The Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth I​—Myth or Reality?

SHE was a legend in her lifetime. Authors, poets, playwrights, and modern filmmakers have perpetuated her fame. Recent years saw a surge in books and exhibitions about her. In an international poll, she featured in the top ten of the greatest Britons. She was Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Why has this monarch, known in her time as the Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess, caught the public’s attention so persistently? Was her reign really a golden age?

She Inherits Many Problems

Elizabeth Tudor was born in 1533​—to the bitter disappointment of her father, Henry VIII, a king desperate for a male heir. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, failed to produce a son. Henry had her beheaded on what many think were trumped-up charges. Elizabeth was just two years old at the time.

Henry had by then severed ties with the pope in Rome and had declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England. After Henry’s death in 1547, the spiritual advisers of his young son, Edward VI, attempted to make England truly Protestant. Edward died after reigning just six years, and the nation swung again to the Roman Catholic faith under the brief and bloody rule of Mary I, Elizabeth’s half sister. * By the time Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 at the age of 25, England was not only torn by religious strife but also almost bankrupt. It had lost the last of its French possessions, and Spain posed a very real threat.

Elizabeth began her rule by surrounding herself with capable advisers, some of whom were to stay with her for most of her 44-year reign. The first problem she tackled was religion. As the National Maritime Museum notes, she chose “to reinstate the Reformation and build a Church of England that was neither Catholic nor extreme Protestant.” Instead of its supreme head, she became its supreme governor to pacify those who could not accept a woman as head of the church. Next, parliament passed the Act of Uniformity that established the beliefs and practices of the Church of England, although retaining certain Catholic ceremonies. Inevitably, this “middle way” did not please most Catholics or the more rigid Protestants, the Puritans.

There was another more personal problem on Elizabeth’s mind. How could she gain the allegiance and respect of a nation still reeling from the disastrous reign of Mary I? She decided to turn her gender into an asset. Historian Christopher Haigh explains: “On her throne, Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen; towards the Church she was a mother, with her  nobles she was an aunt, to her councillors a nagging wife, and to her courtiers a seductress.” Her secret was to reassure her people constantly of her special love for them. In turn, her people loved her too, or so she told them repeatedly, and soon they believed it.

Parliament was anxious for Elizabeth to marry and produce a Protestant heir. First one and then another royal suitor came forward. Elizabeth would feign interest and keep the marriage negotiations going for months, sometimes years, before deciding against the betrothal when it was politically expedient to do so.

As Elizabeth pursued a “moderate” religious path, she became the target of conspiracies against her. Lurking in the wings was her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, whom Catholic Europe viewed as the rightful heir of Mary I. Danger from this quarter increased in 1568 when Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and flee to England. Although under house arrest, she quickly became the focus of Catholic plots to overthrow the Protestant queen, but Elizabeth steadfastly refused to put a fellow monarch to death. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued a papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth and absolving her subjects of obedience to her. The next pope, Gregory XIII, went further, declaring that it would be no sin to invade England and forcibly remove the queen. Matters came to a head when Anthony Babington’s plot to kill Elizabeth was discovered and Mary was implicated. At last, Elizabeth was forced to make a decision about Mary, and urged on by parliament, she finally agreed to Mary’s execution in 1587. Catholic Europe was incensed​—and particularly Philip II of Spain.

Catholic Philip’s Bold Strategy

Philip, at that time Europe’s most powerful ruler, had tried to keep England Catholic by asking Elizabeth to marry him when she became queen, but she had turned down his offer. For years English privateers had been looting Spanish ships and ports and challenging its colonial supremacy. To add insult to injury, Elizabeth supported the Dutch in their struggle for independence from Spanish rule. Mary’s execution was the last straw for Philip. Urged on by the pope, he planned to use the Spanish Armada, a huge fleet of more than 130 ships, which would sail to the Netherlands, pick up a large land army, and then cross the English Channel to invade England. Before the fleet was fully mobilized, English spies uncovered the plot. Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake with 30 ships to the Spanish harbor of Cádiz, where they destroyed a number of the prize vessels, delaying the Armada for a year.

When the Armada finally left port in 1588, the English navy was ready for it. Although under fire, the Spanish fleet came through the  English Channel without too much damage and anchored off the French port of Calais. The following night the English sent in eight fireships. * In panic, the Spanish fleet scattered, and after some fierce fighting, a southwest wind blew them away from England and northward toward Scotland. Storms around Scotland and the west coast of Ireland wrecked half the Spanish ships, while the rest limped back to Spain.

