Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

England's Greatness in the Days of Elizabeth; Spenser and the Great Shakespeare

Rebellion in Ireland took over one of the queen's subjects, Edmund Spenser. Another rebellion sent him back to England. During the intervening years, he wrote one of England's greatest poems, called the "Fairie Queene." He had gone to Ireland as secretary with Lord Grey, Elizabeth's new Viceroy. The misery, and poverty of the Irish at once struck him. He contrasted the unhappy country with his own "merrie England," with its peace and order, its thriving homesteads, wealthy cities and contented people.

When Elizabeth decided to plant English colonies in Munster, Spenser received three thousand acres in Cork. He made his home at Kilcolman Castle. The queen's viceroy grew in his mind as the image of perfect justice, and in the "Fairie Queen" he becomes the great Knight of Justice.

At Kilcolman, Spenser was quietly working out his great poem, when his old friend Raleigh came to visit him in his quiet retreat. Spenser showed him the first three books of the "Fairie Queene." Raleigh at once saw its merit. He saw that the new poem was immensely better than anything that had appeared in England since the days of Chaucer, and hurried Spenser off to England. The queen must hear it, for Elizabeth was Gloriana, the "Fairie Queene "herself. Elizabeth was pleased—she allowed the poet a pension of 50 a year, and the poem was dedicated to her.

Spenser and Raleigh


The poem was received with quite a thunder of applause the silence of two hundred years had been broken and Spenser's name was on every lip. Here was a new world—a new England. Hearts were stirred by the deeds of men, the spirit of adventure was everywhere, fearless sailors were exploring unknown seas. In the new poem men found a world of "lofty enterprise, of ceaseless labour and conflict for a great aim," yet over all reigned "an air of quietness and peace."

Spenser, later on, brought three more books of his poem to England, where they were eagerly read. But a little later Kilcolman Castle was attacked during an Irish rebellion and set on fire. Though Spenser and his wife escaped to England, it is said their new-born child perished in the flames. Anyhow, three weeks later Spenser died utterly ruined and broken-hearted. But he had left his imperishable life-work behind to refresh and inspire many a tired generation—long after both he and his queen had been laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

But if the age of Elizabeth produced Spenser and his great poem, the "Fairie Queene," yet more important to the world at large were the plays of Shakespeare, which sprang into being at this time. The Elizabethans themselves had no idea what a really great man was their poor writer of plays, Shakespeare. The drama was new to them, but we know to-day that he was the greatest dramatist the world has ever seen in any country or in any age, and that his plays are among England's most priceless possessions.

Of the man himself, we know very little. He was born in 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon, but obtained his living in London as an actor and play-writer. He had little book-learning, "small Latin and less Greek," but he knew mankind, he understood human nature, and the art of expression. Spenser leads us into a world of dreams, with dim unreal figures passing across a shadowy stage. But Shakespeare gives us a world of real men and women; they are flesh and blood like ourselves, they have joys and sorrows and anxieties, they live and they die.

The Spanish Armada had come and gone before Shakespeare wrote his first play, but he had come to London as a young man of about twenty-two, probably as an actor, a year or two before. At this time there were only two theatres in London—"Burbage's Theatre" and "The Curtain," though a little later the Globe Theatre in Southwark was built. But Elizabeth had always loved plays, and quite early in her reign we find her using her choir boys of Chapel Royal to act plays to her on Sundays. The Puritans found fault with her for this, but she tried to reform not by putting an end to plays, but by encouraging better ones.

Globe Theatre


Many a time young Shakespeare must have acted in the courtyard of inns, which were used right through the reign of Elizabeth for the performance of plays. The poorest part of the audience sat or stood under the open sky in the court-yard or "pit" as it was called, while there were covered seats in the galleries running round the pit for the more wealthy onlookers. And the new theatres were made in that way.

Plays began at one o'clock, they were advertised by bills in the town, while the hoisting of a flag told the people that the play was about to begin. In between the acts the audience ate apples, cracked nuts, played cards or smoked. The stage fittings were rough. Foreign countries were shown by labels, a few flowers represented a garden, heroes rode in on hobby-horses. The parts were taken by men and boys—no woman acted in the days of Queen Elizabeth.

All the world was there. The stage was crowded with nobles and courtiers, while apprentices and citizens thronged the benches in the yard below.

There are few more startling facts in the age of Elizabeth than this sudden rise of the English drama. The way had been prepared by others, but Shakespeare soon out-topped them. He thoroughly understood the brilliant life that had gathered round Elizabeth. It was a world of comedy, of wits, of fun and laughter. "Love's Labour Lost" was played before the queen at Christmas, 1590. A "Comedy of Errors" and the "Taming of the Shrew," which quickly followed, must have set the audiences laughing from beginning to end. In "The Midsummer-Night's Dream," Shakespeare dealt with a fairyland of his own creation.

William Shakespear


Historical plays followed, and Shakespeare's historical plays were magnificent. They were immensely popular. Their loyalty and devotion to England delighted the patriotic subjects of the queen. Such lines as these had never been heard on any stage before:—

"This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

This other Eden, demi-paradise;

This fortress, built by Nature for herself,

Against infection and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."


