As the second Elizabethan age closes in disillusionment, Penry Williams reconsiders whether the first deserved the same fate.
Fifty-five years ago, at the time of the coronation of the present Queen, the British were encouraged to expect a second Elizabethan age. Three years earlier, J. E. Neale had told us of the splendours of the first, seen by the people of the time as a golden age, marked by an 'exuberant national spirit', its emphasis 'on enterprise and the individual', The age was revolutionary, presided over by a monarch averse to revolution, but able to 'personify the emotion of the nation without necessarily being doctrinaire. Hence the paradox of revolution with moderation at the helm. Rare personal qualities, great art and good fortune were needed for the role.' The great energies of the nation were controlled and encouraged by Queen and Council, and of the two the former was the more important: 'it was the Queen herself who kept the nation charged with emotion,' The outcome was a time of change, of vigorous expansion overseas, of prosperity, and of great cultural flowering. Above all, thanks to Elizabeth I, the nation had achieved balance.
Today, the promise of a second great Elizabethan age has gone unredeemed. The Suez crisis struck the first sour note and gradually the British have come to realise that they are no longer a great world power. The economic lead has been taken by others, notably our past enemies. The monarchy is threatened with collapse. The Union appears to be breaking up. London's theatres, the glory of the First Elizabethan age, are mostly occupied by everlasting musicals and our principal opera-house is on the edge of bankruptcy. Instead of Nicholas Hillyard we have Damien Hirst.