The “Golden Age” Begins

At the start of Elizabeth’s reign, England had no overseas possessions. In contrast, Spain was acquiring great wealth from vast territories it conquered in North, Central, and South America. England wanted a share of the action. So, enterprising adventurers set sail across oceans seeking fame, fortune, and new trade routes to China and the Far East. Sir Francis Drake became the first sea captain to sail his own ship around the world, plundering Spanish treasure ships as he navigated up the west coast of South and North America. Challenging Spain’s monopoly of the New World, Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored attempts to found a colony on the East Coast of North America. The territory that he claimed there he named Virginia in honor of England’s Virgin Queen. Although those early colonizing attempts failed, they awakened England’s interest in future ventures. When Spain’s “Invincible Armada” was defeated, England grew in maritime confidence and Elizabeth supported new trading enterprises on the other side of the world in southeast Asia. The stage was set for the foundation of a British Empire that would eventually encircle the globe. *

On the home front, education was encouraged. New schools opened giving more students a door to the literary world. Thirst for literature, coupled with advances in printing, produced a cultural explosion. This was the age of William Shakespeare and other great dramatists. Audiences thronged to newly opened theaters to be entertained by their plays. Poets wrote eloquent sonnets, and composers developed innovative music. Skilled artists painted exquisite miniatures of queen and courtiers. New Bible translations took pride of place in churches and homes. But the golden days did not last.

The Golden Age Loses Its Glitter

Elizabeth’s last years were full of troubles. Having outlived her trusty advisers, she bestowed privileges on a chosen few, provoking furious rivalry at court and even an unsuccessful rebellion. Once again her kingdom was rent by religious division. Catholics refused to attend Protestant services and experienced increasing persecution. By the end  of her reign, approximately 200 priests and laymen had been executed. Puritans suffered imprisonment and executions too. Rebellion against English rule broke out in Ireland, and war with Spain continued. Four successive poor harvests caused rising unemployment and vagrancy, and people rioted against high food prices. Elizabeth had outlived her popularity. England no longer loved its Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth gradually lost the will to live and, as the last of the Tudor rulers, died on March 24, 1603. The nation greeted the news with stunned silence, but by evening they were celebrating a new monarch with bonfires and street parties. At last they had a king​—James VI of Scotland, Protestant son of Mary Stuart. In his role as James I of England, he did what Elizabeth had been unable to do​—he united the two kingdoms under one monarch. Early optimism, however, soon changed to disillusionment, and the nation began longing for the days of their Good Queen Bess.

Was It Really a Golden Age?

Early historians wrote glowingly of Elizabeth. A few years after her death, William Camden described her reign as a golden age of progress during which the queen inspired her people to greatness. No one really challenged this view for centuries. Elizabeth’s reputation even increased toward the end of the 19th century when she was credited with the birth of the British Empire, which by then covered a quarter of the world.

Some modern historians do not view Elizabeth’s reign through such rose-colored glasses. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain states: “Elizabeth has attained a posthumous reputation far in excess of her actual achievements. It is plain that her own propaganda, . . . her sheer longevity, the coincidence of the Shakespearian moment, and the lucky defeat of the Armada have beguiled us into joining a crescendo of adulation that ignores the simple fact that she quietly allowed England to become ungovernable.” Haigh, quoted earlier, explains why some historians wrote as they did: “In 1603, Elizabeth had seemed a foolish old woman, as men looked expectantly to a Stuart king. By 1630, when Stuart kings had proved rather a disappointment, she had become the paragon of all princely virtues.”

There is no doubt that Elizabeth was an exceptional woman in a man’s world. Intelligent and determined, she excelled at public relations with the help of her ministers, who skillfully stage-managed her speeches, public appearances, dress, and portraits to promote the royal image and its legendary golden age.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 6 See the article “Religious Intolerance Now Admitted,” in Awake! of April 8, 2000, pages 12-14.

^ par. 13 A fireship was a military vessel loaded with explosives and other combustible materials that was set adrift on fire among enemy ships, causing destruction.

[Blurb on page 22]

“Elizabeth has attained a posthumous reputation far in excess of her actual achievements”

[Box/​Picture on page 22]

 JOHN DEE AND THE BRITISH EMPIRE

Elizabeth called John Dee (1527-1608/9) her philosopher. A respected mathematician, geographer, and astronomer, he was also deeply interested in astrology and the occult. He advised the queen on the most propitious day for her coronation and practiced his arts in her court. Credited with popularizing the term “British Empire,” he encouraged Elizabeth to view herself as empress of a future empire to be gained by controlling the oceans and colonizing new lands. To this end he tutored explorers in navigation, particularly in their search for Northeast and Northwest passages to the Orient, and he backed schemes to colonize the North American continent.

[Credit Line]

Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum

[Pictures on page 20, 21]

A. English fireships sent into the Spanish Armada B. Sir Francis Drake C. Queen Elizabeth D. The Globe Theatre E. William Shakespeare

[Credit Lines]

A: From the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. III); B: ORONOZ; C: From the book Heroes of the Reformation; D: From the book The Comprehensive History of England (Vol. II); E: Encyclopædia Britannica/​11th Edition (1911)

[Picture Credit Line on page 19]

© The Bridgeman Art Library International