The Elizabethan Age and the English Renaissance
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Elizabethan Age is the time period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and is often considered to be a golden age in English history. It was an age considered to be the height of the English Renaissance, and saw the full flowering of English literature and English poetry. In Elizabethan theater, William Shakespeare, among others, composed and staged plays in a variety of settings that broke away from England’s past style of plays. It was an age of expansion and exploration abroad, while at home the Protestant Reformation was established and successfully defended against the Catholic powers of the Continent.
The Elizabethan Age is viewed so highly because of the contrasts with the periods before and after. It was a brief period of largely internal peace between the English Reformation, with battles between Protestants and Catholics, and the battles between parliament and the monarchy that would engulf the seventeenth century. The Protestant Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement and parliament was still not strong enough to challenge royal absolutism.
England was well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of foreign domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that would only be settled in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent, the centuries long conflict between France and England was suspended during the Elizabethan era.
England’s one great rival was Spain, which fought with England both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with a disastrously unsuccessful attack upon Spain in 1589 called the Drake-Norris Expedition. Afterward, Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a draining guerrilla war against England, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of defeats upon English forces, which badly damaged both the English Exchequer and economy. Until then, English economics had been carefully restored under Elizabeth’s guidance. English colonization and trade would be frustrated until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth’s death, 1604.
During this period England had a centralized, well organized, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Economically the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of Atlantic trade.
The Elizabethan era also saw England begin to play a leading role in the slave trade and saw a series of bloody English military campaigns in still Catholic Ireland—notably the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years’ War.
Despite the heights achieved during the era, less than 40 years after the death of Elizabeth the country was to descend into the English Civil War.
Fashion and the Domestic Arts
Elizabethan court fashion was heavily influenced by Spanish and French styles. Notable garments of this period include the farthingale for women, military styles like the mandilion for men, and ruffs for both sexes.
The Elizabethan era also saw a great flowering of domestic embroidery for both clothing and furnishings. Predominant styles include canvas work generally done in tent stitch and blackwork in silk on linen. Toward the end of the reign the fashion for blackwork gradually gave way to polychrome work in silk that foreshadowed the crewelwork in wool that would dominate Jacobean embroidery.
The food of this time period included lear (an oatmeal like dish with peas or beans), all types of animal meat, and numerous types of fruits and vegetables. A banquet was used for a dessert or snack course.
Elizabethan Festivals, Holidays, and Celebrations
During the Elizabethan era, the years were broken up by annual holidays just as they are in the present age. People looked forward to each and every holiday because their opportunities for leisure were limited. Time away from hard work was restricted to periods after church on Sundays, and so for the most part, leisure and festivities took place on a public church holy day. Every month had its own holiday, some of which are listed below:
- January: The first Monday of the second week (any time between seventh and 14th) of January was Plough Monday. It celebrated returning to work after the Christmas celebrations and the New Year.
- February: February second was Candlemas. This was the day when all Christmas decorations were burnt. It included candlelight and torchlight processions. February 14th was Valentine’s Day. Sending gifts to one another was a Pagan tradition that was still carried on under a Christian guise.
- March: Sometime between the third and ninth of March was Shrove Tuesday. This was apprentices’ favorite holiday, because they were allowed to run amok in the city in mobs, wreaking havoc and general mayhem. This was acceptable because it was supposedly cleansing the city of its vices before Lent. All the foods which would be forbidden during Lent were eaten up. They would also tie a cockerel to a stack and stone it to death, simply because the cockerel was the symbol of France. The day after Shrove Tuesday was Ash Wednesday. This was the first day of Lent when everyone began to abstain from eating certain foods, such as meat. A Jack-o-lent was set up in each city, a sort of scarecrow on which one could take out one’s annoyance at being deprived of certain foods.
- April: The first of April was All Fool’s Day. This was a day for tricks, jests, jokes, and a general day of the jester.
- May: The first day of May was May Day. This was a big and much appreciated festival. It was one of the few Pagan festivals that really had nothing to do with the Church. It was celebrated by sending the youth into the woods for a nighttime party. They did not return until the next morning, bringing with them a large tree trunk, which was put up as the phallic “maypole.” The maypole was decorated and then feasting, dancing, and games took place around it.
- June: On the 21st of June the people celebrated the summer solstice. This involved a large bonfire, and people celebrated the longest day and shortest night of the year. Mummers told stories and performed plays.
- July: St. Swithin’s Day was celebrated on the 15th of July. This was a very minor celebration, honoring the legend that after the ceremony of moving St. Swithin’s bones, it rained for 40 days.
- August: On the first of August, Lammastide, or Lammas Day, perhaps derived from “loof-mas,” was the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. People decorated horses with garlands, played games like apple-bobbing, and had processions of candles.
- September: The 29th of September was Michaelmas. This celebrated St. Michael with a traditional feast of goose or chicken.
- October: The 25th of October was St. Crispin’s Day. Bonfires, revels, and an elected “King Crispin” were all featured in this celebration. St. Crispin’s Day is noted in William Shakespeare’s play King Henry V, when the king gives a famous speech to encourage his men when they are heavily outnumbered in battle, saying that they will all be remembered on St. Crispin’s day. On the 28th was the Lord Mayor’s Show, which still takes place today in London. The 31st of October was Hallowmas of Halloween (All-hallow’s Eve). This was a Celtic festival celebrating the end of the Celtic year. The souls of the dead supposedly returned to walk the earth. Various masks were worn and bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits.
- November: The day after Halloween, November first, was All Soul’s Day. This was a Christian holiday, and also involved bonfires. The 17th of November was the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, celebrated even one hundred years after the Queen’s death.
- December: The biggest and perhaps most loved festival of all was an entire 12 days long. The Christmas season, the 12 days of Christmas, started on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve, and lasted until Epiphany on the sixth of January. A Lord of Misrule was selected, and he selected a council to help him. All together communities planned the parties and managed merrymaking. A King of the Bean was sometimes selected, by cooking a bean into a cake, and the finder of the bean became the king. A pea might also be cooked in, and a Queen of the Pea chosen as well, both regardless of gender. Carolers would set out to sing for money, and mummers came out to perform. Youths might run around with a wooden cup or bowl, asking the householders to fill it with ale, a coin, or some food for them: it was considered bad luck to refuse. Other youths might set out with a large bowl of spiced ale with roasted apples, offering the lord of the house a drink of the cider for a coin. Much begging was carried on during the season, and generosity was expected. The lords were expected to fill their houses with as much food as they could. Marchpane, or marzipan, was exceptionally popular. A yule log, a large portion of tree trunk expected to burn throughout the season, was brought in. All greenery, most notably holly and ivy was used. Gifts were presented at New Year instead of Christmas Day. The largest party was held by the Lord of Misrule on Epiphany, and thus ended the Christmas season.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 1996.
- Strong, Roy C. The Cult of Elizabeth. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1986.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 10.02.2011, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.