Kyd almost single-handedly invented the revenge genre with The Spanish Tragedy. Ben Jonson was at the beginning of his career that would carry through to another reign. Francis Bacon pushed the essay form powerfully forward. It was an era of great poets including the wonderful Raleigh, his words still so powerful yet easy to grasp today. Edmund Spenser ’s Faerie Queene has not stood the test of time so well, perhaps, though its subject matter and approach tells a great deal about the mood of the era. But above all the Elizabethan literary age belongs to Shakespeare .
That a playwright could survive and thrive at all is partly down to the wishes of Elizabeth herself, who rebuffed the Puritan view of the world which would have banned such pleasures. The rise of the professional theatre is also no doubt in part due to the growth of the economy, with leisure – at least for some – a new reality to be explored. And we should remember that though it was the great and the good who sat in splendour at the edges of Shakespeare’s theatres, it was the groundlings standing before the stage who gave the drama much of its atmosphere, and contributed much to the coffers of the acting companies.
Shakespeare is arguably (though surely few would bother to argue against the premise) our greatest dramatist and literary figure, whose genius helped establish English literature on the world stage. The weight of his works provided a core to the English drama, inspiring and teaching generations to come. And by the sheer breadth of his output – tragedies, histories, comedies, poetry – Shakespeare helped build a view of the English creative writer as able to venture into differing fields. So many of the hundreds of words he supposedly coined still enrich our language: from fashionable to fitful; inauspicious to lacklustre; silliness to submerge. Even if he did not invent them he popularised them, expanding our national vocabulary enormously. And in terms of phrases he certainly helped English develop its expressiveness: tower of strength; the world’s my oyster; pound of flesh; too much of a good thing; bated breath; as luck would have it: the list if not endless is enormous.
It is easy to trace much in modern Britain back to the Elizabethan era: our attachment to the New World and suspicion of the Old; our sense of the British as explorers, as underdogs, and as creators. So much of our national consciousness, or perhaps our national myth, derives from that period. But it is salutary to remember that but for some strong winds in 1588 our history would have in all probability been very different indeed.
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