The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 16th century

In 1558, Elizabeth, the new Queen, inherited an England which, in the dozen years since her father’s death, had be­come a third class power. Disgraced in peace and war, governed by fools and adventurers, foreigners and fanatics it lacked financial credit, arms, men and leaders.

Bankrupt and degraded though the country was, it had, nevertheless, reached one of those turning points in history; a crisis in affairs where, as in certain illnesses, the patient does not linger — either he gets better or he dies.

Elizabeth saw this and she determined to keep herself on the throne. To do this she needed two things, time and peace. Having chosen her ministers shrewdly, she acted accordingly.

Fortunately for her, and for England, the two great Ro­man Catholic Powers, France and Spain, were deadly rivals and Elizabeth used this rivalry for years with true feminine cunning. She simply played one off against the other. It was in this way that she gained the time she and her country so desperately needed until at last this small island was too strong to be invaded by any foreigner.

It was not in king Philip’s interests to have a strong Eng­lish Navy.Spain, Philip thought, must be mistress of the sea. Elizabeth thought otherwise and restored the navy which, when she began her reign, consisted of only twenty- two ships.

The Elizabethans were envied, feared, hated and mis­trusted by other nations. The English, according to a foreign visitor of the day, were “good sailors and better pirates; cunning, treacherous and thievish.” They were, it is perfect­ly true, energetically and enthusiastically becoming first- rate seamen, pirates and merchant adventurers. As such they laid the foundation of our own modern capitalist economy. Commerce was looked up to as a dangerous, exciting adventure, romantic and rewarding. Commerce was, in fact, the goddess of warfare, exploration and fortune.

Never before had England’s envoys been seen at the Courts of the Emperor of Persia or the Grand Signor of Con­stantinople. Her consuls and agents were newly in Tripoli,Aleppo,Babylon and Goa. Her ships anchored in the River Plate, passing and re-passing the formidable Straits of Magellan to range the coast of Chile, Peru and “all the back­side of Nova Hispania” to the amazement and rage of the Spanish.

The first of the great trading companies, the Muscovy Company, came into being and the pattern of other trading companies set. Relations withRussiawere so good in the beginning that Ivan greatly desired to marryElizabeth.Elizabethrefused the kind offer. Relations between the two countries remained fairly amicable, however, even though Ivan, irked by refusal wrote to the queen upbraiding her for her “maidenly estate”.

Relations betweenSpainandEnglandwere decidedly less happy. The English harassed and looted Spanish ships on the high seas, usually in theCaribbeanor south of the Line.

Elizabeththought it profitable to let her seamen plunder her enemies as a share in the plunder augmented her insuffi­cient income.

“Drake!” she exclaimed when secretly persuaded to take shares in Drake’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe — an expedition of piracy which has no parallel in history — “Drake! so it is, that I would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for diverse injuries I have received.” She had found the right man for the job and he the right mistress.

People were no less busy on land than on the sea. Out of a defeudalised society a new gentry arose to replace the old nobility and to build up a strong middle class. All the great servants of the Tudors were of humble origin. Class distinc­tions were thus no longer rigid or even hereditary. Greatness was purely a material thing. The great man was the rich man and he showed his greatness by the style and manner in which he lived.

So the new gentry, small squires, and landowners put their sons into trade and commerce, or apprenticed them to merchants and traders, or sent them to sea to try their luck at freebooting.

The rise of the merchant classes was phenomenal.Eng­landbecame known as a nation of merchants as later it was to become known as the nation of shopkeepers.

So the Elizabethans were busy making money. Those who made it spent it; the result was a boom — and contin­uing inflation. More and more people acquired land, built and furnished houses, great and small; they ate enormously and dressed fantastically. Exuberant and bent on material success as they were, the Elizabethans expressed themselves in magnificent music and poetry, if less well in prose and painting. They welcomed emigres fleeing from the per­secutions inFranceand theLowlands, yet they burned their heretics, tortured Jesuits, were beastly to the Irish and trad­ed in slaves — the Queen herself had shares in a slave-trading ship called, most inappropriately, “Jesus.” They believed in God, but also in magic, astrology, alchemy, div­ination, witches and sorcerers. It was the fashion in those days for princes to be brilliant, learned, accomplished and magnificent.Elizabethwas no exception. The court had to live up to the Queen. A courtier had to have brains — and wit — but he must also be a sportsman, poet, soldier, lin­guist, nimblefooted in dancing, and able to play a stringed instrument.

Viewing from this safe distance of time it seems to us to be an age of splendour full of great names and great deeds. Yet it was also an age of squalor and misery, of treachery and sudden death; of beggars, vagabonds, criminals and thieves; of the ragged poor and the unemployable.

From The Pageant of Elizabethan England by E. Burton

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