The Elizabethans
  • The Elizabethans
  • The Elizabethans

The Elizabethans

by A. N. Wilson

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"In Wilson's hands these familiar stories make for gripping reading."—The New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Author of Dante in Love

A sweeping panorama of the Elizabethan age, a time of remarkable, strange personages and great political and social

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"In Wilson's hands these familiar stories make for gripping reading."—The New York Times Book Review

New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Author of Dante in Love

A sweeping panorama of the Elizabethan age, a time of remarkable, strange personages and great political and social change, by one of our most renowned historians

A time of exceptional creativity, wealth creation, larger-than-life royalty and political expansion, the Elizabethan age was also more remarkable than any other for the Technicolor personalities of its royals and subjects. Apart from the complex character of the Virgin Queen herself, A. N. Wilson's The Elizabethans follows the stories of Francis Drake, a privateer who not only defeated the Spanish Armada but also circumnavigated the globe with a drunken, mutinous crew and without reliable navigational instruments; political intriguers like William Cecil and Francis Walsingham; and Renaissance literary geniuses from Sir Philip Sidney to Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.

Most crucially, this was the age when modern Britain was born and established independence from mainland Europe—both in its resistance to Spanish and French incursions and in its declaration of religious liberty from the pope—and laid the foundations for the explosion of British imperial power and eventual American domination.

An acknowledged master of the all-encompassing single-volume history, Wilson tells the exhilarating story of the Elizabethan era with all the panoramic sweep of his bestselling The Victorians, and with the wit and iconoclasm that are his trademarks.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The highly prolific author of The Victorians trains his gaze on the resplendent Elizabethan Age. British explorers like Sir Francis Drake, the first commander to sail round the earth, and return home (Magellan was killed in the Philippines), and the Elizabethan navy with its new streamlined, technologically superior galleons defeated the once-mighty Spanish Armada. The reign saw a prodigious artistic flowering with the dramas and poems of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe, the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and great houses like Longleat and Hardwick. The era's dazzling sun was the Queen-a flirtatious, formidably clever, devious political animal. She was a consummate actress capable of manipulating crowds and of also flying into volcanic rages. Elizabeth's two mainstays were her ultra-Protestant secretary William Cecil, the cunning, humorless lynchpin of Elizabeth's administration, and her favorite, the stunningly attractive, extravagantly dressed nobleman Robert Dudley. The Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was the greatest threat to Elizabeth's throne but also taught Elizabeth a priceless lesson on the dangers of marriage for a female head of state. Wilson acknowledges that the glorious era had a heinous side: the colonization and subjugation of Ireland and the African slave trade. Wilson's ruminations are cerebral, incisive, witty, and well informed. Illus. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates (U.K.).
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From the Publisher

“A scholarly, thorough and yet highly approachable overview of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth I...The Elizabethans is written in a style that moves easily along yet does not shy away from decisive analysis and interpretation.” —Arthur L. Schwarz, Washington Independent Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
Vivid, opinionated overview of 16th-century Britain by prolific novelist/historian/biographer Wilson (Dante in Love, 2011, etc.). "[M]odern history began with the Elizabethans," writes the author, "not simply modern English history, but the modern world as we know it today." This is rather overstated: While their accomplishments are indeed remarkable, from Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe to the glories of English poetry and prose in the age of Spenser and Shakespeare, they were rooted in the Renaissance cultural explosion across Europe, as Wilson acknowledges. His readable, well-informed survey is strikingly ambivalent. On one hand, he depicts Queen Elizabeth as a political genius who transformed a weak, religiously divided nation into a world power; on the other, he dwells obsessively on her parsimony and indecisiveness. Similarly, Wilson spends inordinate amounts of time arguing with contemporary historians whom he claims have lost sight of the era's magnificent achievements as they berate the Elizabethans for racism, imperialism, cruelty and oppression of Ireland. General readers are unlikely to know what Wilson is talking about, particularly since he gives few specific examples to justify his sweeping generalizations about political correctness. Fortunately, as has been the case in some of his earlier nonfiction works, the gratuitous editorializing doesn't really detract from a colorful narrative packed with great stories and shrewd insights. Wilson's examination of the Elizabethan religious compromise sympathetically depicts a national church trying to make room for everyone from covert Catholics to extreme Puritans. He also does well in reminding us that Elizabethan humanists believed they were rediscovering the wisdom of antiquity, not inventing something new. Nonetheless, his vigorous chronicle shows new energies erupting everywhere. Wilson makes a strong case for his underlying principle: that the English national identity, notable for its paradoxical blend of proud insularity and globetrotting adventurism, was formed by the Elizabethans. Great fun, despite some unnecessary argumentativeness.

