Elizabethan government

Elizabethan government

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England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 under Queen Elizabeth I's
Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I was queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty...

 reign, the Elizabethan Era
Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era was the epoch in English history of Queen Elizabeth I's reign . Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history...

, was ruled by the very structured and complicated Elizabethan government. It was divided into the national bodies (the monarch
A monarch is the person who heads a monarchy. This is a form of government in which a state or polity is ruled or controlled by an individual who typically inherits the throne by birth and occasionally rules for life or until abdication...

, Privy Council
Privy Council of England
The Privy Council of England, also known as His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, was a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England...

, and Parliament
Parliament of England
The Parliament of England was the legislature of the Kingdom of England. In 1066, William of Normandy introduced a feudal system, by which he sought the advice of a council of tenants-in-chief and ecclesiastics before making laws...

), the regional bodies (the Council of the North
Council of the North
The Council of the North was an administrative body originally set up in 1484 by king Richard III of England, the third and last Yorkist monarch to hold the Crown of England; its intention was to improve government control and economic prosperity, to benefit the entire area of Northern England...

 and Council of the Marches
Council of the Marches
The Council of Wales and the Marches was a regional administrative body within the Kingdom of England between the 15th and 17th centuries, similar to the Council of the North...

), the county and community bodies, and the court system
The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state. The judiciary also provides a mechanism for the resolution of disputes...



The monarch of England during the Elizabethan Era was Queen Elizabeth I.

The government was very much a personal monarchy with ministers. The monarch’s personality determined the style, intensity, and efficiency.

Back then, the monarch was a ruler, unlike the modern monarchs who are more like figureheads. The monarch was the ultimate decider and was able to determine issues of national religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, when Parliament would sit and what it would discuss, when and if the country would go to war
War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

, matters of education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, welfare of the citizens, what food they could eat, and what clothes they could wear. She also had various counselors and officials to aid her rule.

The queen could choose who would help her govern.

The Divine Right of Kings
Divine Right of Kings
The divine right of kings or divine-right theory of kingship is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God...

 gave the monarch the image of a Demigod
The term "demigod" , meaning "half-god", is commonly used to describe mythological figures whose one parent was a god and whose other parent was human; as such, demigods are human-god hybrids...

. This strengthened authority made going against the monarch considered a sin. Not obeying the queen was considered treason and was punishable by death. The queen had the power to send one to prison and order executions.

All laws required her consent to be passed. Generally, she could not pass laws herself – she had to draw up a Bill and put it forward to Parliament. However, she could make Royal Proclamations
A proclamation is an official declaration.-England and Wales:In English law, a proclamation is a formal announcement , made under the great seal, of some matter which the King in Council or Queen in Council desires to make known to his or her subjects: e.g., the declaration of war, or state of...

 without Parliament’s consent.

Even with this much power, the monarch was not above the law, and she could be brought to court.

Elizabeth is considered by many to be one of England’s best monarchs. She was wise and just, chose good advisers and wasn’t dominated by them, dealt with the stubbornly resistant Parliaments without being tyrannous, and was skilled at compromising in both religious and political matters. She ruled for 45 years and was the sixth and last of the Tudor dynasty
Tudor dynasty
The Tudor dynasty or House of Tudor was a European royal house of Welsh origin that ruled the Kingdom of England and its realms, including the Lordship of Ireland, later the Kingdom of Ireland, from 1485 until 1603. Its first monarch was Henry Tudor, a descendant through his mother of a legitimised...


Sir William Cecil (named Lord Burghley in 1571) was her chief adviser and supervised the whole administration. He was also Secretary of State from 1558 to 1572 and Lord Treasurer from 1572 to his death in 1598. Sir Francis Walsingham
Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham was Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I of England from 1573 until 1590, and is popularly remembered as her "spymaster". Walsingham is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence methods both for espionage and for domestic security...

 was famous for uncovering many Catholic plots against Elizabeth; he filled in as Secretary of State from 1572 to his death in 1590. Sir Robert Cecil
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC was an English administrator and politician.-Life:He was the son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Mildred Cooke...

, second son of Sir William Cecil, was Secretary of State in 1596 and master of Court of Wards after a clash with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, KG was an English nobleman and a favourite of Elizabeth I. Politically ambitious, and a committed general, he was placed under house arrest following a poor campaign in Ireland during the Nine Years' War in 1599...

