Elizabethan Era: Age of Prosperity and Conflicts

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

The Elizabethan Era marks a significant phase in the history of Great Britain. It existed between 1558 and 1603, and historians classify it as the golden age in the country’s history. It is named after Queen Elizabeth, the ruler of that period. Throughout English history, the country has been associated with great literary talents such as William Shakespeare and John Milton. The term “glorious or golden age” has been used to describe the period between the 15th and 16th centuries when English literature flourished.

Many authors credit this golden age as the inspiration for their work. England experienced a surge in literacy, commerce and culture during this period. However, historians have criticised the era for its treatment of women and non-conformists.

In the era’s first decade, Elizabeth I established England as a world power. She ruled over a prosperous and expanding nation through military might and diplomatic finesse. This period of rapid expansion was known as the Elizabethan Era or the Renaissance Period under later historians’ classification.

In time, this period became synonymous with art, literature and philosophy in England during this time period. The era witnessed the creation of classic plays like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth and novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In addition, scientific advancements such as the telescope and printing press led to significant changes in art and daily life.

17 November 1558 marked the beginning of one of England’s brightest ages: the Elizabethan era. The «Virgin Queen», Elizabeth I, ascended to the country’s throne, marking the beginning of an era that lasted 45 years. Historians usually describe it as the “golden age” of the country.

Although the small kingdom– ruled by Elizabeth I– faced severe problems and divisions, she was able to make decisions that would unite and advance the country thanks to her cunning, courage and sincerity.

So, who is Elizabeth I, and what are the essential features of her era?

Queen Elizabeth I

Her Early Years

Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, was born on 7 September 1533, the daughter of the controversial King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had challenged the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church to which the country belonged in order to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his wife and mother of his daughter Mary, and marry Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII had hoped that Anne Boleyn would give him a son who would succeed him on the throne, so the birth of a second daughter, Elizabeth, was disappointing and further weakened the position of the new Queen, Anne.

Before Elizabeth reached her third year, the king ordered the beheading of her mother on charges of treason and adultery. At the behest of Henry VIII, the English Parliament issued a resolution stating that his marriage to Anne Boleyn was illegal, which meant that Elizabeth was an illegitimate daughter, which was what Catholics saw from the beginning.

Mary was also declared illegitimate, as the king was preparing the way for his only «legitimate» son Edward, by his third wife, Jane Seymour, to succeed to the throne. However, he later decided to put his two daughters back in the line of succession to the throne, specifically in 1544.

Although Mary was a devout Catholic, Elizabeth and Edward were influenced by the Protestant ideas of their teachers and their sixth and last stepmother, Catherine Parr, who continued to care for Elizabeth after Henry VIII’s death in 1547. His son Edward VI succeeded him on the throne until he died in 1553, so his sister Mary took the throne. Elizabeth was crowned Queen in November 1558 after the death of Queen Mary.

Her Education

Like other children of royalty, Elizabeth I received a private education from some of the best teachers of the time. She excelled in music, mastering French, Latin, and Italian, as well as Greek and Spanish, which she spoke with confidence.

Elizabeth received an extensive education generally reserved for male crown princes. The focus was on history, classical languages, rhetoric and moral philosophy (or ethics). Among Elizabeth’s most famous pupils is the Cambridge-educated anthropologist Roger Ascham.

The intelligent Princess Elizabeth immersed herself in the secular studies that were thriving during the European Renaissance. She imbibed the principles of English Protestantism in its reform phase. According to the description of the British Encyclopedia, those principles shaped the country’s future later.

The Virgin Queen

In the first years of her reign, the Queen announced that she had «married the kingdom», and despite the proposal of many English and European nobles to propose to Elizabeth and her entering into marriage negotiations with a number of them, she never married.

Some historians believe that the main reason for this is due to its unwillingness to undermine its influence and authority. Although she valued the advice and advice of her ministers and advisors, she always insisted that the power to make final decisions related to state affairs should remain exclusively in her hand.

Elizabeth had a firm grip on Parliament and decided what subjects its members were allowed to debate and make laws about. The Queen banned Parliament from discussing issues, such as her marriage, succession to the throne, religion, and declaring war and peace. But that did not prevent the Parliament from raising these issues from time to time, however, of course, it had a different power than it does now.

Women were seen at the time as physically and mentally weaker than men. Although the achievements attributed to her were evidence of what women could achieve, she did not believe that women should hold positions of influence in society, nor did she do anything to improve the conditions of women in her community. The monarchy was an exception and a “divine” choice.

The Victorian Era

The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) was England’s golden age or the age of «Happy England», as everyone was in love with life and expressed themselves through music, literature, architecture and adventures on the sea. Britain and America share this idealism.