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The Elizabethans

By A. N. Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 A. N. Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-1619-0


The Difficulty

After thirty years of fighting and more than 3,000 deaths in the province of Northern Ireland, peace was agreed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Northern Ireland Assembly held democratic elections.

There have been sporadic outbursts of violence since, but most people, in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in the rest of Britain, seem to think that peace has come, and that the compromises on all sides have been worth the peace. The Republic has, in effect, abandoned its claim over the six counties of the North. It has accepted the partition of Ireland. The peoples of the six counties now enjoy, in effect, self-government, with power shared between Catholics and Protestants. The government in Westminster, while keeping a toe-hold in the province, and while retaining a special Minister for Northern Ireland, has given up any notion of 'making Ireland British' against its will.

Ireland was Britain's first, and least willing, colony, the most unsuccessful of all British colonial experiments. The pattern of Elizabethan failure in Ireland was to be replicated at other periods of history: first an attempt to woo the Irish, to persuade the people themselves to adopt laws and customs that were alien to them. Next, this wooing having known only partial success, or abject failure, an attempt at coercion; and one method of such coercion was a resettlement of Irish land by English, Welsh or Scottish incomers. Third, when neither gentle persuasion nor dispossession achieved the desired result – viz. the rule of English law on Irish soil – there was a resort to outright violence and massacre.

It was not, initially at least, a specifically religious matter, though by the end of the sixteenth century the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell could see themselves as champions of 'Christ's Catholic religion' against the English heretics. The fundamental point of contention, though, was English interference in Irish affairs: English attempts to make Ireland less Irish. As a matter of fact, in the early stages of the Reformation, the Irish went along with Henry VIII's religious revolution more peaceably than the English did. There was no Pilgrimage of Grace, there were no Irish martyrs for the faith, no Irish Thomas More or Bishop Fisher. More than 400 Irish monasteries and abbeys were sold to Irish laymen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The Irish did not protest when Henry VIII made George Browne the Archbishop of Dublin – that was, the former Augustinian friar who performed the marriage ceremony between the King and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps, if a Gaelic Bible and Gaelic Prayer Book had been made available in Ireland, as a Welsh Bible and Prayer Book were in Wales by 1567, Ireland might have remained Protestant. It was not until the beginning of James I's reign that the Prayer Book appeared in Irish.

Outside the Pale – that is, the small area twenty miles to the east and north of Dublin that was English-speaking – Ireland had its own language, literature, culture. The Reformation bishops were bidden to preach to the people in English, a language understood by Irish congregations no better than they understood Latin. But it was not Protestantism per se that the Irish rejected, it was English cultural imperialism, which had been just as strong in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. It was in 1521 that the Earl of Surrey, as Lieutenant of Ireland, had first proposed plantation as a means of subduing the recalcitrant island. That is, removing the Irish from their land and replacing them with English or Scots. George Dowdall, the Catholic appointed as Archbishop of Armagh by Mary Tudor, urged a continuation of the policy. The only solution to the Irish 'problem' was, according to the archbishop, to get rid of the Irish: either expel them or kill them, and give their land to the English.

What made Ireland so ungovernable, so anarchic – not merely in the eyes of English colonists, but also in the eyes of many Irish people themselves? Central to the problem was the Irish method of determining both succession and property-ownership. Conn Bacach O'Neill (c.1482 – 1559) was proclaimed The O'Neill – that is, head of his tribe or sept – though he was actually the younger son of Conn More O'Neill, chieftain and lord of Tyrone. The English never came to grips with this system of tanistry, whereby the clans or tribes chose the new leader on grounds of quality rather than those of primogeniture.

Henry VIII made Conn O'Neill Earl of Tyrone in exchange for his submission to English law and English ideas of land ownership, or as his own people saw it: 'O'Neill of Oileach and Eamhait, the king of Tara and Tailte has exchanged in foolish submission his kingdom for the Ulster Earldom'. When Conn O'Neill died, Shane – his youngest son, by his second wife, Sorcha – was elected O' Neill by his sept. By English law, the earldom of Tyrone passed to Conn's eldest son, Matthew, but Shane argued that as head of the sept he should receive the earldom. Queen Elizabeth (anything for a quiet life, as far as her view of Ireland was concerned) wanted her Deputy in Ireland, Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, to recognise Shane's claim. This Sussex was extremely unwilling to do, with the result that within the first year of the Queen's reign the English Pale was being raided by Shane's troops, many of them mercenaries from Scotland; and Ulster, the Northern Kingdom, was an anarchy of warring O'Neills, fighting one another.

