|Preceded by||Tudor period|
|Followed by||Jacobean era|
|Monarch||Queen Elizabeth I|
The Elizabethan Age is viewed so highly because of the contrasts with the periods before and after. It was a brief period of largely internal peace between the English Reformation and the battles between Protestants and Catholics and the battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism. England was also well-off compared to the other nations of Europe. The Italian Renaissance had come to an end under the weight of foreign domination of the peninsula. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that would only be settled in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. In part because of this, but also because the English had been expelled from their last outposts on the continent, the centuries long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth's reign.
The one great rival was Spain, with which England conflicted both in Europe and the Americas in skirmishes that exploded into the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604. An attempt by Philip II of Spain to invade England with the Spanish Armada in 1588 was famously defeated, but the tide of war turned against England with an unsuccessful expedition to Portugal and the Azores, the Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589. Thereafter Spain provided some support for Irish Catholics in a debilitating rebellion against English rule, and Spanish naval and land forces inflicted a series of reversals against English offensives. This drained both the English Exchequer and economy that had been so carefully restored under Elizabeth's prudent guidance. English commercial and territorial expansion would be limited until the signing of the Treaty of London the year following Elizabeth's death.
England during this period had a centralised, well-organised, and effective government, largely a result of the reforms of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Economically, the country began to benefit greatly from the new era of trans-Atlantic trade.
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.
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. 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. This general peace and prosperity allowed the attractive developments that "Golden Age" advocates have stressed.
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—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. 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. While Elizabethan England has been characterised by one sceptic as a "brutal dictatorship, it was, as brutal dictatorships go, one of the more benign.
Lacking a dominant genius or a formal structure for research (the following century had both Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society), the Elizabethan era nonetheless saw significant scientific progress. The astronomers Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot made important contributions; William Gilbert published his seminal study of magnetism, De Magnete, in 1600. Substantial advancements were made in the fields of cartography and surveying. The eccentric but influential John Dee also merits mention.
Much of this scientific and technological progress related to the practical skill of navigation. English achievements in exploration were noteworthy in the Elizabethan era. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1581, and Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic. The first attempt at English settlement of the eastern seaboard of North America occurred in this era—the abortive colony at Roanoke Island in 1587.
While Elizabethan England is not thought of as an age of technological innovation, some progress did occur. In 1564 Guilliam Boonen came from the Netherlands to be Queen Elizabeth's first coach-builder—thus introducing the new European invention of the spring-suspension coach to England, as a replacement for the litters and carts of an earlier transportation mode. Coaches quickly became as fashionable as sports cars in a later century; social critics, especially Puritan commentators, noted the "diverse great ladies" who rode "up and down the countryside" in their new coaches.
During the Elizabethan era, people looked forward to holidays because opportunities for leisure were limited, with time away from hard work being restricted to periods after church on Sundays. For the most part, leisure and festivities took place on a public church holy day. Every month had its own holiday, some of which are listed below: