Why is the Elizabethan Age called The Golden Age?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and the last of the Tudors, is thought of by many as England's best monarch because England expanded and prospered during her reign. For this reason, her reign, which is frequently called the Elizabethan Age, is also called the Golden Age.

This period is considered the height of the English Renaissance, a movement that generated pride in England through the promotion of classical ideals and international expansion, an expansion made possible by the naval triumph over Spain (1588). With the defeat of Spain, England soon reigned supreme on the seas, and much exploration and expansion began abroad. Before long, British colonies reached across the globe, even into the New World, furthering England's empire. During this period there was also the fostering of poetry, music, and literature. Moreover, this era is famous for drama, as William Shakespeare and many others composed plays that are still read and watched today. Because Queen Elizabeth I actively supported education, science, and the arts, an enormous amount of literary activity took place. Influenced by the classical works of ancient Rome and Greece, writers explored new literary forms and generated some of the most memorable works England has ever produced.

Moving away from the long narrative poems of the Middle Ages, English poets of the Golden Age introduced a new poetic form, the lyric, a short, tightly structured poem. Many of these lyrics were written in sonnet form, often dealing with the subject of love. The language of these sonnets was musical and energetic. Dramas, too, were written in carefully crafted verse. The plots were created with complex characters and themes that frequently offered essential insights into human nature.

This Golden Age saw improvement in the quality of life for many British citizens. There was the rise of the gentry class, those people who were not born of noble birth but were solid citizens who brought a particular spirit to the age as they did the work of exploring and providing leadership. Such famous men as Sir Francis Drake, the explorer, and Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a leader in English colonization in America, were of the gentry class. Life was also improved for the lower classes of England. Artisans and farmers prospered, and even the poor fared better with the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, which resulted in one of the world’s first government-sponsored welfare programs.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One reason this is true is because Elizabeth's reign represented a brief respite between the turmoil caused by the English Reformation initiated by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and crises that led to the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. While it was unsatisfactory to both Catholics and, later, to the growing Puritan movement, the so-called "Elizabethan Settlement" provided a basis for internal peace that lasted most of her reign, albeit with a number of conspiracies against the queen.

Another reason is that England emerged as a growing European power during this period. It was, of course, under Elizabeth that the English defeated the famous Spanish Armada in 1588. While the victory did not immediately make England into a major naval power, it did help them achieve a major foreign policy goal by averting Spanish victory in the Netherlands. Additionally, England began to tentatively seek colonies in the New World, and squadrons under Sir Francis Drake terrorized Spanish fleets and ports around the world to great effect. These factors, along with the considerable cult of personality surrounding "Good Queen Bess" contributed to a rising sense of pride in the English nation.

Finally, and most memorably, the Elizabethan period represented a recognized high point, or a renaissance, in drama, poetry, and other vernacular literature. Of course, William Shakespeare wrote during the latter years of Elizabeth's reign, but the period was also characterized by such playwrights as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, as well as poets Edmund Spenser and Walter Raleigh. This flowering of literature, encouraged by Elizabeth herself and largely (especially the poets) associated with court life, is perhaps the reason that the Elizabethan period is often characterized as a "golden age" in English history.