So within a year of Elizabeth becoming queen were to be seen, in the clash between Shane O'Neill and the Earl of Sussex, many of the key ingredients of the Irish phenomenon. There was the fact, for example, that chiefs such as O'Neill were able to command large private armies of gallowglasses from the Western Isles of Scotland and Redshanks – unsettled mercenaries who sailed the coasts in their galleys plying for hire as soldiers, either in Irish quarrels among themselves or in their wars against the English. In the last years of Mary's reign and the first of Elizabeth's, Sussex had secured the consent of the Crown to make naval attacks on the Hebrides to try to cut off the supply of gallowglasses at source.

While Sussex attempted out-and-out defeat of O'Neill and extirpation of the enemy, the Queen was undermining him by attempting to pacify O'Neill. Here is another ingredient of the Elizabethan story of Ireland: a perpetual tension between the Englishmen on the ground, trying to defend the interests of the Crown, and the Crown itself wishing to avoid trouble and expense. In all this, during Elizabeth's reign, there was also a strong element of misogyny. Sir Henry Sidney, for example, complained to Walsingham, 'Three tymes her Majestie hath sent me her Deputie into Ireland, and in everie of the three tymes I susteyned a great and a violent rebellion, everie one of which I subdued and (with honourable peace) lefte the country in quiet.' Yet he felt himself undermined by the Queen's allowing herself to be bamboozled – as Sidney thought – by the Earl of Ormond.

(Yet another ingredient in the anarchic mix there! The clash between the old families such as the Ormonds and Desmonds, descended from Norman settlers in Ireland and tending to identify with Irish septs and Gaelic culture, and the new English settlers.)

Sidney looked back nostalgically to the days when their monarch was male. He had been a courtier to the boy king, Edward VI. 'Sondry tymes he bountifully rewarded me ... Lastly, not only to my own still felt grief, but also to the universal wo of England, he died in my armes.' Sidney was less overtly misogynistic and disrespectful of the Queen than a later Deputy, Sir John Perrot, a notoriously choleric figure who exclaimed with fury, 'Silly woman, now she shall not curb me, she shall not rule me now.' Taking orders from the Queen was, he intemperately believed, 'to serve a base bastard piss kitchen woman.' As one who was himself spoken of as a bastard son of Henry VIII, Perrot was perhaps a pot calling a kettle black.

Sir Henry Sidney was one of the prime movers in bringing Reform to Ireland: in confirming the Protestant Reformation, in introducing the rule of law to replace the more anarchic Gaelic traditions relating to inheritance and property, in inaugurating a system of education. Elizabeth allowed him to summon an Irish parliament upon his arrival in 1566, the first Irish parliament to meet for six years. Every single reform that Sidney proposed met with opposition from the Palesmen, from the English-speaking parliamentary representatives. They rejected his proposal for an Irish university – it was not until 1592 that Trinity College, Dublin, was established. They rejected his attempts to set up grammar schools all over Ireland. They were deeply suspicious of trial by jury being introduced to Ireland. Sidney had two terms as Deputy: 1566 – 71 and 1575 – 8. Like those of the other Elizabethan deputies, his Irish career ended in failure. In 1577 his son, Philip, aged twenty-three, wrote a defence of his father's career in Ireland. It was also a job application to succeed him as Deputy. He told the Queen that she had three options when it came to attempting to rule Ireland. The first was military conquest – not an option, as he realised, not least because the parsimonious monarch would have deemed it far too expensive. Second was the path of complete military withdrawal. Again, this was not an option, for it would lead to the loss of Ireland altogether. The only other option, the third way, was to raise revenue in Ireland itself to meet the costs of extended government. The rebellions of 'Shane O'Neill and all the Earl of Ormond's brethren' must be put down by the Irish themselves. Of course Ireland and its inhabitants were 'in no case to be equalled to this realm [of England]'. Of course one symptom of this was the 'ignorant obstinacy in papistry'. But they would never forget 'the fresh remembrance of their lost liberty', 'until by time they find the sweetness of due subjection'.

