Comparisons are sometimes made between the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) and that of the second of that name (1952-?), and the subtle similarities can be as striking and surprising as the conspicuous contrasts. History has no value for its own sake, only in so far as it illuminates the present.
The survival into the 21st century of our constitutional monarchy is a matter of some amazement to foreigners. Whereas most European states have long since got rid of their royal kings, queens and princes, the English flirtation with republicanism lasted a mere 11 years more than 350 years ago. It seems that the public execution of Charles I was such a shocking event to the whole nation that it has been remembered with dread ever since. For instance, the clock on the Horse Guards still has its number two blanked out as a memorial to the king whose head was struck off nearby at 2pm on January 30, 1649. Here is at least one obvious continuity between the first Elizabethans and us.
However, the monarchy has endured only because successive rulers learned to adapt to changing times and keep public respect for doing so. For example, when Great Britain and its empire were at war with Germany, to appease patriotic prejudice in 1917 George V changed his family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. Also, individual monarchs during lengthy reigns have had to conform with social and political movements: so it has been with the second Elizabeth as it was with Victoria, her great-great grandmother.
Another thread of continuity is insularity. Even during the decades of peace since 1945 and the amazing increase in travel and mobility, the English have remained suspicious of even European foreigners. We no longer have to defend our sea shores against enemy invaders as Drake and Raleigh, Nelson, Jellicoe and Churchill had to do, yet the 21-mile Channel between Dover and Calais is still not regarded as open, at least on our side of it. Calais was lost to the French only months before the first Elizabeth became queen; long before it became a voluntary prison camp for frustrated migrants.
The seeds of what was to become the largest empire the world had ever known, covering a fifth of its land surface and a nearly a third of its population, were sown during the lifetimes of Shakespeare and Elizabeth l; but during the reign of Elizabeth II that empire has disappeared. So one Elizabeth was at the start and the other at its demise.
Ironically, only after the British empire had begun to disintegrate did the United Kingdom start to become multi-racial and multi-cultural. Previously, the English had admitted only refugees from Ireland, from France and continental Jewry, but after 1945 Afro-Caribbeans and Asians from former colonies arrived and settled permanently in large numbers. Subsequently, nearly a million EU citizens from former Soviet satellites have made their homes here. The four million subjects of Elizabeth I would be astonished and alarmed by the religious and ethnic-diversity of the more than 60 million who now live in Britain. For everyone of our ancestors then there now are 15 of us.
Despite the survival of residual xenophobia (which helped to propel the UK towards exit from the EU in 2016), British sovereign independence is more of a nostalgic myth than a present reality. In the 21st century, economic inter-dependence grows by the day. Foreign companies and governments already own the British motor vehicle industry, much of the centres of our main cities belong to Arab potentates and Russian plutocrats; our railways, power stations and fuel suppliers belong, at least in part, to multi-national corporations. Whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, our whole way of life and sources of livelihood are inextricably meshed into a global market. Nothing distinguishes us more than Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle, set in a silver sea” than globalisation.
Though distant in time and strange to our lives and values, the age of “Good Queen Bess” still determines vital features of our inherited traditions. Elizabeth I ensured that England would be a Protestant state and all her successors have fought to keep it so. Even today every parish church is Anglican and 400 years later Queen Elizabeth II is still supreme governor of the Church of England; only Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords; and the law prohibits a non-Anglican from becoming or marrying the monarch.
Apart from in Ireland, Elizabeth I gave domestic peace to a country that had suffered civil wars for generations and her reign of nearly 45 years is often described as “a golden age”. Yes, in terms of music, poetry, drama, architecture and seafaring navigation, hers was an unrivalled time, but it was also an era of religious extremism and intolerance, of cruelty, superstition, violence, gross inequalities of affluence and destitution. We should not patronise our ancestors with our superior knowledge and toleration, but neither should we romanticise them with our notions of their uninformed naivety. Elizabeth’s age was one of cock-fighting, bear-baiting, of routine torture, public hanging, drawing and quartering, of plague and endemic poverty. Nostalgia is a dangerous weakness: we ought to be grateful to be alive in the time of Elizabeth II, not Elizabeth I.
To be positive, perhaps we should think only that it was the age of William Shakespeare. No other Englishman has been so influential in shaping and defining our view of ourselves. Without a university degree, without rich parents and family connections, handicapped and endangered by his Catholic associations, he still managed to tell us more about the human identity and predicament than anyone before or since. Ben Jonson (no fawning sycophant) wrote that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time” and in the sense the English can claim full membership of a species whose joys, fears, dilemmas and tragedies he described so vividly.
Finally, some commentators of contemporary politics have already compared prime minister Mrs Theresa May with Queen Elizabeth I: reluctantly battling with home-grown terrorism; in revolt against the treaty of Rome (not the papacy this time); and armed with Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson (Sir Walter Raleigh?), the unpredictable opportunist, and Liam Fox (Sir Francis Drake?), regarded on the continent as a wolf in wolf’s clothing. All nonsense, of course: only historians and journalists short of copy repeat themselves.