Allan Massie, a Scot be it noted, decided to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II with a deprecating piece on her great predecessor and namesake, Elizabeth I designed to pour cold water on the idea that hers was a glorious reign. (
). He complains of the general treatment of Catholics, the use of torture on Catholic priests and those who harboured them, nudges the reader to consider the likes of Francis Drake to be hovering on or going over edge of piracy and in best liberal bigot fashion invokes the ultimate condemnation of English adventurers of the time by dwelling on Sir John Hawkins’ involvement in the slave trade. In addition, Massie belittles the defeat of the Armada and Elizabethan military exploits on the continent, bemoans English involvement in Ireland and stands aghast as he considers the Earl of Essex’s execution of one in ten of his army after they failed to press hard enough in battle. As for the great intellectual glory of the reign, the sudden flowering of literature symbolised by Shakespeare, this is dismissed as being a mere tailpiece to the Elizabethan age.
Massie, a professional historian so he has no excuse, has committed the cardinal sin of historians by projecting the moral values and customs of his own time into the past. For a meaningful judgement Elizabeth’s reign has to be judged against the general behaviour of European powers of the time and that comparison , ironically, shows Gloriana’s England’s to be considerably nearer to what Massie would doubtless consider civilised values than any other state in Europe.
There were no terrible wars of religion as there were in France ; no Inquisition as there was in Spain.; no burning of those deemed heretics as there was under Mary Tudor. Torture was used in Elizabeth’s England, and in the reigns which immediately followed, but sparingly and only for cases which had national importance, normally involving treason, such as those involved in the Gunpowder Plot which took place only two years after Elizabeth’s death . On the continent it was a commonplace of judicial process. English law, by the standards of the time, was generally remarkably fair, not least because of the widespread use of juries. Those who gasp with horror at Essex’s execution of his troops should bear in mind that in the First World War several hundred British soldiers were shot for behaviour such as desertion and failing to go forward when ordered over the top.
In Elizabeth’s reign the first national legislation anywhere in the world to provide help to the needy was passed, a legislative series which began in 1563 and culminated in the Poor Law of 1601. This legislation put a duty on every parish to levy money to support the poor and made it a requirement to provide work for those needing to call on the subsistence provided by the Poor Law. Educational opportunities, whilst far from universal, increased substantially. Despite , by pre-industrial standards, very high inflation and the inevitable bad harvests, which included a series of poor years in the late 1590s, the population grew substantially, possibly by as much as a third from 3 to 4 million (
). London expanded to be the largest city in Europe by the end of the Elizabeth’s reign with an estimated population of 200,000 by 1600 (
It was also in Elizabeth’s reign that Parliament began to take on aspects of modernity as opposition to Royal practices and policies were made unambiguously not on the sole ground that the monarch was ill-advised, the traditional ground of complaint, but simply because of what we would now call ideological differences between the growing Puritan group and the still newly minted Anglicanism. This laid the foundations for the evolution of Parliament from being little more than a petitioning and tax raising assembly to what eventually became parliamentary government with the monarch at the will of Parliament not Parliament at the will of the monarch, an evolution which was to take several centuries more to be complete. That Parliament was already seen as being central to the process of government by the end of Elizabeth’s reign is shown by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. That the conspirators thought blowing up Parliament was a necessary act or even just the most effective way of reducing England to a state of headless misrule speaks volumes.
The importance of the English Parliament under Elizabeth cannot be overstated because it is from the English Parliament that all modern assemblies take their inspiration. There were many mediaeval assemblies in Europe, but by the end of the 16th Century most of them had been rendered obsolete through disuse and the few meaningful assemblies which remained had not moved nor ever did move to Parliamentary government. It was only in the English Parliament that the step to placing executive power within Parliament and away from the monarch occurred. Had the English Parliament been suppressed by, for example, the conquest of England by Phillip II or the early Stuarts’ adherence to the doctrine of the Divine Right of kings, it is difficult to see how representative government could have arisen because the seventeenth century was the century of absolute monarchs, or as near absolute as it was possible to get. These were rulers who were utterly opposed to the idea of sharing power. Consequently, if England had not made the jump to representative government it is most improbable any other country would have done so. Monarchies would have probably been overthrown in time, but they would have been almost certainly been replaced by dictatorships not elected governments.
Elizabeth’s reign was also a time of great artistic and considerable intellectual achievement. The development of the theatre and poetry may have come in the last 12 years or so of her time, but their legacy was seen in the 35 years running up to the Civil War. Music, particularly in the form of the madrigal, flourished. William Gilbert examined magnetism in a manner which was essentially scientific in the modern sense, arguably the first example of such research. Francis Bacon, the progenitor of the scientific method, spent most of his life as an Elizabethan having been born in 1561.
