Chronicles of America 

The Perils of Queen Elizabeth

Elizabethan England is the motherland, the true historic home, of all the different peoples who speak the sea-borne English tongue. In the reign of Elizabeth there was only one English-speaking nation. This nation consisted of a bare five million people, fewer than there are today in London. But hardly had the Great Queen died before Englishmen began that colonizing movement which has carried their language the whole world round and established their civilization in every quarter of the globe. Within three centuries after Elizabeth's day the use of English as a native speech had grown quite thirty-fold. Within the same three centuries the number of those living under laws and institutions derived from England had grown a hundredfold.

The England of Elizabeth was an England of great deeds, but of greater dreams. Elizabethan literature, take it for all in all, has never been surpassed; myriad-minded Shakespeare remains unequalled still. Elizabethan England was indeed 'a nest of singing birds.' Prose was often far too pedestrian for the exultant life of such a mighty generation. As new worlds came into their expectant ken, the glowing Elizabethans wished to fly there on the soaring wings of verse. To them the tide of fortune was no ordinary stream but the 'white-maned, proud, neck-arching tide' that bore adventurers to sea 'with pomp of waters unwithstood.'

The goodly heritage that England gave her offspring overseas included Shakespeare and the English Bible. The Authorized Version entered into the very substance of early American life. There was a marked difference between Episcopalian Virginia and Puritan New England. But both took their stand on this version of the English Bible, in which the springs of Holy Writ rejoiced to run through channels of Elizabethan prose. It is true that Elizabeth slept with her fathers before this book of books was printed, and that the first of the Stuarts reigned in her stead. Nevertheless the Authorized Version is pure Elizabethan. All its translators were Elizabethans, as their dedication to King James, still printed with every copy, gratefully acknowledges in its reference to 'the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory.'

These words of the reverend scholars contain no empty compliment. Elizabeth was a great sovereign and in some essential particulars, a very great national leader. This daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn the debonair, was born a heretic in 1533. Her father was then defying both Spain and the Pope. Within three years after her birth her mother was beheaded; and by Act of Parliament Elizabeth herself was declared illegitimate. She was fourteen when her father died, leaving the kingdom to his three children in succession, Elizabeth being the third. Then followed the Protestant reign of the boy-king Edward VI, during which Elizabeth enjoyed security; then the Catholic reign of her Spanish half-sister, 'Bloody Mary,' during which her life hung by the merest thread.

At first, however, Mary concealed her hostility to Elizabeth because she thought the two daughters of Henry VIII ought to appear together in her triumphal entry into London. From one point of view--and a feminine one at that--this was a fatal mistake on Mary's part: for never did Elizabeth show to more advantage. She was just under twenty, while Mary was nearly twice her age. Mary had, indeed, provided herself with one good foil in the person of Anne of Cleves, the 'Flemish mare' whose flat coarse face and lumbering body had disgusted King Henry thirteen years before, when Cromwell had foisted her upon him as his fourth wife. But with poor, fat, straw-colored Anne on one side, and black-and-sallow, foreign-looking, man-voiced Mary on the other, the thoroughly English Princess Elizabeth took London by storm on the spot. Tall and majestic, she was a magnificent example of the finest Anglo-Norman type. Always 'the glass of fashion' and then the very 'mould of form' her splendid figure looked equally well on horseback or on foot. A little full in the eye, and with a slightly aquiline nose, she appeared, as she really was, keenly observant and commanding. Though these two features just prevented her from being a beauty, the bright blue eyes and the finely chiselled nose were themselves quite beautiful enough. Nor was she less taking to the ear than to the eye; for, in marked contrast to gruff foreign Mary and wheezy foreign Anne, she had a rich, clear, though rather too loud, English voice. When the Court reined up and dismounted, Elizabeth became even more the centre of attraction. Mary marched stiffly on. Anne plodded after. But as for Elizabeth--perfect in dancing, riding, archery, and all the sports of chivalry--'she trod the ling like a buck in spring, and she looked like a lance in rest.'

