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Introduction into the Elizabethan Age

Elizabeth I (1558-1603) has gone down in history as one of England's greatest monarchs.
Queen Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait (detail), c1600. © Marquess of Salisbury/Hatfield House

Elizabeth I (1558-1603) has gone down in history as one of England’s greatest monarchs. Hailed as ‘Gloriana’ and ‘Good Queen Bess’, Elizabeth’s 44-year reign witnessed some of the most famous events in English history like the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. An exceptionally intelligent and cultured woman, Elizabeth ushered in a Golden Age of the arts, patronising the likes of William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. More than any monarch before or since, she appreciated the power of what we would call her royal ‘brand’ and crafted her public image so effectively that she was worshipped as the ‘Virgin Queen’ both during her lifetime and for centuries after her death.

The weaker sex?

When Elizabeth was proclaimed queen in the City of London in November 1558, there was great rejoicing. All across the capital, church bells were rung and at night bonfires were lit, around which thousands of people gathered to drink and make merry. But lurking beneath all of this rejoicing lay a deep-seated prejudice against female rulers.

Miniature portrait of Elizabeth I
Miniature of Elizabeth I (b1533-1603) in the early years of her reign, c1560-5, British School. Royal Collection Trust © HM King Charles III, RCIN 420944

Upon Elizabeth I’s accession, the outspoken Scottish theologian John Knox declared: ‘It is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above a Man.’ Women, he argued, were ‘weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish: and experience hath declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment’. This view was deeply entrenched in Tudor society, with the vast majority of Elizabeth’s new subjects firmly believing that women were the weaker sex. Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary’s disastrous reign, during which she had burned hundreds of Protestants in a futile attempt to return England to the Roman Catholic fold, had done little to disabuse them of this impression.

John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women by John Knox, © British Library

But the new queen confounded all expectations. Rather than fight against the prejudice of her male advisers, she pretended to share their regret that she had been born ‘a weak and feeble woman’ and used her feminine wiles to devastating effect. A master of pragmatism, she settled the vexed question of religion and established much-needed peace and stability after one of the most turbulent half-centuries in England’s history.

What makes this all the more impressive is that Elizabeth should never have been queen at all. She was the younger daughter of Henry VIII, and at the time of his death she was third in line to the throne behind her half-brother Edward and half-sister Mary. But Edward reigned for just six years before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 15. After ousting her rival, the ‘nine days’ queen’, Lady Jane Grey, Mary (1553-58) held the throne for an even shorter time than her half-brother. She died childless so, begrudgingly, had no choice but to leave the crown to her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. It is one of history’s greatest ironies that having gone through so much of his reign (and so many wives!) in order to get a male heir, it was Henry’s forgotten younger daughter who would be by far the most glorious of his successors.

The Queen Bee

Elizabeth, like her father, Henry VIII, had a natural gift for public relations and fully appreciated the political importance of staging an obvious display of wealth and magnificence at her court. Visitors to her court were dazzled by spectacles of glorious, ostentatious display; a theatre of art, music, dancing and lavish dress. The cultural and political heart of England, it was the place to which all of the principal men of the realm flocked to pay reverence to their sovereign and clamour for her favour. And while hostile commentators decried the ‘levities’ and ‘licentiousness’, the reality was that all of this seemingly decadent court display was carefully controlled by Elizabeth. She quickly established a strict etiquette and ceremony from which no courtier was allowed to stray. Ever watchful of her reputation as a young, unmarried queen, she was determined to ensure that merriment would never descend into drunkenness, or flirtatiousness into sexual transgression. ‘The court of Queen Elizabeth was at once gay, decent, and superb,’ remarked one shrewd observer. However, not all the entertainments enjoyed by Queen and court would be considered ‘decent and superb’ today. Gruesome pastimes such as bear baiting, when animals were pitted against each other to fight to the death, was enjoyed by many Elizabethans, and the Queen, too, was an ardent fan. (See module 3.17 for a discussion of these cruel sports in context of the era.)

