Elizabethan England has a very different atmosphere to any previous period in Britsh history. Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne of England on the death of her elder Catholic half-sister ‘Bloody’ Mary in 1558. She was twenty-five. Her 45 year rule is popularly seen as heralding a new age for England and she has been described as one of England’s greatest monarchs. The Elizabethan age witnessed the exploration of the New World, war with maritime rivals such as Spain (including an attempted invasion), Europe’s introduction to hitherto unknown species and consumables, such as turkeys, tobacco and potatoes – and the origins of the British Empire. The British East India Company received its charter from Elizabeth in 1600; its influence on future British control in India was profound. Shakespeare, arguably England’s greatest playwright, was in his ascendancy during the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign. Her refusal to marry and the lack of a Tudor heir, whether by chance or design, paved the way for the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland.
Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s second daughter; her mother was Anne Boleyn. After the death of her young half-brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth became a potential magnet for protestant supporters and did well to survive during Mary’s brutal attempt to restore England to Catholicism. She inherited a country torn by religious faction and, whilst re-establishing the Church of England, set out to follow what could be described as a moderate Protestant line. Initially, Elizabeth tried to steer clear of religious wars that were tearing neighbouring countries apart. Though suspicions of Catholic intentions remained, and these undoubtedly influenced decision-making, the extremes of general religious intolerance that had been a hallmark of the three previous reigns should have gradually disappeared.
Officially, Catholics regarded Elizabeth as a bastard and some opposed her succession. Catholicism was more entrenched in the north of England and there was a rebellion there in 1569, the so-called ‘Revolt of the Northern Earls’, which was an unsuccessful attempt to replace Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Regrettably, the Pope issued a bull, Regnans in Exclesis, in 1570 which excommunicated Elizabeth, declared her a heretic and released her subjects from allegiance to her. This was catastrophic for English Catholics, since it turned them all into potential traitors – particularly as England’s No 1 Enemy by this time was Catholic Spain, ruled by King Philip II – who had married Mary (Elizabeth’s predecessor and half-sister) and who might have once considered himself King of England. Suspicion of Catholics turned to anti-Catholic hysteria in some quarters.
In fact, Elizabeth spent much of her reign in danger. Further plots against her followed, including one particular thwarted assassination, the Babington Plot of 1586, which incriminated Mary, Queen of Scots and led to Elizabeth finally and reluctantly signing the warrant for her cousin’s execution at Fortheringhay Castle.
Columbus’ trip to what he named the West Indies in 1492 had encouraged great interest in the Americas by the primary maritime powers – particularly Spain, England, Portugal and France. The potential for wealth and power was clear and ‘Good Queen Bess’ (body of a woman, heart of a man etc) encouraged explorers and adventurers such as Richard Grenville, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Beyond these shores, they were often regarded as pirates (maybe so – but they were our pirates). It was all very heroic, were it not for the eternal blemish on the reputations of many of the remarkable men involved, including Sir Francis Drake, for their involvement in founding the slave trade in America. West Africans were abducted, usually with the connivance of local chiefs, and shipped to the New World where they were sold to settlers of all nations. Huge fortunes were made from this inhumane practice. Yet, however much we might feel we know our Elizabethan ancestors, these were different times when what we would consider to be barbaric attitudes were official; judging with today’s liberal eyes does not alter the fact that terrible events and practices helped shape our world.
Amongst Drake’s other more worthy achievements was the part he played in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. To put this in context, the purpose of the Armada, sponsored by our friend King Philip, was to invade and conquer England. Harried by the smaller and more manoeuvrable English ships, outclassed in terms of leadership, hampered by poor communications and finally the victims of appalling weather and heavy seas (which claimed most of the Spanish fleet), the attempted invasion failed and an estimated 20,000 Spaniards lost their lives. It was one of the greatest English victories in history and a primary reason why bull fighting never caught on in Neasden.
Meanwhile, in Ireland…back in 1541, Henry VIII had appointed himself King of Ireland. How did he find time for this as well as six wives, all those palaces and dissolved monasteries? Irish lords were persuaded to give up their Gaelic titles and lands and instead hold them, with new English titles, as effective vassals of the King of England. Understandably, the Irish rebelled against English (and Protestant) rule – and Irish wars were a feature of Elizabeth’s reign.
In 1536, an Act of Union had finally joined England and Wales under the same crown. ‘Act of Union’ might be a little misleading – somehow, it suggests mutual desire. But if not every Welshman leapt about in joy, at least it acknowledged a common law. Scotland and England, on the other hand, were still two neighbours quarrelling over the fence, sometimes violently. At least the question of whether Mary, Queen of Scots, was after Elizabeth’s throne became academic after Mary had been beheaded.
Much has been written about Elizabeth’s refusal to marry, despite being under considerable pressure to do so. She is said to have been a passionate woman, loved the attention of young men and had several favourites – not least Robert Dudley, who she created 1st Earl of Leicester and whose last letter she kept until her death. Perhaps Elizabeth knew better than her advisors: a husband, whether English or foreign, would alienate one faction or another, or risk overseas entanglements that England could ill-afford.
In any event, Elizabeth died after catching a chill, childless, at Richmond Palace in 1603. It was the end of the Tudors. At the age of 36 her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, additionally became King James I of England. James had supported Elizabeth against France and Spain. He was Mary Queen of Scots’ son and the great-great grandson of Henry VII; the thrones of England and Scotland were finally joined – but the states remained separate.