Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 20. The Army and Navy in Elizabeth’s time

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 20. The Army and Navy in Elizabeth’s time

In queen Elizabeth’s time the military and naval professions can hardly be said to have played any part in the social history of the country. No standing army was kept up for foreign warfare; when a force was required for that purpose, it was collected partly by feudal obligation or impressment, and partly by the enlistment of volunteers—the last-named, for political reasons, a very convenient form for collecting a body of troops. It is true that, already under James I, such forces were often not disbanded immediately on their return home. Meanwhile, the defensive force of the land, in principle, and (at all events till the reign of Charles I) in fact, was a county militia, called under arms by means of commissions of array, officered by country gentlemen and under the command of lords lieutenant—though the name “militia” was only coming into use at the time when the civil war broke out on the question of the command of the body so called. The composition of the force, the numbers of which looked magnificent on paper, depended largely on the high constables of the hundreds and the petty constables of the parishes, who seem to have taken good care to draft into it all the disreputable elements of which they were fain to get rid, as well as the unemployed “Shadows” and “Mouldies” of their generation. Recruits were supplied with arms—armour proper was falling out of use, and, by the close of the century, the bow had been entirely superseded by the musket. Munition was kept in readiness under some sort of inspection in every town and considerable village; for there were no garrisons existing except in a few coast towns. The navy was made up of a growing number of ships of war, besides merchant vessels (including ships chartered by the various trading companies) and fishing boats. Harrison reckons, with pride, that queen Elizabeth could have afloat as many as from 9,000 to 10,000 seamen; and a census held for the purpose a few years before the coming of the Armada reckoned more than 16,000 persons in England (exclusive of Wales) in some sort accustomed to the sea. The wonderful year itself proved a great deal more than that England had the winds and the waves for allies—it also proved that her ships were much superior to those of her arch-foe in both manning and gunnery. Though shipbuilding was much improved in the later years of the century, when the queen built about one ship a year, much needed reforms in what had now become a regular profession did not begin till 1618. Thus in the Elizabethan age proper, the military, and, here and there, the naval types which dramatists, in this period, were fond of presenting were largely of an exceptional sort—men in whom a mixture of volunteer or privateer and patriot lends itself to picturesque treatment. Besides these, there must have been in real life many swaggerers and pretenders, of the Pistol and Bobadill sort, who on the stage furnished variations of the time-honoured classical or Italian types; and there was, especially as a legacy of the struggle in the Low Countries, a constant influx of discharged soldiers, quite as often objects of satire as of sympathy, because of the counterfeits who were largely mixed up with them and who were one of the pests of the age. No doubt, too, Harrison’s observation was correct, that soldiers who had seen service in the field could not easily be prevailed upon to resume the habit of ordinary daily labour, and thus became a disturbing element in the population. For the rest, in London and elsewhere, order was kept by watchmen with their brown bills—a familiar type of Elizabethan comedy. The general security of the country, no doubt, was greater than of old; but it was still necessary for serving-men to be armed when going out at night time, and highway robberies were not uncommon, especially about Christmas time.