Elizabeth I: As the Second Elizabethan Age Closes in Disillusionment, Penry Williams Reconsiders Whether the First Deserved the Same Fate. (the Changing Picture)

By Williams, Penry | History Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview
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Elizabeth I: As the Second Elizabethan Age Closes in Disillusionment, Penry Williams Reconsiders Whether the First Deserved the Same Fate. (the Changing Picture)


Williams, Penry, History Review


Fifty-five years ago, at the time of the coronation of the present Queen, the British were encouraged to expect a second Elizabethan age. Three years earlier, J. E. Neale had told us of the splendours of the first, seen by the people of the time as a golden age, marked by an `exuberant national spirit', its emphasis `on enterprise and the individual'. The age was revolutionary, presided over by a monarch averse to revolution, but able to `personify the emotion of the nation without necessarily being doctrinaire. Hence the paradox of revolution with moderation at the helm. Rare personal qualities, great art and good fortune were needed for the role.' The great energies of the nation were controlled and encouraged by Queen and Council, and of the two the former was the more important: `it was the Queen herself who kept the nation charged with emotion.' The outcome was a time of change, of vigorous expansion overseas, of prosperity, and of great cultural flowering. Above all, thanks to Elizabeth I, the nation had achieved balance. (1)

Today, the promise of a second great Elizabethan age has gone unredeemed. The Suez crisis struck the first sour note and gradually the British have come to realise that they are no longer a great world power. The economic lead has been taken by others, notably our past enemies. The monarchy is threatened with collapse. The Union appears to be breaking up. London's theatres, the glory of the first Elizabethan age, are mostly occupied by ever-lasting musicals and our principal opera-house is on the edge of bankruptcy. Instead of Nicholas Hillyard we have Damien Hirst.

The case for the prosecution

Historians have now begun to expose the base metal behind the gold in the first Elizabethan age. Prosperity for some was accompanied by growing poverty for many; internationally, England was at best a second-rank power; the daring voyages of Drake and others had little permanent effect, for the great age of English colonisation began with the Stuarts rather than the Tudors. Ten years ago Christopher Haigh turned his critical attention upon the Queen herself. She was a bully, who, `like most bullies, ... harassed the weak while deferring to the strong'. `She died unloved and almost unlamented, and it was her own fault.' She `did not attempt to solve problems, she simply avoided them'. `Her reign had been thirty years of illusion, followed by fifteen of disillusion.' (2) Specifically, according to Haigh, she failed to provide leadership and support to the Protestant clergy, refused to provide for the succession, either by marrying or by naming an heir, allowed the political base of her regime to become dominated by a clique, procrastinated in the face of foreign threats, and allowed her revenues to be seriously eroded by inflation.

Defence and judgment

It would be reductionist to suggest that this fiercely critical interpretation of the reign either emerges from or depends upon the more pessimistic mood of our own times. Nevertheless the two mirror one another. Few historians would now write in the high rhetorical style of Neale or of Rowse, although Roy Strong has come near to it. Most would use a more restrained palette than Neale or Haigh in painting the age and the Queen, less gold and less black. To begin with, some of the claims made for the first Elizabethan age remain valid. The educational and cultural achievements were real, even if their benefits were confined to a minority. England did survive threats from France at the start of the reign and from Spain towards the end. The Church of England was established on a firm base and had won the loyalty of the greater part of the political nation by about 1580. In spite of the Essex revolt of 1601 and of discontent at Court, the very feebleness of that farcical outbreak demonstrates the cohesiveness of the regime; and the absence of any serious protest during the hard times of the 1590s is witness to the Crown's firm control.

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Elizabeth I: As the Second Elizabethan Age Closes in Disillusionment, Penry Williams Reconsiders Whether the First Deserved the Same Fate. (the Changing Picture)
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