Nostalgia: The Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth I?

One of the many myths about our history is the popular belief that the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was a golden age. This presumption is fertilised by romanticised stories of heroic deeds at sea, of the defeat of the Spanish armada, of the valour and skill of Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins and Raleigh, who outwitted the dullard Spaniards, and, above all, by the retrospective immortalisation of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

Tuesday, 21st February 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:09 am
Those who bought monastic estates like Whitby Abbey from the Crown were mindful of the loss of religious alms-giving and tried to make amends.

However, for the great majority of the English people during these years, the facts were at best prosaic and at worst miserable.

First, there was a rapid increase in population, as death rates declined and birth rates rose. Between the 1550s and the early 1600s, the number of English inhabitants increased by almost a million, that is by about a quarter. On the other hand, there was no comparable enlargement of food production, so that the price of cereals, on which the ordinary people were utterly dependent for their daily sustenance, rocketed. Also, there was no comparable rise in wages: more labourers and more unemployed depressed the real value of incomes. The number of paupers, vagrants and beggars multiplied. Added to this was the unprecedented number of harvest failure years, worst of all between 1594 and 1597, which caused starvation in many parishes and malnutrition everywhere.

Less well known is that the English were at war continuously during the last 20 years of Elizabeth’s reign. In the Netherlands, they supported the Dutch revolt against Spain; in France, they gave aid to the Protestant Huguenots against the Catholic regime; in Ireland, rebellion was endemic; and throughout the world, English privateers, who were often little better than pirates, waged war against Spanish and Portuguese empires.

Unemployed young men joined these English armies and navies out of desperation and their indiscipline and ill-treatment brought lawlessness and disorder to sea ports such as Chester, Portsmouth and Southampton. There was a substantial rise in property crimes such as robbery, burglary and larceny and in incidences of popular rioting against grain shortages and extortionate food prices.

So serious and alarming had the situation become that in 1597 and in 1601 parliament passed Poor Law Acts to combat vagrancy and pauperism. The “sturdy beggar” had become a threat to society. Voluntary almsgiving was totally inadequate to meet the need: compulsory taxation had become necessary to cope with the huge increase in pauperism. The Poor Law rate was born.

Local evidence of this deterioration in standards of living for the many is less plentiful than historians would like; but there are enough glimpses and hints to indicate what was happening. For instance, in Scarborough, part of the hospital of St Thomas, which took in child orphans, disabled paupers and the incompetent elderly, was made into a house of correction where able-bodied vagrants and beggars were put to work for their bed and board.

Part of the new problem was the sudden and total closure of abbeys, convents and religious hospitals which had traditionally given out food and clothing and sometimes offered temporary lodging to the travelling poor. To quote just one typical example: ever since its foundation in the 1130s, Bridlington priory’s Black Canons had been obliged by their founder, William de Gant, to donate every tenth loaf, every tenth gallon of ale, and a tenth of their barley malt every year and on St Valentine’s day, 40 shillings worth of white bread and white herring. Local paupers knew exactly where and when to go for such bounties. In the East Riding also, the convents at Nunkeeling and Swine and the great Cistercian house at Meaux were widely valued for their generosity.

The Reformation deprived Scarborough of its three town friaries and all its almshouses except the hospital of St Thomas and perhaps that of St Nicholas which took in only lepers. In some few cases, those who had bought monastic estates from the Crown at knock-down prices were mindful of the loss of religious alms-giving and tried to make amends. The Cholmleys had acquired most of the lands of Whitby abbey and had built their mansion house on its site and out of its ruins on the East Cliff. As Sir Hugh later wrote in his memoirs, whereas his family had clothed, fed and harboured Catholic seminary priests at Abbey house, by the 1630s he felt it was his and his descendants’ moral duty to feed the poor who climbed up to his gates. “Twice a weeke a certaine number of old people widdowes and indigent persons were served at my gates with bread and good pottage mad[e] of beefe.” This was precisely the same service to the poorest of Whitby which the monks had done for centuries.

As for the reputed heroism and prowess of England’s Elizabethan sea-captains, the truth is much less glamorous than the Hollywood legends. Sir John Hawkins was a brilliant seaman and leader of men, but his claim to infamy is that he was the first English captain to engage in the Atlantic slave trade. Sir Francis Drake accidentally sailed round the world and “singed the king of Spain’s beard” at Cadiz, but he was able to finish his game of bowls because his ships were trapped by contrary winds at Plymouth.

Superior English cannon and lucky weather defeated the Spanish armada, yet the events at sea in 1588 generated a powerful, persistent myth that the English from then on ruled the oceans and all foreign sailors feared them. In fact, after 1588, Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher went off to the Caribbean to intercept and capture the annual silver fleet as it passed from Peru to Spain without a single success. Both Drake and Hawkins were buried at sea after further failures. Sir Martin Frobisher, the Yorkshireman who commanded a quarter of the English warships opposing the armada, had no better record. He spent a great deal of time and money at Scarborough refitting his ships, yet his three attempts to find a north-west passage to Cathay (China) all ended in costly defeat.

One of the first sensible actions of the new monarch, James I, was to make peace with Spain in 1604, thereby ending a wasteful war against an enemy as yet too strong for the English to challenge.