This lesson will focus on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, known as England's Golden Age. It will highlight England's advancements in economic growth, the sciences, the arts, and exploration under the lone rule of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth Comes to the Throne
The Elizabethan Era of English history was a remarkable time now coined England's Golden Age. Queen Elizabeth I, from the illustrious Tudor dynasty, reigned for 45 years. During her reign, it was a time of relative political stability, exploration, and creativity in which art flourished.
Elizabeth I ruled England for over four decades
Coming to the throne in 1558 after the violent reign of her Catholic half-sister, Mary I - known infamously as Bloody Mary - Elizabeth worked to heal her land of the violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Though Elizabeth honored many of the Protestant reforms set up by her father, King Henry VIII, she also made significant concessions to the Catholics of her realm. In 1559, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was enacted. In this legislation, Elizabeth was declared the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This act also allowed for both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of church tradition.
Due to her desire to unite her subjects under one throne, her reign is marked as a time of peace. During this peace, she encouraged self-sufficiency in England through the growth of agriculture and trade. This newfound wealth ushered in England's Golden Age.
The Economy of the Golden Age
At the time of Elizabeth's ascension, the feudal system, or the system of wealth based on land ownership, had greatly declined. Seeing these changes, Elizabeth very smartly encouraged the new, growing middle class to continue to engage in agriculture; however, it moved from peasants farming lands for wealthy nobles to independent citizens working for wage.
England's wool trade also began to boom during Elizabeth's Golden Age. With the increase of wool, the face of farming changed, bringing about the process of land enclosure, in which the traditional open field system ended in favor of creating larger closed areas of land that required fewer workers. Although these new ranches of sorts were extremely profitable, the fact that they required less labor induced many workers to leave their villages for the employment found in towns. Thus, towns and cities burgeoned under Elizabeth's rule.
The Globe Theatre is among the most famous in London
The Arts Flourish
These new towns and their new money were a perfect recipe for art to flourish. Just like in Italy, as money flowed, people looked for ways to spend it. While Italy turned to painters and sculptors, Elizabethan England turned to the theatre, and boy did they love it!
Elizabethan inn-yards were one of the first venues for English theatre. These inns, which provided lodging and entertainment, attracted traveling actors and troubadours, or poets who wrote verse to music. Soon crafty entrepreneurs realized there was money to be made by producing plays and then teaming with inn owners to charge for the performances. One of the first Englishmen to jump on this profitable performing bandwagon was James Burbage. History gives him credit for being among the first producers of Elizabethan commercial theatre.
These inn-yards, being very profitable, soon grew into full-blown theatre houses. Among the most famous is the Globe Theatre of London. This theatre, built to mimic the Roman amphitheaters, was home to the original works of London's most famous playwrights.
Speaking of playwrights, not only did the Golden Age of England produce lots of wool, it produced some of the most revered playwrights of all time. There was Christopher Marlowe, made famous by his play, The Jew of Malta. To him we can add Thomas Kyd, known for his Spanish Tragedy. Of course, there's William Shakespeare, whose name has become synonymous with the word 'playwright.' To England's Golden Age and to high schools across the globe, he gave works like Hamlet, King Henry V, and the tragic Romeo and Juliet.
Although the arts had been enjoyed throughout history, Elizabeth's Golden Age opened them up to every class of society. The upper-class nobility, the middle-class merchant, and the commoner all enjoyed this entertainment of the day. Just like today, the better the seat, the higher the price, but admission was available to all.
Scientists Sir Francis Bacon and Dr. John Dee
Scientific Study and Exploration
Along with a thriving economy and the flourishing arts, England's Golden Age opened an entire new world to the English realm through scientific study. Men like Sir Francis Bacon, who structured the idea of a defined scientific method, worked in England's Golden Age. To Bacon, we can also add Dr. John Dee, a famous alchemist, or in today's terms, chemist, who studied under Elizabeth's rule.
As scientific exploration boomed, so did overseas exploration. Up until this time, Spain and Portugal had dominated the New World's seas, but Elizabeth's Golden Age saw the emergence of English explorers onto the scene. There was Sir Francis Drake, the first European to pass from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast of South America. He also sailed around the world in his ship, the Golden Hind. We also have Henry Hudson, who discovered the Hudson River of New York, or Sebastian Cabot, the Italian-born explorer who sailed for England and searched for the illusive Northwest Passage across North America.
The list would not be complete without adding Sir Walter Raleigh. History tells us this guy was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. It also tells us he was very handsome and very debonair. (He's the guy who allegedly stopped the queen mid-step in order to place his coat over a mud puddle she was about to step into.) When not flirting with the queen, Sir Walter Raleigh also did some exploring. He established the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island. On an interesting side note, the state of Virginia is named after Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.
The Virgin Queen
This brings us to our last topic, the fact that Elizabeth ruled over England as an unmarried, female monarch, earning her the nickname 'the Virgin Queen.' This alone is a huge difference between Elizabethan England and most other times throughout all of history.
Sir Walter Raleigh established the Roanoke Island colony
Not only was Elizabeth a single, female monarch, she was a survivor. First of all, we need to remember much of England felt she was an illegitimate heir, since her mother Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII was never accepted by the Catholic Church. It also didn't help matters when Boleyn was later executed for treason. Add to this that Elizabeth's half-sister, Bloody Mary, accused her of plotting a Protestant rebellion and had her imprisoned in the Tower of London, and you can see what backbone Elizabeth had.
In 1588, Elizabeth would prove her backbone was as strong as any man's with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, an attack by well over 100 Spanish ships toward the English coast. Not only would this famous encounter prove Elizabeth could hold her own, it would establish England as preeminent over the seas.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I witnessed a widespread increase in culture known as England's Golden Age. It included advancements in agriculture, turning England into a massive supplier of wool. It also saw significant expansions in scientific knowledge and overseas exploration, with men like Bacon, Drake, and Raleigh leading the way.
In reference to the arts, Elizabeth's reign gave the world Shakespeare, arguably the most renowned playwright of all time, whose works echo through the halls of most modern schools today. Like the famous Shakespeare, Elizabeth has earned her place in history as one of England's most admired, if not most admired, monarchs of all time. And she did this as a single woman in a man's world.
To end, we'll let the words of Elizabeth speak for themselves. As she said throughout her life, ''Though the sex I belong to is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind... I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England too.''
Completing this lesson should enable you to:
- Summarize the advancements made in the economy, arts, and sciences of Elizabethan England
- Name some of the artists, scientists, and explorers who made an impact during this era
- Discuss Elizabeth's policies and accomplishments, including the Elizabethan Religious Settlement and the defeat of the Spanish Armada
- Define land enclosure, Elizabethan inn-yards, and troubadours