The acknowledged master of the all-encompassing single volume of history demonstrates the profound impact the Elizabethan age has had on contemporary Britain.
With all the panoramic sweep of his bestselling study of The Victorians, A. N. Wilson relates the exhilarating story of the Elizabethan Age. It was a time of exceptional creativity, wealth creation and political expansion. It was also a period of English history more remarkable than any other for the technicolour personalities of its leading participants.
Apart from the complex character of the Virgin Queen herself, we follow the stories of Francis Drake, a privateer who not only defeats the Armada, but who managed to circumnavigate the globe with a drunken, mutinous crew and without reliable navigational instruments. Then there were political intriguers like William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, so important to a monarch who often made a key strategy out of her indecisiveness.
Favourites like Leicester and Essex skated very close to the edge as far as Elizabeth's affections were concerned, and Essex made a big mistake when he led a rebellion against the crown.
There was a Renaissance during this period in the world of words, which included the all-round hero and literary genius, Sir Philip Sidney, playwright-spy Christopher Marlowe and that 'myriad-minded man', William Shakespeare. Life in Elizabethan England could be very harsh. Plague swept the land. And the poor received little assistance from the State. Thumbscrews and the rack could be the grim prelude to the executioner's block.
But crucially, this was the age when modern Britain was born, when the country established independence from mainland Europe -- both in its resistance to Spanish and French incursions and in its declaration of independent religious liberty from the Pope. After Sir Walter Raleigh established the colony of Virginia, English was destined to become the language of the great globe itself, and the foundations were laid not only of later British imperial power but also of American domination of the world.
In The Independent's judgement, A. N. Wilson's book on The Victorians was 'a masterpiece of popular history, comprehensive and sound but with the author's trademark wit and iconoclasm'. With The Elizabethans, Wilson reveals himself again as the master of the definitive, single-volume study.
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A. N. WILSON was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he holds a prominent positionExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Part One The Early Reign The Difficulty After thirty years of fighting and more than 3,000 deaths in the province of Northern Ireland, peace was agreed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Northern Ireland Assembly held democratic elections. There have been sporadic outbursts of violence since, but most people, in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in the rest of Britain, seem to think that peace has come, and that the compromises on all sides have been worth the peace. The Republic has, in effect, abandoned its claim over the six counties of the North. It has accepted the partition of Ireland. The peoples of the six counties now enjoy, in effect, self-government, with power shared between Catholics and Protestants. The government in Westminster, while keeping a toe-hold in the province, and while retaining a special Minister for Northern Ireland, has given up any notion of 'making Ireland British' against its will.1 Ireland was Britain's first, and least willing, colony, the most unsuccessful of all British colonial experiments. The pattern of Elizabethan failure in Ireland was to be replicated at other periods of history: first an attempt to woo the Irish, to persuade the people themselves to adopt laws and customs that were alien to them. Next, this wooing having known only partial success, or abject failure, an attempt at coercion; and one method of such coercion was a resettlement of Irish land by English, Welsh or Scottish incomers. Third, when neither gentle persuasion nor dispossession achieved the desired result - viz. the rule of English law on Irish soil - there was a resort to outright violence and massacre. It was not, initially at least, a specifically religious matter, though by the end of the sixteenth century the rebels Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell could see themselves as champions of 'Christ's Catholic religion' against the English heretics. The fundamental point of contention, though, was English interference in Irish affairs: English attempts to make Ireland less Irish. As a matter of fact, in the early stages of the Reformation, the Irish went along with Henry VIII's religious revolution more peaceably than the English did. There was no Pilgrimage of Grace, there were no Irish martyrs for the faith, no Irish Thomas More2 or Bishop Fisher. More than 400 Irish monasteries and abbeys were sold to Irish laymen during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Irish did not protest when Henry VIII made George Browne the Archbishop of Dublin - that was, the former Augustinian friar who performed the marriage ceremony between the King and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps, if a Gaelic Bible and Gaelic Prayer Book had been made available in Ireland, as a Welsh Bible and Prayer Book were in Wales by 1567, Ireland might have remained Protestant. It was not until the beginning of James I's reign that the Prayer Book appeared in Irish.3 Outside the Pale - that is, the small area twenty miles to the east and north of Dublin that was English-speaking - Ireland had its own language, literature, culture. The Reformation bishops were bidden to preach to the people in English,4 a language understood by Irish congregations no better than they understood Latin. But it was not Protestantism per se that the Irish rejected, it was English cultural imperialism, which had been just as strong in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. It was in 1521 that the Earl of Surrey, as Lieutenant of Ireland, had first proposed plantation as a means of subduing the recalcitrant island. That is, removing the Irish from their land and replacing them with English or Scots. George Dowdall, the Catholic appointed as Archbishop of Armagh by Mary Tudor, urged a continuation of the policy. The only solution to the Irish 'problem' was, according to the archbishop, to get rid of the Irish: either expel them or kill them, and give their land to the English.5 What made Ireland so ungovernable, so anarchic - not merely in the eyes of English colonists, but also in the eyes of many Irish people themselves? 