Elizabethan era

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Elizabethan era
Queen Elizabeth I by George Gower.jpg
Monarch(s)Elizabeth I
Leader(s) See others at List of ministers to Queen Elizabeth I.
← Preceded by
Tudor period
Followed by →
Jacobean era

The Elizabethan era is the epoch in the Tudor period of the history of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history. The symbol of Britannia (a female personification of Great Britain) was first used in 1572, and often thereafter, to mark the Elizabethan age as a renaissance that inspired national pride through classical ideals, international expansion, and naval triumph over Spain.

This "golden age"[1] represented the apogee of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature. The era is most famous for its theatre, as William Shakespeare and many others composed plays that broke free of England's past style of theatre. It was an age of exploration and expansion abroad, while back at home, the Protestant Reformation became more acceptable to the people, most certainly after the Spanish Armada was repelled. It was also the end of the period when England was a separate realm before its royal union with Scotland.

The Elizabethan age contrasts sharply with the previous and following reigns. It was a brief period of internal peace between the Wars of the Roses in the previous century, the English Reformation, and the religious battles between Protestants and Catholics prior to Elizabeth's reign, and then the later conflict of the English Civil War and the ongoing political battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the remainder of the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet 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 following the end of the Italian Wars, which left the Italian Peninsula impoverished. The Kingdom of France was embroiled in the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598). They were (temporarily) settled in 1598 by a policy of tolerating Protestantism 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 by Spain's tercios, the centuries-long Anglo-French Wars were largely suspended for most of Elizabeth's reign.

The one great rival was Habsburg Spain, with whom England clashed 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. In turn England launched an equally unsuccessful expedition to Spain with the Drake–Norris Expedition of 1589. Three further Spanish Armadas also failed in 1596, 1597 and 1602. The war ended with the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth's death.

England during this period had a centralised, well-organised, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, as well as Elizabeth's harsh punishments for any dissenters. Economically, the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of trans-Atlantic trade and persistent theft of Spanish and Portuguese treasures, most notably as a result of Francis Drake's circumnavigation.

The term Elizabethan era was already well-established in English and British historical consciousness, long before the accession of Queen Elizabeth II, and generally refers solely to the time of the earlier Queen of this name.

High culture

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I English art and high culture reached a pinnacle known as the height of the English Renaissance. Elizabethan music experienced a shift in popularity from sacred to secular music and the rise of instrumental music. Professional musicians were employed by the Church of England, the nobility, and the rising middle-class. Elizabeth I was fond of music and played the lute and virginal, sang, and even claimed to have composed dance music.[2][3] She felt that dancing was a great form of physical exercise and employed musicians to play for her while she danced. During her reign, she employed over seventy musicians. The interests of the Queen were expected to be adopted by her subjects. All noblemen were expected to be proficient in playing the lute and "any young woman unable to take her proper place in a vocal or instrumental ensemble became the laughing-stock of society."[4] Music printing led to a market of amateur musicians purchasing works published by those who received special permission from the Queen.[4]

Morality plays emerged as a distinct dramatic form around 1400 and flourished in the early Elizabethan era in England. By the time of Elizabethan literature, a vigorous literary culture in both drama and poetry included poets such as Edmund Spenser, whose verse epic The Faerie Queene had a strong influence on English literature but was eventually overshadowed by the lyrics of William Shakespeare, Thomas Wyatt and others. Typically, the works of these playwrights and poets circulated in manuscript form for some time before they were published, and above all the plays of English Renaissance theatre were the outstanding legacy of the period with a prestigious literary culture. The works of this period are also affected by the declaration of independence from the Catholic Church and technological advances in sailing and cartography, which are reflected in the generally nonreligious themes and various shipwreck adventures of Shakespeare.[5]

With William Shakespeare at his peak, as well as Christopher Marlowe and many other playwrights, actors and theatres constantly busy, the high culture of the Elizabethan Renaissance was best expressed in its theatre.[6] The growing population of England, the growing wealth of its people, and their fondness for spectacle produced a dramatic literature of remarkable variety, quality, and extent. Genres of the period included the history play, which depicted English or European history. Shakespeare's plays about the lives of kings, such as Richard III and Henry V, belong to this category, as do Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and George Peele's Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First. History plays dealt with more recent events, like A Larum for London which dramatizes the sack of Antwerp in 1576. Tragedy was a very popular genre. Marlowe's tragedies were exceptionally successful, such as Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. The audiences particularly liked revenge dramas, such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. The four tragedies considered to be Shakespeare's greatest (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth) were composed during this period. The English theatre scene, which performed both for the court and nobility in private performances and a very wide public in the theatres, was the most crowded in Europe, with a host of other playwrights as well as the giant figures of Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Elizabeth herself was a product of Renaissance humanism trained by Roger Ascham, and wrote occasional poems such as "On Monsieur's Departure" at critical moments of her life. William Shakespeare, whose works include Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, remains one of the most championed authors in English literature. The playwright and poet is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist of all time.[7][8] Elizabethan literature is considered one of the "most splendid" in the history of English literature. In addition to drama and the theatre, it saw a flowering of poetry, with new forms like the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and dramatic blank verse, as well as prose, including historical chronicles, pamphlets, and the first English novels. Edmund Spenser, Richard Hooker, and John Lyly, as well as Marlowe and Shakespeare, are major Elizabethan writers.[9]

