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The Awakening of Europe by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE GOLDEN DAYS OF GOOD QUEEN BESS

"Upon this land a thousand, thousand blessings,

Which time shall bring to ripeness."

—SHAKSPERE

AND what shall we say of this great queen, Elizabeth, in whose reign England first rose to be a world-power?

At the age of twenty-five she had mounted the throne, at a moment when the fortunes of the country were low and the mighty empire of Spain was growing ever more and more mighty. At the age of seventy she died, leaving her country united and prosperous, with the power of Spain broken.

[100] "Though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat," were her last words to the people, "yet you never had any one that will be more careful and loving."

This was true. She had many faults, but she cared for England, and Englishmen rallied round her. With scanty means at her command, she succeeded in guiding England safely through the dangers which threatened her on every side. Freed from the power of Spain, the country began to realise her position with regard to the sea power of Europe. Men awoke to a sense of the great possibilities before their country, and they all worked to make her greater. But it was Elizabeth herself who made it all possible, she who "gave to each his opportunity."

Thus she had Drake for her great sea-captain, Raleigh for her courtier and colonist, Spenser for her poet, and Shakspere for her dramatist. She herself had been brought up amid the new culture of her father's Court. She could shoot and ride, she could dance and play, she was a good Greek scholar and spoke two foreign tongues.

Fourteen years old when her father died, she had seen her little ten-year-old brother, Edward VI., ascend the throne. On his death, six years, later, she had ridden by the side of her sister Mary when she was proclaimed Queen of England. Mary's marriage with Philip of Spain had brought [101] the country to the verge of war, and it was perhaps well for England that her death, five years later, set Elizabeth upon the throne.

The whole country, now at peace, broke out into wonderful new life. Into the Old World was poured the wealth of the New World. Spain could no longer keep secret the riches of America. English eyes were strained across the seas, English hands were eagerly grasping the treasure that had belonged to Spain and Portugal for years. For the first time since Vasco da Gama had sailed round the Cape to India, and Columbus had discovered America, Englishmen dashed aside the curtain drawn by Spain and Portugal across their conquests in the East and West.

Contact with the New World brought commerce, commerce brought money, money brought luxury. Personal comforts increased. Carpets replaced the dirty flooring of rushes used up to this time, pillows came into general use, wooden plates were replaced by metal or silver, glass windows adorned the new houses and manors which sprang up all over the country.

With new luxuries and comforts came a love of beauty and display. The queen herself boasted of having 3000 dresses in her wardrobe. Her courtiers vied with one another in the splendour of ruffs and velvet coats. The old ideas of thrift melted before the fortunes made by adventurers sailing to the [102] East or West. Visions of ships laden with pearls, diamonds, and gold dazzled the humblest sailor, while dreams of an El Dorado where everything was made of gold tempted the most indolent beyond the seas.

This love of travel quickened men's minds. England was ready for her great awakening. Poets burst forth into song, writers into prose. The full glory arose with Spenser and his "Fairy Queen." For two hundred years no great poem had broken the silence of English song. It expressed the Elizabethan age as no other poem had done. It did for poetry what William Shakspere did for the drama, representing

"The very age and body of the time,

Its form and pressure."

So all these men—adventurers, explorers, poets, dramatists, philosophers, and statesmen—helped to make Elizabeth's England great, splendid, triumphant; fit to take her place in the world's history, and to play the great part for which she was destined.

With the queen's death in 1603 the golden days ended for a time. But she had fulfilled the prophecy of Shakspere at her birth. She had showered upon the land

"A thousand, thousand blessings,

Which time shall bring to ripeness."

Good had grown with her, man had sung the "merry songs of peace to all his neighbours." [103] Peace, plenty, love, truth, strength—these were her servants. And Shakspere was but voicing the feelings of the queen when he speaks of—

"This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,

     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

England, bound in with the triumphant sea."


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