Catholics were rightly seen to be a fifth column. Most English Catholics did not actively seek to commit treason, but they had varying degrees of sympathy with those who did, whether it was the hiding of priests or a secret wish to see a foreign Catholic monarch on the throne. Not only that, but all English Catholics had by definition an allegiance to a foreign power (the papacy) which was hostile to England under a Protestant monarch. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign popes funded and generally encouraged, both morally and materially, Catholics in England to subvert the laws against Roman Catholicism and for much of the reign the papacy was actively working for her overthrow. No pope was more enthusiastic in this behaviour than Pius V who in 1570 published the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis which declared Elizabeth I a heretic and a false Queen and released Elizabeth’s subjects from their allegiance to her.
Those who plotted to reintroduce Catholicism to England were unambiguous traitors. They did not simply seek to overthrow the existing monarch, but to entice a foreign Catholic king to invade and seize the throne with the primary purpose, in their eyes, of enforcing the return of Catholicism.
Elizabeth’s reign took place in the context of a world in which England had to guard against many enemies from the counter-revolutionary forces on the continent to the threat of Scotland attacking England when she was distracted by continental matters or still Catholic Ireland being used as a sidedoor for the invasion of England by continental powers . The most forbidding threat came from Spain, the greatest power in Europe at the time. Phillip II’s marriage to Mary I gave Phillip a permanent interest in England – he tried to marry Elizabeth and considered a plan to use his departure from England for Spain in 1559 following Mary’s death as cover to land troops as he sailed down the Channel (
)- and , quite reasonably, placed in English minds the idea of a constant threat of Spanish invasion of England and its enforced reconversion to Catholicism – in 1584 Philip II of Spain signed the Treaty of Joinville with the French Catholic League, with the aim of eradicating Protestantism. Attacks on Spanish treasure ships can reasonably be seen not as simple piracy but as acts of war engendered by the Spanish threat. In addition, the claim of Spanish and Portuguese ownership of the New World was really no more than a self-arrogated exclusion zone created by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 and the English attacks on Spanish ships and New World settlements were in response to this exclusion. (It is important to understand that the scramble for overseas colonies by European powers was driven as much by the fear that monarchies such as Spain and France would become too powerful in relation to the monarchies which did not have colonies as by a desire to simply conquer new territory or personal gain).
Massie’s dismissal of the defeat of the Armada as a victory for the elements rather than the Elizabethan navy is distinctly odd. He overlooks the fact that before the Spanish were sunk by the weather the English navy had prevented the Spanish from clearing the Channel of English warships in readiness for the embarkation of the Spanish invasion troops who were waiting at Dunkirk. Massie also makes no mention of the raid on Cadiz in 1587 by Drake which probably delayed the Armada for a year giving the English time to prepare against the intended invasion.
As for English military continental adventures, there were failures, but the most important contributions of England to the battle between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation was her financing of Protestant powers on the continent, most notably the United Provinces, and the very fact of England remaining unconquered, the latter being of immense importance because the Protestant states on the continent were weak and fragmented and England was by far the most important Protestant power of the time. If England had fallen to Spain, it is doubtful whether Protestantism could have survived, if it had survived at all, as more than a family of persecuted sects.
The casting of John Hawkins as beyond the Pale because he was a slave trader clankingly misunderstands the mentality of the age. Forms of legal unfreedom, ranging from full blown chattel slavery to indentured labour (which could be for years particularly in the case of apprenticeships), were common throughout Europe. Moreover, the poor who were not formally legally restrained in their freedom were under severe economic restraints to do what they were told and take what work they could get. Slavery was not seen as an unmitigated , unforgivable evil. It is also worth bearing in mind that although serfdom was never formally abolished in England, by Elizabethan times it had practically vanished through a process of conversion of the land worked for themselves by serfs to land held by copyhold tenancies. The reverse took place in central and Eastern Europe where feudal burdens became more stringent and widespread in the sixteenth century and even France retained serfdom in some places, most notably, Burgundy and Franche-Comté, until the Revolution in 1789 and seigneurial privileges which required freemen holding land of the seigneur to have a relationship which in practice was not so different from that of the serf.
The great triumph of Elizabeth’s reign was that both she and Protestantism survived. This meant that England was never again in thrall to a foreign power until Edward Heath and his fellow conspirators signed away Britain’s sovereignty by accepting the Treaty of Rome in 1972 and entangling Britain within the coils of what is now the EU. It was not that Protestantism was in itself superior to Catholicism, rather that in embracing Protestantism the question of divided loyalties between monarch and papacy was removed.
It is true that the idea of Gloriana was propaganda both during the reign itself and in the Victorian period most notably in the hands of the historian J A Froude painted too sunlit a picture. But the reign was of immense importance in creating the England that became writ so large on the history of the next four centuries. If it had not been Elizabeth who came to the throne in 1558 the odds are that Phillip II would have conquered England. Had she not reigned for so long Protestantism would not have become the irrevocable religion of England. If she had not called Parliament regularly it would not have laid the ground for eventual Parliamentary government and any other monarch would almost certainly have emasculated the Commons. The existence of behaviour which offends Mr Massie’s twenty-first liberal bigot sensitivities is irrelevant.