Travelling musicians were in great demand at the Royal Court, in churches, at country houses, and at local festivals. Important composers included William Byrd (1543–1623), John Dowland (1563–1626) Thomas Campion (1567–1620), and Robert Johnson (c. 1583–c. 1634). The composers were commissioned by church and Court, and deployed two main styles, madrigal and ayre.[10] The popular culture showed a strong interest in folk songs and ballads (folk songs that tell a story). It became the fashion in the late 19th century to collect and sing the old songs.[11]

The portraiture of Elizabeth I was carefully controlled and developed into an elaborate and wholly un-realist iconic style, that has succeeded in creating enduring images. The many portraits drove the evolution of English royal portraits in the Early Modern period. Even the earliest portraits of Elizabeth I contain symbolic objects such as roses and prayer books that would have carried meaning to viewers of her day. Later portraits of Elizabeth layer the iconography of empireglobes, crowns, swords and columns—and representations of virginity and purity—such as moons and pearls—with classical allusions to present a complex "story" that conveyed to Elizabethan era viewers the majesty and significance of their Virgin Queen. The Armada Portrait is an allegorical panel painting depicting the queen surrounded by symbols of empire against a backdrop representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In Elizabeth's reign, Nicholas Hilliard, the Queen's "limner and goldsmith", is the most widely recognized figure in this native development; but George Gower has begun to attract greater notice and appreciation.[12]


Despite some buildings in a partly Renaissance style from the reign of Henry VIII, notably Hampton Court Palace, the vanished Nonsuch Palace, Sutton Place and Layer Marney Tower, it was not until the Elizabethan architecture of the end of the century that a true Renaissance style emerged. The wool trade, which had carried the economic life of England in the late medieval period, was no longer as prosperous as it had been and there was less disposable wealth for architectural projects. Under Elizabeth, farming was encouraged resulting in a strong recovery that put a vast amount of wealth into the hands of a large number of people. Elizabeth built no new palaces, instead encouraging her courtiers to build extravagantly and house her on her summer progresses. A large number of small houses were built, and at the same time many country mansions were constructed. Many of the earlier medieval or Tudor manors were remodelled and modernised during Elizabeth's reign. Civic and institutional buildings were also becoming increasingly common.[13]

Burghley House is a grand sixteenth-century English country house near Stamford, Lincolnshire. It is a leading example of the Elizabethan prodigy house.

The most famous buildings, of a type called the prodigy house, are large show houses constructed for courtiers, and characterised by lavish use of glass, as at "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall", Wollaton Hall and Hatfield House and Burghley House, the style continuing into the early 17th century before developing into Jacobean architecture. Lesser, but still large, houses like Little Moreton Hall continued to be constructed and expanded in essentially medieval half-timbered styles until the late 16th century.[13]

Church architecture essentially continued in the late medieval Perpendicular Gothic style until the Reformation, and then stopped almost completely, although church monuments, screens and other fittings often had classical styles from about the mid-century. The few new church buildings post-Reformation were usually still Gothic in style, as in Langley Chapel of 1601.[14] It was also at this time that the long gallery became popular in English manor houses, often displaying painting collections and decorated ceilings. This was apparently mainly used for walking in, and a growing range of parlours and withdrawing rooms supplemented the main living room for the family, the great chamber. The great hall was now mostly used by the servants, and as an impressive point of entry to the house.[13]


Queen Elizabeth I in Parliament

Elizabethan England avoided major defeats and built up a powerful navy. On balance, it can be said that Elizabeth I provided the country with a long period of general if not total peace and generally increased prosperity due in large part to stealing from Spanish treasure ships, raiding settlements with low defenses, and selling African slaves. Having inherited a virtually bankrupt state from previous reigns, her policies restored fiscal responsibility. Her fiscal restraint cleared the regime of debt by 1574, and ten years later the English crown enjoyed a surplus of £300,000.[15]

The Royal Exchange in London was founded in the Elizabethan era by the merchants to act as a centre of commerce. The site was provided by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers.[16]

Under Elizabeth I crafts and manufacturing activities received a boost. Glass, ceramic, silk industry and exports of wool manufactures could be promoted. Economically, Sir Thomas Gresham's founding of the Royal Exchange (1565), the first stock exchange in England and one of the earliest in Europe, proved 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.[17]

This general peace and prosperity allowed the attractive developments of the "Golden Age".[18] The Elizabethan era is famous for its playwrights hat thrived during this period; Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world; and Walter Raleigh's exploration of the New World. The stability and structure of the government helped to allow the arts to flourish and prompted other achievements in exploration.

