Elizabethan era

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Elizabethan Era
Image:Elizabeth succession allegory.jpg
Elizabeth ushers in Peace and Plenty. Detail from The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, c. 1572, attributed to Lucas de Heere.
Preceded by: Tudor period
Followed by: Jacobean era
Monarch: Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabethan redirects here. For the Elizabethan architectural style, see Tudor style architecture.

The Elizabethan Era is the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (15581603) and is often considered to be a golden age in English history. It was the height of the English Renaissance, and saw the flowering of English literature and poetry. This was also the time during which Elizabethan theatre flourished and William Shakespeare, among others, composed plays that broke away from England's past style of plays. It was an age of expansion and exploration abroad, while at home the Protestant Reformation became entrenched in the national mindset.

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 would engulf the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement and parliament was still not 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 guerrilla 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 colonization 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 centralized, well-organized, 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.


[edit] Romance and Reality

The Victorian era and the early twentieth century idealized the Elizabethan era. The Encyclopaediea Britannica still maintains that "The long reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603, was England's Golden Age. ...'Merry England,' in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture, and in adventurous seafaring."<ref>Britannica Online.</ref> This idealizing tendency was shared by Britain and an Aglophilic America. (In popular culture, the image of those adventurous Elizabethan seafarers was embodied in the films of Errol Flynn.)<ref>See The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940).</ref>

In response and reaction to this hyperbole, modern historians and biographers in post-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 was to descend 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. Economically, Sir Thomas Gresham's founding of the Royal Exchange (1565), the first stock exchange in England and one of the earliest in Europe, would prove 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.<ref>Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576–1642, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1981; pp. 49-96.</ref> This general peace and prosperity allowed the attractive developments that "Golden Age" advocates have stressed.<ref> Christopher Hibbert, The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age, Reading, Mass., Perseus, 1991.</ref>

Both from an anachronistic modern perspective and from that of 16th-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<ref>George Macaulay Trevelyan, England Under the Stuarts, London, Methuen, 1949; p. 25.</ref>—though forms of corporal punishment, some of them extreme, were practiced. The persecution of witches was also comparatively rare; while some persecutions did occur, they never reached the hysterical proportions that disfigured some European societies so severely in this period.<ref>Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, London, Richard Bentley, 1841; reprinted Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1974; pp. 462-564.</ref> The role of women in society was, for the historical era, relatively unconstrained; Spanish and Italian visitors to England commented regularly, and sometimes cautistically, 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 characterized by one skeptic as a "brutal dictatorship,"<ref>Alfred Hart, Shakespeare and the Homilies, Melbourne, 1934; reprinted New York, AMS Press, 1971.</ref> it was, as brutal dictatorships go, one of the most benign.

[edit] Science, Technology, Exploration

Lacking a dominant genius or a formal structure for research (as the following century would have both Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society), The Elizabethan era nonetheless saw significant scientific progress. The astronomers Thomas Digges (1546–95) and Thomas Harriot (ca. 1560–1621) made important contributions; William Gilbert (1544–1603) 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 (1527–1608) 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 (ca. 1540–96) circumnavigated the globe (1577–81), and Martin Frobisher (ca. 1535–94) 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 (1587).

While Elizabethan England is not thought of as an age of technological innovation, some progress did occur. In 1564 one "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.<ref>Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1981; pp. 81-2.</ref>

[edit] 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; it is also a truism that 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 (ca. 1547–1619), the Queen's "limner and goldsmith," is the most widely recognized figure in this native development; but George Gower (1540–1596) has begun to attract greater notice and appreciation, as knowledge of him and his art and career has improved.<ref>Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790, fourth edition, New York, Viking Penguin, 1978; pp. 34-9.</ref>

[edit] Elizabethan Festivals, Holidays, and Celebrations

Image:Hoefnagel marriage.jpg
A wedding feast, c. 1569

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 (any time between 7th and 14th) of January 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 Hannukah decorations were burned on this day, in candlelight and torchlight processions.
    February 14: Valentine's Day. Sending gifts to one another was a Pagan tradition [citation needed], still carried on under a Christian guise.
  • Between March 3-9: 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. The 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 St John the Baptist) and another Quarter Day.
  • August 1: Lammastide, or Lammas Day. Traditionally, the first day of Autumn, 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 St. 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's in Henry V.
    October 28: The Lord Mayor's Show, which still takes place today in London.
    October 31: HalloweenThe beginning celebration of the days of the dead.
  • November 1: All Saints' Day, followed by All Souls' Day.
    November 17: The anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne, celebrated 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.

[edit] Notable Elizabethans

[edit] See also

[edit] Compare

[edit] Notes


[edit] References


  • Yates, Frances A. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
  • Yates, Frances A. Theatre of the World. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1969.


  • Wilson, Derek. The World Encompassed: Francis Drake and His Great Voyage. New York, Harper & Row, 1977.

Fashion and the domestic arts:

  • Arnold, Janet: Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, W S Maney and Son Ltd, Leeds 1988. ISBN 0-901286-20-6
  • Digby, George Wingfield. Elizabethan Embroidery. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1964.

[edit] Further reading

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