Funnily enough, the Irish never did find due subjection as sweet as the young Philip Sidney believed that they should. But the matter is more complicated than we should suppose, when viewing it from the perspective of today. Ireland is today at peace. It could be said that it is at peace because it has at last got rid of English interference. Another way of describing the current, early twenty-first-century picture of Ireland, however, is that, for the first time in 400 years, Ireland is governed by a rule of law accepted by all sides. The secularised values of modern Ireland derive from the Renaissance and Reformation, which the English Elizabethan deputies were trying to persuade the Irish to adopt. After the scandals of child abuse and the decline in priestly and religious vocations, Ireland has abandoned its 'papistry'. The days of de Valera's Ireland, in which it was impossible to purchase a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses in the city that inspired it, have gone for ever.

This has led to a divergence among the Irish historians themselves. On the one hand, there are those who do not baulk at comparisons between the Elizabethans in Ireland and the butchers of the Third Reich. On the other hand, there are more moderate voices among Irish historians who argue that Celtic, or Gaelic, Ireland was in any event dying in the sixteenth century. It had to be replaced by something. An historian such as Patricia Coughlan (Spenser and Ireland) has some sympathy with the actual administrators in Ireland itself during this period, and blames the failure on a 'loss of nerve' in London – by the Queen and her court. The planters were, Coughlan argued, constantly urging London, from the 1540s onwards, not to abandon Ireland, not to give up helping the Irish emerge from a collapsing Gaelic community of life.

But – is it true that Gaelic culture in Ireland was collapsing? True, Ireland was an outpost, in a changing Europe, of a way of life that was totally unlike the mercantile, urbanised world of Elizabethan London, or the city states of Italy. But how much did the English colonists know of Irish culture? How much, come to that, do modern historians know of it? Edmund Spenser was unusual among the English in Ireland. His antiquarian curiosity led him to obtain translations of old Irish poems. And he learned a smattering of Gaelic.

A much more typical Elizabethan picture of Ireland came from the famous traveller Fynes Moryson – chief secretary to Sir Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy – in 1600 Lord Deputy of Ireland and younger brother of Sir George Moryson, Vice President of Munster 1609 – 28. Fynes Moryson, who in 1616 published an itinerary of travels in places as far afield as Turkey and Poland, gave what was the stereotypical view of Ireland. The Irish speak 'a peculiar language, not derived from any other radical tongue (that ever I could hear, for myself neither have nor ever sought to have any skill therein)'. He regarded the Irish, of whatever degree, as no better than savages. 'They willingly eat the herb shamrock, being of a sharp taste, which, as they run and are chased to and fro, they snatch like beasts out of the ditches ...'

Many of these wild Irish eat no flesh, but that which dies of disease or otherwise of itself, neither can it scape them for stinking ...

I trust no man expects among these gallants any beds, much less feather beds and sheets, who like the nomads removing their dwellings, according to the commodity of pastures for their cows, sleep under the canopy of heaven, or in a poor house of clay, or in a cabin made of the boughs of trees and covered with turf, for such are the dwellings of the very lords among them.

Edmund Campion, later a Jesuit, wrote a History of Ireland, in ten weeks in 1571, and dedicated it to his patron the Earl of Leicester. It was in part intended as a defence of Sir Henry Sidney. It is doubtful whether Campion ever went beyond the Pale, and he based his frequently satirical picture of the Irish on the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis – whose visit to Ireland was in 1185 – 6. Typical in tone is Campion's account: 'In Ulster thus they used to Crowne their king, a white cow was brought forth, which the King must kill, and seeth in water whole, and bathe himself therein stark naked. The sitting in the same Caldron, his people about him, together with them, he must eat the fleshe, and drinke the broath, wherein he sitteth, without the cuppe or dish or use of his hand.'

In fact there is no particular evidence for any so-called 'decline' in the clan system in Ireland during the sixteenth century when the Elizabethans decided to abolish it – just as the London government waged its war on the Scottish clans in the eighteenth century, and systematically attempted to eliminate tribal structures in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 'The Gaelic way of life stood in the path of Progress.' Those who have studied sixteenth-century Ireland from a non-imperialist viewpoint for example, in the lands belonging to the Desmonds, found 'an organized State, with an elaborate fiscal system, providing a settled annual revenue for the sovereign and his various sub-chiefs. This revenue was definitely assessed on certain areas of land. It postulates fixed metes and bounds, a considerable amount of tillage. Every clan, every sub-sept, had its own territory; and on this territory the amounts due for the support of the hierarchy of chiefs were systematically applotted.'


Excerpted from The Elizabethans by A. N. Wilson. Copyright © 2011 A. N. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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