England in this era had key 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[19]—though forms of corporal punishment, some of them extreme, were practised. The persecution of witches began in 1563, and hundreds were executed, although there was nothing like the frenzy on the Continent.[20] Mary had tried her hand at an aggressive anti-Protestant Inquisition and was hated for it; it was not to be repeated.[21] Nevertheless, more Catholics were persecuted, exiled, and burned alive than under Queen Mary.[22]


The Elizabethan Age was also an age of plots and conspiracies, frequently political in nature, and often involving the highest levels of Elizabethan society. High officials in Madrid, Paris and Rome sought to kill Elizabeth, a Protestant, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. That would be a prelude to the religious recovery of England for Catholicism. In 1570, the Ridolfi plot was thwarted. In 1584, the Throckmorton Plot was discovered, after Francis Throckmorton confessed his involvement in a plot to overthrow the Queen and restore the Catholic Church in England. Another major conspiracy was the Babington Plot – the event which most directly led to Mary's execution, the discovery of which involved a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, acting under the direction of Francis Walsingham, the Queen's highly effective spy master.

The Essex Rebellion of 1601 has a dramatic element, as just before the uprising, supporters of the Earl of Essex, among them Charles and Joscelyn Percy (younger brothers of the Earl of Northumberland), paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre, apparently with the goal of stirring public ill will towards the monarchy.[23] It was reported at the trial of Essex by Chamberlain's Men actor Augustine Phillips, that the conspirators paid the company forty shillings "above the ordinary" (i. e., above their usual rate) to stage the play, which the players felt was too old and "out of use" to attract a large audience.[23]

In the Bye Plot of 1603, two Catholic priests planned to kidnap King James and hold him in the Tower of London until he agreed to be more tolerant towards Catholics. Most dramatic was the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. It was discovered in time with eight conspirators executed, including Guy Fawkes, who became the iconic evil traitor in English lore.[24]

Royal Navy

While Henry VIII had launched the Royal Navy, Edward and Mary had ignored it and it was little more than a system of coastal defense. Elizabeth made naval strength a high priority.[25] She risked war with Spain by supporting the "Sea Dogs", such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who preyed on the Spanish merchant ships carrying gold and silver from the New World. The English Navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new tactics.

The Spanish Armada fighting the English navy at the Battle of Gravelines in 1588

Parker (1996) argues that the full-rigged ship was one of the greatest technological advances of the century and permanently transformed naval warfare. In 1573 English shipwrights introduced designs, first demonstrated in the "Dreadnaught", that allowed the ships to sail faster and maneuver better and permitted heavier guns.[26] Whereas before warships had tried to grapple with each other so that soldiers could board the enemy ship, now they stood off and fired broadsides that would sink the enemy vessel. When Spain finally decided to invade and conquer England it was a fiasco. Superior English ships and seamanship foiled the invasion and led to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, marking the high point of Elizabeth's reign.

Technically, the Armada failed because Spain's over-complex strategy required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. Moreover, the poor design of the Spanish cannons meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle. Spain and France still had stronger fleets, but England was catching up fast.[27][28] The discoveries of Christopher Columbus electrified all of Western Europe, especially maritime powers like England. King Henry VII commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to find a northern route to the Spice Islands of Asia; this began the search for the North West Passage. Cabot sailed in 1497 and reached Newfoundland.[29]

Sir Francis Drake was an English explorer and privateer best known for his circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition between 1577 and 1580. This was the first English circumnavigation, and third circumnavigation overall.

In 1562 Elizabeth sent privateers Hawkins and Drake to seize booty from Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa.[30] When the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified after 1585, Elizabeth approved further raids against Spanish ports in the Americas and against shipping returning to Europe with treasure.[31] Meanwhile, the influential writers Richard Hakluyt and John Dee were beginning to press for the establishment of England's own overseas empire. Spain was well established in the Americas, while Portugal, in union with Spain from 1580, had an ambitious global empire in Africa, Asia and South America. France was exploring North America.[32] England was stimulated to create its own colonies, with an emphasis on the West Indies rather than in North America.[33]

Soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the captured Spanish and Portuguese ships and cargoes enabled English voyagers to travel the globe in search of riches.[34] London merchants presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean.[35] The aim was to deliver a decisive blow to the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of far-eastern trade.[36] Elizabeth granted her permission and on 10 April 1591, James Lancaster in the Bonaventure with two other ships, financed by the Levant Company[37] sailed from Torbay around the Cape of Good Hope to the Arabian Sea, becoming the first successful English expedition to India[37] via the Cape.[38]: 5  Having sailed around Cape Comorin to the Malay Peninsula, they preyed on Spanish and Portuguese ships there before returning to England in 1594.

