I’ve always been fascinated by the era of England’s Queen Elizabeth I. She ruled a nation on the rising side of Empire, and the virile energy of the day reflected this. So much seemed to be going on during her reign!… It was the time of the defeat of the big bad Spanish Armada by little, isolated England (separated from the continent by both water and religion). The New World had only been discovered a hundred years earlier– a discovery so enormous and impactful –on every facet of the physical and mental life of the so-called Old World– that we moderns may have a difficult time even fathoming its import. It would be as if we in our time discovered a planet– not only habitable but bountiful– just to our left that we never knew was there.
And of course, during the reign of Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, one of the world’s greatest playwrights, was actively writing, producing, and sometimes even appearing in his plays. Then there was Sir Francis Drake, circumnavigating the globe and becoming one of the most successful pirates in history– and a knighted one, at that.
And let us not forget Walter Raleigh — roguish Renaissance man– with his cigarettes and verses, a man Wikipedia succinctly describes as “writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer”– and they neglected to mention, two-time Tower-of-London prisoner and sacrificial lamb– make that lion– to the Spanish on behalf of English foreign policy.
And then there’s the great Queen “Bess,” herself! Temperamental redhead– scionness of heartless Henry the Eighth, daughter of the doomed sex kitten– make that tiger– Ann Boleyn. Against all odds, Elizabeth became ruler of England– a woman! And not a few, like John Knox, remained adamantly opposed to her reign simply on proper gender-role grounds.
She was the Virgin Queen (and this might even be true!), one of the most powerful women in history, who probably never married so that she would never have to answer to a king. She was a strong-willed woman who managed to keep her throne for decades, in spite of the very real and constant threat of coup fomented and supported financially & militarily by her Catholic foes at home and abroad– including members of the powerful governments of Spain (where her brother-in-law, Philip II ruled) and France– as well as the Catholic principalities of Italy and great swaths of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.
In his book, The Elizabethans, A.N. Wilson’s Elizabeth comes off as a monarch with a wrath quick-to-rise and spiteful if she felt disrespected or misused. He also paints her as a woman with a strong intellect, though not infrequently temporizing and vacillating (although, doubtlessly, she sometimes delayed action and strung suitors along for calculated political reasons of her own).
As Wilson tells it, the violent acts of Elizabeth’s government were often carried out more because she failed to stop them than because she actively encouraged them. She ignored the darker side to Drake’s piracy, even as she accepted his gifts of plunder and applauded his tales of high adventure, preferring royal deniability to censure. Mary Queen Of Scots was beheaded when Elizabeth stopped fighting her advisers on the subject– and did not change-back her mind quickly enough to stop the executioner’s ax from falling. And the Queen allowed to continue the government’s continued policy of burning Protestant heretics at the stake and of putting Catholics of questionable loyalty to death.
What an Age! What a monarch!