Sep 072015


Today is the birthday (1533) of Elizabeth I, queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. She was sometimes called The Virgin Queen (for which Virginia was named), Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, and, because she was childless, was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Her reign, now known as the Elizabethan era, has been the subject of endless debate by historians, although I believe there is less to discuss than you might think. The main virtue of Elizabeth’s reign was that it was long (44 years). It was not a Golden Age in the way it is often discussed by focusing on such highlights as the defeat of the Spanish Armada or the dawning of great theater under Shakespeare and Marlowe. Elizabeth’s reign was plagued by court intrigue, domestic religious insurrections, foreign wars, debt, and royal indecisiveness. All of this was glossed over when James VI & I ascended the throne. The people had high hopes for him, which were quickly dashed, leading people to look back on Elizabeth’s reign with a sentimental reverence that was ill deserved.

One of Elizabeth’s primary achievements was the cementing of the Protestant Reformation in England. When I was an undergraduate I took a special schools paper on the Reformation, and a key essay my tutor asked me to write was “Why was the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ Protestant?” At the time I thought “duh !!!” and still do. It’s a stupid question. It’s a simple matter of political expediency. Her father, Henry VIII, broke with the pope because he wanted a divorce. He was desperate for a legitimate son and heir, to sustain the stability established by his father, Henry VII, following the disastrous Wars of the Roses, which Katherine of Aragon, his wife, seemingly could not produce. She did indeed bear three sons, but all died in early infancy. Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, seemed at the time to be a better option. The attempted divorce (or annulment) caused a rift with the pope, and Henry assumed the headship of the church which allowed him to grant himself the divorce (and in the process making his only surviving child, Mary, illegitimate). Having the pope as head of the church had been a thorn in the side of many European monarchs for whom the Reformation was a convenience. Henry was not in the least interested in actually reforming the church, but he did seize the opportunity to take over the church, and dissolve a large number of monasteries and religious foundations to fill his coffers, making it very difficult for his daughter, Mary, to reinstitute Catholicism. His young and frail son, Edward VI who succeeded him, and died young, was swayed by senior clerics to reform the Prayer Book to solidify the Reformation, and, thus, keep their heads on their shoulders – for the moment.


When Mary, as eldest daughter, succeeded Henry she had to be Catholic to secure her right to inherit (by nullifying the divorce of her mother). In truth, she was actually a devout Catholic, following the teaching and tradition of her mother. She married the Catholic Philip of Spain, further entrenching Catholicism in England and guaranteeing his ire when Elizabeth became a Protestant queen. During Mary’s reign she executed 280 prominent Protestants, mostly by burning at the stake, but ruled for only 5 years before she died. Then Elizabeth enters the stage. Would she be Catholic or Protestant? An absurd and pointless question to my mind. To be queen she HAD to be Protestant. The pope had declared her illegitimate and, hence, could not be queen as a Catholic. Case closed.

Many Protestants had fled England to the continent under Mary where they were influenced by great reformers such as Luther and Calvin, and upon their return were intent on being much more radical than the tepid, almost-Catholic, reformers of Henry’s and Edward’s days. So Elizabeth had trouble on all fronts, from both old-school Catholics, and from Protestants who were divided between old (English) Episcopalians and new (European) Presbyterians. The Protestant battles lasted down to the time of Charles I and Cromwell, and Elizabeth had a difficult time of it keeping all these factions in check.

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Add to all of this the endless jockeying for power within the court which often led to people losing their heads, and the constant threat of invasion by Spain under Mary’s husband, Philip, who wanted his throne back. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was achieved by a combination of brilliant leadership by Francis Drake and the fortunes of weather (many Spanish ships were wrecked in storms off Scotland and Ireland). Nonetheless, war with Spain continued until after Elizabeth’s death, leading the queen to forge an alliance with Morocco in order to harass Spain on two fronts.


So . . . in sum, I would not call Elizabeth’s reign a time of peace and stability: just the opposite. The queen kept a huge network of spies and secret agents so that she was always aware of trouble brewing. It was possible to be in favor one minute and in prison the next. As Elizabeth aged, the country became concerned about a successor since she was childless, and refused to name an heir. But, in keeping with the tenor of the times, no one wanted to be at risk of meeting the chopping block by speaking up. Consequently Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar (1599) to point out that Caesar died without an heir and this prompted civil war. By setting the issue in ancient Rome, Shakespeare avoided an accusation of sedition and treason, but Elizabeth got the point.


Cooking in Elizabethan times was undergoing changes because of the introduction of new cultigens, such as tomatoes, corn, and potatoes, from the New World. Too much can be made of this change. Tomatoes and potatoes, for example, were initially considered poisonous and did not come into regular usage for several generations despite initial enthusiasm. A BOOK OF COOKRYE by A. W. published in 1591 provides a wealth of choices.


Here’s an assortment of stewed capon recipes:

To stue a Capon.

Take the best of the Broth of the pot, and put it in a pipkin, and put to it Corance and great raisins, Dates quartered and onions fine minced, strayned bread & time, and let them boile well togither: when they be well boyled, put in your prunes, season it with cloves, mace, pepper and very little Salte, a spoonfull or two of Vergious, and let it not be too thick. And your Capon being boyled in a pot by it selfe in fair water & salt to keepe it faire, and thus you may boyle a Chicken, vele, beef or mutton after this sort.

To stue a Capon in Lemmons.

Slice your Lemmons and put them in a platter, and put to them white Wine and Rosewater, and so boile them and Sugar til they be tender. Then take the best of the broth wherin your Capon is boyled, and put thereto whole Mace, whole pepper & red Corance, barberies, a little time, & good store of Marow. Let them boile well togither til the broth be almost boiled away that you have no more then will wette your Sops. Then poure your Lemmons upon your Capon, & season your broth with Vergious and Sugar, and put it upon your Capon also.

To boyle a Capon in white broth.

Boile your Capon in faire licour and cover it to keepe it white, but you must boile none other meat with it, take the best of the broth, and as much vergious as of the broth if your Vergious be not too sower, and put therto whole mace, whole pepper, and a good handfull of Endive, Letuce or borage, whether of them ye wil, small Raisins, Dates, Marow of marow bones a little stick of whole Sinamon, the peele of an orenge. Then put in a good peece of Sugar, and boile them well togither. Then take two or three yolkes of egges sodden, and strain them, and thick it withall, & boile your prunes by themselves and lay upon your Capon poure your broth upon your Capon.

Thus maye you boyle any thing in white broth.

An other to boyle a capon in white broth.

First take Marow bones, breake them and boyle them and take out the marrowe. Then seethe your Capon in the same licoure. Then take the best of the licoure in a small Potte to make your broth withall. Then take Corance, Dates and prunes, & boyle them in a pot by themselves till they be plum, then take them up and put them into your brothe, then put whole Mace to them and a good quantitie of beaten Ginger & some Salt. Then put the Marow that you did take from the bones, and strain the yolkes of Egges with Vinager, and put them into your broth with a good peece of Sugar but after this it must not boyle: then take bread and cut therof thin sippits, and lay them in the bottom of a dish. Then take sugar and scrape it about the sides of the dish and lay theron your Capon, and the fruit upon it and so serve it in.

To make Sops for a capon.

Take Tostes of Bread, Butter, Claret wine and slices of Orenges, and lay them upon the Tostes and Sinamon Sugar and Ginger.

You get the idea that you poach the capon (or large chicken)in broth with dried fruits and sweet spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, mace nutmeg, and ginger, then reduce some of the broth to serve as a sauce with the capon and fruits over a bed of sops (soaked bread or toast).