The biggest prize that galvanised English trade was the seizure of a large Portuguese carrack, the Madre de Deus, by Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Cumberland at the Battle of Flores on 13 August 1592.[39] When she was brought in to Dartmouth she was the largest vessel ever seen in England and she carried chests of jewels, pearls, gold, silver coins, ambergris, cloth, tapestries, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, benjamin (a tree that produces frankincense), red dye, cochineal and ebony.[40] Equally valuable was the ship's rutter (mariner's handbook) containing vital information on the China, India, and Japan trade routes.

In 1600, the queen chartered the East India Company (later became the British East India Company) in an attempt to break the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of far Eastern trade.[41] It established trading posts, which in later centuries evolved into British India, on the coasts of what is now India and Bangladesh. Larger scale colonisation to North America began shortly after Elizabeth's death. Originally chartered as the "Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East-Indies",[42][43] the East India Company rose to account for half of the world's trade during the mid-1700s and early 1800s,[44] particularly in basic commodities including cotton, silk, indigo dye, sugar, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium.[44]

Martin Frobisher landed at Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in August 1576; He returned in 1577, claiming it in Queen Elizabeth's name, and in a third voyage tried but failed to found a settlement in Frobisher Bay.[45][46] From 1577 to 1580, Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe. Combined with his daring raids against the Spanish and his great victory over them at Cádiz in 1587, he became a famous hero[47]—his exploits are still celebrated. In 1583, Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland, taking possession of the harbour of St. John's together with all land within two hundred leagues to the north and south of it.[48] In 1584, the queen granted Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonisation of Virginia; it was named in her honour. Raleigh and Elizabeth sought both immediate riches and a base for privateers to raid the Spanish treasure fleets.[49]

Science, technology, and exploration

Sir Francis Bacon was an English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. Bacon led the advancement of both natural philosophy and the scientific method.[50]

The Elizabethan saw significant scientific progress. English thought advanced towards modern science with the Baconian Method. Francis Bacon wrote on empiricism and materialism, including scientific method and social contract.[51] Bacon's works are seen as developing the scientific method and remained highly influential through the Scientific Revolution.

The astronomers Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot made important contributions; William Gilbert 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 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 circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1581, and Martin Frobisher 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 in 1587.

While Elizabethan England is not thought of as an age of technological innovation, some progress did occur. In 1564 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.[52]


Elizabeth managed to moderate and quell the intense religious passions of the time. This was in significant contrast to previous and succeeding eras of marked religious violence.[53] Elizabeth said "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls". Her desire to moderate the religious persecutions of previous Tudor reigns – the persecution of Catholics under Edward VI, and of Protestants under Mary I – appears to have had a moderating effect on English society. Elizabeth, Protestant, but undogmatic one,[54] reinstated the 1552 Book of Common Prayer with modifications which made clear that the Church of England believed in the (spiritual) Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Communion but without a definition how in favor of leaving this a mystery, and she had the Black Rubric removed from the Articles of Faith: this had allowed kneeling to receive communion without implying that by doing so it meant the real and essential presence of Christ in the bread and wine: she believed it so. She was not able to get an unmarried clergy or the Protestant Holy Communion celebrated to look like a Mass,.[55] The Apostolic Succession was maintained, the institution of the church continued without a break (with 98% of the clergy remaining at their posts) and the attempt to ban music in church was defeated. The Injunctions of 1571 forbade any doctrines that did not conform to the teaching of the Church Fathers and the Catholic Bishops. The Queen's hostility to strict Calvinistic doctrines blocked the Radicals.

Almost no original theological thought came out of the English Reformation; instead, the Church relied on the Catholic Consensus of the first Four Ecumenical Councils. The preservation of many Catholic doctrines and practices was the cuckoos nest that eventually resulted in the formation of the Via Media during the 17th century.[56] She spent the rest of her reign ferociously fending off radical reformers and Roman Catholics who wanted to modify the Settlement of Church affairs: The Church of England was Protestant, "with its peculiar arrested development in Protestant terms, and the ghost which it harboured of an older world of Catholic traditions and devotional practice".[57]

For a number of years, Elizabeth refrained from persecuting Catholics because she was against Catholicism, not her Catholic subjects if they made no trouble. In 1570, Pope Pius V declared Elizabeth a heretic who was not the legitimate queen and that her subjects no longer owed her obedience. The pope sent Jesuits and seminarians to secretly evangelize and support Catholics. After several plots to overthrow her, Catholic clergy were mostly considered to be traitors, and were pursued aggressively in England. Often priests were tortured or executed after capture unless they cooperated with the English authorities. People who publicly supported Catholicism were excluded from the professions; sometimes fined or imprisoned.[22] This was justified on the grounds that Catholics were not persecuted for their religion but punished for being traitors who supported the Queen's Spanish foe; in practice, however, Catholics perceived it as religious persecution and regarded those executed as martyrs.[58][57]


