To the nation at large the Queen really appeared what the flattery of her courtiers and poets represented her.
Continuing The Reign of Elizabeth I of England,
our selection from an article in Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume 10 by Henry R. Cleveland published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Reign of Elizabeth I of England.
There is no bond so strong as the bond of common perils and sufferings; and, when the young Princess ascended the throne, it was amid the thankful acclamations of a liberated and happy people, who loved her for the dangers she had shared with them, and for whom she entertained the interest and affection due to fellow-sufferers. This feeling was prolonged in an uncommon manner throughout her reign; for it so happened that there was no danger which threatened the Queen during her whole life that was not equally formidable to the people. So difficult was the question of succession that the prudent Burleigh never ventured to express his mind upon the subject, and carried down to the grave the secret of his opinion. Any change would have been for the worse; as it would either have plunged the nation into a civil war or have placed a Roman Catholic prince on the throne. The dangers which menaced the crown of Elizabeth were alike formidable to the cause of freedom in England and of the Protestant religion in Europe. The invasion of England, which was attempted by the French under the Queen Regent of Scotland, and afterward the gigantic preparations of Philip, foreboded more than the ordinary horrors of an offensive warfare. These enemies came with the stake and the fagot in their hands; they came not merely to invade, but to convert; not merely to conquer, but to persecute; they were stimulated not merely by ambition, but by bigotry; they were prepared not merely to enslave, but to torture. It was therefore not a matter of indifference to the English nation whether Elizabeth were to be their queen or whether some other prince should ascend the throne. In her reign, and hers alone, they saw the hope of peace, freedom, and prosperity. Never, therefore, were nation and ruler more closely and firmly knit together.
The sentiment of loyalty, consequently, was never more sincere and enthusiastic in the hearts of Englishmen than at that period. She was to them, in truth, the Gloriana of Fairyland; the magnificent, the undaunted, the proud descendant of a thousand years of royalty, and the “Imperial Votress.” She was only a tyrant within the precincts of the court. There she reigned, it is true, with more than oriental despotism; and she seems to have delighted occasionally in torturing mean spirits by employing them upon such thankless offices as their hearts revolted from, though they had not the courage to refuse them. But beyond the immediate circle of the palace she was the queen and the mother of her people. To the nation at large, too, she was equally a heroine, a beautiful idol enshrined in their hearts. Living on “in maiden meditation fancy-free,” rejecting the proposals of every prince, disregarding the remonstrances of her subjects, where marriage was spoken of, there was something in the very unapproachableness of her state which both commanded the respect and excited the imagination of her people. As a woman, they regarded her just as she wished them to regard her, as the throned Vestal, the watery Moon, whose chaste beams could quench the fiery darts of Cupid. She was to them, in fact, the Belphoebe of Spenser, “with womanly graces, but not womanly affections — passionless, pure, self-sustained, and self-dependent”; shining “with a cold lunar light and not the warm glow of day.” This feeling was increased by the spirit of chivalry which still lingered in English society, and, like the setting sun, poured a flood of golden light over the court.
The incense, then, that was offered to the Queen by such men as Spenser, Raleigh, Essex, Shakespeare, and Sidney, the most noble, chivalrous, and gifted spirits that ever gathered round a throne, is not to be judged of as the flattery which cringing courtiers pay to a dreaded tyrant; but rather as the outpouring of a general enthusiasm, the echo of the stirring voice of chivalry, and the expression of the feelings of a devoted yet free people.
An age of tyranny is always an age of frivolity, of heartless levity, of dwarfish objects and pursuits, of dreadful contrasts — laughter amid mourning, rioting and wantonness amid judgments and executions; dancing and music at the hour of death. Such was the frivolity of the days of Nero; such was the mirth of the “death-dance” in the days of Robespierre. Nothing like this sickly and appalling joy could be seen in the times of Elizabeth. There were masques and balls and tournaments at the court, and gay revels as the stately Queen went from castle to castle, and palace to palace, in her visits to her princely subjects. But such amusements did not form the chief object or occupation of the court of Elizabeth. The Queen, and those who had grown up with her, had passed through too many dangers and witnessed too much suffering to allow them to become frivolous or very light-hearted. They had lived among scenes of cruelty, persecution, and death. Their childhood had witnessed the successive horrors of the reign of Henry VIII, and their youth had suffered from the bloody fanaticism of Mary. Sorrow and tribulation had overspread the morning of their life like a cloud.
Miss Aikin, in the beginning of her charming work upon the court of Queen Elizabeth, has described the gorgeous procession which filed along the streets of London at the baptism of the infant princess. The same picture also forms the closing scene of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. As we look upon the gay and splendid train, marching in their robes of state, beneath silken canopies, and then glance our eye along the map of history till we trace almost every actor in the pageant to a bloody grave, we can scarcely believe that it is a scene of joy and festivity that we are witnessing. The angel of death seems to hover over them; there is something dreadful in their rejoicing; their gaudy robes, their mantles, their vases, their fringes of gold, assume the sable hue of the grave; and, instead of a baptismal train, it seems like a funeral procession descending to the tomb.
The mournful scenes which the generation which grew up with Elizabeth had been compelled to witness, and the terror in which most of the leading characters in her reign had passed their youth, had undoubtedly tended to sober their minds and induce them to reflect much upon the great and solemn duties of life.
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