England in the 16th century
Site of the medieval village of Lomer in the Hundred of Fawley deserted circa 1550
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSite of the medieval village of Lomer in the Hundred of Fawley deserted circa 1550 - Credit: Jim Champion

 The England in which Elizabeth lived was far removed from that of the majority of her future subjects. From birth, at Greenwich Palace, she was surrounded by the luxurious trappings of wealth and waited upon by courtiers and servants. Even when disinherited, or a prisoner of Mary in the Tower, her experience was not that of the 'ordinary' woman.

Tudor England, away from the opulence of the Royal Court, was a sparsely populated land. The century saw a dramatic rise in population, from 3 million to 4 million due to higher fertility and lower death rates, but this figure is almost neglible compared to the present level of over 50 million.  

The nature of the countryside altered as towns grew in size throughout Elizabeth's reign.  Changes in agricultural practices led to people leaving the countryside for the towns. Land enclosures were largely responsible for this migration, as traditional arable and pasture commons land was fenced off. Larger farms became more profitable, particularly with the rise in the economic importance of the wool export industry.  The village pictured was abandoned as a result of land enclosures, probably for sheep grazing.

London, the capital, became extremely overcrowded, expanding in size until it was the largest city in Europe, with a population somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000. The city, already teeming with its own poor, saw more and more flocking to it from the countryside.  It attracted beggars, thieves and the desperate, as well as the so-called 'deserving poor' that various Poor Laws sought to help.  With everyone seeking to make a living in the thronged streets, filthy with rubbish and sewage, crowded and noisy, it could be a dangerous and arguably exciting place in which to live.  Brothels, gambling dens and beerhouses flourished, alongside bear-pits, playhouses and the houses of the rich and royal.


London in the 16th century by Georg Braun
Public DomainLondon in the 16th century by Georg Braun - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Greenwich Palace, London
Greenwich Palace from
Public DomainGreenwich Palace from "The Gentlemen's Magazine" in 1840 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Greenwich Palace, or as it was called in the pre-Tudor era, the Palace of Placentia, stood five miles down the river Thames from London, and was the birthplace of Elizabeth I.

The residence was originally built in or just after 1433 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brother of Henry V, who named it Bella Court. Remodelled and updated after 1447 for Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen, it was renamed the Palace of Placentia. At the same time its surrounding park was stocked with deer. It was redesigned again between 1498 and 1504 by Henry VII, when the palace was rebuilt around three imposing courtyards, and the name was changed once again, to Greenwich Palace. At this point, it became one of the most luxurious Tudor royal residences. It differed from the others in that it had no moat or fortifications and was purely residential. As such it became a model for many of the great houses of the Tudor period.


Panorama of Greenwich 2008.
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePanorama of Greenwich 2008. - Credit: Bill Bertram

This photograph shows the Queen's House, built next to Greenwich Palace and designed by Inigo Jones, in the foreground, with the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music to the rear and the skyline of modern London in the background.

The palace fell into disrepair during the reigns of James I and Charles I, when the Queen's House was built. Although attempts were made during the reign of Charles II to restore the building, the project was never completed and it was eventually demolished in the late seventeeth century. In 1694, work began on Greenwich Hospital. In 1873 the hospital was turned into the Greenwich Royal Naval College, and today the buildings are occupied by the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music.

David Starkey describes the elaborate preparations prior to a royal birth. The Queen's bedchamber was elaborately transformed with heavy tapestries and carpets, gold plate and all the trappings of state, as laid down in The Royal Book, the handbook of royal etiquette originally drawn up by the Lancastrians and handed down to the Yorkists, then to the Tudors. Even the designs of the fabrics were chosen with care to avoid any images of humans or animals as it was believed they could induce 'fantasies in the Queen's mind which might lead to the child being deformed'. Little, if any, light or air was allowed in before the birth, making the chamber extremely dark and stuffy. In effect, the Queen and her ladies were isolated in a female environment. While the Tudor world of male dominance paid homage to the female mystery of childbirth, expectations of the Queen were high. The supreme, if not the only, role of the queen was to produce an heir. It was inconceivable to the Tudor mind that a queen would choose not to do so; a notion Elizabeth would defy. 

Hatfield Palace
The Old Palace, Hatfield House. 2008
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Old Palace, Hatfield House. 2008 - Credit: Pram Fray

The Royal Palace of Hatfield in Hertfordshire is where Elizabeth spent part of her childhood. It is also where she held her first Council of State as Queen in 1558.

Despite the disappointment at the birth of a daughter rather than a son and heir for Henry VIII, Elizabeth was immediately proclaimed princess and treated as such. When she was just a few months old, Elizabeth was established in her own household and court at Hatfield Palace. But according to David Starkey, it was only when she officially acquired it in 1550 that it became important to her, and then for strategic rather than sentimental reasons. The bulk of Elizabeth's properties lay within the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire area, with her main residence, Ashridge, in the west. Her sister Mary's heartland was towards Essex, although Mary's main residence, Hunsdon, was in the east of Hertfordshire. Hatfield, being in the middle, with the added benefit of close proximity to London, was identified by the shrewd Elizabeth as a convenient base from which to keep in touch with events at court.


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The Tower of London
The Tower of London seen from across the River Thames. 2006
Creative Commons AttributionThe Tower of London seen from across the River Thames. 2006 - Credit: pikous

Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London, is one of the capital's most famous historic buildings and a World Heritage Site. It is also one of the country's oldest buildings, dating back to the Norman Conquest. Used as a prison since the 12th century, it was, until the Tudor era, first and foremost a royal residence.

The Tower is an important prison in Elizabeth, not just for the princess herself during the reign of Mary I, when she was implicated in the conspiracy of the Wyatt Rebellion, but also for other prominent personnel of the era. Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, imprisoned there until her execution in 1536, is popularly said to haunt the castle. Others 'ghosts' include Lady Jane Grey, executed in 1554, and the Princes in the Tower. Although the Tower has acquired a somewhat gruesome reputation over the centuries, relatively few executions were carried out within its precincts. Such events occurred when concern over security and public unrest meant the execution of notable prisoners, such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, were better held out of general sight. However, most death sentences were carried out a short distance from the Tower, on Tower Hill, where a plaque now stands.