This book is a response to a demand for a history which is no less social than political, investigating what it meant to be a citizen of England living through the 1570s and 1580s. It examines the growing conviction of ‘Englishness’ in the sixteenth century, through the rapidly developing English language; the reinforcement of cultural nationalism as a result of the Protestant Reformation; the national and international situation of England at a time of acute national catastrophe; and through Queen Elizabeth I, the last of her line, who remained unmarried throughout her reign, refusing to even discuss the succession to her throne. The book explores the conviction among leading Elizabethans that they were citizens and subjects, also responsible for the safety of their commonwealth. The tensions between this conviction, born from a childhood spent in the Renaissance classics and in the subjection to the Old Testament of the English Bible, and the dynastic claims of the Tudor monarchy, are all explored at length. Studies of a number of writers who fixed the image of sixteenth-century England for some time to come; Foxe, Camden and other pioneers of the discovery of England are also included.
Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the ringing stanzas found in ‘This England’ still have the capacity to move, and they resonated with episodes in the history of the centuries to come, to the extent that whatever they may have meant, in the 1590s, becomes irrelevant. But patriotism has now all but vanished from English culture, except in the painted faces of those following the so-called beautiful game, and at the more unacceptable fringes of our politics. It appears that if English nationhood continues to retain any scholarly mileage, it is not with the new British historians but with those who read English literature. This chapter examines religion, nationalism, patriotism, language and history in this context.
This chapter notes that religion and politics are two distinct substances; but it is not at all clear that that is what they were in Elizabethan England. As for Western Europe in the sixteenth century, historians endlessly debate whether its many wars should be called wars of religion, and what was religious and what was political in its violent uprisings and rebellions. In the American and many other modern constitutions there is a formal separation of church and state. In Elizabethan England, the monarch was more than a commander. Elizabeth was head of the church, or more properly its supreme governor, which contemporaries said amounted to the same thing. Elizabethan England was a confessional state. In some parts of Europe, it was also the case that religion is a form of dissent, and divided states in France and Scotland to the extent of civil war.
‘The Elizabethan exclusion crisis’ refers to the sustained concern of much of the ‘political nation’ in the reign of Elizabeth I to forestall the accession to the English crown of Mary Queen of Scots; and, indeed, to prevent any other remedy for the dangerous vacuum of an uncertain succession which would threaten the Protestant religious and political settlement and all that it stood for. It is a question of whether a crisis could endure for as many as twenty-seven years, which was the time it took finally to put paid to Mary Stuart's claim at Fotheringhay. As with the Cold War, the fact that the exclusion crisis ended with less of a bang than a whimper has discouraged the legitimate exercise of counterfactual history.
Elizabethan politics and public life brought into dynamic interaction (or collision) two forces which were almost contradictory but each typical of the tendencies of the age. These were a monarchy with aspirations to be authoritative, even in some sense absolute; and a public ethic of civic humanism which emphasised duty to the body politic, the commonwealth. The circumstances of Elizabethan politics, more especially in the central decades of the reign, the 1570s and 1580s, tended to place in opposition the monarchical and republican elements in the constitution. After reading and reflecting on these Machiavellian maxims, this chapter agrees with the wisdom of the Renaissance historians, that only those who had themselves been deeply immersed in affairs, were fit to write the histories of their own times.
In July and August 1578, Elizabeth I and her court toured deep into East Anglia, the only extensive royal tour of that region. This chapter addresses the polities — and, in particular, the religious factors in politics — of the 1578 progress. The conundrum of counsel, which was the greatest political problem of an age which brought into uncomfortable partnership nearly absolute monarchy and a civic-minded humanism, was never more nakedly exposed than at this point. By looking at the historical geology of the East Anglia of 1578 we are able to uncover the fundamental faultline in Elizabethan politics. The climax was reached in elaborate celebrations in Norwich, stage-managed and choreographed by Thomas Churchyard, a native of the city, which may have had a serious and substantial political purpose.
This chapter asks: Where do we start with the many verdicts of history on such a monarch, such a woman, and where do we end? This chapter draws attention at the outset to Archbishop Matthew Parker's use of the word ‘chronicled’. Although the historical chronicle was a literary genre which saw a good deal of cutthroat competition in Tudor England, there was a notion that there ought to be only one more or less official and reliably authentic account of the recoverable past. Commentators on William Camden's Annales have often assumed that the book was a celebration of a great monarch, if only, it seems, because that must have been what the author intended. The discussion also considers where the idea of Elizabeth the Protestant paragon and national heroine came from.
The English nation and national sentiment in the prophetic mode
When members of the Elizabethan parliaments demanded of their queen that she marry or otherwise determine the succession to the crown, they sometimes spoke with feeling of England. Early modernists hope that they may at least be permitted to write of ‘patriotism’. Granted that there were many ‘patrias’, from the homestead and parish pump upwards and outwards, this chapter focuses on that species of patriotism which was national sentiment. Where did national patriotic sentiment come from, or, a more modest and manageable question, where and how did it find a voice? This chapter suggests that there was a source of nationhood, the religious imagination, which was the conscience, informed and excited by the Bible.
William Haller wrote about John Foxe and national consciousness in The Elect Nation, 36 years ago. There were also arguments deployed against his thesis by Katherine Firth, V. Norskov Olsen, and others. Firth believed that Haller had virtually invented an ‘apocalyptic nationalism’ which she nowhere found in Foxe or in any of his near contemporaries. Olsen insists that Foxe's Book of Martyrs is about that Church, not about the nation. Although the Book of Martyrs was its commonest designation, its status as either a ‘book of credit, next to the Bible’, or a great farrago of lies from start to finish, was bound up with the person of Foxe himself.