How did Elizabethan government work, and what was Elizabeth’s court like?
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This week I thought we should have a bit of context, why don’t we? Over the next many episodes we are going to warble on about many things that get done, often from the top down though we’ll have a deal of bottom up too at some point, because it’s always important to have a bottom in every podcast. But as we talk about Privy Councils and Courts and the tickling of necks of the queen’s squeeze, it might be good to have some sort of idea about how things all hung together, how all the political machinations and pursuit of power translated itself onto the road. How did Elizabethan government work in outline, how and where were decisions made and much torque did it have, did it basically work?
The government of England in times Tudor was like an ogre, or like an onion I might say – layer lay upon layer, although it’s a lot more complicated than an onion, so forget that analogy, it’s more like a matrix. It relied on structures and hierarchies; so we will talk constantly about the queen, her court, the Privy Council and we’ll spend much time in those structures of course. But as we’ve talked about in the strand of social episodes, for the vast majority of people for the vast majority of time, these institutions were a long way away, and the province of the very grand indeed. However, that does not mean that Tudor government was arcane or distant; it was ever present, close at hand in the form of the parish, and in particular the law. It’s been effectively argued that the process of law, with local tithings, Grand Juries, local JPs, travelling Assize judges, allowed Tudor communities to influence up the chain of command, and play a direct role in the development of policy and the formation of the Tudor state, not just to receive orders and control from on high. Much government was deeply local, but it was connected to the centre; central institution such as the Privy Council could do no more to implement its policies than communicate it’s demands through a stream of letters to local governors and magistrates. It had to take account of the information coming back, or simply the components in that information stream would comply, and nothing would be achieved.
I said matrix, because there is another way in which centre and local come together, through personal connection, status and honour. Because alongside and across the machinery of government lay the traditional framework of personal influence, and lordship. The men who sat on central institutions, and they were men, were at the same time local governors or had local governors in their affinity network, with mutual obligations – so personal relationships influenced how effective was the implementation of policy. This was particularly true in the south and midlands of England. So, members of the Court like Cecil were JPs in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. In fact one of the things you’ll learn about Cecil is that he had a very dirty finger, as a result of putting it in so many pies. The man never slept, and was a worrier, but more of that another time. This double influence was widespread in the Council; the Earl of Bedford was JP in Devon and Cornwall, Francis Knollys in Oxfordshire. Robert Dudley was a JP in several counties, but also held vast estates in Wales and was granted Kenilworth castle, and became Chamberlain of the Palatinate of Chester.
So the way this works, just to re-iterate the point; let us say that the Privy Council had an order to implement. It would send it’s instructions and letters to Lords Lieutenant and JPs. But also the relevant lord would meet with their tenants, landowners and clients in the normal run of things and in the course of their discussion make sure they were implementing said instruction. The tenant, client whatever would seek then to obey because they were the junior in status in the relationship; and because they were bound by ties of honour to obey. So you have this matrix of bureaucracy plus lordship making things happen.
When one of these two different dimensions of our matrix of power was absent, problems could occur. So You might note that the coverage of the privy Council members don’t include much strength in the north of England, except the palatinate of Chester, here the estates and office holding of members of the court were much thinner on the ground. This would prove to be a problem – the medieval regional satrapies of Darcy, Percy and Neville continued to hold sway; these families had responded less well to the 1559 religious settlement. To try and compensate, northern offices like wardens of the marches were often given to southerners; but it was an imperfect solution. It tended to annoy and alienate traditional lords; with pretty catastrophic results in the case of the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland. And without the depth of contacts and influence, the wardens struggled to be fully effective.
As I’ve said, central to the machinery of central government was the Privy Council. It becomes very natural to talk about the Privy council since its members, between 13 and 18 of them were often the most powerful in the realm. Elizabeth’s Privy Council was a remarkably stable group, and I guarantee you’ll get bored of hearing of the likes of Cecil, Dudley and Walsingham in particular. But it’s worth remembering that by the time of Elizabeth’s accession it was a relatively young institution, only really established in the 1540s with its own secretariat. The business of the Council was dominated by the Principal secretary – the being the ubiquitous Cecil from 1558 to 1571, who then became Lord Treasurer til his death in 1598. Cecil was also Master of the Ward of court, a lucrative post and one which also gave him great influence over the great families in the distribution of patronage. The point about this is that Cecil wielded influence and power for a number of reasons. In the modern idiom of government, we look at the offices of state of the government, and their power comes almost entirely from their position. Cecil’s power came from his relationship with the Queen, from his position on the Privy Council, his control of patronage, his local positions and also his personal relationships – his brother in law for example was Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Seal. What holds true for Cecil hold true for many other great men; the later Tudor age is partly notable for the emergence of the concept of the state and government machinery associated with it. But don’t be fooled – the role of status, land holding. affinity, patronage remain also critical. The influence of patronage was longer lasting that simply the bidding for an award of a particular role or gift; the giving of a gift meant that the recipient owed service in return; it was the creation or continuance of a long term client-master relationship. Thus early modern administration can look very venal and corrupt to the modern eye.
The Principal Secretary had enormous discretion in his role; as Robert Cecil, William’s son, put it he had
Liberty to negotiate with discretion at home and abroad with friends and enemies, in all matters of speech and intelligence
Which is great, and the Cecils used their discretion to the max. However, they remained responsible for all their decisions to the Queen
The place of the secretary is dreadful if he serve not a constant prince
All the authority of Tudor government came from the Queen, and every action was taken in her name; and in the end Elizabeth took the decisions. Advice for her decision was brought to her by the Principal secretary again, the go between for the Queen and Privy Council – though Elizabeth did on occasion attend Privy Council meetings and take a direct part in debates, but this was not the normal model. It’s worth remembering then that it was not the job of the Privy Council to make policy. Making policy was the Queen’s gig; the Privy Council purely provided advice and Counsel, the Queen decided and the Council then implemented.
OK, so we seem to be concluding that the PC was the main centre of advice and guidance to the Queen in Elizabeth’s reign; but really nothing’s ever as simple as that in Tudor times is it? That would be too easy. In fact if we go back a bit historians emphasised not institutions like the PC but personal relationships – the Queen talking to her great men at court, the Queen’s personal relationship with people like Cecil and Dudley at court. Just like the good old medieval days when the monarch ruled his lands along with his tenants in chief. I miss those simple days. so the history of Elizaberhan England was all about well heeled individuals rather than processes. Then along came the historian Geoffrey Elton and his Tudor Revolution in Government, claiming that Cromwell presided over a comprehensive re-structuring and rationalisation of the Administration, and that a national bureaucratic government was the result in embryo, rather than the monarch taking advice at court. The main political issues were fought out at the PC before policy was presented to the monarch for a decision. The court was marginalised.
But Elizabeth was not so constrained or formalised. More recent historians have re-established the importance of court and personal relationships. Elizabeth was constantly taking advice from figures at court – sometimes publicly and formally, but often privately and informally. Oh Sussex, good ot see you – can I borrow you and your shell-like for a few minutes?’ That sort of thing. Those men might or might not be part of the Privy Council – but even when they were, Elizabeth was asking for their personal view, not that of the Privy Council, she called them aside because of her personal relationship with them. So although without doubt the PC was the principal formal advisory body, it was not the only source of advice by any means. In addition, the idea of ‘cabinet responsibility’, adhering to a jointly agreed line of the PC whether you agree or not, is alien to the Tudor Council, people served as individuals and held views as such; frequently the PC disagreed with itself, frequently it disagreed with the Queen. And meanwhile the Court therefore remained the main political forum where the great men of the realm could argue and debate as they hung about waiting for queenie.; but again there was substantial overlap, court and council can’t be so easily separated – members of the Privy Council were usually also members of the Court.
How did court work then, what was it like? Courtiers attended court for many reasons; they might seek patronage, for the Queen and her senior advisors were the font of all patronage, and they were to be found at court. Patronage lay at the heart of court, but it was not the only reason. The humanist tradition was strong in political writing, and it was the duty of the nobility to advise their Prince; the tradition of service remained very strong among the nobility, and attendance at court was therefore a duty. And as we’ve just covered, the court was the most important political forum.
Elizabeth quickly established protocols to which all courtiers were expected to conform. She was her father’s daughter, deeply convinced by the authority and rights of the monarch, and eager to impress on all the awe-inspiring magnitude her greatness. Her father had been helped in this by his physical presence and charisma; Elizabeth had charisma aplenty, but recognised the critical importance of formality and the magnificence of display and ceremony, and so there was plenty of that. The very geography of the royal palaces was designed for Elizabeth to both display her power, and to reflect the relative influence of the courtier.
Elizabeth was not a great builder of palaces, unlike her Pa, and inherited all the palaces she tended to use – Richmond was her favourite, Windsor also allowed her the most privacy; but there was also Hampton Court, Greenwich, and of course at the heart of Westminster there was Whitehall Palace, the largest palace in Europe at the time. The structure of the palaces was well established by the time Elizabeth came to the throne, and was oriented around the queen’s privy chambers – the closer you came to her Privy Chamber and bedroom, so your general smugness grew, because you were then closest to the throne, the font of all power.
First stage was to get to the Great Hall and guard rooms first, and it was reasonably easy to get access to them as long as you could dress right, look and speak the part. The presence chamber was harder, stuffed full of ambitious courtiers desperate to gain an audience with the queen. The Presence chamber was dominated by one chair only, which was the throne, underneath a canopy. These are pre IKEA days, cheap manufactured furniture was a distant dream. The gorgeously dressed courtiers had to stand, or sit on cushions. Everything about the Presence Chamber was designed to overawe and dazzle the visitor. Here’s a description of the experience from a German granted an audience with the Queen later in the reign
We were led into the presence chamber where we were placed well to the fore, so as better to behold the queen. This apartment like the others leading into this one was hung with fine tapestries, and the floor was strewn with straw or hay; only where the queen was to come out and up to her seat were carpets laid down worked in Turkish knot. After we had waited awhile here, somewhere between twelve and one, some men with white staffs entered from an inner chamber, and after them a number of lords of high standing followed by the queen, alone without escort, very straight and erect still, who sat down in the presence chamber upon a seat covered with red damask and cushions embroidered in gold thread, and so low was the chair that the cushions almost lay on the ground, and there was a canopy above, fixed very ornately to the ceiling.
It’s a long quote sorry about that, but it does rather paint the picture. You might get a chance to address the queen here, in front of everyone; but the formality was designed to emphasise grandeur, distance and authority; as one Ambassador put it
‘That I might see her while she pretended not to see me
Elizabeth was not averse to using the public nature of the presence chamber to make political points, and used drama and theatre to great effect. There’s a famous occasion when rumours were rife at court that Elizabeth has enjoying a bit of nooky with Robert Dudley, there was goss and general European outrage, especially since there was a long line of international suitors who thought very highly of their personal dignity and saw themselves as a far better catch than Dudders. One day, Kat Ashley Elizabeth’s longest standing companion, who you might remember from Thomas Seymour days, cast herself on her knees in front of the Queen in the Presence chamber in front of all, and upbraided her for her familiarity with Dudders and urged her to marry to scotch the rumours. Often this is presented with some surprise – historians record that Elizabeth didn’t bawl her out for such a breach of protocol, but simply explained she was doing nothing untoward with Robert, get up because she was making the place untidy, and that she’d seriously consider marriage so dinna fash yourself, hen. Richard Rex is of more suspicious a frame of mind – he reckons Elizabeth had stitched this up with Kat beforehand, and this is all theatre – which is a convincing argument. He points to a similar event when the Duke of Anjou came to court pursuing Elizabeth’s hand – Robert Dudley stepped forward at one stage and demanded of the Queen if she was or not a virgin. Now I would say this would make for an awkward conversation in most situations, and result in the cutting off of knees in a royal situation. But of course here it allowed Elizabeth to re-assure the French about her relationship with Dudders. It was another fruity bit of theatre.
Beyond the Presence chamber lay the queen’s privy chambers, and here things got serious. The Privy Chambers were where Elizabeth enjoyed hours of leisure and privacy, such as she ever achieved – she was very rarely completely alone but attended by the mainly female privy household. This was also where Elizabeth ate, and she ate at irregular times of day. Meanwhile, her royal court, employing over 2,000 people, was feeding vast quantities – in a year, 1250 oxen, 8,300 sheep and so on. Elizabeth ate reasonably moderately, and the court knew when she was eating because she was accompanied by musicians who made music while she nibbled.
The privy chambers were protected by a yeoman guard of 146, and access to it was jealously guard by an usher of the black rod. Only the most favoured or important made it through – high ranking members of court, privy councillors, well favoured ambassdors. If you were accorded access this close to the queen you were in clover, politically speaking, and able to provide your noble duty of service and council. Losing access was the kiss of death; a later favourite of the Queen was the Earl of Essex, who fell from favour, and complained bitterly at being excluded from what he called ‘near access’ – a bit like my hound when he’s barked too much outside the shed and been removed, Essex was scratching at the door, allowed only into the presence chamber not the privy chamber.
The route to the privy chamber at the various palaces was usually also richly decorated, and designed to continue the visitor with awesomeness. The Privy chamber at Whitehall was dominated by that famous picture by Holbein of the Tudor dynasty. As visitors approached the Privy Chambers, general effort to awe continued; the privy gallery at Whitehall, the Privy chambers to the presence chamber, and boasted a ceiling
‘marvellously wrought in stone with gold’
However well in you were, though, you were still not quite part of the favoured few until you reached the inner sanctum, the Queen’s bed chamber. Here, 14 female assistant looked after Elizabeth’s 700 gowns and her jewelry, and very few official visitors made it here – this was where Elizabeth could take refuge from court. Only people like Cecil or Dudley, the very most favoured, made it this far.
During some of the summer months, the queen got away from the claustrophobia of her palaces, upped sticks and set out on the road on a summer progress – accompanied by 400 carts and 2,400 packhorses. It was a way for Elizabeth to escape the heat of the summer in smelly London, and also a way for her to see and be seen by her subjects. Though it has to be said she stuck to the south and east – the glories north of the Trent and Humber remained un visited, so she missed out on the most beautiful parts of her realm. It was her loss. Obscurely it was also a way to show favour, by descending on the homes of her nobles, doing much honour and conferring much status. I say obscurely, because having the royal court descend on you was the kind of life event that had the bank manager reaching for his tub of Valium – it cost a fortune. The first person to be visited by Elizabeth in this way in August 1569 was the Earl of Arundel, who at that time held Henry VIII’s palace of Nonsuch, AND thought he was in with a chance to marry Elizabeth. So he pushed the boat out good and proper, setting the standard for all those that followed. A chronicler remarked
‘It cost him ten thousand marks at the least by report, ‘wherefore afterword he was constrained to sell a great part of his lands. For this precedent the earl had many curses of many.’
Basically, Arundel set the bar way too high for many people to limbo under. Fortunately, if that’s word, though the um, excreta of all those extra people made a long stay impossible. I’m told that the problem of courtiers wee’ing up against the walls of various palaces became so intense, and the rules so blithely ignored, that often crosses were painted on the walls. The principle was that no one would wee on such a Christian symbol. By golly. But you know, when you’ve got to go, doing the devils work may be required.
The young queen brought a new sense of energy to the court, and her own style of doing the business of politics. Elizabeth was a great lover of music, of dancing and of plays; and was herself a talented musician, but played mainly in quiet moments in her privy chambers with her ladies in waiting – she was apparently not keen to play in front of men. The Venetian ambassador was a little sour about all of this
‘The Queen’s daily amusements are musical performances and other entertainments and she takes marvellous pleasure in seeing people dance, ‘They are intent on amusing themselves and on dancing until after midnight,’
The Ambassador was not impressed and saw not artistic expression but instead ‘levities and unusual licentiousness’. But Elizabeth loved to dance, and loved to dance the most energetic of dances, the Galliard, which I understand has quite a lot of hopping around included – leaps in the air, and a certain amount of complex variation went on. So much so that Elizabeth might practice 7 or 8 times in the morning to make sure she was on point come the evening’s entertainment. And who was her favourite partner in the dance? Why Robert Dudley of course who had an equally fine leg, and danced
‘after the Florentine style, with a high magnificence that astonished beholders’.
There is a lovely pic on the website of Rob and Liz dancing the Volta. Robert does look like a plonker and I’m sure the Queen has 3 legs, but they look as though they are having a hoot well enough. However, impressions can be misleading; at heart, Elizabeth saw to it that courtiers behaved themselves as much as she was able to police; fun should not become drunkenness, flirtation not become sexual licence; the court was more conservative in behaviour than might be thought at first glance.
