The Elizabethan era is the epoch in the Tudor period of the history of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history. The symbol of Britannia (a female personification of Great Britain) was first used in 1572, and often thereafter, to mark the Elizabethan age as a renaissance that inspired national pride through classical ideals and international expansion.
This “golden age” represented the apogee of the English Renaissance and saw the flowering of poetry, music and literature. The era is most famous for its theatre, as William Shakespeare and many others composed plays that broke free of England’s past style of theatre. It was an age of exploration and expansion abroad, while back at home, the Protestant Reformation became more acceptable to the people. It was also the end of the period when England was a separate realm before its royal union with Scotland.
The Elizabethan age contrasts sharply with the previous and following reigns. It was a brief period of internal peace between the English Reformation and the religious battles between Protestants and Catholics and then the political battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the remainder of 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. France was embroiled in its own religious battles that were (temporarily) settled in 1598 by a policy of tolerating Protestantism 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 by Spain’s tercios, the centuries-long conflict between France and England was largely suspended for most of Elizabeth’s reign.
The one great rival was Spain, with whom England clashed 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 in turn England launched an equally unsuccessful expedition to Spain with the Drake–Norris Expedition of 1589. The war carried on 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, as well as Elizabeth’s harsh punishments for any dissenters. Elizabethan England was not particularly successful in a military sense during the period, but it avoided major defeats and built up a powerful navy. On balance, it can be said that Elizabeth provided the country with a long period of general if not total peace and generally increased prosperity due in large part to stealing from Spanish treasure ships, raiding settlements with low defenses, and selling African slaves. Having inherited a virtually bankrupt state from previous reigns, her frugal policies restored fiscal responsibility.
The Elizabethan Age was also an age of plots and conspiracies, frequently political in nature, and often involving the highest levels of Elizabethan society. High officials in Madrid, Paris and Rome sought to kill Elizabeth, a Protestant, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. That would be a prelude to the religious recovery of England for Catholicism. In 1570, the Ridolfi plot was thwarted. In 1584, the Throckmorton Plot was discovered, after Francis Throckmorton confessed his involvement in a plot to overthrow the Queen and restore the Catholic Church in England. Another major conspiracy was the Babington Plot — the event which most directly led to Mary’s execution, the discovery of which involved a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, acting under the direction of Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s highly effective spy master.
The term Elizabethan era was already well-established in English and British historical consciousness, long before the accession of the current Queen Elizabeth II, and it remains solely applied to the time of the earlier Queen of this name.