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Authors: A.N. Wilson

The Elizabethans

BOOK: The Elizabethans
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About the Book

About the Author

Also by A. N. Wilson

Title Page



List of illustrations and credits


Part One: The Early Reign

1 The Difficulty

2 The New World

3 Ceremonial – Twixt earnest and twixt game

4 Men in Power

5 Which Church?

6 The New Learning

7 A Library at Mortlake

8 The Northern Rebellion

Part Two: 1570s

9 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

10 Elizabethan Women

11 Histories

12 Kenilworth

13 Ireland

14 Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation

15 A Frog He Would A-wooing Go

Part Three: 1580s

16 Religious Dissent

17 Sir Philip Sidney

18 Hakluyt and Empire

19 The Scottish Queen

20 The Armada

21 London and Theatre

22 Marprelate and Hooker

Part Four: The Close of the Reign

23 A Hive for Bees

24 Sex and the City

25 The Occult Philosophy

26 My America

27 Tyrone

Essex and the End

: One Through Two




Picture Section


About the Book

With all the panoramic sweep of his bestselling study The Victorians, A. N. Wilson relates the exhilarating story of the Elizabethan Age. It was a time of exceptional creativity, wealth creation and political expansion.

It was also a period of English history more remarkable than any other for the technicolour personalities of its leading participants.

Apart from the complex character of the Virgin Queen herself, we follow the story of Francis Drake and political intriguers like William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, so important to a monarch who often made a key strategy out of her indecisiveness. Favourites like Leicester and Essex skated very close to the edge as far as Elizabeth’s affections were concerned, and Essex made a big mistake when he led a rebellion against the crown.

There was a Renaissance during this period in the world of words, which included the all-round hero and literary genius, Sir Philip Sidney, playwright-spy Christopher Marlowe and that ‘myriad-minded man’, William Shakespeare.

Life in Elizabethan England could be very harsh. Plague swept the land. And the poor received little assistance from the State. Thumbscrews and the rack could be the grim prelude to the executioner’s block. But crucially, this was the age when modern Britain was born, and established independence from mainland Europe. After Sir Walter Raleigh established the colony of Virginia, English was destined to become the language of the great globe itself, and the the foundations were laid not only of later British imperial power but also of American domination of the world.

With The Elizabethans, Wilson reveals himself again as the master of the definitive, single-volume study.

About the Author

A. N. Wilson was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he holds a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is an award-winning biographer and a celebrated novelist, winning prizes for much of his work. He lives in North London.

Also by A. N. Wilson


The Sweets of Pimlico

Unguarded Hours

Kindly Light

The Healing Art

Who Was Oswald Fish?

Wise Virgin


Gentlemen in England

Love Unknown


The Vicar of Sorrows

Dream Children

My Name is Legion

A Jealous Ghost

Winnie & Wolf

The Lampitt Chronicles

Incline Our Hearts

A Bottle in the Smoke

Daughters of Albion

Hearing Voices

A Watch in the Night


A Life of Walter Scott

A Life of John Milton

Hilaire Belloc

Penfriends from Porlock


C.S. Lewis: A Biography

The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor

God’s Funeral

The Victorians

Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her

London: A Short History

After the Victorians


Our Times

Dante in Love

The Elizabethans

A.N. Wilson



sans pareil


Gillon Aitken was the ‘onlie begetter’ of this book. It was his idea that I should write it, and I am deeply grateful for all his encouragement, with this and other projects, and for his friendship over many years. Many thanks, too, to Emma Mitchell, Paul Sidey, Mandy Greenfield and George Capel who all gave support and advice. Thanks to Simon Thurley, Anna Keay, David Starkey, and Roy Strong, all experts in a field where I am an amateur, who guided my steps and suggested further reading. Georgie Wilson helped with Elizabethan Highgate and with the Armada chapter, and Ruth Guilding with the architecture. I finished the book at Lamorna Cove, Ruth’s brainchild, looking at the sea and imagining the Armada sailing by. My greatest debt, in writing this book and in understanding many others, is expressed in the dedication.

Oak Apple Day, 2011

List of illustrations and credits

Elizabeth I, ‘The Ditchley Portrait’, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c.1592. National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 2561

An Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII, c.1589–95 (oil on panel), English School, (16th century) / Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library

Sir Francis Walsingham c.1532–1590 English statesman and spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I. From the book ‘Lodge’s British Portraits’ published in London, 1823. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) © Getty Images

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520–98) English statesman. Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I from 1572. Engraving. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) © Getty Images

G.11631.B.L. Title Page with a Portrait of Shakespeare, from ‘Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies’, edited by J. Heminge and H. Condell, engraving by Droeshout, 1623 (engraving) © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved

Interior of schoolroom where William Shakespeare was educated, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, UK, Europe © Peter Scholey

Mary Herbert Countess of Pembroke, nee Mary Sidney, 1561–1621. English patroness of the arts and translator. From the book ‘Lodge’s British Portraits’ published London 1823. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images) © Getty Images

