Elizabethan Government

How well was england governed under elizabeth/was Elizabeth successful at controlling her government?

To answer this question you will have to look at different administrative bodies that Elizabeth controlled and then judge whether she had done so successfully or not.

This is a diagram that shows how Elizabethan government functioned

Administrative body: the Privy Council

Its purpose: to give advice to the monarch, to administer public policy by overseeing the work of Justices of Peace (JPs) in counties, to make sure that the rebellions do not occur locally

Problems with it:

  1. Too many issues to deal at once by a small group: There were only 20 members of the Privy Council and all of them had to deal with large-scale issues (e.g. advising Elizabeth on foreign policy matters) and the small-scale ones (e.g. looking after the localities)
  2. Ministers often disagreed with the Queen over what should be done in a specific situation: for example, when Mary Queen of Scots had presented a significant threat to Elizabeth’s royal authority in the 1580s as she was involved in the Babington and Throckmorton plots Elizabeth wavered to execute Mary. Elizabeth went as far as to ask the Privy Council not to enact Mary’s execution in 1587, but the Privy Council did it anyway and Mary was executed in the same year.

Was it successfully controlled/ was it well governed: before 1580s- yes; after 1580s-no

How was it controlled/not controlled:

Before 1580s:

Elizabeth managed to control the ministers within her Privy Council to her advantage in this period. This was mainly done through patronage by offering it to capable men, such as Cecil. Cecil proved long-standing loyalty to the Queen since 1550s, as he moderated her income at that stage, which then allowed him to become a member of the Privy Council in 1558. Furthermore, Cecil was useful to the Queen as he held the title of an MP since 1543, thus potentially becoming a ‘bridge’ between the Queen, her Privy Council and the Parliament. Cecil was controlled effectively by Elizabeth. He prioritised Queen’s wishes, such as having a limited foreign policy. This was evident by the fact that Elizabethan period had a reactive, rather than proactive foreign policy.

SOURCE TIME: this is the portrait of William Cecil by Marcus Gheeraets the Younger. What can you find out about Cecil and his character by just looking at this portrait? 

After 1580s:

In this period Elizabeth’s control of her ministers in the Privy Council grew worse. This could be seen in the type of men she picked to replace the old ministers who had died. One of them was the Earl of Essex. Not only had he failed to resolve the Hugh O’Neil Rebellion in 1598, but he had also rebelled against the Crown in 1601. Essex’s rebellion was particularly dangerous for Elizabeth because it threatened royal authority because Essex and his followers planned to attack Whitehall and the Tower in London, which demonstrated that Elizabeth lacked her former ability to control her ministers effectively as these rebels considered to attack important governmental locations.

Portrait of the Earl of Essex by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger which was painted in 1598

Think like a Historian:

Can a ruler ever fully control an individual minister? And if yes, how?

Administrative body: Parliament

Its purpose: to pass any law the Queen and the Privy Council decide on

Problems with it: the MPs could argue their way not to pass the Crown’s legislation

Was it successfully controlled/ how well governed: well governed up to 1580s; after 1580s some ‘hiccups’ start happening but they never go out of hand

How was it controlled/not controlled:

Before 1580s:

Elizabeth manages to control Parliament successfully in this period. She was able to do so because she had ministers who were both within her Privy Council and Parliamentary MPs. such as Cecil and Hatton. Having such men allowed the Queen to understand the perspective of the Privy Councillors and the MPs. This was an effective strategy, which could be seen in the type of legislation the Parliament passed in this period. For example, because of the religious divide in England the Parliament willingly passes the religious Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity that start Elizabeth’s religious reform in 1559. Similarly, the Parliament was willing to support Elizabeth when there was an external threat. When the war with Spain was about to start in late 1570s the Parliament was willing to grant Elizabeth subsidies– in 1589 the Parliament granted a double subsidy to the Crown and in 1593 it granted the Crown a triple subsidy.

After 1580s:

Elizabeth has less success in this period. This was predominantly because most of her former ministers, such as Cecil, had died by this stage. Her lack of control could be evidenced by the monopolies crisis and her giving the famous ‘Golden Speech’ after she cancelled the monopolies. Both of these events demonstrated that Elizabeth was lacking in control because she felt that one of the few ways to calm the angered nobles was to employ emotive language in her speech

Administrative body: Local control (no one body to control the localities)

Its purpose: to control local areas to prevent a rebellion

Problems with it: too many things to do for a relatively small group of people

Was it successfully controlled/ how well governed: no, badly governed

How was it controlled/ not controlled:

Elizabeth was not as successful in controlling the localities as in the case of her control of the Parliament and the Privy Council. This was mainly because the people responsible for controlling the localities had too many things to do at once. For example, by 1579 the JPs were responsible for building and equipping the Houses of Correction and to buy tools to give locals work to do. Very few JPs were good at doing this job as many ignored some of the policies if these policies had a potential to be unpopular on local levels. for example, almost no JPs made Catholics in the North of the country to pay recusancy fines which were laid out by 1559 legislation. Similarly to the JPs Elizabeth and her ministers failed to control the Lord Lieutenants because there were simply not enough of them to do their job properly. The failure could be seen in 1597 food riots in various areas across England.

Source time: this is “Starvation in the Workhouse” by Harry Furniss. It was created in 1910. Until 1835 the Houses of Correction, or the Workhouses, were functioning pretty much the same system as in Elizabethan England. What can you find out about the conditions in Victorian workhouses by looking at this source? (The text and the image was scanned and provided by Philip V. Allingham)

Think like a Historian:

Does personality of the individual in power matter and why?
Important vocabulary:
  • Privy Council: a governmental body, which consisted of various ministers and was used by the monarch for advise on important governmental matters
  • Parliament: a legislative body that passed laws that were made by the monarch
  • Justices of Peace: an individual appointed by the Crown to keep the peace in the localities. Usually obeyed the local Lord Lieutenant.
  • Lord Lieutenants: the ‘boss’ of Justices of Peace
  • Patronage: the support offered by an individual (called the patron) to another individual to promote the patron’s cause
If you would like to explore the topic further…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I by Christopher Haigh, which focuses on her political power called Elizabeth I.