In popular culture, these adventurous Elizabethan sailors have been embodied in the films of Errol Flynn. In response to this hyperbole, contemporary historians and biographers have tended to take a more relaxed view of the Tudor era.


Elizabethan England was not particularly successful militarily during this period, but it avoided major defeats and established a strong navy. On the whole, Queen Elizabeth may be said to have brought the country to a long period, if not complete peace, and generally increasing prosperity, due in large part to the thefts from Spanish treasure ships, the attacks of poorly defended settlements, and the sale of African slaves.

Though Elizabeth inherited a country nearly bankrupt from the previous ruler, her economic policies succeeded in regaining the financial reins. Its fiscal consolidation helped rid the regime of debt in 1574, and ten years later, the kingdom enjoyed a surplus of £300,000.

On the economic front, Sir Thomas Gresham’s founding of the Royal Stock Exchange, the first stock exchange in England and one of the first in Europe, to make economic development of England. With lower taxes than in other European countries in that period, the economy expanded; until wealth was distributed unfairly, it was clear that there was much more wealth at the end of Elizabeth’s reign than at its beginning. This general peace and prosperity allowed for the attractive developments emphasised by the “Golden Age” proponents.

Conspiracies and Conflicts

The Elizabethan age was an age of intrigue and intrigue, often political in nature and often involving the upper classes of Elizabethan society. High-ranking officials in Madrid, Paris and Rome sought to kill Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, and restore Catholicism with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. This was to mark the beginning of the religious recovery in England for Catholicism. In 1570, Ridolfi’s plot was thwarted. In 1584.

The Throckmorton Plot is discovered after Francis Throckmorton confesses that he was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the Queen and return to the Catholic Church. The other central plot was the Babington Plot. This event led directly to Mary’s execution. It was helped to be discovered by a double agent named Gilbert Gifford, working under the direction of Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s most powerful spymaster.

The Essex Rebellion of 1601 included a dramatic element, as just prior to the revolt, supporters of the Earl of Essex, including Charles and Jocelyn Percy (younger brothers of the Earl of Northumberland), had paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre, in order to agitate public anger towards the monarchy.

At the Essex trial of Chamberlain Men comedian Augustine Phillips, it was stated that the conspirators paid the group 40 shillings (a sum which was more than usual) to perform a play which the actors felt was too old and “not of any value” to attract spectators.

In the Bay Plot of 1603, two Catholic priests plotted to kidnap King James and hold him captive in the Tower of London to force him to be more tolerant of Catholics. The most sensational was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which plotted to blast the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. It was discovered in time with the execution of eight conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, who became the icon of the evil traitor in English culture.

The Royal Navy

While Henry VIII launched the Royal Navy, Edward and Mary ignored it, little more than a coastal defence system. Elizabeth made naval power a top priority. It risked war with Spain by supporting empowered pirates such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who were attacking Spanish merchant ships laden with gold and silver from the New World. The fleet’s shipyard was an arena for technical innovation, and commanders devised new tactics.

It is worth mentioning that the fully equipped ship was one of the greatest technological developments of the century and that it permanently changed the state of naval warfare.  Whereas earlier warships would struggle to steady each other so soldiers could board the enemy ship, now they stand to fire a wide attack that sinks the enemy ship.

When Spain finally decided to invade and suppress England, it failed miserably. Strong English ships and sailors thwarted the invasion and destroyed the Spanish army in 1588, which marked the high point of Elizabeth’s reign.

The fleet failed technically because its overly complex strategy needed coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army ashore. In addition, the poor design of the Spanish artillery guns meant that they were much slower to reload during close-range combat. Spain and France possessed stronger fleets, but England continued to catch up.

The disastrous consequences of the fall of the Spanish army in 1588 were critical, as the Spanish army was larger, more experienced, better equipped, more reliable, and better financed. While the English defences were weak and old, England had very few soldiers, and at best, they had only partial training. Spain chose England’s weakest link and might have taken London in a week’s time.

The Colonisation of the New World

Christopher Columbus’ discoveries shook all of Western Europe, especially sea powers like England. King Henry VII commissioned John Cabot to lead a voyage to search for a northern route to the Moluccas in Asia, which began the search for the Northwest Passage. Cabot began his journey in 1497 and reached Newfoundland. He made another journey to the Americas in the following year, but nothing is still heard of him or his ships.

In 1562 Elizabeth sent her officers to seize the Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coast of West Africa. Later in 1586, when the Anglo-Spanish Wars intensified, Elizabeth agreed to further raids on Spanish ports in the Americas and on ships returning to Europe with treasure.