There was an unprecedented expansion of education and apprenticships in the Tudor England.[59] Those that did go were mainly the sons of wealthy or ambitious fathers who could afford to pay the attendance fee. Boys were allowed to go to school and began at the age of 4, they then moved to grammar school when they were 7 years old. Girls were either kept at home by their parents to help with housework or sent out to work to bring money in for the family. They were not sent to school. Apprenticships were the main route for youths to enter skilled trades and crafts.[60] In 1562 the Statute of Artificers and Apprentices was passed to regulate and protect the apprenticeship system, forbidding anyone from practising a trade or craft without first serving a 7-year period as an apprentice to a master.[61] Guilds controlled many trades and used apprenticeships to control entry.[61]

Boys were educated for work and the girls for marriage and running a household so when they married they could look after the house and children.[62] Wealthy families hired a tutor to teach the boys at home. Many Tudor towns and villages had a parish school where the local vicar taught boys to read and write. Brothers could teach their sisters these skills. At school, pupils were taught English, Latin, Greek, catechism and arithmetic. The pupils practised writing in ink by copying the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer. These wooden boards had the alphabet, prayers or other writings pinned to them and were covered with a thin layer of transparent cow's horn. There were two types of school in Tudor times: petty school was where young boys were taught to read and write; grammar school was where abler boys were taught English and Latin.[60] It was usual for students to attend six days a week. The school day started at 7:00 am in winter and 6:00 am in summer and finished about 5:00 pm. Petty schools had shorter hours, mostly to allow poorer boys the opportunity to work as well. Schools were harsh and teachers were very strict.[63]

Education would begin at home, where children were taught the basic etiquette of proper manners and respecting others.[64] It was necessary for boys to attend grammar school, but girls were rarely allowed in any place of education other than petty schools, and then only with a restricted curriculum.[64] Petty schools were for all children aged from 5 to 7 years of age. Only the most wealthy people allowed their daughters to be taught, and only at home. During this time, endowed schooling became available. This meant that even boys of very poor families were able to attend school if they were not needed to work at home, but only in a few localities were funds available to provide support as well as the necessary education scholarship.[65]

Boys from wealthy families were taught at home by a private tutor. The Protestant Reformation had a major influence on education and literacy in England, as it encouraged the reading of the Bible in English ("the vernacular"). When Henry VIII shut the monasteries he closed their schools, he refounded and founded many former monastic schools—they are known as "King's Schools" and are found all over England. Edward VI reorganised grammar schools and instituted new ones so that there was a national system of "free grammar schools." In theory these were open to all, offering free tuition to those who could not afford to pay fees. There were two major university centres cn Tudor England, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. Some boys went to university at the age of about 14 or started apprenticships with guilds.[66]


Tthere was a wide range of leisure activities entertaining both the nobility and the common classes. Among these leisure activities were animal fighting, team sports, individual sports, games, dramatics, music, and the arts. The annual summer fair and other seasonal fairs such as May Day were often bawdy affairs. Watching plays and performing arts became increasingly popular, with London having the most crowded theatres in Europe. English towns sponsored plays enacted in town squares followed by the actors using the courtyards of taverns or inns (referred to as inn-yards) followed by the first theatres (great open-air amphitheatres and then the introduction of indoor theatres called playhouses). This popularity was helped by the rise of great playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe using London theatres such as the Globe Theatre. By 1595, 15,000 people a week were watching plays in London. It was during Elizabeth's reign that the first real theatres were built in England. Before theatres were built, actors travelled from town to town and performed in the streets or outside inns.[67] Miracle plays were local re-enactments of stories from the Bible. They derived from the old custom of mystery plays, in which stories and fables were enacted to teach lessons or educate about life in general. They influenced Shakespeare.[68] Festivals were popular seasonal entertainments.[69]


There were many different types of Elizabethan sports and entertainment. Animal sports included bear and bull baiting, dog fighting and cock fighting. The rich enjoyed tennis, fencing, and jousting. Hunting was strictly limited to the upper class. They favoured their packs of dogs and hounds trained to chase foxes, hares and boars. The rich also enjoyed hunting small game and birds with hawks, known as falconry. Elizabethan style football was comparable to the present-day sports of rugby union and rugby league. Two teams rushed against each other, trying to get the "ball" in through the goalposts. "Cudgels" was also a popular sport among young men. A type of stick fighting, it was a sport effectively training for sword fighting, but using wooden wasters or simple cudgels.

Running, jumping, fencing, jousting, archery, and skittles were also practiced, with fishing as the most relaxing and harmless pastime. English children enjoyed playing leap-frog, blind man's bluff and hide-and-seek, which are enjoyed by many children throughout Britain today.

