1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return of the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era

1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return of the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era

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by Christopher Lee

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1603 was the year that Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, died. Her cousin, Robert Carey, immediately rode like a demon to Scotland to take the news to James VI. The cataclysmic time of the Stuart monarchy had come and the son of Mary Queen of Scots left Edinburgh for London to claim his throne as James I of England.

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1603 was the year that Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, died. Her cousin, Robert Carey, immediately rode like a demon to Scotland to take the news to James VI. The cataclysmic time of the Stuart monarchy had come and the son of Mary Queen of Scots left Edinburgh for London to claim his throne as James I of England.

Diaries and notes written in 1603 describe how a resurgence of the plague killed nearly 40,000 people. Priests blamed the sins of the people for the pestilence, witches were strangled and burned and plotters strung up on gate tops. But not all was gloom and violence. From a ship's log we learn of the first precious cargoes of pepper arriving from the East Indies after the establishment of a new spice route; Shakespeare was finishing Othello and Ben Jonson wrote furiously to please a nation thirsting for entertainment.

1603 was one of the most important and interesting years in British history. In 1603: The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return of the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era, Christopher Lee, acclaimed author of This Sceptred Isle, unfolds its story from first-hand accounts and original documents to mirror the seminal year in which Britain moved from Tudor medievalism towards the wars, republicanism and regicide that lay ahead.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lee, author of This Sceptred Isle, a history of Britain that accompanied a BBC radio series, focuses in on one turning point in that saga. In 1603 the Elizabethan era ended with the last Tudor monarch's death, and the Stuart dynasty began with the coronation of James I (formerly James VI of Scotland). Lee gives the political background by skillfully summarizing the past intrigues of the Tudor era. Drawing on chronicles, diaries and letters, Lee paints a lively picture of the society that the new king inherited. A condensed biography of James (the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots) details his birth, his mother's political intrigues and execution, and his schooling and marriage. A meandering middle section describes James's uncertain procession south from Scotland to his coronation in London. Vivid snapshots of the plague and of witch-hunting, a dense account of the demise of Walter Raleigh, an outline of London's theater world, a glimpse of Irish revolt and tales of early empire-building voyages make absorbing reading. Yet Lee struggles to define the year's significance beyond mere regime change. He is analytic when discussing endemic government corruption, the nation's uneasy religious mood, the creation of the King James Bible and James's clampdown on the lucrative piracy industry, but these analyses never gel into an overall thesis. Yet in its rich texture and detail, 1603 will surely whet the appetite of readers interested in 17th-century English history. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Or, a year of living dangerously in England for champions of the Tudor line, would-be pirates, and civilians susceptible to a touch of the plague. Many a noted British historian, such as Tudor specialist G.R. Elton, has passed the year 1603 by without much comment, thinking it no more important than any other 12-month period. London-based freelance writer/historian Lee (The Sceptred Isle, not reviewed), undaunted, makes a case for that year as one of those previously unheralded watersheds in the history of the British Isles. After all, it marked the death of Queen Elizabeth and the inauguration of the Scottish King James VI, who became James I of England and set about making all sorts of controversial steps and missteps and opening up the path to civil war later in the 17th century; as Lee writes, "Elizabeth may have commanded the obedience of the people, but James would not-and nor would any sovereign who followed." Complicating James's uneasy ascent to the throne was the return of the Black Death, which felled 40,000 English men, women, and children in 1603; it was less catastrophic than previous episodes of the plague, but an added burden in a time of hunger, want, and economic distress. Against this backdrop, Lee populates his stage with vivid characters, including the none-too-pleasant James himself; a rising star named William Shakespeare; and the privateer, ne'er-do-well, and poet Walter Ralegh, whom English writers and historians have lately been discovering. Though Lee falls for a classic schoolboy-Latin trap ("O rare Ben Johnson" has nothing to do with the poet's uncommonness) and seems sometimes to be channeling a period ghostwriter ("The people of James's green and pleasantland would prosper and breed as they might anyway have done"), his narrative moves well and neatly weaves many threads. A turning point in English history, skillfully distilled for readers four centuries after.