6 Central to the problem was the Irish method of determining both succession and property-ownership. Conn Bacach O'Neill ( c.1482 - 1559) was proclaimed The O'Neill - that is, head of his tribe or sept - though he was actually the younger son of Conn More O'Neill, chieftain and lord of Tyrone. The English never came to grips with this system of tanistry, whereby the clans or tribes chose the new leader on grounds of quality rather than those of primogeniture. Henry VIII made Conn O'Neill Earl of Tyrone in exchange for his submission to English law and English ideas of land ownership, or as his own people saw it: 'O'Neill of Oileach and Eamhait, the king of Tara and Tailte has exchanged in foolish submission his kingdom for the Ulster Earldom'7. When Conn O'Neill died, Shane - his youngest son, by his second wife, Sorcha - was elected O' Neill by his sept. By English law, the earldom of Tyrone passed to Conn's eldest son, Matthew, but Shane argued that as head of the sept he should receive the earldom. Queen Elizabeth (anything for a quiet life, as far as her view of Ireland was concerned) wanted her Deputy in Ireland, Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, to recognise Shane's claim. This Sussex was extremely unwilling to do, with the result that within the first year of the Queen's reign the English Pale was being raided by Shane's troops, many of them mercenaries from Scotland; and Ulster, the Northern Kingdom, was an anarchy of warring O'Neills, fighting one another. So within a year of Elizabeth becoming queen were to be seen, in the clash between Shane O'Neill and the Earl of Sussex, many of the key ingredients of the Irish phenomenon. There was the fact, for example, that chiefs such as O'Neill were able to command large private armies of gallowglasses from the Western Isles of Scotland and Redshanks - unsettled mercenaries who sailed the coasts in their galleys plying for hire as soldiers, either in Irish quarrels among themselves or in their wars against the English. In the last years of Mary's reign and the first of Elizabeth's, Sussex had secured the consent of the Crown to make naval attacks on the Hebrides to try to cut off the supply of gallowglasses at source.8 While Sussex attempted out-and-out defeat of O'Neill and extirpation of the enemy, the Queen was undermining him by attempting to pacify O'Neill. Here is another ingredient of the Elizabethan story of Ireland: a perpetual tension between the Englishmen on the ground, trying to defend the interests of the Crown, and the Crown itself wishing to avoid trouble and expense. In all this, during Elizabeth's reign, there was also a strong element of misogyny. Sir Henry Sidney, for example, complained to Walsingham, 'Three tymes her Majestie hath sent me her Deputie into Ireland, and in everie of the three tymes I susteyned a great and a violent rebellion, everie one of which I subdued and (with honourable peace) lefte the country in quiet.' Yet he felt himself undermined by the Queen's allowing herself to be bamboozled - as Sidney thought - by the Earl of Ormond. (Yet another ingredient in the anarchic mix there! The clash between the old families such as the Ormonds and Desmonds, descended from Norman settlers in Ireland and tending to identify with Irish septs and Gaelic culture, and the new English settlers.) Sidney looked back nostalgically to the days when their monarch was male. He had been a courtier to the boy king, Edward VI. 'Sondry tymes he bountifully rewarded me ... Lastly, not only to my own still felt grief, but also to the universal wo of England, he died in my armes.'9 Sidney was less overtly misogynistic and disrespectful of the Queen than a later Deputy, Sir John Perrot, a notoriously choleric figure who exclaimed with fury, 'Silly woman, now she shall not curb me, she shall not rule me now.' Taking orders from the Queen was, he intemperately believed, 'to serve a base bastard piss kitchen woman.'10 As one who was himself spoken of as a bastard son of Henry VIII, Perrot was perhaps a pot calling a kettle black. Sir Henry Sidney was one of the prime movers in bringing Reform to Ireland: in confirming the Protestant Reformation, in introducing the rule of law to replace the more anarchic Gaelic traditions relating to inheritance and property, in inaugurating a system of education. Elizabeth allowed him to summon an Irish parliament upon his arrival in 1566, the first Irish parliament to meet for six years. Every single reform that Sidney proposed met with opposition from the Palesmen, from the English-speaking parliamentary representatives. They rejected his proposal for an Irish university - it was not until 1592 that Trinity College, Dublin, was established. They rejected his attempts to set up grammar schools all over Ireland. They were deeply suspicious of trial by jury being introduced to Ireland. Sidney had two terms as Deputy: 1566 - 71 and 1575 - 8. Like those of the other Elizabethan deputies, his Irish career ended in failure. In 1577 his son, Philip, aged twenty-three, wrote a defence of his father's career in Ireland. It was also a job application to succeed him as Deputy. He told the Queen that she had three options when it came to attempting to rule Ireland. The first was military conquest - not an option, as he realised, not least because the parsimonious monarch would have deemed it far too expensive. Second was the path of complete military withdrawal. Again, this was not an option, for it would lead to the loss of Ireland altogether. The only other option, the third way, was to raise revenue in Ireland itself to meet the costs of extended government. The rebellions of 'Shane O'Neill and all the Earl of Ormond's brethren'...
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