When Elizabeth succeeded Mary in the autumn of 1558 she had dire need of all she had learnt in her twenty-five years of adventurous life. Fortunately for herself and, on the whole, most fortunately for both England and America, she had a remarkable power of inspiring devotion to the service of their queen and country in men of both the cool and ardent types; and this long after her personal charms had gone. Government, religion, finance, defence, and foreign affairs were in a perilous state of flux, besides which they have never been more distractingly mixed up with one another. Henry VII had saved money for twenty-five years. His three successors had spent it lavishly for fifty. Henry VIII had kept the Church Catholic in ritual while making it purely national in government. The Lord Protector Somerset had made it as Protestant as possible under Edward VI. Mary had done her best to bring it back to the Pope. Home affairs were full of doubts and dangers, though the great mass of the people were ready to give their handsome young queen a fair chance and not a little favor. Foreign affairs were worse. France was still the hereditary enemy; and the loss of Calais under Mary had exasperated the whole English nation. Scotland was a constant menace in the north. Spain was gradually changing from friend to foe. The Pope was disinclined to recognize Elizabeth at all.

To understand how difficult her position was we must remember what sort of constitution England had when the germ of the United States was forming. The Roman Empire was one constituent whole from the emperor down. The English-speaking peoples of today form constituent wholes from the electorate up. In both cases all parts were and are in constant relation to the whole. The case of Elizabethan England, however, was very different. There was neither despotic unity from above nor democratic unity from below, but a mixed and fluctuating kind of government in which Crown, nobles, parliament, and people formed certain parts which had to be put together for each occasion. The accepted general idea was that the sovereign, supreme as an individual, looked after the welfare of the country in peace and war so far as the Crown estates permitted; but that whenever the Crown resources would not suffice then the sovereign could call on nobles and people for whatever the common weal required. "Noblesse oblige". In return for the estates or monopolies which they had acquired the nobles and favored commoners were expected to come forward with all their resources at every national crisis precisely as the Crown was expected to work for the common weal at all times. When the resources of the Crown and favored courtiers sufficed, no parliament was called; but whenever they had to be supplemented then parliament met and voted whatever it approved. Finally, every English freeman was required to do his own share towards defending the country in time of need, and he was further required to know the proper use of arms.

The great object of every European court during early modern times was to get both the old feudal nobility and the newly promoted commoners to revolve round the throne as round the centre of their solar system. By sheer force of character--for the Tudors, had no overwhelming army like the Roman emperors'--Henry VIII had succeeded wonderfully well. Elizabeth now had to piece together what had been broken under Edward VI and Mary. She, too, succeeded--and with the hearty goodwill of nearly all her subjects.

Mary had left the royal treasury deeply in debt. Yet Elizabeth succeeded in paying off all arrears and meeting new expenditure for defence and for the court. The royal income rose. England became immensely richer and more prosperous than ever before. Foreign trade increased by leaps and bounds. Home industries flourished and were stimulated by new arrivals from abroad, because England was a safe asylum for the craftsmen whom Philip was driving from the Netherlands, to his own great loss and his rival's gain.

English commercial life had been slowly emerging from medieval ways throughout the fifteenth century. With the beginning of the sixteenth the rate of emergence had greatly quickened. The soil-bound peasant who produced enough food for his family from his thirty acres was being gradually replaced by the well-to-do yeoman who tilled a hundred acres and upwards. Such holdings produced a substantial surplus for the market. This increased the national wealth, which, in its turn, increased both home and foreign trade. The peasant merely raised a little wheat and barley, kept a cow, and perhaps some sheep. The yeoman or tenant farmer had sheep enough for the wool trade besides some butter, cheese, and meat for the nearest growing town. He began to 'garnish his cupboards with pewter and his joined beds with tapestry and silk hangings, and his tables with carpets and fine napery.' He could even feast his neighbors and servants after shearing day with new-fangled foreign luxuries like dates, mace, raisins, currants, and sugar.

But Elizabethan society presented striking contrasts. In parts of England, the practice of engrossing and enclosing holdings was increasing, as sheep-raising became more profitable than farming. The tenants thus dispossessed either swelled the ranks of the vagabonds who infested the highways or sought their livelihood at sea or in London, which provided the two best openings for adventurous young men. The smaller provincial towns afforded them little opportunity, for there the trades were largely in the hands of close corporations descended from the medieval craft guilds. These were eventually to be swept away by the general trend of business. Their dissolution had indeed already begun; for smart village craftsmen were even then forming the new industrial settlements from which most of the great manufacturing towns of England have sprung. Camden the historian found Birmingham full of ringing anvils, Sheffield 'a town of great name for the smiths therein,' Leeds renowned for cloth, and Manchester already a sort of cottonopolis, though the 'cottons' of those days were still made of wool.