. He then became dominant in the government.

Sir Nicholas Bacon, Sir Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

, Sir Francis Knollys
Knollys (family)
Knollys, the name of an English family descended from Sir Thomas Knollys , Lord Mayor of London. The first distinguished member of the family was Sir Francis Knollys , English statesman, son of Sir Robert Knollys, or Knolles , a courtier in the service and favour of Henry VII and Henry VIII...

, and Sir Walter Mildmay
Walter Mildmay
Sir Walter Mildmay was an English statesman who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer of England under Queen Elizabeth I, and was founder of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.-Early life:...

 were important bureaucrats of Elizabeth.

Along with these, she had many favourites. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, KG was an English nobleman and the favourite and close friend of Elizabeth I from her first year on the throne until his death...

 was Elizabeth’s most important favourite during the first thirty years of her reign. He was most influential at court and one of the chief privy councillors. In 1585-1587, he commanded the English army in the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, and was appointed Governor-General
A Governor-General, is a vice-regal person of a monarch in an independent realm or a major colonial circonscription. Depending on the political arrangement of the territory, a Governor General can be a governor of high rank, or a principal governor ranking above "ordinary" governors.- Current uses...

 of the Netherlands in 1586 by the Dutch (against Elizabeth's wishes); he gave up his post in December 1587, and was appointed general of the armies to repel the Spanish invasion in 1588, but died shortly after. Sir Christopher Hatton
Christopher Hatton
Sir Christopher Hatton was an English politician, Lord Chancellor of England and a favourite of Elizabeth I of England.-Early days:...

, another favourite, became captain of her bodyguard in 1572, her spokesman in the House of Commons, and was made Lord Chancellor
Lord Chancellor
The Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, or Lord Chancellor, is a senior and important functionary in the government of the United Kingdom. He is the second highest ranking of the Great Officers of State, ranking only after the Lord High Steward. The Lord Chancellor is appointed by the Sovereign...

 in 1587 despite little legal training, he was also an eminent privy councillor. Sir Walter Raleigh
Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England....

 was such a favourite that he was showered with gifts, including the right to take possession of land in the New World
New World
The New World is one of the names used for the Western Hemisphere, specifically America and sometimes Oceania . The term originated in the late 15th century, when America had been recently discovered by European explorers, expanding the geographical horizon of the people of the European middle...

, where he organised the exploration of what would be Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...


Privy Council

The Privy Council was Elizabeth’s group of advisers. Its main purpose was to give numerous different opinions and the monarch decided on the issue at hand. (However, the advice was often ignored; the Council still carried out her wishes.) Routine administration was usually left to the Council. It was involved in matters of religion, military, the queen’s security, economics, and the welfare of the citizens. It dealt with both matters of national and individual interest, issued proclamations in the queen’s name, and supervised law and enforcement.

The Council could make decisions, but the monarch could veto anything without question.

Who was in it depended on who the queen wanted there. However, certain powerful noblemen were necessary in the Council so that their and their realms’ interests were represented so that a rebellion would be avoided. Believing that more members (and therefore more different opinions) would cause more problems, Elizabeth dropped the previous member count of 50 to 19 and eventually 11 by 1597. The Counselors employed assistants who did most of the work.

At first, they met only thrice a week; by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, they met almost every day.

The Secretary of State led the Council. Sir William Cecil effectively led it; he was wise, cautious, cooperative with Elizabeth, trusted above all others, Elizabeth’s personal secretary, and chief adviser until his death, and therefore very influential; due to his great administrative ability, he had the reputation of one of the greatest English statesmen – historians have even debated whether the success of Elizabeth’s rule was more due to Sir William Cecil or Elizabeth. His son was also a member of Queen Elizabeth's Privy council.


The group of representatives, called Parliament, was divided into the House of Lords
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster....

 (or the Upper House), which consisted of nobility and higher clergy such as bishop
A bishop is an ordained or consecrated member of the Christian clergy who is generally entrusted with a position of authority and oversight. Within the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox Churches, in the Assyrian Church of the East, in the Independent Catholic Churches, and in the...

s and archbishop
An archbishop is a bishop of higher rank, but not of higher sacramental order above that of the three orders of deacon, priest , and bishop...

s, and the House of Commons
British House of Commons
The House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which also comprises the Sovereign and the House of Lords . Both Commons and Lords meet in the Palace of Westminster. The Commons is a democratically elected body, consisting of 650 members , who are known as Members...