Jousting was an upscale, very expensive sport where warriors on horseback raced toward each other in full armor trying to use their lance to knock the other off his horse. It was a violent sport--King Henry II of France was killed in a tournament in 1559, as were many lesser men. King Henry VIII was a champion; he finally retired from the lists after a hard fall left him unconscious for hours.[70] Other sports included archery, bowling, hammer-throwing, quarter-staff contests, troco, quoits, skittles, wrestling and mob football.[70]

Music and dance

Music was greatly enjoyed throughout this era, as seen through quite a few family evenings including musical performances. English children were taught to sing and dance at a very early age and became used to performing in public during such evenings. Keyboard instruments such as harpsichords, clavichords, dulcimers and virginals were played. Woodwind instruments like woodsy, crumhorns, flutes and stringed instruments such as lutes and rebecs were also widely used. Royal Court dances included the pavane and galliard, the almain and the volta, whilst among popular dances were the branle, The Barley-Break (a setting by William Byrd is in My Ladye Nevells Booke), Nobody’s Jig (of which a version was set by Richard Farnaby) and the Shake-a-Trot.

Gambling and card games

Dice was a popular activity in all social classes. They began to spread throughout Europe and came into England around 1460. By the time of Elizabeth's reign, gambling was a common sport. The card suits tended to change over time. The first Italian and Spanish decks had the same suits: Swords, Batons/ Clubs, Cups, and Coins. The suits often changed from country to country. England probably followed the Latin version.[71] Most of the decks that have survived use the French Suit: Spades, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds. Yet even before Elizabeth had begun to reign, the number of cards had been standardized to 52 cards per deck. The lowest court subject in England was called the "knave". The lowest court card was therefore called the knave until later when the term "Jack" became more common. Popular card games included Maw, One and Thirty, Bone-ace. Ruff and Honors was a team game.[71]

Festivals, holidays and celebrations

A village festival with elegantly dressed figures in procession, a river and tower beyond.

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 of January (any time between 7 January and 14 January) was Plough Monday. It celebrated returning to work after the Christmas celebrations and the New Year.
  • 2 February: Candlemas. Although often still very cold, Candlemas was celebrated as the first day of spring. All Christmas decorations were burned on this day, in candlelight and torchlight processions.
  • 14 February: Valentine's Day.
  • Between 3 March and 9 March: 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.
    24 March: Lady Day or the feast of the Annunciation, the first of the Quarter Days on which rents and salaries were due and payable. It was a 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.
  • 1 May: 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.
  • 21 June: Midsummer (Christianized as the feast of John the Baptist) and another Quarter Day.
  • 1 August: Lammastide, or Lammas Day. Traditionally, the first day of August, in which it was customary to bring a loaf of bread to the church.
  • 29 September: Michaelmas. Another Quarter Day. Michaelmas celebrated the beginning of autumn, and Michael the Archangel.
  • 25 October: St. Crispin's Day. Bonfires, revels, and an elected 'King Crispin' were all featured in this celebration. Dramatized by Shakespeare in Henry V.
    28 October: The Lord Mayor's Show, which still takes place today in London.
    31 October: All Hallows Eve or Halloween. The beginning celebration of the days of the dead.
  • 1 November: All Hallows or All Saints' Day, followed by All Souls' Day.
  • 17 November: Accession Day or Queen's Day, the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne, celebrated with lavish court festivities featuring jousting during her lifetime and as a national holiday for dozens of years after her death.[72]
  • 24 December: The Twelve Days of Christmas started at sundown and lasted until Epiphany on 6 January. Christmas was the last of the Quarter Days for the year.

Social history

Historians since the 1960s have explored many facets of the social history, covering every class of the population.[73] Although home to only a small part of the population the Tudor municipalities were overcrowded and unhygienic. Most towns were unpaved with poor public sanitation. There were no sewers or drains, and rubbish was simply abandoned in the street. Animals such as rats thrived in these conditions. In larger towns and cities, such as London, common diseases arising from lack of sanitation included smallpox, measles, malaria, typhus, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and chickenpox.[74]

Outbreaks of the Black Death pandemic occurred in 1498, 1535, 1543, 1563, 1589 and 1603. The reason for the speedy spread of the disease was the increase of rats infected by fleas carrying the disease.[75] Child mortality was low in comparison with earlier and later periods, at about 150 or fewer deaths per 1000 babies.[76] By age 15 a person could expect 40–50 more years of life.[77]

