The period between the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588 and the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 was among the most dramatic in English history. It was a time of Irish ‘troubles’, of war and plague, faction and rebellion, global exploration and religious fanaticism. These 15 years also witnessed the dazzling career and mysterious death of Christopher Marlowe, the publication of English literature’s national epic (The Faerie Queene), the intellectual brilliance and emotional intensity of John Donne’s love poetry, and the first performance of an astonishing variety of Shakespeare’s plays, ranging from his English histories to his greatest comedies to Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
No other 15-year period in the nation’s history has produced so many irreplaceable works of imaginative genius. How did this come about? And what was the relationship between the troubled times and the flowering of theatrical and poetic genius? These questions have fascinated historians and literary critics ever since the 18th century. Each generation comes at them according to their own light.
In 1952, the year of King George VI’s death, the Oxford historian A. L. Rowse delivered a presidential address to the English Association. He called it ‘A New Elizabethan Age?’ Rowse had already published one very fine and highly successful book about the first Queen Elizabeth (he would go on to publish many more, of gradually declining quality). In that brief period of renewed national energy between the Festival of Britain and the Suez crisis, Rowse expressed the hope that England would recover some of its greatness under the second.
On the threshold of the diamond jubilee, the prolific A. N. Wilson has produced a new survey of the age of the first Elizabeth. It is written with all the verve of the young Rowse, but none of his naïve patriotism.