Elizabeth I and the Elizabethan Period: a Brief Introduction
Elizabeth I was 25 years old when she became Queen of England in 1558. Her 45-year reign, which ended with her death in 1603, saw England's emergence as a nation of tremendous political power and unparalleled cultural achievement. Because so much of this English renaissance is directly attributable to Elizabeth's personal character and influence (as well as to the unprecedented length of her reign), it is appropriate that the last half of the sixteenth century in England is identified as the Elizabethan Period.
The very fact that Elizabeth became Queen at all almost indicates some predestination toward greatness and defiance of normal expectations. The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn (who later was executed for treason), Elizabeth was third in line of succession, following her younger half-brother Edward (son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour) and her older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon). Under normal circumstances, it would be unlikely that she would ever assume the throne.
However, as has often happened throughout history, events did not follow their predicted course. The nine-year old Edward became King Edward VI on the death of Henry VIII in 1547, but he had little opportunity to establish himself as a monarch, dying at the age of 15. He was succeeded by Mary I (1553-1558), whose relentless efforts to return England to Catholicism brought about a true reign of terror and stifled any possibility of forward movement in the nation. When Mary died suddenly in 1558, Elizabeth I became Queen.
In both intellect and temperament, Elizabeth was well-suited for the role of monarch. She was exceptionally well-educated, having been tutored at her father's court by Roger Ascham, one of the most outstanding scholars and thinkers of the age. Her intellectual interests were broad, ranging from history and science to art, literature, and philosophy, and she was a remarkably astute political strategist.
Not only did she return the country to internal political and religious stability in the wake of "Bloody Mary's" reign, she directed England's course as it became a powerful force among European nations. Both Spain and France felt the effects of England's growing strength and audacity under Elizabeth's rule. Furthermore, Elizabeth shrewdly perceived that great political advantage could be gained from her status as an unmarried monarch, and throughout her reign various political alliances via marriage were hinted at but never finalized.
Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe (1577-1580) added to the nation's prestige and competitiveness in navigation and exploration. However, the pinnacle of England's power at sea was the triumphant defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588, which secured the nation's position as a world power. Eleven years later, in 1599, England entered the arena of world trade and colonization, which it would dominate for the next three centuries, with the chartering of the East India Company.
Elizabeth was an enormously popular monarch, one of western civilization's first true cult figures. The following of "The Virgin Queen," or "Gloriana," as she was called, was extensive; according to many historians, every public appearance became an occasion for grand spectacle, great pageantry, and huge crowds.
The Queen's tastes in fashion set the standard for the aristocracy and the rest of society; her love of music, drama, and poetry fostered an atmosphere in which many of England's greatest writers found encouragement and financial patronage. Under Elizabeth's leadership, England experienced the true cultural reawakening or renaissance of thought, art, and vision which had begun in Italy a century earlier. Elizabeth's court was a magnet which attracted the most talented individuals of the era, and, at the Queen's direction, Oxford and Cambridge universities were reorganized and chartered as centers for learning and scholarly endeavor.
The prosperity, confidence, optimism, and vigor which characterized Elizabeth's court and reign carried over into many aspects of life. The foremost example of this influence can be seen in what scholar E.M.W. Tillyard terms "The Elizabethan World Picture," a widely-held set of assumptions about the inherently ordered nature of the universe. Belief in this "Great Chain of Being," in which every single element has its own prescribed place and function in a hierarchical universe, spilled over into a general love of structure, intricate design, and elaborate ornamentation which can be seen in the fashion, music, architecture, and literature of the period.
The greatest literature created during the Elizabethan Period falls into two categories: poetry and drama. Influenced by the Italian sonnets, which had been introduced into the English language by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) d...