The reign of Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII, lasted a remarkable 45 years, from 1558 to 1603. It was an exciting time, marked by a rising middle class, the Age of Explorers and Shakespearean theatre. It was also a time of endemic syphilis, high child mortality and outbreaks of plague and smallpox.
England's population burgeoned during Elizabeth's reign, rising from about three million to about four million. At the time of Elizabeth's death, about one-third of the population was under 15 years of age, and a half was under 25.
Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England (with himself as head). As queen, his daughter Mary had declared England a Catholic nation again, but, Elizabeth returned the nation to the Church of England. Catholics practised their faith in secret.
Literacy became far more common under Elizabeth's reign, supposedly reaching 70 percent in London; and it grew out of practical utility, enabling apprentices, husbandmen and tradesmen to better ply their crafts. Before Elizabeth's reign, reading was left to the gentle class, chiefly for Bible study.
England (and London in particular) saw numerous epidemics and pandemics in Elizabethan days. Elizabeth herself came down with smallpox, although it was only a mild case. The bubonic or "Black Plague" took nearly a quarter of London's population in 1563. Syphilis was on the rise, supposedly brought to Europe from the Americas, by Columbus and his crew. Scurvy was rampant among the poor, owing to the lack of vitamin C in their diets. Finally, tuberculosis took a quarter of the patients at London's St. Botolph's Hospital in one seven-year period.
Elizabethan times saw the rise of a strong merchant class, led by weavers and clothmakers. A successful merchant could not expect to rise to nobility, but could expect to accumulate wealth and buy property.
Theatre was looked upon as unsavoury; the noble class would attend, but the ladies might wear a mask to disguise themselves. Shakespeare wrote for the Globe Theatre during Elizabeth's reign, but it was located across the Thames River from London, outside the city limits, where theatre was banned.
Childbirth and death
A woman could expect up to seven pregnancies in her life, not all successful. About one percent of women died in childbirth. About 25 per cent of children died before the age of 10, according to R.E. Pritchard in "Shakespeare's England."
Bathing was impractical given the lack of heat and ability to heat large quantities of water. But in a London that stank due to a lack of sewerage disposal, body odour likely did not offend. Most Elizabethans would make due with the occasional sponging, while the gentler classes covered their odour with perfumes and scented powders.
Pritchard described three general classes of poor, which English government recognised. First was the "impotent" poor, which included widows, orphans and the sick. Second were able-bodied poor, willing but unable to support themselves. Third were the "idle," "rogues and vagabonds." This class of poor was largely blamed for the spread of disease and an idle wanderer was likely to be soundly whipped by the local constabulary.
Children might marry as young as seven years old, with parents' consent. The rich and the poor tended to marry early, in their teens, while the populace at large married in its mid-20s.
- "Daily Life in Elizabethan England"; Jeffrey Singman; 1995
- Britain Express: Elizabethan Life in England
- "Shakespeare's England"; R. E. Pritchard; 2000
- "Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London"; Liza Picard; 2005