Circa 1590, English poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599). With Sir Philip Sidney and Dyer, he formed the literary club ‘Areopagus,’ and invented the Spenserian stanza in poetry. Original Artwork: Engraving by Thomson. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) © Getty Images

Robert Dudley (1532–88) 1st Earl of Leicester, c.1560s (oil on panel), Meulen, or Muelen, Steven van der (fl.1543–68) / Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, England © David Hughes

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) 1591 (oil on panel) © Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

Portrait of British Naval commander Sir John Hawkins. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)© Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Circa 1600, A naval and military battle in which the English fleet engages the Spanish Armada at Cadiz. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) © Getty Images

Circa 1570, English poet, courtier and soldier Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) who typified the Elizabethan gentleman. Original Artwork: Engraved by E Scriven. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) © Getty Images

View of Penshurst Place from the east over a wilderness of weeds in the kitchen garden. (Photo by Ian Smith/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The funeral cortege of Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) on its way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, 1587, engraved by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598) (engraving), English School, (16th century) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Stage and seating (photo), / Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark, London, UK / © Peter Phipp/Travelshots / The Bridgeman Art Library

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) at a stag hunt, plate from ‘Noble Art of Venerie and Hunting’ by George Turberville, 1575 (woodcut) (b/w photo) by English School, (16th century) British Library, London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Sir Henry Lee (1533–1611), 1568 (panel), Mor, Sir Anthonis van Dashorst (Antonio Moro) (1517/20–76/7) / National Portrait Gallery, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

Elizabeth Knollys, Lady Layton, 1577 (oil on panel), Gower, George (1540–96) (attr. to) / Montacute House, Somerset, UK / The Phelips Collection National Trust Photographic Library/Derrick E. Witty / The Bridgeman Art Library

A pair of embroidered gloves belonging to Queen Elizabeth I, 19th May 1953. They were presented to her during a visit to Oxford in 1566, and are on display at an exhibition of Treasures of Oxford at Goldsmith’s Hall, London. (Photo by T. Marshall/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) © Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth I Feeds the Dutch Cow
. Oil on panel, 39.4 × 49.5, artist unknown

Spring Cleaning Takes Place At Longleat © Getty Images

Hardwick Hall © English School

Robed lawyers dine under carved beams in Middle Temple’s Great Hall, Inns of Court, London, England (Photo by Willis D. Vaughn/National Geographic/Getty Images) © National Geographic/Getty Images

Tomb of Pope Saint Pius V in Santa Maria Maggiore Rome

The tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, south isle of the Lady Chapel, c.1612–13 (marble), Cure, Cornelius (d.1607) and Cure, William (d.1632) / Westminster Abbey, London, UK / Photo: James Brittain / The Bridgeman Art Library

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (R) and Ireland’s President Mary McAleese stand together during a wreath laying ceremony at the Irish War memorial Garden at Islandbridge in Dublin, Ireland on May 18, 2011. Queen Elizabeth II Wednesday visited a memorial to the 49,400 Irish soldiers killed fighting for Britain in World War I in a highly-charged ceremony on the second day of her historic visit to Ireland. © PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images) AFP/Getty Images

Portrait of John Dee (1547–1608) (oil on canvas), English School, (17th century) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

Great Britain, England, Devon, Exeter, Exeter Cathedral, marble statue of theologian Richard Hooker © Nigel Hicks

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I – The Drewe Portrait, late 1580s (oil on panel), Gower, George (1540–96) (attr. to) / Private Collection / Photo © Philip Mould Ltd, London / The Bridgeman Art Library


We have lived to see the Elizabethan world come to an end. This makes
a very interesting time to be reconsidering the Elizabethans, but it also makes for some difficulties. As human societies and civilisations change, it is natural for them to suppose that what they do, what they think, what they eat and drink and believe is superior to what went before. While the Elizabethan world was still going on – and in some respects it was still continuing, in modified form, until the Second World War – British and American historians were able to see the reign of Queen Elizabeth I as a glory age. This was how the Elizabethans saw themselves. Their great poet, Edmund Spenser, named his Faerie Queene (who was a projection of Elizabeth herself) Gloriana, and her capital, an idealised London, he named Cleopolis – the Greek for ‘Glory-ville’. Modern historians from, let us say, James Anthony Froude (1819–84) to A.L. Rowse (1903–97) wrote about the Elizabethan Age with celebratory
. They noted, correctly, that this was the age when the history of modern England (and Wales) really began. With the other British nations, Scotland and Ireland, the tale was perhaps more complicated. This was when England, having put civil wars and the superstitions of the Middle Ages behind it, emerged into the broad sunlit uplands. This was the age that saw the origins of English sea-power. In consequence, if not in Elizabeth I’s own day, America – the future United States – became an English-speaking civilisation. This was the great age when British explorers went out to every corner of the known world. Modern geography began, and the colonial expansion that was the foundation of later British power and prosperity.

BOOK: The Elizabethans
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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