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The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) has been described as England's golden age. It was a time when the country was peaceful, yet dynamic: expanding its borders, voyaging to the Indies and the New World, and creating an extraordinary cultural legacy. Published between 1950 and 1972, A. L. Rowse's history remains an unrivalled portrait of Elizabeth and her era. Rowse was a brilliant historian who laid an unprecedented emphasis on social history and the use of local archives. Above all, he had a talent for bringing the past to life. For him, Elizabethan England could still be seen everywhere, from country church to great house. ‘The age is indeed all about us, as Elgar said of music: it is in the air all round, we have only to reach out and catch it.’ Now The Folio Society presents his classic work in four beautifully illustrated volumes.
In the first volume of his history, A. L. Rowse shows us the tapestry of Elizabethan society. He explores the legacy of the Reformation and the wealth that flowed from the Church's property; the founding of the grammar schools; the rise of the gentry; the growing prosperity of the countryside and the development of the towns. Baptismal registers were first introduced during this era, and the population grew from about 4.5 to 5.5 million, most of it concentrated in the south and west. Though the country enjoyed strong local administration, all power ultimately lay with the throne. This was also true of the Church of England, which Elizabeth and her advisers redirected on her accession. The Elizabethan settlement was in broad terms a success, making allowances for the individual conscience while uniting communities in public worship. This volume introduces Elizabeth’s brilliant counsellor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whom she nicknamed ‘Spirit’, and a host of other characters – from the indigent Marquis of Northampton, who lay unburied for three weeks before the Queen paid for his funeral, to John Stow, author of the famous Survey of London. It is a rich portrait of an extraordinary place and time.
Elizabeth was a cautious politician, averse to invading foreign lands and annexing sovereign territory. Yet her reign saw England extend its reach further than ever before. This volume opens with England's subjugation of the Celtic fringe: a relatively smooth campaign in Wales, but bitter struggle in Ireland through the 1560s and 1570s. These efforts proved to be the training-ground for the voyages to America in the 1580s. The Virginia plantations ended in failure, with the early colonists starving to death or killed by natives – yet they sowed the seed for the future colonies of New England. Rowse also shows the unprecedented growth of English maritime power. Though the Spanish had reached the New World in 1492, it took another 60 years for a comparable sea voyage to leave from English shores. With Elizabeth’s encouragement, her country caught up, and then surpassed, other seafaring nations, even defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588. As the English navigator Robert Hakluyt put it: ‘For which of the kings of this land before her Majesty had their banners ever seen in the Caspian Sea?’
Like so much else in Elizabethan England, social and cultural life took its cue from the monarch. In contrast to the ‘law of the jungle’ of her father Henry VIII's court, Elizabeth’s was more benign, though still dominated by ‘the slippery ladder of favour'. Rowse describes the rise and fall of favourites such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom Elizabeth never forgave for his secret marriage, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, executed for his part in a disastrous rebellion. Her carefully cultivated image as the Virgin Queen caught the popular imagination, as well as inspiring works of art including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. The general trend towards upward mobility could be seen in all the new coats of arms being created. Rowse also explores aspects of ordinary life: food (foreigners were struck by the amount of meat the English consumed), sport (from fencing to deer-poaching), customs and feast-days, urban and village life. The result is a book described by historical novelist Irving Stone as being ‘created in such brilliant colour and clarity that the reader can never forget it’.
The cultural achievements of the Elizabethan age were unprecedented. Poetry and, most notably, drama, reached new heights of beauty and sophistication. Rowse reveals the origins of Elizabethan drama in mystery plays, in Latin dramatic works presented at grammar schools, and the influence of Italian playwrights. The titanic figure of the age was Shakespeare. His extraordinary career and outlook are celebrated here, along with those of his contemporaries: Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon. ‘Where, before the Elizabethans, there was no continuous English literature, after them it flourished, rich, mature and full.’ Music also flourished in Elizabeth’s England. Composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd absorbed rich influences from Italy. In turn, the English keyboard technique was adopted throughout Europe, while the madrigal form was adapted to English tastes. Rowse is an eloquent guide to Elizabethan art and architecture, notably the great houses such as Longleat and Hatfield, and paintings, from the miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard to royal portraits. He also offers precious insights into the domestic arts, science, nature and medicine – including a description of an illness suffered by Shakespeare’s granddaughter, and an account of malaria in London.
This beautiful new 4-volume set contains over 70 pages of colour plates, including portraits of Elizabeth and the major figures of her era, examples of domestic art, maps of England and more. Each book has been blocked with a beautiful original design by artist Neil Gower. A new introduction has been commissioned from Alan Stewart, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and an expert on Renaissance England.
Alfred Leslie Rowse was born in 1903 near St Austell in Cornwall, the son of a clay worker and a shopkeeper. He won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he soon switched from literature to modern history. In the same year that he graduated, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College. In the 1940s, he was encouraged by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford to begin work on a history of Elizabethan England. The England of Elizabeth was published in 1950 to great acclaim. The next two volumes appeared over a period of 20 years. Rowse was a prolific author, publishing many other works, including 17 volumes on Shakespeare. He was also a Senior Reseach Fellow at the Huntingdon Library in California for many years.
‘Dr Rowse has created a masterpiece on a great subject’