Elizabethan government, 1563-1603


The royal court

  • Important in the Elizabethan decision making process. Elizabeth could seek advice on an individual basis. 
  • The court was part theatre (it was a display of power and wealth) and partly a place for patronage. The court existed wherever the Queen was at the time. It had two main areas:
    • The Presence Chamber (the lower tier and was relatively open to anyone with the right status or connections).
    • The Privy Council/ Chamber (highest tier and was more private and more important - admissions to the Privy Chamber were carefully guarded).
  • The operation of the court was under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain. Elizabeth always appointed a member of the nobility to the position.
  • In Elizabethan England the ceremonial aspects of court life became more important. Christopher Haigh has argued that increasingly during her reign, she turned politicians (like Cecil) into courtiers and her courtiers (like Earl of Leicester) into politicians. He maintained that Elizabeth was more like her grandfather than her father as she kept more skilled men close to her and courtiers who were more dangerous away from her at a political level.
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The role of ministers

  • The Privy Council was the main formal body in which Elizabeth's principal ministers met. It met regularly and around 10 men normally attended. Though, its importance as a decision-making body should not be overestimated as Elizabeth often talked with them on an individual basis. It was responsible for policy advice and administration.
  • Key functions of the Privy Council:Elizabeth wanted to rule as well as reign - she was politically skilled and was aware of the importance of royal prerogative. 
    • Responsible for law and order
    • Responsible for upholding the Religious Settlement
    • Had to deal with matters of defence
    • Had to deal with civil and social laws
    • Managed Crown finances e.g. discussing whether to raise taxes
    • Offered policy advice
  • William Cecil was Elizabeth's key minister at the start of her reign and he came to dominate the Privy Council. The Council also included Sir Nicholas Bacon, Francis Russell Earl of Bedford and Sir Francis Knollys. It also contained ministers with more conservative views. Elizabeth's favourite Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester joined the Council in 1562. Everytime someone joined the Council, its dynamic changed and this created factional rivalries e.g. Cecil did not get on with Dudley. 
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The role of ministers

  • In the 1570s, there was somne reshaping of the Privy Council - the traditional conservative aristocracy had less influence as the Duke of Norfolk was executed and Lord Treasurer Winchester died. This resulted in more Protestant councillors being appointed e.g. Sir Francis Walsingham etc. This was balanced by promotions of some conservative figures e.g. Sir Christopher Hatton.
  • In spite of these changes, the Council offered cohesive decision-making. There were disputes over foreign policy and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots caused a breakdown of relations between Elizabeth and the Council. But, mainly her ministers served her well. 
  • Several problems weakened the Council in the 1580s:
    • Several ministers died in quick succession e.g. the Earl of Leicester died and she lost other administratively able ministers.
    • The Queen failed to make immediate replacements and when she did, she often chose the sons of former councillors who often lacked their father's skills (she chose them as she believed she could trust them; this was more important to her than anything else).
    • The Council lacked senior noblemen, so her Council no longer contained England's most important families. She tended to choose skilled men but she needed noblemen for their power and wealth.
    • She refused to let Burghley retire even though he was less effective in the 1590s.
    • The promotion of Robert Cecil angered the Earl of Essex. 
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Factional rivalry

  • Throughout Elizabeth's reign, conciliar government was affected by factional rivalries.
  • But, in the early stages of Elizabeth's government, the structure of government helped prevent factional rivalry from getting out of hand. At first, it could be interpreted as a good thing as no single minister, not even Cecil, had complete control over patronage. These various families at court and in the Council balanced each other. Although, this could be interpreted as a bad thing because it causes the government to be less efficient.
  • The coherence of government began to decline in the 1590s when clashes between Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex made government difficult. These problems came to a head in the Essex Rebellion of 1601. 
  • The Earl of Essex lost his influence because: he had been largely frozen out of court by Sir Robert Cecil and his allies and he had thus lost his power as a factional leader. He was in deep financial trouble and failed as a military leader in Ireland. His response to his declining influence was to plan an armed coup which would bring down Cecil and his other enemies. But, his plans were rumbled and Essex was finally forced to surrender. He was tried and executed in 1601. By this time Elizabeth and Cecil had become unpopular and the attitudes of Essex and his allies showed a larger discontent. 
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  • Parliament was less important under Elizabeth than it would be in the future and possibly, it was less important than it had been under Henry VIII. Elizabeth saw Parliament as a necessary but occasional evil - she didn't see Parliament as a body for decision-making and she looked to them more for administration, law-making and granting taxation. It was largely a secondary feature of the Elizabethan political system.
  • Law making: Overall, 438 Acts were passed in Elizabeth's reign. The most important related to religious (Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity) and social policy.
  • Granting taxation: For Elizabeth, the most important function of Parliament was to grant extraordinary revenue to the Crown. Of the 13 parliamentary sessions, all but 2 were asked to grant revenue. Despite her attempts to become financially independent, Elizabeth was frequently forced to levy 'extraordinary' revenue to pay for the Crown's 'normal' expenditure as the level of her ordinary revenue had fallen. 
  • Giving advice: Most of the time Elizabeth was not at all interested in listening to the advice of MPs. She became irritated the most when MPs ventured into areas that she considered to be apart of royal prerogative e.g. the issues of marriage and succession, so Parliament would often advise Privy Council members instead. But, Parliament meetings gave the Privy Council the opportiunity to gauge political opinion of the nation. 
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Managing Parliament

  • Parliament's functions were limited, but it was important to Elizabeth's ministers that sessions were carefully managed (they could help fund rebellions against her). Privy councillors often began parliamentary sessions by setting the tone and outlining the Crown's priorities. So, Parliament never had a chance to air their grievances first and only the Crown's businesses were dealt with. As John Guy put it, 'legislative business was properly directed'. 
  • Despite these attempts at control, there were times when the MPs irritated the Queen. They sought to debate the issues of marriage and succession. 
  • By 1593, many of the traditinal methods of parliamentary management began to have less success. MPs were starting to get restless with how they were being treated by the Crown. Elizabeth tried to use both charm and flattery but there were differences about how to deal with religion. A feature of the 1593 Parliament was the imprisonment of Peter Wentworth for arguing for a named successor to Elizabeth - the Queen felt this was an attack on her royal prerogative and imprisoned Peter and three colleagues in the Tower; shows her lack of respect for the opinions of Parliament.
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Managing Parliament

  • The relationship between Elizabeth and Parlaiment broke down entirely at the end of her reign over the issue of monopolies. This debate over monopolies was the one occasion Crown officials lost control over the House of Commons. A compromise was achieved and the session ended with Elizabeth delivering her Golden Speech.
  • The Golden Speech of 1601: A sppech delivered to Parliament as her last session drew to a close. It it likely that Elizabeth was aware this would be the final parliament of her reign (she was gving a sort of farewell). She used flattery and masterly painted over the poor relations between Crown and Parliament. She knew she had a duty to ease tensions for the monarch succeeding her. Many MPs reportedly left the chamber in tears of loyalty to the Queen. 
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  • Over a period as lengthy as the reign of Elizabeth, there was a mixed picture of successes, partial successes and failures - this is to be expected from a reign as long as her's. 
  • Overall, government was well conducted, especially over the first 30 years, and there was a broad concensus, exempting religion, among the governing classes.
  • Elizabeth had a number of talented individuals to work for her e.g. Cecil, Walsingham, Hatton. They were effective, wise and loyal; they served the Queen effectively and were able to control Parliament.
  • Elizabeth herself was effective and wise in her choice of ministers. But, her only serious problem came with her reluctance to come to terms with the weaknesses of character and ability of the Earl of Essex. 
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