The gratuitous denigration of things English – the reign of Elizabeth I
Allan Massie, a Scot be it noted, decided to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II with a deprecating piece on her great predecessor and namesake, Elizabeth I designed to pour cold water on the idea that hers was a glorious reign. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9307110/Lets-not-overlook-the-gory-details-of-Gloriana.html). He complains of the general treatment of Catholics, the use of torture on Catholic priests and those who harboured them, nudges the reader to consider the likes of Francis Drake to be hovering on or going over edge of piracy and in best liberal bigot fashion invokes the ultimate condemnation of English adventurers of the time by dwelling on Sir John Hawkins’ involvement in the slave trade. In addition, Massie belittles the defeat of the Amada and Elizabethan military exploits on the continent, bemoans English involvement in Ireland and stands aghast as he considers the Earl of Essex’s execution of one in ten of his army after they failed to press hard enough in battle. As for the great intellectual glory of the reign, the sudden flowering of literature symbolised by Shakespeare, this is dismissed of being only a tailpiece to the Elizabethan age.
Massie, a professional historian so he has no excuse, has committed the cardinal sin of historians by projecting the moral values and customs of his own time into the past. For a meaningful judgement Elizabeth’s reign has to be judged against the general behaviour of European powers of the time and that comparison , ironically, shows Gloriana’s England’s to be considerably nearer to what Massie would doubtless consider civilised values than any other state in Europe.
There were no terrible wars of religion as there were in France ; no Inquisition as there was in Spain.; no burning of those deemed heretics as there was under Mary Tudor. Torture was used in Elizabeth’s England, and in the reigns which immediately followed, but sparingly and only for cases which had national importance, normally involving treason, such as those involved in the Gunpowder Plot which took place only two years after Elizabeth’s death . On the continent it was a commonplace of judicial process. English law, by the standards of the time, was generally remarkably fair, not least because of the widespread use of juries. Those who gasp with horror at Essex’s execution of his troops should bear in mind that in the First World War several hundred British soldiers were shot for behaviour such as desertion and failing to go forward when ordered over the top.
In Elizabeth’s reign the first national legislation anywhere in the world to provide help to the needy was passed, a legislative series which began in 1563 and culminated in the Poor Law of 1601. This legislation put a duty on every parish to levy money to support the poor and made it a requirement to provide work for those needing to call on the subsistence provided by the Poor Law. Educational opportunities, whilst far from universal, increased substantially. Despite , by pre-industrial standards, very high inflation and the inevitable bad harvests, which included a series of poor years in the late 1590s, the population grew substantially, possibly by as much as a third from 3 to 4 million (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/poverty_01.shtml). London expanded to be the largest city in Europe by the end of the Elizabeth’s reign with an estimated population of 200,000 by 1600 (http://www.londononline.co.uk/factfile/historical/ ).