Elizabethan England England in the 16th-17th Century Brief History Elizabeth I was one of the most popular and long-reigning monarchs in English history—her curly red hair and shrewd political mind are well-known to us through books, movies, and legends. Taking its name from this sovereign figure, Elizabethan England was a time of great literary and artistic flowering, royal turmoil, and general domestic complacency.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and the infamous Henry VIII of England. She became Queen of England after her half brother and half sister had each briefly reigned and died. Her sister Mary's reign had been particularly brutal and violent, and her persecution of Protestant propagators earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary." Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25 after her sister's death. She never married, but rather used her position as an unmarried monarch to wield power over her possible allies: the prospect of marriage to the "Virgin Queen" was an instrumental factor in the successful establishment of good relations between England and other countries.
Under Elizabeth, England began colonization of the Americas with Walter Raleigh's excursions to the Atlantic shore and establishment of the Roanoke colony. Also, Sir Francis Drake made a mark in history as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, earning prestige for England and for Elizabeth. The English Navy's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was an unexpected blow to Spain and a welcome triumph for England, giving the country the precarious title of a world power.
Entertainment and Recreation Drama enjoyed its high points during the Elizabethan era as the first public theaters were built in England and plays became a popular form of entertainment for all classes of people. Dance was also a frequent recreation, along with music and song. In addition to the arts, the Elizabethan people engaged in sports. Some of the most popular sports are ones that are still enjoyed today: football, swimming, fishing, bowling, wrestling, and tennis. Also, the inhabitants of a town would gather together on holidays for huge parties and festivals, particularly on dates such as All Hallow's Eve and the Twelfth Night of Christmas.
One rather morbid pastime of Elizabethan England was watching the public punishments of criminals in the town. In addition to the most brutal of reparations, permanent fixtures in any town were the stocks and pillory, where felons would be locked into place for the constant jeers and torment of the townspeople.
Please visit our resource on Elizabethan Literature to find out what people in the 16th-17th century were reading and writing.
Food and Medicine
During the Elizabethan period, table manners were very different than they are now. Even noblemen threw bones on the floor when they were finished, and forks were considered an oddity at any table. Bread and meat were the two most important staples of the English diet, and while they also drank a lot of wine and ate cheese, they ate very few fruits and vegetables.
This poorly balanced diet was one cause of the many illnesses that pervaded Elizabethan England. Other sicknesses resulted from malnutrition and improper cooking habits. Also, smallpox and syphilis were common afflictions passed from person to person. But the major cause of death during Elizabethan England was the plague known as the Black Death, which swept through England and Europe carried by the rats living in the streets. People used herbal remedies for many of such ailments, but unfortunately, only the very rich were able to afford doctors or even apothecaries.
Fashions of the Day The fashions of both men and women were extravagant and complicated. Men and women alike were very hair-conscious; they spent a lot of time and money getting their hair dyed red or blond (the most fashionable colors). Men would trim and style their beards, and women wore their hair in combs, nets, or jeweled pins. At the time, a high forehead was considered very attractive, so women would pluck the hair from their front hairlines. Both sexes wore wigs, especially when they lost their own hair or if it turned gray.
In terms of clothing, women wore very long dresses that dragged on the ground, and their bodices were very tightly-laced and came to a point at the waist. The sleeves were puffy around the shoulders and tight around the lower arms. Very large ruffles around the neck were popular with both men and women, and were considered a status symbol for the upper classes. Men wore shorter breeches or pants with brightly colored stockings underneath. Large, ornate jewels were worn by both sexes, and were often so heavy that it made dancing difficult.