 (or the Lower House), which consisted of common people.

Unlike the modern British Parliament, it had much less power, no Prime Minister
Prime minister
A prime minister is the most senior minister of cabinet in the executive branch of government in a parliamentary system. In many systems, the prime minister selects and may dismiss other members of the cabinet, and allocates posts to members within the government. In most systems, the prime...

 or cabinet
Cabinet (government)
A Cabinet is a body of high ranking government officials, typically representing the executive branch. It can also sometimes be referred to as the Council of Ministers, an Executive Council, or an Executive Committee.- Overview :...

, and no political parties.

The main function of Parliament was dealing with financial matters (tax
To tax is to impose a financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a state or the functional equivalent of a state such that failure to pay is punishable by law. Taxes are also imposed by many subnational entities...

ation and granting the queen money). Generally, the monarch paid for daily administration with ordinary revenues (customs
Customs is an authority or agency in a country responsible for collecting and safeguarding customs duties and for controlling the flow of goods including animals, transports, personal effects and hazardous items in and out of a country...

, feudal dues, and sales of land) while Parliament covered extraordinary expenditures (such as war) with taxation. However, taxation didn’t supply enough for military expenditures; therefore, more land was sold along with probably illegal scheming. Parliament was also used for passing laws. 438 laws were passed under Elizabeth’s reign. They were either public, in which case they applied to all, or private, in which case they only applied to certain people. Only another Parliament could undo one. They required approval by both houses thrice and the queen. However, the queen could make Royal Proclamations without Parliament’s consent. Another purpose of Parliament was to advise. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was almost never interested in Parliament’s advice.

Elections occurred only for the House of Commons. Who was in Parliament depended mainly on who was supported by the important local people. They were, however, often unfair. Only those that were male and received a certain annual income could vote.

The monarch decided when Parliament was to be called. In total, Elizabeth only called Parliament thirteen times, 11 of which were to ask for money.

Local governments

Local governments were important in Tudor England.

Royal representatives (Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, and Lords Lieutenant
Lord Lieutenant
The title Lord Lieutenant is given to the British monarch's personal representatives in the United Kingdom, usually in a county or similar circumscription, with varying tasks throughout history. Usually a retired local notable, senior military officer, peer or business person is given the post...

) were in every county
A county is a jurisdiction of local government in certain modern nations. Historically in mainland Europe, the original French term, comté, and its equivalents in other languages denoted a jurisdiction under the sovereignty of a count A county is a jurisdiction of local government in certain...

; they ensured that the queen’s commands and laws were obeyed.

Regional governments helped oversee parts of England that the Privy Council could not supervise. The Council of the North, which resided in York
York is a walled city, situated at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss in North Yorkshire, England. The city has a rich heritage and has provided the backdrop to major political events throughout much of its two millennia of existence...

, oversaw Northern England
Northern England
Northern England, also known as the North of England, the North or the North Country, is a cultural region of England. It is not an official government region, but rather an informal amalgamation of counties. The southern extent of the region is roughly the River Trent, while the North is bordered...

 while the Council of the Marches, which resided in Ludlow
Ludlow is a market town in Shropshire, England close to the Welsh border and in the Welsh Marches. It lies within a bend of the River Teme, on its eastern bank, forming an area of and centred on a small hill. Atop this hill is the site of Ludlow Castle and the market place...

, oversaw Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

 and some border counties.

Manorialism, an essential element of feudal society, was the organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire, was widely practiced in medieval western and parts of central Europe, and was slowly replaced by the advent of a money-based market...

 were run by nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

 and gentry
Gentry denotes "well-born and well-bred people" of high social class, especially in the past....

. Land was power at the time, and those with land were wealthy and masters of the tenants on his land and his workers; thus, they had a major influence. It was a position of responsibility, for they were meant to aid the monarch by governing their land. Also, the grievances were taken to the lord. On the other hand, the tenants were loyal to him – if called upon, they would go to war. His views also greatly impacted those of his tenants.