There was a wages question then as now. There were demands for a minimum living wage. The influx of gold and silver from America had sent all prices soaring. Meat became almost prohibitive for the 'submerged tenth'--there was a rapidly submerging tenth. Beef rose from one cent a pound in the forties to four in 1588, the year of the Armada. How would the lowest paid of craftsmen fare on twelve cents a day, with butter at ten cents a pound? Efforts were made, again and again, to readjust the ratio between prices and wages. But, as a rule, prices increased much faster than wages.

All these things--the increase of surplus hands, the high cost of living, grievances about wages and interest--tended to make the farms and workshops of England recruiting-grounds for the sea; and the young men would strike out for themselves as freighters, traders, privateers, or downright pirates, lured by the dazzling chance of great and sudden wealth.

'The gamble of it' was as potent then as now, probably more potent still. It was an age of wild speculation accompanied by all the usual evils that follow frenzied ways. It was also an age of monopoly. Both monopoly and speculation sent recruits into the sea-dog ranks. Elizabeth would grant, say, to Sir Walter Raleigh, the monopoly of sweet wines. Raleigh would naturally want as much sweet wine imported as England could be induced to swallow. So, too, would Elizabeth, who got the duty. Crews would be wanted for the monopolistic ships. They would also be wanted for 'free-trading' vessels, that is, for the ships of the smugglers who underbid, undersold, and tried to overreach the monopolist, who represented law, though not quite justice. But speculation ran to greater extremes than either monopoly or smuggling. Shakespeare's 'Putter-out of five for one' was a typical Elizabethan speculator exploiting the riskiest form of sea-dog trade for all--and sometimes for more than all--that it was worth. A merchant-adventurer would pay a capitalist, say, a thousand pounds as a premium to be forfeited if his ship should be lost, but to be repaid by the capitalist fivefold to the merchant if it returned. Incredible as it may seem to us, there were shrewd money-lenders always ready for this sort of deal in life--or life-and-death--insurance: an eloquent testimony to the risks encountered in sailing unknown seas in the midst of well-known dangers.

Marine insurance of the regular kind was, of course, a very different thing. It was already of immemorial age, going back certainly to medieval and probably to very ancient times. All forms of insurance on land are mere mushrooms by comparison. Lloyd's had not been heard of. But there were plenty of smart Elizabethan underwriters already practicing the general principles which were to be formally adopted two hundred years later, in 1779, at Lloyd's Coffee House. A policy taken out on the "Tiger" immortalized by Shakespeare would serve as a model still. And what makes it all the more interesting is that the Elizabethan underwriters calculated the "Tiger's" chances at the very spot where the association known as Lloyd's transacts its business to-day, the Royal Exchange in London. This, in turn, brings Elizabeth herself upon the scene; for when she visited the Exchange, which Sir Thomas Gresham had built to let the merchants do their street work under cover, she immediately grasped its full significance and 'caused it by an Herald and a Trumpet to be proclaimed The Royal Exchange,' the name it bears to-day. An Elizabethan might well be astonished by what he would see at any modern Lloyd's. Yet he would find the same essentials; for the British Lloyd's, like most of its foreign imitators, is not a gigantic insurance company at all, but an association of cautiously elected members who carry on their completely independent private business in daily touch with each other--precisely as Elizabethans did. Lloyd's method differs wholly from ordinary insurance. Instead of insuring vessel and cargo with a single company or man the owner puts his case before Lloyd's, and any member can then write his name underneath for any reasonable part of the risk. The modern 'underwriter,' all the world over, is the direct descendant of the Elizabethan who wrote his name under the conditions of a given risk at sea.

