Elizabeth’s reign was marked by her effective use of Parliament and the Privy Council, a small advisory body of the important state officials, and by the development of legal institutions in the English counties. Elizabeth firmly established Protestantism in England, encouraged English enterprise and commerce, and defended the nation against the powerful Spanish naval force known as the Spanish Armada. Her reign was noted for the English Renaissance, an outpouring of poetry and drama led by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe that remains unsurpassed in English literary history (see English Literature). She was the last of the Tudor monarchs, never marrying or producing an heir, and was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland.
II BACKGROUND AND EARLY LIFE
Elizabeth was born at Greenwich Palace in London on September 7, 1533. Her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, wanted a son as heir and were not pleased with the birth of a daughter. When she was two her mother was beheaded for adultery, and Elizabeth was exiled from court. She was later placed under the protection of Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, and educated in the same household as her half-brother, Edward. Both were raised Protestant. The noted scholar Roger Ascham later served as her tutor, and he educated her as a potential heir to the throne rather than as an insignificant daughter of the monarch. Elizabeth underwent rigorous training in Greek, Latin, rhetoric, and philosophy and was an intellectually gifted pupil.
Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547 at the age of nine. Because of her position as a member of the royal family, Elizabeth became a pawn in the intrigues of the nobles who governed in the boy’s name. One of them twice proposed marriage to her. When her Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary I, inherited the crown in 1553, Elizabeth faced different dangers. She was now sought out to lead Protestant conspiracies, despite the fact that she had supported Mary’s accession and attended Catholic services. In 1554 Mary had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower of London, briefly threatened her with execution, and then placed her under house arrest. Elizabeth lived quietly at her family’s country retreat north of London until she became queen upon her sister’s death in 1558. Elizabeth’s experiences as a child and young adult helped her develop keen political instincts that allowed her to skillfully balance aristocratic factions and court favorites during her long reign.
III ELIZABETHAN ECONOMY
The nation that Elizabeth inherited was experiencing a steady increase in population. During the 16th century the population of England and Wales would roughly double, and by Elizabeth’s death in 1603 would reach 5 million. The continued population growth placed strains on the economy, which was made worse by serious harvest failures in every decade of Elizabeth’s reign. Prices for food and clothing skyrocketed in what became known as the Great Inflation. The 1590s were the worst years of the century, marked by starvation, epidemic disease, and roving bands of vagrants looking for work.
Elizabeth’s government enacted legislation known as the Poor Laws, which made every local parish responsible for its own poor, created workhouses, and severely punished homeless beggars. Parliament also passed bills to ensure fair prices in times of shortage and to regulate wages in times of unemployment. One of the queen’s most important economic decisions was to issue a new currency that contained a standard amount of precious metal. This raised confidence in the currency and also allowed businesses to enter into long-term financial contracts.
During Elizabeth’s reign, England expanded trade overseas and the merchant community grew. Private shipbuilding boomed and navigational advances made long sea voyages safer. England’s chief commodity was woolen cloth, traded mostly at the Dutch port of Antwerp for finished goods and such luxuries as French wines. Cloth exports grew over the course of the reign, but suffered from competition from finer Spanish products and from Antwerp’s decline after its harbor silted up and became impassable by the mid-1560s. In the 1560s financier Sir Thomas Gresham founded the Royal Exchange to help merchants find secure markets for their goods.
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