Each city
A city is a relatively large and permanent settlement. Although there is no agreement on how a city is distinguished from a town within general English language meanings, many cities have a particular administrative, legal, or historical status based on local law.For example, in the U.S...

 and town
A town is a human settlement larger than a village but smaller than a city. The size a settlement must be in order to be called a "town" varies considerably in different parts of the world, so that, for example, many American "small towns" seem to British people to be no more than villages, while...

 had its own government, headed by a mayor
In many countries, a Mayor is the highest ranking officer in the municipal government of a town or a large urban city....

 as well.


The courts made up the judicial system of Elizabethan England.

The most important courts were the Great Sessions Courts or the Assizes, which were held twice a year in each country, and the Quarter Sessions Courts
Quarter Sessions
The Courts of Quarter Sessions or Quarter Sessions were local courts traditionally held at four set times each year in the United Kingdom and other countries in the former British Empire...

, which were held four times in a year. These two dealt with most crimes. The Assizes was famous for its power to inflict harsh punishments.

Unimportant crimes were handled by the Petty Sessions Courts, Manor Courts, and town courts. Civil cases were dealt with by various courts, depending on the person’s monetary status; the wealthy were tried by the Star Chamber
Star Chamber
The Star Chamber was an English court of law that sat at the royal Palace of Westminster until 1641. It was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters...

, one of the highest profile courts which consisted of mostly Privy Counselors. The Court of Chancery also judged criminal cases, the Exchequer of Pleas dealt with financial suits, the Court of Requests with the poor (“the court of the poor man’s causes,” as it was known), Church Courts with religious and moral cases, and other specific courts with other specific matters.

Committers of high treason and other serious crimes received the death sentence
Capital punishment
Capital punishment, the death penalty, or execution is the sentence of death upon a person by the state as a punishment for an offence. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences. The term capital originates from the Latin capitalis, literally...

 (often handled by the queen). Often a violent death sentence in the case of high treason involving being hanged, taken down before dead, dragged face downward through the streets, and then hacked into four pieces or quartered only to have the remains displayed in a public place to discourage others from committing treason. Those of lesser crimes were sent to prison
A prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime...

 or the stocks
Stocks are devices used in the medieval and colonial American times as a form of physical punishment involving public humiliation. The stocks partially immobilized its victims and they were often exposed in a public place such as the site of a market to the scorn of those who passed by...

. Uses of the pillory, ducking stool, the Brank, The Drunkards Cloak, Burning, the Wheel and other forms of punishment and torture were also common during this time.

Domestic policy

A strict aristocracy helped Elizabeth maintain her dominance of her reign.

Foreign policy

Elizabethan government concerning foreign policy is often accused of being affected by factionalism. This appears true in the later section of her reign, post- Armada, when factions led by the Earl of Essex
Earl of Essex
Earl of Essex is a title that has been held by several families and individuals. The earldom was first created in the 12th century for Geoffrey II de Mandeville . Upon the death of the third earl in 1189, the title became dormant or extinct...

, and the Cecils, argued over which way the war against Spain should proceed. Essex, keen for glory and prestige, favoured an expensive land based military strategy, whilst the Cecil faction advocated a cheaper moderate naval strategy. Due to the conflicting factions no policy was explicitly followed and each side frequently tried to undermine the others, resulting in a confused foreign policy.

Faction pre-Armada is harder to analyse. The traditional view put forward by Read and Neale, suggests that William Cecil
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley , KG was an English statesman, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign, twice Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer from 1572...

 (later Lord Burghley) was continually in faction against Robert Dudley, over issues such as marriage and most importantly intervention in the Netherlands. Revisionist historian Adams defines faction as "one group of people employed in direct opposition to another." It is on this premise that historians such as John Guy argue there was no true faction in the Council at this stage, disagreements were primarily over individual opinions, and judgements over how to proceed; all councillors, after the removal of conservative Norfolk, were agreed that Elizabeth should look to further and protect the Protestant cause. Leicester and Walsingham saw intervention in the Netherlands as the best way to achieve this, whilst Cecil was more moderate.


The Elizabethan Era is famous for its playwrights (William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

, Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death.A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May...

, and Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...

) that thrived during this period; Francis Drake
Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. Elizabeth I of England awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581. He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He also carried out the...

, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world
Circumnavigation – literally, "navigation of a circumference" – refers to travelling all the way around an island, a continent, or the entire planet Earth.- Global circumnavigation :...

; and Sir Walter Raleigh’s exploration of the New World. The stability and structure of the government helped to allow the arts to flourish and prompted other achievements in exploration.