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Shakespeare's England


The Elizabethan Era is the period associated with Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558–1603) and is often considered to be the golden age in English history. It was the height of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of English poetry and literature. This was also the time during which Elizabethan theatre flourished and William Shakespeare and many others, composed plays that broke free of England's past style of plays and theatre. It was an age of exploration and expansion abroad, while back at home, the Protestant Reformation became the national mindset of all the people.

The Elizabethan Age is viewed so highly because of the contrasts with the periods before and after. It was a brief period of largely internal peace between the English Reformation and the battles between Protestants and Catholics and the battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism. England was also well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of foreign domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that would only be settled in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent, the centuries long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth's reign.

The one great rival was Spain, with which England conflicted both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with a disastrously unsuccessful attack upon Spain, the Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589. Thereafter Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a draining guerilla war against England, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of defeats upon English forces. This badly damaged both the English Exchequer and economy that had been so carefully restored under Elizabeth's prudent guidance. English colonisation and trade would be frustrated until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth's death.

England during this period had a centralised, well-organised, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Economically, the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of trans-Atlantic trade.


Romance and reality
Science, technology, exploration
Fine arts
Sports and entertainment
Elizabethan festivals, holidays, and celebrations
See also


Romance and reality
 
The Victorian era and the early twentieth century idealised the Elizabethan era. The Encyclopædia Britannica still maintains that "The long reign of Elizabeth I, 1533-1603, was England's Golden Age...'Merry England,' in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture, and in adventurous seafaring." This idealising tendency was shared by Britain and an Anglophilic America. (In popular culture, the image of those adventurous Elizabethan seafarers was embodied in the films of Errol Flynn.)

In response and reaction to this hyperbole, modern historians and biographers in pro-imperial Europe have tended to take a far more literal-minded and dispassionate view of the Tudor period. Elizabethan England was not particularly successful in a military sense during the period. The grinding poverty of the rural working class, which comprised 90% of the population, has also received more attention than in previous generations. The Elizabethan role in the slave trade and the repression of Catholic Ireland—notably the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years' War—have also drawn historians' attention. Despite the heights achieved during the era, the country descended into the English Civil War less than 40 years after the death of Elizabeth.

On balance, it can be said that Elizabeth provided the country with a long period of general if not total peace, and generally increasing prosperity. Having inherited a virtually bankrupt state from previous reigns, her frugal policies restored fiscal responsibility. Her fiscal restraint cleared the regime of debt by 1574, and ten years later the Crown enjoyed a surplus of £300,000. Economically, Sir Thomas Gresham's founding of the Royal Exchange (1565), the first stock exchange in England and one of the earliest in Europe, proved to be a development of the first importance, for the economic development of England and soon for the world as a whole. With taxes lower than other European countries of the period, the economy expanded; though the wealth was distributed with wild unevenness, there was clearly more wealth to go around at the end of Elizabeth's reign than at the beginning. This general peace and prosperity allowed the attractive developments that "Golden Age" advocates have stressed.

Both from an anachronistic modern perspective and from that of 19th century humanism, England in this era had some positive aspects that set it apart from contemporaneous continental European societies. Torture was rare, since the English legal system reserved torture only for capital crimes like treason —though forms of corporal punishment, some of them extreme, were practised. The persecution of witches was also comparatively rare; while some persecutions did occur, they did not reach the hysterical proportions that disfigured some European societies so severely in this period. The role of women in society was, for the historical era, relatively unconstrained; Spanish and Italian visitors to England commented regularly, and sometimes caustically, on the freedom that women enjoyed in England, in contrast to their home cultures.

Elizabeth's determination not to "look into the hearts" of her subjects, to moderate the religious persecutions of previous Tudor reigns—the persecution of Catholics under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and of Protestants under Mary—appears to have had a moderating effect on English society in general. While Elizabethan England has been characterised by one sceptic as a "brutal dictatorship," it was, as brutal dictatorships go, one of the more benign.


Science, technology, exploration

Lacking a dominant genius or a formal structure for research (the following century had both Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society), the Elizabethan era nonetheless saw significant scientific progress. The astronomers Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot made important contributions; William Gilbert published his seminal study of magnetism, De Magnete, in 1600. Substantial advancements were made in the fields of cartography and surveying. The eccentric but influential John Dee also merits mention.

Much of this scientific and technological progress related to the practical skill of navigation. English achievements in exploration were noteworthy in the Elizabethan era. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1581, and Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic. The first attempt at English settlement of the eastern seaboard of North America occurred in this era—the abortive colony at Roanoke Island in 1587.

