What have the Elizabethans ever done for us?

If you still aren’t sure how to spend that Christmas book token, then AN Wilson’s “The Elizabethans” is a good candidate. This is a magisterial survey by the leading novelist, scholar and reviewer of the political literary and intellectual experience of a “glory age”, whose legacy in shaping modern Britain has only just come to an end, in the author’s view. Chapter One “The Difficulty” of Part One “The Early Reign” begins with this unexpected opening:

“After thirty years of fighting and more than 3000 deaths in the province of Northern Ireland, peace was agreed.  In the first decade of the twenty first century, the Northern Ireland Assembly held democratic elections.”

The “difficulty” Wilson refers to is over how to treat the past.  The unsuccessful pattern of English laying waste and massacre in the first Elizabeth’s reign before and since cannot be judged according to modern standards; on the other hand, how can it not be?  For Wilson a prime focus for “the difficulty” is  Edmund Spenser, whose great unfinished poem The Faerie  Queenie was a literary climax of the age. But Spenser  looked out from Kilcolman Castle in Co Cork  believing that the best result for the native Irish would be the destruction of their society and culture. The Spenserian critic CS Lewis with his Ulster Protestant background fought shy of the issue, writes Wilson, writing that “ the morality of Spenser’s plan ( for the reduction  of Ireland)  has been shown to be not so much indefensible as quotations might make to appear, but any stronger apologia would be a burden beyond my shoulders”.

The last thing I want to do here is incite new rounds of competitive victimhood or whataboutery. Indeed the best bits of this magisterial survey and discussion are the literary and language explorations, the reminders of how seriously religion was taken but linked to magic and metaphysics, and the rollicking chapter about spying and Christopher Marlowe. The tales of Mary Queen of Scots and the Armada are freshly told but familiar.  Any impression that “The Elizabethans” is dominated by Ireland is misleading. It’s far bigger than that in all senses.

Because of the vividness of the new language and evolving humanist Renaissance sensibilities mixed with medieval cruelty towards new religious differences and political threats, the Elizabethan age seems so contemporary and utterly alien both at the same time. We see in this age the evolution of the  centralised modern State. Like Shakespeare Wilson loves contemporary references and lessons.   He begins Chapter 18 “Hakluyt and Empire” was this interesting dilation:

Is England, or what is now called Britain, at one with the rest of Planet Earth, or is it pursuing a parallel life of its own with its own Church its own weights and measures, its own Monarchy its own arcane sense of comedy? Conversations about for example modern Britain’s relationship to the US or modern Europe..  might begin with specific concerns (like) the economic advisability of joining a single European currency…   Sooner or later however…. we find that our view of contemporary events – in Afghanistan, in Ireland, in the Church is determined by some vision of a Platonic England.

And, Wilson might have added, the relationship of the rest of us to it. A major theme surely for 2012. “The Elizabethans “is a good mind stretcher for tackling one of the big themes of for 2012.



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London