The Elizabethan period is sometimes referred to as England's ‘Golden Age’, coming at the height of the English Renaissance, a time when England was wealthy and increasingly powerful. Elizabeth’s reign was more stable and peaceful than those that preceded it, and the religious turmoil of the Reformation was beginning to die down as Protestantism became more accepted. Poetry, music, literature and science all flourished, and exploration and trade led to the discovery of new places and exciting inventions. Thanks to the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, England had a strong, well-organised and effective government.
During the English Reformation instigated by Henry VIII, England broke from the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope. In Europe, attempts to reform the Church by Martin Luther and John Calvin (amongst others) brought about the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism soon spread to the Netherlands, parts of Germany, and Scotland. In England, Edward VI’s rule brought stricter Protestant reforms, but when Mary I became Queen she attempted to restore Catholicism. She had so many Protestants executed that she was nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary.’ On her death, Elizabeth I took the throne and England became Protestant once more. Under Elizabeth, it was illegal to worship as a Catholic, and it was considered an act of treason to try to convert an Anglican to Catholicism. Many Jesuit missionaries were executed for treason in this period. However, Catholics continued to worship in secret, building concealed chapels in their houses for the purpose.
Many Catholics refused to accept Elizabeth as the rightful heir to the throne because she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry VIII married after divorcing Catherine of Aragon. For Catholics, the divorce was not sanctioned by the Church and so never took place. Anne Boleyn was little more than Henry’s mistress in their eyes, and consequently Elizabeth was seen as illegitimate. Since Henry’s other children, Edward and Mary, were both dead, the line of succession would go through his sister, down the Stuart line. According to this logic, Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) should be on the throne of England.
Trade and Travel
England became a major centre of trade in this period. Cloth was shipped from London to Holland and France, fish was imported from Newfoundland, fine wines came in from Europe, sugar and spices arrived from the East, potatoes, peppers and pumpkins from America, and iron, salt, coal and wool were exported. Port cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol thrived, as did centres of the cloth industry such as Manchester and Halifax. Companies were formed to trade overseas, such as the Russia Company, established in 1553. In this period, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, and the first English colony was founded on the east coast of North America.
Life for the Rich
The land-owning rich enjoyed lives of leisure. They resided in large houses just outside the cities and towns, away from the smell and disease. Their diet was varied, and included a lot of meat. Entertainment was to be found in feasts, plays (performed privately – theatres were looked on with suspicion and distaste), festivals, jousts, sports, card games, and hunting.
Boys were educated in grammar schools founded by wealthy merchants; before the Reformation, most schools were run by the Church. The most important classes were Latin and Divinity; children would be required to learn and recite passages, and they were beaten if they forgot. Education continued at university, where a broader range of subjects was offered. Elizabethan girls did not attend school, but the very wealthy might educate girls at home with a personal tutor. Women were expected to be obedient wives, run the household, and have children.
Life for the Poor
In rural villages, the poor worked the land, rented from the local landowner. Animals were kept on communal land. Few people left their villages.
In towns and cities, people were crowded closely together, and disease and fire were common. People would throw their waste into the streets and rivers; towns were very unclean places. The poor ate less meat and more vegetables, and could not afford exotic new spices and flavours.
Entertainment included plays, festivals, sports and gambling, and visits to the ale-houses. Children were rarely educated. Young boys would help their father or be apprenticed to a skilled worker such as a carpenter or cobbler. Young girls often became servants in the houses of the wealthy.
London was the principal city, a crowded, bustling, noisy, smelly and incredibly dirty place. It was a centre of international trade, and the River Thames would have been packed with boats and ships of all sizes. The houses, taverns and shops were built of wood and packed in close together, a big fire risk. A huge variety of shops lined the streets, from bakers and cloth merchants to apothecaries (pharmacists) and barber-surgeons. Pedlars and street vendors would cry their wares on the streets.
Just outside the city, in the richer areas, stood the palace and the homes of wealthy, important nobles. Inside the city, the area of Southwark (see map below) was renowned for its inns, prostitutes, theatres, and bear-baiting pits.
Court was the household of the monarch, and comprised all those who regularly attended on him or her. This included menial servants such as cooks and cleaners, officials, the noble attendants of the monarch (e.g. maids of honour), and those looking to improve their standing or hoping for financial gain (courtiers).
Those who served closest to the ruler, such as the cup bearer, or the person who looked after his or her clothes, would almost always be a noble. Later, many of these titles were preserved, but they lost all but a few of their original duties. For example, the maids of honour (for a queen regnant) or ladies in waiting (for a queen consort) were daughters of the nobility sent to serve the queen but not considered servants. They acted as companions to the queen, wrote letters for her, read to her, sewed and played instruments, and were expected to know all the latest dances. These were extremely important positions, and girls who became maids of honour could expect to make good marriages later in life. Many such roles were filled by the nobility at court.
Court was also a place of culture and fashion, setting the latest trends. It saw the richest banquets, the newest entertainment, and the best dances. It was also the centre of political life. For the nobility, court was the place to be in order to advance in society.
Richmond Palace was a royal residence on the bank of the Thames, built in 1501. It is no longer standing.
The palace of Whitehall started life as York Place, owned by Cardinal Wolsey. When Wolsey fell from favour, York Place was seized by Henry VIII and turned into a palace. It was a huge, elaborate building, and grew to be the largest palace in Europe. It is no longer standing.
Tudor houses were more comfortable than those of previous eras. Glass windows let in more light, and proper chimneys replaced holes in the roof, allowing rooms to stay warmer and less smoke-filled. The richer houses were built of red brick or stone; the poorer were 'half-timbered', with wooden frames and clay or brick filling the gaps.
None of the houses mentioned in the novel have survived.
John Dee lived in his mother’s manor on the Mortlake estate, adjoining the estate of Richmond Palace. Bruno travels here at various points to visit his friend, or to consult his vast library.
This is the house of Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who recruits Bruno to spy on the French Catholics at the embassy. Today the area is an open space in Barnes, London.
Salisbury Court is the house of the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau, where Bruno lives. It stood at the western end of London, near the river.
This is the town residence of Philip Howard, the Earl of Arundel. Castelnau sends Bruno in his place to a dinner party here. Bruno uses the opportunity to try to gather information on Henry Howard and the conspirators. The house is a short distance up the river from Salisbury Court. It is described as “one of these grand red-brick houses bristling with tall chimneys whose abundant lawns stretch down to the river’s edge.”
Below is an image of Charlecote Park, a Tudor building of similar description.