Joint-stock companies were in one sense old when Elizabethan men of business were young. But the Elizabethans developed them enormously. 'Going shares' was doubtless prehistoric. It certainly was ancient, medieval, and Elizabethan. But those who formerly went shares generally knew each other and something of the business too. The favorite number of total shares was just sixteen. There were sixteen land-shares in a Celtic household, sixteen shares in Scottish vessels not individually owned, sixteen shares in the theatre by which Shakespeare 'made his pile.' But sixteenths, and even hundredths, were put out of date when speculation on the grander scale began and the area of investment grew. The New River Company, for supplying London with water, had only a few shares then, as it continued to have down to our own day, when they stood at over a thousand times par. The Ulster 'Plantation' in Ireland was more remote and appealed to more investors and on wider grounds--sentimental grounds, both good and bad, included. The Virginia 'Plantation' was still more remote and risky and appealed to an ever-increasing number of the speculating public. Many an investor put money on America in much the same way as a factory hand to-day puts money on a horse he has never seen or has never heard of otherwise than as something out of which a lot of easy money can be made provided luck holds good.

The modern prospectus was also in full career under Elizabeth, who probably had a hand in concocting some of the most important specimens. Lord Bacon wrote one describing the advantages of the Newfoundland fisheries in terms which no promoter of the present day could better. Every type of prospectus was tried on the investing public, some genuine, many doubtful, others as outrageous in their impositions on human credulity as anything produced in our own times. The company-promoter was abroad, in London, on 'Change, and at court. What with royal favor, social prestige, general prosperity, the new national eagerness to find vent for surplus commodities, and, above all, the spirit of speculation fanned into flame by the real and fabled wonders of America, what with all this the investing public could take its choice of 'going the limit' in a hundred different and most alluring ways. England was surprised at her own investing wealth. The East India Company raised eight million dollars with ease from a thousand shareholders and paid a first dividend of 87-1/2 per cent. Spices, pearls, and silks came pouring into London; and English goods found vent increasingly abroad.

Vastly expanding business opportunities of course produced the spirit of the trust--and of very much the same sort of trust that Americans think so ultra-modern now. Monopolies granted by the Crown and the volcanic forces of widespread speculation prevented some of the abuses of the trust. But there were Elizabethan trusts, for all that, though many a promising scheme fell through. The Feltmakers' Hat Trust is a case in point. They proposed buying up all the hats in the market so as to oblige all dealers to depend upon one central warehouse. Of course they issued a prospectus showing how everyone concerned would benefit by this benevolent plan.

Ben Jonson and other playwrights were quick to seize the salient absurdities of such an advertisement. In "The Staple of News" Jonson proposed a News Trust to collect all the news of the world, corner it, classify it into authentic, apocryphal, barber's gossip, and so forth, and then sell it, for the sole benefit of the consumer, in lengths to suit all purchasers. In "The Devil is an Ass" he is a little more outspoken.

We'll take in citizens, commoners, and aldermen To bear the charge, and blow them off again like so many dead flies....

This was exactly what was at that very moment being done in the case of the Alum Trust. All the leading characters of much more modern times were there already; Fitzdottrell, ready to sell his estates in order to become His Grace the Duke of Drown'dland, Gilthead, the London moneylender who 'lives by finding fools,' and My Lady Tailbush, who pulls the social wires at court. And so the game went on, usually with the result explained by Shakespeare's fisherman in "Pericles":

'I marvel how the fishes live in the sea'---'Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.'

The Newcastle coal trade grew into something very like a modern American trust with the additional advantage of an authorized government monopoly so long as the agreed-upon duty was paid. Then there was the Starch Monopoly, a very profitable one because starch was a new delight which soon enabled Elizabethan fops to wear ruffed collars big enough to make their heads--as one irreverent satirist exclaimed--'look like John Baptist's on a platter.'

But America? Could not America defeat the machinations of all monopolies and other trusts? Wasn't America the land of actual gold and silver where there was plenty of room for everyone? There soon grew up a wild belief that you could tap America for precious metals almost as its Indians tapped maple trees for sugar. The 'Mountains of Bright Stones' were surely there. Peru and Mexico were nothing to these. Only find them, and 'get-rich-quick' would be the order of the day for every true adventurer. These mountains moved about in men's imaginations and on prospectors' maps, always ahead of the latest pioneer, somewhere behind the Back of Beyond. They and their glamour died hard. Even that staid geographer of a later day, Thos. Jeffreys, added to his standard atlas of America, in 1760, this item of information on the Far Northwest: "Hereabouts are supposed to be the Mountains of Bright Stones mentioned in the Map of ye Indian Ochagach."

