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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Beginning and End of the Elizabethan Era

17 November is important for three different reasons.

1. On 17 November 1558 Queen Mary I died and Elizabeth succeeded her to the throne -- and the Elizabethan Era began.

A young Elizabeth

This era was known for many things, including a flowering of the arts the likes of which had never been seen in England, and gave birth to playhouses and playwrights, including William Shakespeare.

For Elizabeth herself, there was never a moment where she could feel safe, since plots against her were always brewing. She knew that many people considered her claim to the throne to be illegitimate and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots to have the rightful claim.

Mary, Queen of Scots with her son James

One of the reasons they considered Mary to have a greater claim was because of the birth of her son, James -- who would later succeed Elizabeth.

In 1569 there was the Rising of the North, a Catholic revolt against Elizabeth in order to put Mary on the throne. It was led by some of the most powerful men in England. It failed, and Elizabeth executed more than 750 rebels.

In 1570 there was the Ridolfi Plot, for the same purpose.

In 1583 there was the Throckmorton Plot, for the same purpose.

In 1586 there was the Babington Plot, for the same purpose.

It was because of plots like these, that a case was made against Mary that she was conspiring against Elizabeth.

Mary was sentenced to death, and was executed in 1587.

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

As far as it relates to Shakespeare himself, I think that he would have celebrated Queen Elizabeth's reign, and would have acknowledged the day she became Queen.

But it must have become more bittersweet as the years went by, especially once Shakespeare found himself at court, performing for her.

He would have found the corruption, the abuses of her power, and the ceaseless religious persecution due to the Reformation, harder and harder to stomach.

I think he would have also been in a perpetual state of fear of these kinds of plots against the Queen, and while he would not have personally supported such plots, he could well understand where such anger and resentment came from.

2. On 17 November 1603 the trial of Walter Raleigh began, for his part in the Main Plot to assassinate King James.


James had only been King for a few months at this point, and already there were many who wanted him dead. There would of course be the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 that was the ultimate expression of anger against James.

At his trial, Raleigh argued in his own defense, and was found guilty.

The King spared his life, but kept him in prison for 13 years, until 1616.

King James, by Nicholas Hilliard

It is an interesting fact that Raleigh's wife was Elizabeth Throckmorton, whose relatives were infamous for their part in the Throckmorton Plot against Elizabeth in 1583.

I am tempted to think that King James's anger towards Raleigh was tempered by the fact that Raleigh's wife's family fought on his mother Mary's behalf, and therefore on his own behalf.

I think Shakespeare would have been terrified of such developments, because he could see first hand, now that he was serving in the King's court as a Groom of the Chamber, how the country was again shocked with the potential for violence against the monarch.

I think Shakespeare feared such violence, and it turns up in his plays time and time again, in Julius Caesar for example.

3. I think there is a third reason why this day was significant.

In putting Walter Raleigh on trial, I think that Shakespeare would see that James was punishing the man, Raleigh, who had once been a favorite to Queen Elizabeth, and was one of the shining examples of what the Elizabethan Era represented -- adventure, exploration, military victories, and a flowering of science and the arts.

In effect, King James was trying to lock the door on the Elizabethan Era, and throw away the key.

I think that there were probably very few things that would drive King James to real anger, to fury -- and the memory and legacy of his mother was one of them. I think James had a burning passion to punish Queen Elizabeth, even after death, for having killed his mother Mary.

I think Shakespeare saw this as it was, a repudiation of all things Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth dancing a Volta with Robert Dudley

It has been noted that Shakespeare's plays in this Jacobean period grow darker and more violent. I think was due to the fact that Shakespeare saw no end to the violence, and the potential for violence, all around him, and he may have given up any hope for real and peaceful change.

Shakespeare would not have ignored the message of Raleigh's prison sentence.

Happily, Shakespeare lived long enough to know that Raleigh was released from prison in 1616. Only weeks later, Shakespeare himself died.

I am also pleased that Shakespeare did not live to know that Raleigh was eventually executed on orders by the King in 1618.


David B. Schajer

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