A painting of Elizabeth I receiving Dutch ambassadors
Elizabeth I receiving Dutch ambassadors, Dutch School, 16th century. © Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel / Bridgeman Images

Like her father, Elizabeth ensured that all of her courtiers were well fed. Her reign saw the introduction of many exotic foods from the New World. These included rich spices such as cinnamon and ginger, as well as pineapples, chillis, potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate. The food was prepared as much for visual effect as for taste, and there was a strong sense of theatre throughout. A host of different colours, materials and props were used to make and serve the food. Peacocks were reared for consumption but their feathers were also used to decorate cooked foods. The Queen had a famously sweet tooth and her cooks let their imaginations run wild when it came to preparing the confectionery for her banquets. On one occasion, an entire menagerie was sculpted in ‘sugar-work’, or ‘subtleties’ including camels, lions, frogs, snakes and dolphins, along with more fantastical figures like mermaids and unicorns.

A still life set out with a peacock pie
Still life with peacock pie, Pieter Claesz, 1627. © National Gallery of Art, Washington

If the Elizabethan court was a carefully stage-managed production, then the Queen herself was the director. She was also the centre of all the entertainments, intrigues and flirtations. In the culture of chivalric love that permeated the court, Elizabeth was the object of all men’s devotions. As one of her most ardent admirers, Sir Christopher Hatton, observed: ‘The Queen did fish for men’s souls, and had so sweet a bait that no-one could escape her network.’ Although the vast majority of Elizabeth’s flirtations were nothing more than play-acting on both sides, she nevertheless demanded absolute fidelity, both emotional and political, from her male courtiers and would brook no rival for their affections. There could only be one Queen Bee in the hive.

The curtain comes down

For most of her reign, Elizabeth had been the ultimate entertainer and her court had been the envy of the world. But in the last few years of her life, when age and infirmity sapped her strength, she began to lose her grip on the once carefully staged-managed displays of magnificence. ‘The court was very much neglected, and in effect the people were generally weary of an old woman’s government,’ observed one courtier.

However, Elizabeth was not a queen to fade out quietly. On November 30, 1601, she delivered what has become known as her ‘Golden Speech’ before 150 MPs at the Palace of Whitehall. While she had been due to speak on political matters, the Queen knew it was her last opportunity to command the spotlight and she turned the speech into a deeply moving address, reminding all present of her loyalty to her country and her deep love for her subject. There was hardly a dry eye left in the house by the end.

Meanwhile, in ever greater numbers, many of these well-loved subjects were flocking north to James VI, King of Scotland, anxious to ingratiate themselves with the Queen’s likely successor. As Elizabeth’s earliest biographer, William Camden, noted: ‘They adored him as the sun rising, and neglected her as now ready to set.’

The accession of new Stuart king in March 1603 was greeted with widespread rejoicing by his English subjects, who were delighted to have a man in charge after almost half a century of being under the authority of queens. But they should have been careful what they wished for. James soon proved a disappointment. The Venetian ambassador echoed the views of many when he scornfully observed that ‘from his [the King’s] dress he would have been taken for the meanest of courtiers’. Others agreed that, in sharp contrast to the late queen, James lacked ‘great majesty’ and ‘solemnities’.

Far from providing the same strict controlling influence that Elizabeth I and her Tudor forebears had wielded, James embraced all of the excess and licentiousness that his court had to offer. Those who had been familiar with the Elizabethan court were appalled by the contrast. Lady Anne Clifford reported that ‘all the ladies about the Court had gotten such ill names that it was grown a scandalous place’. It was not long before she and many of Elizabeth’s former courtiers were wishing they could turn back the clock.

Queen Elizabeth in the Ditchley portrait
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c1592. © National Portrait Gallery, London


  1. How familiar are you with Elizabeth I’s reign? What stands out for you in that period in history?
  2. What are some of the difficulties Queen Elizabeth I might have faced as a female monarch? What do you know of her interests and leisure pursuits?
  3. How do you think Elizabeth I’s court compared to that of Henry VIII? What might he have made of his daughter’s reign?
© Historic Royal Palaces
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A History of Tudor Entertainment

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