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The Death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Return of the Black Plague, the Rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era

By Christopher Lee

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Christopher Lee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6450-4



This is the story of the year 1603. It is therefore the tale of one of the great step changes in the history of these islands. Noted historians, for example G. R. Elton, thought 1603 unimportant. Yet the events of any twelvemonth period are rarely unimportant, although it is true that there are not that many dates that should stand out in our minds. One certainly is 1066 and the Norman invasion. Another might be 1642, the year which was the beginning of a terribly sad period in our island history, a period which as children we thought a great adventure when, rather like Cowboys and Indians, we chose sides to play Roundheads and Cavaliers. Yet another date might be 1688, the moment when the aristocracy caused the overthrow of the monarch, James II, and replaced him with his son-in-law and daughter, William of Orange and his queen, Mary. From that moment there would be no question that the English monarchy should be Protestant until such time as religion no longer mattered, a point still not fully reached. Others might choose 1805 when the Battle of Trafalgar made certain Britannia could rule the waves for more than a century. Or 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo, which finally did for Napoleon and brought about a sort of peace throughout Europe, especially in these islands, for ninety-nine years. Finally, the modern historian might remind us of 1940, the so-called dark days when the skills and bravery of a few prevented a German invasion of the United Kingdom. Each of these dates might well be remembered. Then why 1603? Could the Eltons be right? I think not. Transition from one dynasty to another should not go unremarked.

Our view of 1603 starts in its late winter when in the bedraggled early hours of 24 March, Elizabeth I turned her face to the wall. Sir Robert Carey, whom she called Robin and cousin, almost before the oils had been returned to their casket, rode north. At his breast he kept a sapphire ring, the sign that James would believe, that the Queen was dead. In three days he had crossed the border and with the pre-arranged authority of that single blue stone summoned James VI to the throne of England and of what James would be the first to call Great Britain. As news of the Queen's death spread, bonfires were lit throughout the land. Beacons of news? Or celebration? Could it be that the people actually cheered the passing of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn? This monarch, with but the body of a woman, surely was mourned. Maybe not so much as we conventionally think. Was it simply, in 1603, time to go? Just as her cold body was abandoned for days 'and mean persons had access to it', so her people easily shook the Elizabethan cloak from their often hungry shoulders. As gentlemen officers of her household snapped their white staffs of office and tossed them down onto her coffin, the bonfires were re-lit for a new monarch as much as to symbolise the passing of a prince incomparable.

It is said that with the passing in 1603 of the last of the Tudors came the end of mediaevalism. Could that really be so? 'Mediaeval' is not a word that would have been used during Elizabeth's reign, or for many years afterwards. It is an invention of the Victorian era – as so much apparently ancient tradition and expression turns out to be on closer examination. The Victorians (and most people today) imagined that the Middle Ages of English history had ended a hundred years earlier. Yet only dynasties end on time and to date. Periods and influences rarely harmonise with set times and their effects mope among the people long after the historians decide they were done. So the ways of mediaeval England persisted beyond a Tudor and the Constitution longer still.

Now in 1603 the often cataclysmic time of the Stuarts had come. James left Scotland to claim his throne through his great-grandmother, Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII. His mother, of course, was Mary Queen of Scots, his father Henry Stewart (or Stuart), Lord Darnley – a genetic and chemical mix that could never produce an ordinary offspring. Nor did it. As he drove south into England he preached his gospel. It was not the taut catechism of the Calvinism he had thankfully left behind, but his own gospel of absolute obedience to the fatherly monarch and in particular to him, James VI of Scotland, James I of England. Had not they read His Majesty's Trew Law of Free Monarchies? No? They would. It was quickly published in London. Nevertheless, he and all those who ruled England were to learn that Elizabeth may have commanded the obedience of the people, but James would not – and nor would any sovereign who followed.

A new monarchy is never a dull moment in British history, and 1603 must be known for more than the accession of the Stuarts. It was the year of another epidemic of the often-returning Black Death. Close to 40,000 perished in England, a kingdom of more than four million, 210,000 or so of whom lived in that woeful principality that was London. The capital was about the size of modern Norwich and growing so quickly that James bemoaned that 'soon London would be all England'. More people died in the capital than were born in it, and London's lasting monument was, appropriately, not a palace, but a fortress – the Tower of London, started by William the Conqueror and in which, in 1603, Sir Walter Ralegh was incarcerated, 'guilty' of high treason (see here).