The great majority were tenant farmers who lived in small villages. Their homes were, as in earlier centuries, thatched huts with one or two rooms, although later on during this period, roofs were also tiled. Furniture was basic, with stools being commonplace rather than chairs.[74] The walls of Tudor houses were often made from timber and wattle and daub, or brick; stone and tiles were more common in the wealthier homes. The daub was usually then painted with limewash, making it white, and the wood was painted with black tar to prevent rotting, but not in Tudor times; the Victorians did this afterwards. The bricks were handmade and thinner than modern bricks. The wooden beams were cut by hand, which makes telling the difference between Tudor houses and Tudor-style houses easy, as the original beams are not straight. The upper floors of Tudor houses were often larger than the ground floors, which would create an overhang (or jetty). This would create more floor-surface above while also keeping maximum street width. During the Tudor period, the use of glass when building houses was first used, and became widespread. It was very expensive and difficult to make, so the panes were made small and held together with a lead lattice, in casement windows. People who could not afford glass often used polished horn, cloth or paper. Tudor chimneys were tall, thin, and often decorated with symmetrical patterns of molded or cut brick. Early Tudor houses, and the homes of poorer people, did not have chimneys. The smoke in these cases would be let out through a simple hole in the roof.

Mansions had many chimneys for the many fireplaces required to keep the vast rooms warm. These fires were also the only way of cooking food. Wealthy Tudor homes needed many rooms, where a large number of guests and servants could be accommodated, fed and entertained. Wealth was demonstrated by the extensive use of glass. Windows became the main feature of Tudor mansions, and were often a fashion statement. Mansions were often designed to a symmetrical plan; "E" and "H" shapes were popular.[78]

About one-third of the population lived in poverty, with the wealthy expected to give alms to assist the impotent poor.[79] Tudor law was harsh on the able-bodied poor, i.e., those unable to find work. Those who left their parishes in order to locate work were termed vagabonds and could be subjected to punishments, including whipping and putting at the stocks.[80][81] The idea of the workhouse for the able-bodied poor was first suggested in 1576.[82]


England's food supply was plentiful throughout most of the reign; there were no famines. Bad harvests caused distress, but they were usually localized. The most widespread came in 1555–57 and 1596–98.[83] In the towns the price of staples was fixed by law; in hard times the size of the loaf of bread sold by the baker was smaller.[84]

Trade and industry flourished in the 16th century, making England more prosperous and improving the standard of living of the upper and middle classes. However, the lower classes did not benefit much and did not always have enough food. As the English population was fed by its own agricultural produce, a series of bad harvests in the 1590s caused widespread starvation and poverty. The success of the wool trading industry decreased attention on agriculture, resulting in further starvation of the lower classes. Cumbria, the poorest and most isolated part of England, suffered a six-year famine beginning in 1594. Diseases and natural disasters also contributed to the scarce food supply.[85]

In the 17th century, the food supply improved. England had no food crises from 1650 to 1725, a period when France was unusually vulnerable to famines. Historians point out that oat and barley prices in England did not always increase following a failure of the wheat crop, but did do so in France.[86]

England was exposed to new foods (such as the potato imported from South America), and developed new tastes during the era. The more prosperous enjoyed a wide variety of food and drink, including exotic new drinks such as tea, coffee, and chocolate. French and Italian chefs appeared in the country houses and palaces bringing new standards of food preparation and taste. For example, the English developed a taste for acidic foods—such as oranges for the upper class—and started to use vinegar heavily. The gentry paid increasing attention to their gardens, with new fruits, vegetables and herbs; pasta, pastries, and dried mustard balls first appeared on the table. The apricot was a special treat at fancy banquets. Roast beef remained a staple for those who could afford it. The rest ate a great deal of bread and fish. Every class had a taste for beer and rum.[87]


The diet in England during the Elizabethan era depended largely on social class. Bread was a staple of the Elizabethan diet, and people of different statuses ate bread of different qualities. The upper classes ate fine white bread called manchet, while the poor ate coarse bread made of barley or rye.

The poorer among the population consumed a diet largely of bread, cheese, milk, and beer, with small portions of meat, fish and vegetables, and occasionally some fruit. Potatoes were just arriving at the end of the period, and became increasingly important. The typical poor farmer sold his best products on the market, keeping the cheap food for the family. Stale bread could be used to make bread puddings, and bread crumbs served to thicken soups, stews, and sauces.[88]

At a somewhat higher social level families ate an enormous variety of meats, who could choose among venison, beef, mutton, veal, pork, lamb, fowl, salmon, eel, and shellfish. The holiday goose was a special treat. Rich spices were used by the wealthier people to offset the smells of old salt-preserved meat. Many rural folk and some townspeople tended a small garden which produced vegetables such as asparagus, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, beans, cabbage, turnips, radishes, carrots, leeks, and peas, as well as medicinal and flavoring herbs. Some grew their own apricots, grapes, berries, apples, pears, plums, strawberries, currants, and cherries. Families without a garden could trade with their neighbors to obtain vegetables and fruits at low cost. Fruits and vegetables were used in desserts such as pastries, tarts, cakes, crystallized fruit, and syrup.[89][90]

At the rich end of the scale the manor houses and palaces were awash with large, elaborately prepared meals, usually for many people and often accompanied by entertainment. The upper classes often celebrated religious festivals, weddings, alliances and the whims of the king or queen. Feasts were commonly used to commemorate the "procession" of the crowned heads of state in the summer months, when the king or queen would travel through a circuit of other nobles' lands both to avoid the plague season of London, and alleviate the royal coffers, often drained through the winter to provide for the needs of the royal family and court. This would include a few days or even a week of feasting in each noble's home, who depending on his or her production and display of fashion, generosity and entertainment, could have his way made in court and elevate his or her status for months or even years.