Around this time, the influential writers Richard Hakluyt and John Dee began pressing for an overseas empire for England. Spain had established itself in the Americas. Portugal was in union with Spain since 1580 and had an ambitious cosmopolitan empire in Africa, Asia, and South America. France was exploring North America. England was eager to establish its own colonies, especially in the West Indies, rather than in North America.

The era was characterised by religious conflict and artistic flourish. The Catholic Pope tried to excommunicate Elizabeth I for marrying a Protestant Duke- but she proved to be more than his match. Her diplomatic finesse gained her many religious allies while earning her much praise from her subjects.

This is known as the Age of Reformation, as reformers from many nations sought a way to return their faiths to pureness. Many created new ideas about religion that would influence future beliefs. The Baroque movement in architecture and music came from this ferment of ideas, along with new art forms like cartography and botany.

Political changes also transformed the nation’s social landscape during this time period. Economic stress led to riots in London during this time, known as The London Riots of 1685. In response, Parliament passed the Popery Act, which denied certain offices to Catholics due to fears of a Catholic takeover.

While Oliver Cromwell led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the monarchy, Parliament finally crowned Queen Elizabeth I as their sovereign monarch during this era. As a result, she assumed the title of ‘Queen of England, Scotland, Ireland and France’ during this period. To ensure taxation fairness among her subjects, she created an institution called Parliament that would oversee her government affairs.

The Elizabethan Era is often praised for its artistic expressions and cultural push forward into modern times. However, historians have criticised this period for its treatment of women and non-conformists. In order to successfully navigate turbulent times, a leader is needed who can inspire their followers while navigating dangerous times themselves.

Elizabethan Literature

Elizabeth I led a vigorous culture that saw remarkable achievements in the arts, voyages of discovery, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement that resulted in the Church of England, and the thwarting of military threats from Spain.

During her reign, a culture centred in London produced both elite and popular forms, great poetry and drama. English plays combine the influence of medieval theatre with the rediscovery of Renaissance Roman drama, Seneca, tragedy, and comedy. Italy was an essential source of Renaissance ideas in England and the linguistic world, and the lexicographer John Florio (1553–1625) brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. He translated Montaigne’s works from French into English.


John Lyly (1553 or 1554–1606) and Thomas Nashe (1567–1601) are two significant Elizabethan prose writers. Lyly is an English writer, poet, playwright, dramatist, and politician. He is best known for his books The Views: An Explanation of Civility (1578) and The Views and His England (1580). Lyly is known for his flowery literary style, which appeared in his first book, Uviuism. Lyly must also be seen and remembered as a significant influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, especially romantic comedies. Lyly’s play The Metamorphosis of Love is a major influence on The Torment of Lost Love, and Glazia is a possible source for other plays.

Nashe provided some of the greatest Elizabethan English pamphlets. He was a playwright, poet and satirist best known for his novel The Unlucky Traveller. George Puttenham (1529-1590) was a 16th-century writer and literary critic. He is generally considered the author of the influential pamphlet on poetry and rhetoric: The Art of Poetry (1589).


Italian literature had a tremendous influence on the poetry of Thomas Wyatt (1503–1442), one of the first poets of the English Renaissance responsible for many innovations in English poetry and, along with Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1516/1517–47), brought the sonnet from Italy to England in the early sixteenth century. Wyatt’s stated aim was to test the English language, civilise it, and improve its strengths to the level of its neighbours. While plenty of his works imitate the sonnets of the Italian poet Petrarch, he also wrote sonnets of his own.

Wyatt borrowed his themes from Petrarch’s sonnets, but the rhyme schemes showed a significant shift. Petrarch’s sonnets rhyme with many rhyme schemes, but his poems never end with a rhyme square. Wyatt uses the Petrarch octave, but his most common scheme is the CDC ee system, which marks the beginning of the English sonnet with three quatrains and a poetic closing square.

The development of language and the broad allusion to classical mythology marked English poetry in the late sixteenth century. The most important poets of this era are Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a humanist product of the Renaissance, produced occasional poetry such as At the Departure of the Master and The Doubts of Future Enemies.

Edmund Spencer (circa 1552–1599) was another important poet and author of The Faerie Queen (1590 and 1596), an epic poem and fantasy allegory celebrating the Tudor and Elizabeth I dynasties. Other notables include Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1686), an English poet, soldier, courtier, and remembered as one of the significant figures of the Elizabethan era. Among his works are: “Astroville and Stella,” “In Defense of Poetry,” and “The Countess of Arcadia”. Poems set to music as songs, such as by Thomas Campion (1567-1620), became famous as literature spread more widely among families. Shakespeare also expanded the English sonnet, making major changes to Petrarch’s model.

If you enjoyed this content why not dive into some more historical eras – check out these articles: Vikings History, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egyptians – The First Woman Pharaoh, Greek Mythology – Medusa, Native American History. or Celts

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