At the very time Ralegh was locked up, John Smith was freed. Smith was an Englishman who had been taken as a slave in the eastern Mediterranean. White slaves were not uncommon long before black slaves were brought to England – after all, feudalism was of recent times in these islands. Smith told his dramatic tale: he had killed his master in the Black Sea and escaped home to England.

Also returning was James Lancaster. Three years earlier Elizabeth had approved the charter to set up the English East India Company. Now, Lancaster returned to the London docks with the Company's first pepper cargo. The new spice route was established.

And just as all England was changing, so too was another and more mysterious society. In 1603, in Japan, began the Tokugawa shogunate. Here was the dynasty that would lead Japan to an, until then, alien era of industry. It would survive beyond the middle years of the nineteenth century. Our images of 'old' Japan begin here in 1603. The first task of the shogunate was to introduce money, to move the peoples of Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu from a simple rice economy to a money economy. Incidentally, this was also the year when the kabuki theatre opened.

Across a much shorter stretch of water, the war in Ireland had gone well in 1603. This was the year of the submission of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Elizabeth saw this would be possible, just a month before her death. This would be her final triumph. Yet she would die at the moment Tyrone accepted that he should surrender. She would never see Tyrone's submission. He did not know she was dead when he surrendered to her.

In London the Fortune Theatre was now open, although Shakespeare scribbled furiously on the South Bank of the river and in that year was finishing Othello, the third of his great tragedies which were performed at the Globe and probably made that theatre famous. In 1603 James took over the Shakespearean company, the Lord Chamberlain's Company, and it became known as the King's Men. The more elevated members of the company were appointed Grooms of the Royal Chamber. Dekker presented his masque, The Magnificent Entertainment, to James's court – was this the first Royal Command Performance?

And what of ordinary living at the start of this, the seventeenth century? Many were hungry. The population of England had almost doubled in a century but the rate of growth was now accelerating faster than ever, and the farmers and tenants could not cope. Too many mouths to feed. Too many bellies groaned. In 1603 there were no miracles of chemistry and technology that could fertilise and till the land for this growing population. Even though there was a new monarch, even a new dynasty, farmers still farmed and herdsmen still herded as much as they had always done. They could grow not a bushel more. So, 300 per cent inflation. Simple economic rules of supply and demand were alive in the opening years of the seventeenth century across the land and not, as had been, just in specific pockets and parcels. There was plenty of money about, but, as ever, not many people had it.

In 1603 there were two sorts of coinage: angels and crown gold. The angel had been in circulation since the 1400s and got its name because on one side was an engraving of the Archangel Michael, along with a dragon. Three years earlier, in 1600, Elizabeth had ordered her Master of the Mint to produce a gold standard for these coins. Each gold coin would weigh precisely twenty-three carats and three and a half grains. The biggest coin would be an angel which at various times was worth roughly what we would call between thirty-three and fifty pence. There were also half-angels and quarter-angels. There was, too, another coin. This was less pure weight, just twenty-two carats. There would be twenty-shilling pieces (we would have called them pounds), ten-shilling pieces and five-shilling pieces. This currency was called crown gold. A crown, and eventually the half-crown (a silver-based coin), was in circulation until the second half of the twentieth century. It was not until the following year, 1604, that new pieces of gold were coined and that was because James wanted to follow a uniform gold standard with some of the continental European countries. There was, too, a restriction on how much of this gold coinage could be taken out of the country. No one was allowed to 'carry more money about him out of the kingdome then will serve for the expenses of his journie (namely, about twentie poundes sterling)'.

Talk of gold and foreign travel was of not much interest to many people in early seventeenth-century England, Scotland and Wales. Many of the poor were trapped by circumstances and geography. Distance was daunting. There had also been attempts to standardise the measurement of distance. Here was the origin of a country mile. In some places in England miles were longer than in others. A Kentish mile was held to be longer than most. In the Border countries and in Scotland, where a track wandered across small mountains and 'unbeaten waies', a mile at the very least seemed longer and certainly took more time to cover. Continental Europeans had different measurements, as they still do; for example, an English mile would have made approximately one and a half miles' distance in Italy.

However speedily miles could be covered and gold carried, the north/south divide that even the Romans had recognised still existed. In the south there was a fruitful and bountiful land. Beyond the ridges of the Midlands there was a different story to be told among the labourers. The north and west could barely gather a decent harvest. In the southeast there was, just as there had been since the time of the Iron Age tribe of the Cantiaci, great and nourishing abundance. Here was fertile land – and cause for the Levellers, four decades later.

