The Elizabethan era was one of considerable social and political change. Elizabeth assumed the throne in the midst of religious turmoil precipitated by Henry VIII's separation from the Catholic Church about two decades before. Her half-sister, Mary I, had attempted to reestablish Catholicism, brutally cracking down on Protestants. After her death, Elizabeth inherited a kingdom in the midst of a full-blown religious crisis, one which threatened to develop into civil war. She responded with what has become known as the "Elizabethan Settlement," a collection of measures that established an English Protestant church, but a conservative one with many of the outward appearances of Catholicism. Parliament, however, confirmed that she would be the head of this church, a major boost to her powers as monarch. This resolved the political struggle over religion, but the split between Protestants and Catholics would remain a major cultural divide for a century. They were exacerbated by the war with Catholic Spain that broke out in the late sixteenth century, one that culminated with the failed invasion attempt spearheaded by the Spanish Armada in 1588.
England also experienced many profound social changes during the Elizabethan era, many of which had nothing to do with the monarch herself. For one thing, the population of the kingdom rose dramatically, by over one million people, during her reign. Moreover, Parliament increased its efforts to "enclose" formerly common lands in the countryside, and the kingdom experienced a series of bad harvests, forcing many small peasant farmers to move to towns and cities. The population of London in particular grew, as did the problems associated with rapid urban growth--poverty, crime, and unsanitary living conditions. The first of these was a major factor in seeking colonies in North Atlantic, as promoters like the Hakluyts argued that England needed a "safety valve" for its "excess population." More poverty-stricken Englishmen and women found themselves in workhouses and other facilities that emerged during the era, and under Elizabeth, Parliament established a series of "Poor Laws" designed to create a system to care for the kingdom's indigent poor.
Economic changes also gave rise to a growing middle class, merchants, bankers, and other comfortable businessmen who increasingly sought political power. These men were disproportionately Protestant, and many would become politically restive near the end of Elizabeth's reign and into the Stuart era. Middle class Englishmen provided the audiences for the playwrights that became so central to English cultural identity, particularly William Shakespeare. These writers were part of a cultural flowering that historians regard as an English Renaissance.