Posted by: CS | June 17, 2012

How liberals truly hate England

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/ ).

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Responses

  1. "Massie belittles the defeat of the Amada". On the contrary, a huge moment in history since it heralded the transfer of power from the authoritarian/feudalistic/over centralized Spanish world to the (relatively) freer world of Elizabethan England, Holland, etc. Had the Spanish Armada won the day then it is entirely possibly that North America would be Spanish speaking today. Spain never recovered its dominant position since the psychological blow of the Armada’s annihilation caused many of its colonies and allies to lose confidence in Spanish leadership. Where history goes a bit overboard is in painting the English Navy as the underdog; since almost everybody at the time except King Phillip expected the Armada to loose.Incidentally it may have been the (unfair) execution of Mary Queen of Scots that caused the Armada to sail. Phillip of Spain was not going to invade England to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. He saw her as a French woman and he hated the French. But once Mary was gone the road for invasion was open. It is entirely possibly that Elizabeth executed Mary to encourage the Armada to sail at the time she wanted. Elizabeth was a great Queen for England, though I am not suggesting she was a kind women.

  2. Female leaders, as a class, seem particularly hard nosed: Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, and most recently, Hilary Clinton exultant over the murder of Gaddhafi. Elizabeth I was in that mold. And Mary Queen of Scots was a threat to the stability of England. She was former queen of France, England's traditional enemy and Scotland's traditional ally. And she was a catholic, which meant that if she had inherited the English throne, she would have once again thrown protestant England into the turmoil of religious conflict. Mary foolishly sought refuge from her rebellious Scotch subjects in England and Elizabeth took advantage of her error. Extrajudicial murder but sound policy.


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