Among the rich private hospitality was an important item in the budget. Entertaining a royal party for a few weeks could be ruinous to a nobleman. Inns existed for travellers, but restaurants were not known. Special courses after a feast or dinner which often involved a special room or outdoor gazebo (sometimes known as a folly) with a central table set with dainties of "medicinal" value to help with digestion. These would include wafers, comfits of sugar-spun anise or other spices, jellies and marmalades (a firmer variety than we are used to, these would be more similar to our gelatin jigglers), candied fruits, spiced nuts and other such niceties. These would be eaten while standing and drinking warm, spiced wines (known as hypocras) or other drinks known to aid in digestion. Sugar in the Middle Ages or Early Modern Period was often considered medicinal, and used heavily in such things. This was not a course of pleasure, though it could be as everything was a treat, but one of healthful eating and abetting the digestive capabilities of the body. It also, of course, allowed those standing to show off their gorgeous new clothes and the holders of the dinner and banquet to show off the wealth of their estate, what with having a special room just for banqueting.


The Procession Picture, c. 1600, showing Elizabeth I borne along by her courtiers

While the Tudor era presents an abundance of material on the women of the nobility—especially royal wives and queens—historians have recovered scant documentation about the average lives of women. There has, however, been extensive statistical analysis of demographic and population data which includes women, especially in their childbearing roles.[91]

The role of women in society was, for the historical era, relatively unconstrained; Spanish and Italian visitors to England commented regularly on the freedom that women enjoyed in England, in contrast to their home cultures. England had more well-educated upper-class women than was common anywhere in Europe.[92][93]

The Queen's marital status was a major political and diplomatic topic. It also entered into the popular culture. Elizabeth's unmarried status inspired a cult of virginity. In poetry and portraiture, she was depicted as a virgin or a goddess or both, not as a normal woman.[94] Elizabeth made a virtue of her virginity: in 1559, she told the Commons, "And, in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin".[95] Public tributes to the Virgin by 1578 acted as a coded assertion of opposition to the queen's marriage negotiations with the Duc d'Alençon.[96]

In contrast to her father's emphasis on masculinity and physical prowess, Elizabeth emphasized the maternalism theme, saying often that she was married to her kingdom and subjects. She explained "I keep the good will of all my husbands – my good people – for if they did not rest assured of some special love towards them, they would not readily yield me such good obedience",[97] and promised in 1563 they would never have a more natural mother than she.[98] Coch (1996) argues that her figurative motherhood played a central role in her complex self-representation, shaping and legitimating the personal rule of a divinely appointed female prince.[99]

Over ninety percent of English women (and adults, in general) entered marriage at the end of the 1500s and beginning of the 1600s, at an average age of about 25–26 years for the bride and 27–28 years for the groom, with the most common ages being 25–26 for grooms (who would have finished their apprenticeships around this age) and 23 for brides.[100][101][102] Among the nobility and gentry, the average was around 19–21 for brides and 24–26 for grooms.[103] Many city and townswomen married for the first time in their thirties and forties[104] and it was not unusual for orphaned young women to delay marriage until the late twenties or early thirties to help support their younger siblings,[105] and roughly a quarter of all English brides were pregnant at their weddings.

Victorian Romance

The Victorian era and the early 20th century idealised the Elizabethan era. The Encyclopædia Britannica maintains that "[T]he 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".[106] This idealising tendency was shared by Britain and an Anglophilic America. In popular culture, the image of those adventurous Elizabethan seafarers was embodied in the films of Errol Flynn.[107]

See also


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Further reading

  • Arnold, Janet: Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (W S Maney and Son Ltd, Leeds, 1988) ISBN 0-901286-20-6
  • Ashelford, Jane. The Visual History of Costume: The Sixteenth Century. 1983 edition (ISBN 0-89676-076-6)
  • Bergeron, David, English Civic Pageantry, 1558–1642 (2003)
  • Black, J. B. The Reign of Elizabeth: 1558–1603 (2nd ed. 1958) survey by leading scholar
  • Braddick, Michael J. The nerves of state: taxation and the financing of the English state, 1558–1714 (Manchester University Press, 1996).
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