So in 1603 as in 2003, ambitions and shortages conspired. For example, as the migration to the cities continued so did the ease at which the speculators responded. The Earls of Bedford and Clare developed Covent Garden and Drury Lane to make great sums from seemingly ever-spiralling rents.

And what of the Church? Did it preach against poverty or on its behalf? It preached its own interest. Less than fifty years earlier the Church had been established in law. In law it was beholden to Parliament and therefore the monarch. When, in 1603, a new monarch – whose views spiritual were as aggressive as his views temporal – eyed his bishops, they were confident enough to chant the Bancroft decree that their spiritual powers were derived jure divino. What of the Puritans? 'Brain sick', said the King. But much to the bishops' consternation, James in 1603 agreed to listen to the Puritans' Millenary Petition (see here).

A modern concept of the Puritan is too often a person in black suiting with a big white round collar and a severe expression. So-called Puritanism is very difficult to define. Quite often we would find that many in the Church – clergy and followers – had what we would call Puritan beliefs, but would not be classified as Puritans. It would not be inaccurate to suppose that the Protestants, including the ministers throughout James's reign, carried with them much of the baggage of Puritanism.

Thus religious thought at this period, once we set aside a still large number of devout Catholics, is best based on Protestant belief. That, as the Anglican Church is today, was fundamental to the belief that Jesus Christ died to save sinners. Once this Protestant belief is widespread (and naturally it pre-dated our period) then the position of the closed orders of friars and monks, while admirable, was irrelevant to daily worship. There was too good ground for those who demonstrated that many ministers of the Church were vulnerable to accusations of poor preaching, unsympathetic parochial guidance and the cause, if not the promotion, of Church schism. The very act of still being against Catholicism was enough to emphasise difference in doctrine and, importantly, explanation of seemingly everyday occurrence, for example, sorcery (see here).

Here was wonderful, wicked and spiteful farce and melodrama. The Jesuits? They would have to go. And the forty thousand lay Catholics? James was full of assurances. Not a hair would be harmed, he told their leader, the Earl of Northampton. Yet to Cecil: 'I would be sorry by the sword to diminish their number, but I would also be loth that, to great connivance and oversight given unto them, their numbers should so increase ... as, by continual multiplication, they might at last become masters.' Thus, from the patron of the great King James's Version of the Bible, an encyclical, the sense of which would echo for three centuries and be the root cause of royal downfall and bitter war.

But back to our people of 1603. Here was a time of new industry; even new words to go with it – factory, for example. And just as the holy text was translated to be laid upon and read from all public lecterns (see here), the apothecaries gave English tongue to Latin texts, and so enabled people to look after their bodies and cure their simple ills. All this, much to the fright of the physicians, proved grubbily human.

1603 is the year in which these islands set themselves on a journey to regicide. It is the story of the uncommon as well as the common people: Elizabeth, James, Cecil, Catesby, Bancroft, Buckingham, Shakespeare, Whitgift, Egerton, Sackville, Home, Herbert, Coke, Knollys. It is, too, the story of the Kentish yeoman, the Cumbrian stockman, the Border baillie, the Highland gillie and the Irish tenant. It is one year in England's history.



The year 1603 was the moment when that historical calendar recorded the end of the Elizabethan age. The Tudors were dead. Long live the Stuarts. James VI of Scotland would claim the throne of England through his great-grandmother, Margaret, the daughter of Henry VII (reigned 1485–1509).

Therefore, we should really know something of the events which led to this year and in doing so we would find ourselves with a thumbnail sketch of the Tudors. Henry VII became the first Tudor king of England in 1485 after he landed in Wales from Brittany and marched to Leicestershire, where Richard III was killed on 22 August at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The Wars of the Roses were over, and Tudor rule began once Henry had been crowned in October 1485.

The Tudors were to rule England for close on 117 years. During that time there were only five monarchs: Henry VII himself, followed by Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47), Edward VI (reigned 1547–53), Mary I (reigned 1553–58) and, finally, Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603). These were unstable times in England and abroad and it is worth noting a few of their moments so that we can better understand the significance of the transition from Tudor to Stuart that was to come in 1603.


Excerpted from 1603 by Christopher Lee. Copyright © 2003 Christopher Lee. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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