Then there was the famous Falstaff in "Henry IV." It is said that Queen Elizabeth was so pleased with him, that she ordered Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love, which he did in the "Merry Wives of Windsor."

But as the reign drew to its close, a change came over the poet. He was only thirty-six, but he could no longer write the light comedy of his earlier days. "The outer world suddenly darkened around him." His friends passed away; Essex fell on the scaffold; some of his patrons were exiled from court. Shakespeare suffered acutely.

Then he began to write tragedies; and the audiences no longer laughed and made merry over his plays. The year before the death of the queen, one of his greatest tragedies called "Hamlet" appeared. He wrote his play of "Henry VIII" after Elizabeth's death.

Elizabeth was a great queen. She ruled over England during one of our most critical periods, and she brought her country successfully through its troubles. When she rode into London, a young woman of five-and twenty, to take up her duties as queen, the fortunes of the country were low. Spain was growing daily more powerful in Europe and in the New World of America. When she died forty-five years later, the power of Spain was broken, the Reformed Church was established, the New World was opened to Englishmen. It must be remembered that England was England only in those days. There were as yet no colonies. Scotland and Ireland had each its own Parliament. This was the England over which Elizabeth ruled. She never left it, and never travelled to Ireland or Scotland.

Yet she delighted in the spirit of adventure that inspired the mariners of her day to sail hither and thither in search of gold and fame. She herself would wave them a last farewell; she was the first to welcome them if they ever returned. Thus did the "Queen of the Northern Seas" gather round her person devoted and faithful friends. The new awakening inspired Englishmen in every direction, but all enterprise centred round Elizabeth's court. Thither Spenser brought his "Fairie Queene," Bacon his Essays, Sir Philip Sidney his sonnets, Sir Walter Raleigh his great schemes for founding colonies.

The expeditions of Hawkins, Drake, Davis, Frobisher, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Walter Raleigh were all undertaken with her sanction and help. She sent Leicester to the Netherlands to help the Dutch and Essex to Ireland to enforce her rule, though both failed in the end. Before her Shakespeare acted his plays, and it was her interest and encouragement that helped to raise the drama to its height. And moving quietly behind the flash and pomp of Elizabeth was the stately Lord Burghley, faithful, firm, far-seeing, loving God and Queen and Country.

The old statesman and faithful servant passed away, and Elizabeth could never speak of him without shedding tears. But heavy with grief though she was, she kept up her queenly splendour, and continued her wonderful progresses from country house to country house.

When Elizabeth was sixty-nine and had reigned for forty-three years, she passed away—the last of the Tudors.

Queen Elizabeth I


Such was England's great queen. But what of England's people? And how did they live during these momentous years of our history? There was movement and activity everywhere, and it was a time of progress for the working classes. A growing demand for English wool gave more work to the increasing populations of the country. Waste lands were made fit for pasture, more and more sheep were reared, more and more men and women toiled in their homes to turn the home-grown wool into flannel and cloth for clothes.

In various parts of England to-day there are still houses which remind us of that old cloth-weaving industry. Lavenham, in Suffolk, is famous for its quaint old cottages, in some of which the inhabitants still use the old hand-looms for the making of a kind of horse-hair cloth; but the most picturesque building in this interesting village is the hall of the Guild of Corpus Christi, where the clothiers' guild (or club) held its meetings, admitted the apprentices, regulated work, prices, and wages, and occasionally feasted together.

Stocking loom


The little homesteads of the rural workers were mostly self-contained; nearly every family grew its own corn and made its own bread, reared sheep and spun the wool into cloth, pastured cattle and made its own butter and cheese. The children all helped, for there was no schooling; they were taught and trained by their parents. As yet, there were no large towns full of shops like ours; markets were held at stalls in the open street, and it was a sign of prosperity that the townsmen were now going to the expense of building shelters at the market crosses. There were no great tall chimneys, no manufactories, and machinery to be worked by steam was not invented. There was not much encouragement to inventors, and William Lee, who invented the stocking-frame by watching the movements of his wife's fingers when knitting, had to go to Paris, where he was befriended by the French king, Henry IV.

Housing was improving, but the dwellings of the people were nearly all of wood. The richer classes built fine mansions of brick and stone, of which imposing gateways and porches were always a feature. The roads were still poor and travelling difficult. Only noblemen and very rich people could afford carriages; and it was a common sight to see two people riding the same horse, a woman being often seated behind a man on a cushion called a pillion.

Guild Hall, Suffolk


But the country was terribly overrun with beggars at this time, for the closing of the monasteries, and the ever-increasing practice of sheep farming in place of corn growing, had caused many men to be turned adrift. Elizabeth passed some famous Poor Laws, which have remained in force for several hundred years. Those who could  work, but would not work, were punished by being beaten with whips, and sent back to their native village, "there to put themselves to labour as true men ought to do." Every parish was thus forced to support and maintain its own "paupers," as these people were called, and the workhouse system grew up in our midst.

So we see that the "Merrie England" of Elizabeth had its darker side, that the poor were very poor and the rich were very rich. But between the two was rising that important class of people known to history as the "middle class"—honest traders, shop-keepers and manufacturers, who played their great part in the commercial development of our great country.