At first glance the date doesn't seem momentous, in the way that 1066, 1642 or 1805 are singled out as years signifying great change in the fortunes of Britain. There were no spectacular civil wars or decisive naval battles to engrave the date on schoolboy minds, but the author of This Sceptred Isle begins his celebration of the year's 400th anniversary by explaining why we should care.
It was the year in which Queen Elizabeth I finally died and King James I ascended, the passing of the 117-year Tudor reign and the arrival of the Stuarts, the end of "medievalism" - although that term is a Victorian invention - the end of a kind of national obedience to the monarchy, the start of the long road toward republicanism. It was also the year the Black Death returned, killing almost 40,000 people, and a year that coincided with the violent revival of witch-hunting. James was certainly curious about sorcery trials, having attended hearings in Scotland, where courts had been overwhelmed with witch prosecutions. "The land is full of witches, they abound in all places," warned Sir Edmund Anderson, one of the period's most celebrated judges.
This was a time when the seeds of commercial establishment began to bear some fruit, as the English East India Company brought its first pepper cargo into the London docklands, and the word "factory" was coined - but also a period of plots and counter-plots and endemic corruption, with anti-Spanish feeling encouraging piracy by ambitious traders and predatory gentry. The population was soaring, inflation was running at 300 per cent, the church was continuing to preach its own interest, and diarists such as Fynes Moryson painted a picture of a crude, drunken English society with an unmatched reputation for excessive pleasure.
If this national snapshot feels a little scattergun, it is perhaps because Lee initially has trouble establishing his claim. He gets off to a bumpy start because of the need to fill in events of the recent past, and having to gauge the reader's knowledge of late Elizabethan England. His scope is wider than, say, Maureen Waller's 1700: Scenes from London Life, and whereas This Sceptred Isle functioned as a highly readable historical pageant held in place by a linear temporal frame, here he is required to leap through simultaneous spheres: church, state, commerce, society, crime, constitution and the arts. 1603 may have been a turning point, but for a coronation year it lacked any grand sense of occasion, and even pageantry was delayed for a year by plague.
The author fares better in sections where one subject is held and examined in human detail; he paints a vivid picture of Elizabeth's decline, as her aged courtiers continue their increasingly arcane court intrigues around her fading form, and another of Sir Walter Ralegh's failing fortunes under a cold-eyed new monarch. Ralegh would eventually be executed for treason on highly dubious …