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The Victorian era and the early twentieth century idealised the Elizabethan era. The Encyclop? dia Britannica still maintains that “The long reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603, was England’s Golden Age… ‘Merry England,’ in love with life, expressed itself in music and literature, in architecture, and in adventurous seafaring. “[1] This idealising tendency was shared by Britain and an Anglophilic America. (In popular culture, the image of those adventurous Elizabethan seafarers was embodied in the films of Errol Flynn. [2] In response and reaction to this hyperbole, modern historians and biographers have tended to take a far more literal-minded and dispassionate view of the Tudor period. Elizabethan England was not particularly successful in a military sense during the period. The grinding poverty of the rural working class, which comprised 90 percent of the population, has also received more attention than in previous generations. The Elizabethan role in the slave trade and the repression of Catholic Ireland—notably the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years’ War—have also drawn historians’ attention.

Despite the heights achieved during the era, the country descended into the English Civil War less than 40 years after the death of Elizabeth. [citation needed] On balance, it can be said that Elizabeth provided the country with a long period of general if not total peace, and generally increasing prosperity. Having inherited a virtually bankrupt state from previous reigns, her frugal policies restored fiscal responsibility. Her fiscal restraint cleared the regime of debt by 1574, and ten years later the Crown enjoyed a surplus of ? 300,000. 3] Economically, Sir Thomas Gresham’s founding of the Royal Exchange (1565), the first stock exchange in England and one of the earliest in Europe, proved to be a development of the first importance, for the economic development of England and soon for the world as a whole. With taxes lower than other European countries of the period, the economy expanded; though the wealth was distributed with wild unevenness, there was clearly more wealth to go around at the end of Elizabeth’s reign than at the beginning. [4]

This general peace and prosperity allowed the attractive developments that “Golden Age” advocates have stressed. 5] Both from an anachronistic modern perspective and from that of 19th century humanism, England in this era had some positive aspects that set it apart from contemporaneous continental European societies. Torture was rare, since the English legal system reserved torture only for capital crimes like treason[6]—though forms of corporal punishment, some of them extreme, were practised. The persecution of witches was also comparatively rare; while some persecutions did occur, they did not reach the hysterical proportions that disfigured some European societies so severely in this period. 7] The role of women in society was, for the historical era, relatively unconstrained; Spanish and Italian visitors to England commented regularly, and sometimes caustically, on the freedom that women enjoyed in England, in contrast to their home cultures. Elizabeth’s determination not to “look into the hearts” of her subjects, to moderate the religious persecutions of previous Tudor reigns—the persecution of Catholics under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and of Protestants under Mary—appears to have had a moderating effect on English society in general.

There were exceptions: Catholic clergy were mostly considered to be traitors, and were pursued aggressively in England. Often priests were tortured or executed after capture unless they cooperated with the English authorities. Persons who publicly supported Catholicism were excluded from the professions, sometimes fined or imprisoned. While Elizabethan England has been characterized by one sceptic as a “brutal dictatorship,”[8] it was, as brutal dictatorships go, one of the more benign.

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