The Political Nation and the Social Basis of Power


The Political Nation

The term 'political nation' refers to those people in early modern Britain who had economic, political and social influence. Economic standing, predominantly based on land ownership, lay at the root of the Political Nation's influence, because it was their wealth that gave them their political and social power. The monarch was the head of the Political Nation.

The institution of monarchy remained the most important constant throughout the Stuart Age. During this period, the system of personal monarchy was customary: the characters and personalities of each monarch did much to shape the period and the monarch's relationship with the rest of the Political Nation, particularly through the institution of Parliament.

Through their prerogative, monarchs led the Political Nation in shaping the politics, economics and social life of the country. The monarch's prerogative gave them powers over the following key areas:

  • foreign diplomacy, as Head of State
  • declaration of war, as commander-in-chief of the military
  • legislation, through the right to call and dissolve Parliament
  • religion, as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Such was the extent of the powers held by monarchs that they were almost absolutist, which meant they could rule almost freely with unrestricted political power.

However, finances lay at the root of the monarch's power, and the limits on the monarchs' in come prevented them from becoming truly absolutist. A century of inflation, or a general rise in prices, meant that English monarchs increasingly found that their income could not meet their expenses, especially in relation to foreign policies such as warfare and international diplomacy. Substantial funds could only be raised through parliamentary subsidies.

Parliament was normally reluctant to vote for subsidies, however, because the money would have to be raised by taxing the Political Nation. Although in theory members of Parliament represented all people in the area in which they had been selected, in reality they tended to represent only the concerns of the voters who had selected them - generally, the landed aristocracy and gentry, as well as wealthy lawers and merchants. Because only the wealthy had to pay a parliamentary subsidy, they (and by their extension their MPs) had a vested interest in not granting subsidies to the monarch.

The limited availability of parliamentary subsidies therefore forced monarchs to exploit their prerogative income, which was money they received due to their position as monarch.

  • Crown lands: The crown had sold much land or rented it out on long leases at a fixed rent, thus their income was reduced because they couldn't upgrade rents in line with inflation.
  • Customs duties: Taxes from goods imported into the country. The crown could also temporarily sell the right to collect such taxes to raise funds quickly.
  • Feudal dues: The crown had the right to control an estate that was inherited, by ancient right, by an heir under the age of 21.
  • Parliamentary subsidy: Funds approved by Parliament for emergencies such as war.

Prerogative income also raised concerns in Parliament, because if a monarch…


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