“She certainly is a great queen, and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved" - The Dawn of the Elizabethan Age

17 November 1558, 455 years ago, Queen Mary I of England died and Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne. The Elizabethan Age began.
“She certainly is a great queen, and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs; she is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.“ (Pope Sixtus V)

A detail of a painting attributed to the Flemish portrait painter Lucas de Heere (c 1572), showing Elizabeth ushering peace and prosperity.

“Bloody Mary” was more or less a construction of the 19th century. Her marriage to Philip of Spain and restoration of the Catholic faith after the seven years of Protestantism of her half-brother Edward VI were felt to be un-English. Executing her cousin Jane Grey and burning almost 300 Protestants at the stake was certainly rather not clement, but during the five years the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon had to handle a legacy that would have overtaxed most heads of state. Her father’s follies had left England almost bankrupt, the medieval tax system was by no means sufficient to support a modern state any longer, the population was torn in religious conflict and wrong priorities, short-sightedness and neglect had grinded foreign trade almost to a standstill. During the five years of her reign, England’s first queen regnant did her best, nevertheless, to righten matters, but lacked the popularity of her half-sister. But she laid the foundations of the success of the Elizabethan Age.

John Byam Liston Shaw: "Entry of Queen Mary I with Princess Elizabeth into London in 1553" (1910)

it was that made the 44 years of Elizabeth’s rule a Golden Age, at least in hindsight, is difficult to sort out, it was probably the sum being greater than its parts. With the loss of the last outpost in France during Mary’s reign, 300 years of costly conflicts were over, a policy of savings, compared to her father’s at least, and a prudent economic policy that encouraged England’s merchant class, already privileged in European comparison, further, ended national impoverishment and flushed money into Elizabeth’s coffers and, picking up the naval threads Henry VIII had left, exploration and foreign trade flourished and “Good Queen Bess” kept her hands off risky military adventures abroad anyway. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics remained a ticking time bomb, though, and even if Elizabeth tried to be as tolerant as possible, various Catholic plots threatened her rule and she reacted merciless.

Robert Peake the Elder: "The Procession Picture, c. 1600, showing Elizabeth I borne along by her courtiers"

And while 90% of England’s population still lived more or less in poverty, the slave trade began, Irish Catholics were suppressed and the war with Spain towards the end of her rule almost ruined the carefully groomed national budget, the arts practically exploded. While Italy, the former cultural centre declined under foreign occupation and regionalism and Henry formerly relied on foreign artists, the English Renaissance reached its climax during the reign of Elizabeth, in music, fine arts and, of course, in theatre, with London becoming a hothouse for playwright geniuses, Marlowe and Shakespeare being the most prominent. When the Elizabethan Age ended with Gloriana’s death in 1603, the Middle Ages were finally over, the early Modern period had overcome its throes of the 15th century and the new era flourished, with the course set for England’s dominant role during three centuries following the turmoil of the 17th century – and the unsettled conflicts that brew during Elizabeth’s rule.

Lukas de Heere: "The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession"

And more on: