Queen Elizabeth I and the Elizabethan era are probably the best-known and most widely written about topics of English history, not only because of Shakespeare’s having lived at the time, but also because of the many fascinating and illustrious figures and events that combined to make the time so prosperous and unique for England. At his death, King Henry VIII had left an unsettled country only recently emerging from years of civil wars and currently embroiled in a raging religious controversy. When Elizabeth died a half century later, the country was politically united, even under a foreign monarch, experiencing a high renaissance in music and literature, and on its way to becoming the empire on which the sun was never to set, until the twentieth century. J. E. Neale’s formidable 1934 biography of Queen Elizabeth, although still considered the definitive study, has not deterred other scholars from continuing to focus on this imposing historical figure until today one wonders what possible new information can be gleaned from the affairs of one of the greatest queens ever to rule.
In this partial biography, covering the last quarter century of her life, Elizabeth’s personal handling of the affairs of state is emphasized. Alison Plowden considers these years to be a time in which the seeds of modernism were gradually being nurtured, so that by the turn of the century, with the accession of the Scotch King James as the new English monarch, the old certainties of a relatively settled political and religious world inherited from the Middle Ages would be devastated for all time. By narrowing her focus on these crucial years, Plowden is able to go into the great detail required of the years which saw, among other things, the infamous Spanish Armada and its aftermath, the Marprelate controversy, the Lopez incident, the Cadiz expedition, the Irish campaign against Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and the ill-fated Essex rebellion, trial, and execution.
Plowden’s account begins after the destruction of the armada which was ultimately to lead to England’s supremacy as a world power. Although the world usually equates England’s rise as a sea power and as a nation of the first rank with the demise of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Plowden’s thesis is that the balance of power had by no means shifted so quickly, nor did the English immediately feel secure that they had once and for all disposed of the double threat of Spain and Catholicism. Despite the fact that Elizabeth had personally become an “almost mystical symbol” to her people, she was constantly beleaguered by financial and religious crises in her domestic as well as foreign policy.
Domestically, the Puritans were becoming an increasing threat. Because of Elizabeth’s concern, their attempts to purge the Anglican Church got no further than the 1559 Act of Uniformity. She realized that the radical reform on the Genevan or Presbyterian model—purging of the Prayer Book and abolishment of episcopal offices—besides dividing her loyal Protestant majority, would further alienate her Catholic subjects. So, in 1586 when the House of Commons with its large Puritan constituency actually introduced its “Bill and a Book” to effect some of these reforms which would have effectively abolished Anglicanism, it was defeated by coercion and reasoned arguments. Thus, the Puritans’ political power was ended for the duration, not to reemerge as a real threat until Elizabeth’s successors were on the throne in the seventeenth century.
On the international scene, Elizabeth’s first order of business was to deal with the then superpower, Spain. According to Plowden, Elizabeth had no intention of destroying Spain; instead, her aims were simply to rid the English of the fear of Spanish aggression, to gain a share of the trade with the new world for English merchants, and to achieve religious freedom for the Dutch under Spanish rule. Plowden believes that Elizabeth was content with a balance of power and that she saw herself as the key element in maintaining that balance. Plowden’s reevaluation shows Elizabeth’s aims and tactics to be at variance with those of her generals, some of her methods being born of necessity, for Plowden maintains that Elizabeth was no political theorist. It was by virtue of her shrewd practicality in the “arcane mysteries of her craft” that she succeeded, rather than by pursuing any carefully conceived strategy.
Forced to carry on foreign intrigues and military campaigns with a very limited personal revenue, only 300,000 pounds a year, Elizabeth was constrained to sell crown lands and levy...
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