Book review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

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The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Ian Mortimer (Bodley Head, £20, *£16.50)

We are all Elizabethans now. It’s not only in a Diamond Jubilee year that the English find their perception of themselves reflecting their vision of the first Elizabethan age-an age of enterprise, creativity, independence of Europe and seeing-off invaders. The glitter of Gloriana still lingers in our imagination. But was the first Elizabethan age really so glorious? Ian Mortimer analyses the reality behind this ‘jewel-encrusted muddy kingdom’, concentrating on the rutted highways, the appalling hygiene, the subservient condition of most women, the corruption and the cottages that were mere shacks. The Queen and her courtiers scattered loose pearls, but hungry children died in their thousands.

Perhaps the most forceful message in this fascinatingly readable book is that the first Elizabethans were less sure of themselves than we like to think. It was an age when so much-Church, geography, monarchy-had changed that people no longer knew what to believe: ‘They had become used to living with slow-burning crises that might… flare up into life-threatening situations.’ There were often assassination attempts against the Queen. Plague and hell (the Queen had been excommunicated) were constant threats. Even to speculate about the royal succession was a capital offence.

Yet there was much that we second Elizabethans can recognise. Julian Fellowes might share Mr Mortimer’s verdict on society: ‘Class distinctions in England are a little like age brackets… only the extremes can be described without fear of contradiction.’ And those who remember with pride the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk might be proud to hear that Drake’s navy, when it set out to tackle the Armada, was augmented by ‘no fewer than 163 privately owned vessels’. Perhaps we are right to call ourselves Elizabethans: after all, we have our own Gloriana.

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