The Aspiring Mind of the Elizabethan Younger Generation

By Anthony Esler | Go to book overview

I. A burned-out generation

Musing over portraits of the aging Elizabeth and her venerable ministers, A. L. Rowse observes: "They were a tough lot . . . tenacious and adaptable . . . harsh and treacherous." He compares them to the Parliament of 1918: "hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out of the war."1 There was undeniably an air of successful opportunism about these older generations of the Elizabethan ruling class. There was a certain harsh realism in their make-up, and more than a hint of the Italian school of diplomacy. Even in their old age, freighted with years and dignities, they still seemed to be men with a sharp eye out for the main chance. And yet, there was another and strangely contradictory side to the character of these older Elizabethans. Many interpreters of the late Tudor period have stressed the conservatism and undue prudence of many of the rulers of Elizabethan England. And certainly the generations of Elizabeth and Burghley rang the changes repeatedly on the need to maintain established institutions, to observe due order and degree. Certainly too, the older Elizabethans often showed a strong predilection for the safe compromise solution and the middle way.

Such harsh, hard-driving opportunism and such prudent conservatism seem somehow an unlikely combination. The contrast stands out still more clearly when seen in terms of relations between older and younger generations. As successful opportunists themselves, the Elizabethan older generations might have been expected to preach a Horatio Alger gospel of ambition to their children. They ought logically to have urged young men to, strive for advancement, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps as their fathers had done. And yet we know these older Elizabethans as arch conservatives, who swore by the social hierarchy and heaped abuse on "climbers" and "new men." In the England of Elizabeth I, ambition was in fact a vice so universally condemned that almost no Elizabethan ever willingly confessed to possessing it.

The aspiring mind of the generation of 1560 was shaped in

____________________
1
A. L. Rowse, The English Spirit ( New York, 1945), p. 89.

-3-

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