Speculation of the wildcat kind was bad. But it was the seamy side of a praiseworthy spirit of enterprise. Monopoly seems worse than speculation. And so, in many ways, it was. But we must judge it by the custom of its age. It was often unjust and generally obstructive. But it did what neither the national government nor joint-stock companies had yet learnt to do. Monopoly went by court favor, and its rights were often scandalously let and sometimes sublet as well. But, on the whole, the Queen, the court, and the country really meant business, and monopolists had either to deliver the goods or get out. Monopolists sold dispensations from unworkable laws, which was sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad. They sold licenses for indulgence in forbidden pleasures, not often harmless. They thought out and collected all kinds of indirect taxation and had to face all the troubles that confront the framers of a tariff policy to-day. Most of all, however, in a rough-and-ready way they set a sort of Civil Service going. They served as Boards of Trade, Departments of the Interior, Customs, Inland Revenue, and so forth. What Crown and Parliament either could not or would not do was farmed out to monopolists. Like speculation the system worked both ways, and frequently for evil. But, like the British constitution, though on a lower plane, it worked.

A monopoly at home--like those which we have been considering--was endurable because it was a working compromise that suited existing circumstances more or less, and that could be either mended or ended as time went on. But a general foreign monopoly--like Spain's monopoly of America--was quite unendurable. Could Spain not only hold what she had discovered and was exploiting but also extend her sphere of influence over what she had not discovered? Spain said Yes. England said No. The Spaniards looked for tribute. The English looked for trade. In government, in religion, in business, in everything, the two great rivals were irreconcilably opposed. Thus the lists were set; and sea-dog battles followed.

Elizabeth was an exceedingly able woman of business and was practically president of all the great joint-stock companies engaged in oversea trade. Wherever a cargo could be bought or sold there went an English ship to buy or sell it. Whenever the authorities in foreign parts tried discrimination against English men or English goods, the English sea-dogs growled and showed their teeth. And if the foreigners persisted, the sea-dogs bit them.

Elizabeth was extravagant at court; but not without state motives for at least a part of her extravagance. A brilliant court attracted the upper classes into the orbit of the Crown while it impressed the whole country with the sovereign's power. Courtiers favored with monopolies had to spend their earnings when the state was threatened. And might not the Queen's vast profusion of jewelry be turned to account at a pinch? Elizabeth could not afford to be generous when she was young. She grew to be stingy when she was old. But she saved the state by sound finance as well as by arms in spite of all her pomps and vanities. She had three thousand dresses, and gorgeous ones at that, during the course of her reign. Her bathroom was wainscoted with Venetian mirrors so that she could see 'nine-and-ninety' reflections of her very comely person as she dipped and splashed or dried her royal skin. She set a hot pace for all the votaries of dress to follow. All kinds of fashions came in from abroad with the rush of new-found wealth; and so, instead of being sanely beautiful, they soon became insanely bizarre. 'An Englishman,' says Harrison, 'endeavouring to write of our attire, gave over his travail, and only drew the picture of a naked man, since he could find no kind of garment that could please him any whiles together.

I am an English man and naked I stand here, Musing in my mind what raiment I shall were; For now I will were this, and now I will were that; And now I will were I cannot tell what.

Except you see a dog in a doublet you shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen of England. Women also do far exceed the lightness of our men. What shall I say of their galligascons to bear out their attire and make it fit plum round?' But the wives of 'citizens and burgesses,' like all "nouveaux riches", were still more bizarre than the courtiers. 'They cannot tell when or how to make an end, being women in whom all kind of curiosity is to be seen in far greater measure than in women of higher calling. I might name hues devised for the nonce, ver d'oye 'twixt green and yallow, peas-porridge tawny, popinjay blue, and the Devil-in-the-head.'

Yet all this crude absurdity, 'from the courtier to the carter,' was the glass reflecting the constantly increasing sea-borne trade, ever pushing farther afield under the stimulus and protection of the sea-dogs. And the Queen took precious good care that it all paid toll to her treasury through the customs, so that she could have more money to build more ships. And if her courtiers did stuff their breeches out with sawdust, she took equally good care that each fighting man among them donned his uniform and raised his troops or fitted out his ships when the time was ripe for action.

Back to: English Exploration of America