While Elizabethan England is not thought of as an age of technological innovation, some progress did occur. In 1564 Guilliam Boonen came from the Netherlands to be Queen Elizabeth's first coach-builder—thus introducing the new European invention of the spring-suspension coach to England, as a replacement for the litters and carts of an earlier transportation mode. Coaches quickly became as fashionable as sports cars in a later century; social critics, especially Puritan commentators, noted the "diverse great ladies" who rode "up and down the countryside" in their new coaches.


Fine arts

It has often been said that the Renaissance came late to England, in contrast to Italy and the other states of continental Europe; the fine arts in England during the Tudor and Stuart eras were dominated by foreign and imported talent—from Hans Holbein the Younger under Henry VIII to Anthony van Dyck under Charles I. Yet within this general trend, a native school of painting was developing. In Elizabeth's reign, Nicholas Hilliard, the Queen's "limner and goldsmith," is the most widely recognized figure in this native development; but George Gower has begun to attract greater notice and appreciation as knowledge of him and his art and career has improved.


Sports and entertainment
There were many different types of Elizabethan sports and entertainment:
Feasts A large, elaborately prepared meal, usually for many persons and often accompanied by court entertainment. Often celebrated religious festivals
Banquets A ceremonial dinner honouring a particular guest
Fairs The Annual Summer Fair was often a bawdy affair
Plays Started as plays enacted in town squares followed by the actors using the courtyards of taverns or inns (referred to as Inn-yards) followed by the first theatres (great open air amphitheatres built in the same style as the Roman Coliseum) and then the introduction of indoor theatres called Playhouses
Miracle Plays Re-enactment of stories from the Bible
Festivals Celebrating Church festivals
Jousts / Tournaments A series of tilted matches between knights
Games and Sports Sports and games which included archery, bowling, cards, dice, hammer-throwing, quarter-staff contests, quoits, skittles, wrestling and mob football
Animal Sports Included Bear and Bull baiting, and Dog and Cock fighting
Hunting Sport followed by the nobility often using dogs
Hawking Sport followed by the nobility with hawks (otherwise known as falconry)


Elizabethan festivals, holidays, and celebrations
 
During the Elizabethan era, people looked forward to holidays because opportunities for leisure were limited, with time away from hard work being restricted to periods after church on Sundays. For the most part, leisure and festivities took place on a public church holy day. Every month had its own holiday, some of which are listed below:

The first Monday after Twelfth Night of January (any time between January 7 and January 14) was Plough Monday. It celebrated returning to work after the Christmas celebrations and the New Year.

February 2: Candlemas. Although often still very cold, Candlemas was celebrated as the first day of spring. All Christmas decorations were burned on this day, in candlelight and torchlight processions.

February 14: Valentine's Day.

Between March 3 and March 9: Shrove Tuesday (known as Mardi Gras or Carnival on the Continent). On this day, apprentices were allowed to run amok in the city in mobs, wreaking havoc, because it supposedly cleansed the city of vices before Lent. -- The day after Shrove Tuesday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent when all were to abstain from eating and drinking certain things.

March 24: Lady Day or the feast of the Annunciation, the first of the Quarter Days on which rents and salaries were due and payable. It was a legal New Year when courts of law convened after a winter break, and it marked the supposed moment when the Angel Gabriel came to announce to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a child.

April 1: All Fool's Day, or April Fool's Day. This was a day for tricks, jests, jokes, and a general day of the jester.

May 1: May Day, celebrated as the first day of summer. This was one of the few Celtic festivals with no connection to Christianity and patterned on Beltane. It featured crowning a May Queen, a Green Man and dancing around a maypole.

June 21: Midsummer, (Christianized as the feast of John the Baptist) and another Quarter Day.

August 1: Lammastide, or Lammas Day. Traditionally, the first day of August, in which it was customary to bring a loaf of bread to the church.

September 29: Michaelmas, another Quarter Day. Michaelmas celebrated the beginning of autumn, and Michael the Archangel.

October 25: St. Crispin's Day. Bonfires, revels, and an elected 'King Crispin' were all featured in this celebration. Dramatized by Shakespeare in Henry V.

October 28: The Lord Mayor's Show, which still takes place today in London.

October 31: Halloween. The beginning celebration of the days of the dead.

November 1: All Saints' Day, followed by All Souls' Day.

November 17: Accession Day or Queen's Day, the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne, celebrated with lavish court festivities featuring jousting during her lifetime and as a national holiday for dozens of years after her death.

December 24: The Twelve days of Christmas started at sundown and lasted until Epiphany on January 6. Christmas was the last of the Quarter Days for the year.


See also
Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?
William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's secret
Sexuality of William Shakespeare

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