I am not quite sure how I got onto Dudley’s legs when we were on the sober and serious business of court politics, but let us take the opportunity of the mention of flirting to talk about Elizabeth’s political style. Elizabeth was essentially something of a flirt, and a lover of banter. A courtier Christopher Hatton said of her
‘the Queen did fish for men’s souls, and had so sweet a bait, that no one could escape her network,’
She flirted outrageously, and not just with her foreign suitors but with her courtiers, not just Dudley though particularly with Dudley of course. She gave pet names to her leading courtiers – Cecil was Sir Spirit, Hatton was Lids, Dudley Eyes and Walsingham her moor. Good awful nicknames it must be said, although coming from a podcaster known as bogbrush in his youth that may be harsh, but you see the thing, it’s flirtatious. I could hardly see Theresa May or Elizabeth II or indeed Mary I doing that. Now There might be straightforward emotional reasons for this – Elizabeth had as much interest in sex as the next woman, but it presented particular problems for her, she clearly enjoyed the company of men and flirting was simply a way of partly scratching that itch.
But it also helped deal with the rather awkward problem of the Queen’s gender because, as has often been noted, she was of course the wrong gender for the job of early modern monarch, oops and all that, given that God course handed down governance of the human race to men. Elizabeth’s flirting and her very obvious and charismatic presence at the centre of court life was all wrapped up in the conventions and language of courtly love. This was useful, because it was a shared language where noble males were to seek the favour of a woman. Usually some unobtainable damsel in a chivalric romance, but hey a queen would be a good substitute. The conventions sparked a short lived revival for Arthurian legends during Elizabethan times, which faded again soon after. This handy way out embedded itself in court culture all the way through Elizabeth’s reign, looking slightly odd later in the reign. Philip Sidney, the poet and courtier provided a perfect example, when he died in 1586 from a Frenchman’s blade, fighting for the cause of Protestantism, he was described as
The flower of courtesie who in his life gave a perfect light in his conversation to lead men to virtue…that by his example they might both learn to fear God, to glory in sincerity, to abound in loyalty & be careful lovers of their native country
It’s a culture that Elizabeth must have found handy.
I have always thought that there is a downside to the culture of banter, however. It is quite clear that when you played or flirted with Queen Elizabeth, you played with fire. Elizabeth had a temper on her, and all sorts felt the sharp edge of her tongue, especially the Ladies of her privy household. Although the ladies of her privy household employed little or no political influence, many courtiers found it helpful to cultivate them, if that isn’t too horticultural a word; because it was important to know what mood the queen was in before taking to her your most prized scheme, or went to grovel for some advancement. But she also deployed her temper swiftly and comprehensively when her courtiers, however favoured, stepped over the line. On one occasion for example, a courtier threw his petition in front of her as she walked through the presence chamber; Elizabeth had him thrown in jail and left to rot. The example, though, shows that while Elizabeth could react with fury for personal reasons, just as often it was to preserve her position as monarch and her prerogative. Elizabeth had a lot of enormously rich courtiers, all seeking to become as over mighty as possible – and she used language and sarcasm to cut the over presumptuous down to size.
Dudley is a pretty good example; clearly highly favoured, he could not resist stepping over the line; and on occasion Elizabeth could not resist taking out her frustration on him rather unfairly. The following incident it seems to me falls into that unfortunately common category of banter which is as much concealed aggression as humour
Picture the scene; we are in a presence chamber, and a new Spanish ambassador Guzman de Silva has arrived. Elizabeth was cross with Dudley at the time, and called him over. She turned to the ambassador: ‘Do you know this gentleman?’ she asked. ‘It was so long since I saw him,’ de Silva responded, playing the game, ‘I might well have forgotten him.’ ‘What!’ cried Elizabeth, ‘is he so presumptuous that he fails to wait upon you every day?’. Ok so you might take this as gentle mockery for Dudley’s position and ambition; but it’s also very cutting.
A second example speaks more to Elizabeth’s defence of prerogative. She believed strongly that she had two parts – a ‘body natural’, her life and role as a woman; and her body as a monarch. It was important not to mix the two up. Banter maybe as a woman, but don’t tread on the prerogative
So, Dudley was fishing to get his own placeman into the role of Black Rod usher, so that his access to the queen would be secure. But the current incumbent appealed to the queen that access to her was in danger of being controlled. It was time for strip-tearing. She exploded at Dudley
‘By God’s death, my Lord I have wished you well, but my favour is not so locked up in you that others shall not participate thereof, for I have many servants unto whom I have, and will at my pleasure, confer my favour, and likewise resume the same; and if you think to rule here, I will take a course to see you forthcoming. I will have here but one mistress and no master.’
 Borman, Tracy. The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty . Hodder & Stoughton, 5095
 Rex, Richard; The Tudors, pp164-5
 Skidmore, Chris. Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (p. 141). Orion