Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's most important Privy Councillor
Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley,
Elizabeth I's most important Privy Councillor


I. The Privy Council

The Privy Council was a body of about thirteen to twenty officials which gave advice to, and implemented the decisions of, the monarch in governing England.
Privy Councillors initiated much, though not all legislation. Many of them sat in parliament and pushed through the laws that they had drafted.

Another quasi-legislative function of monarch and Privy Council was issuing proclamations - decrees covering all aspects of administration. Specimen Proclamation.

The Privy Council could act as a court of law; as Star Chamber, it often dealt with cases involving public disturbances or riots.
Sitting as the Court of Requests, the Privy Council  heard the complaints of people who were too poor to afford the fees  and delays of regular courts.


Elizabeth I addressing Parliament

II. Parliament

The English Parliament consisted of the Monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The consent of all three was required to make law. Even after a piece of legislation had been passed by both Houses, the monarch could stop it becoming law by a personal veto.

The Monarch summoned the Houses of Parliament and could prorogue (temporarily suspend) or dissolve Parliament at will. The Monarch appointed Bishops and created peers, and so had a more direct influence on the composition of the House of Lords than of the House of Commons. Only Parliament could make law and levy taxes. Parliament could impeach royal officials.

The House of Commons was made up of:

(i) Knights of the shire  - each county sent two representatives

(ii) borough members - many towns (and a few villages) had acquired the right to  elect MPs (Members of Parliament).

Today the British House of Commons has 650 MPs representing a population of 55 million; in 1600 there were 400 representing a population of 4 million.

 A sitting of the court of Wards

III. Prerogative powers

Coin money
Pardon criminals
Dispense from laws
Declare war
Shape foreign policy
Grant monopolies
Imprison without showing cause
(until 1628)   
Call and dissolve parliament


IV. The Civil Service

In order to be valid, royal orders had to be stamped by one of three seals:

The Great Seal (held by the Lord Chancellor/Lord Keeper)
The Privy Seal (held by the Lord Privy Seal)
The signet (held by the Secretary)


The Lord Chancellor presided over the House of Lords. Chancery was a court of law as well as part of the English civil service.

The Exchequer was likewise both a state department (looking after royal finances) and  a law court (dealing with cases involving royal money). The Lord Treasurer was the monarch's chief financial officer. Increasingly during the sixteenth century, the top bureaucrats were drawn (not from clergy or nobility but) from gentry or sometimes even lower down the social scale. The central civil service was small - only approximately 1,000 officials.

The monarch's will was made known in the localities through Assize Judges who visited towns throughout the country to try cases and communicate royal policy.

The main central courts were King's/Queen's Bench, Common Pleas, and the Exchequer.


V. Sheriffs and Justices of the Peace

The basic unit of local government was the county (or shire).

At the beginning of the Tudor period three localities - the Palatinate of Durham, the Isle of Ely and the County Palatine of Chester - had special local powers and privileges, but these were largely abolished in the early sixteenth century


Local government was administered by Justices of the Peace - unpaid local gentlemen who maintained law and order in the localities, as well as enforcing royal policy.
Acting alone, a single Justice of the Peace could imprison offenders; acting together, in quarter-sessions (four times each year), Justices of the Peace could impose the death penalty on criminals.
In Medieval England, the sheriff had been the most important official in the shire but by the 15th century, his powers were limited to executing judicial writs, administering the county jail, and supervising elections to Parliament.



VI. The Church


Archbishop Thomas Cranmer


Everyone in Tudor and Stuart England was subject to the Church. Everyone was obliged to pay for the support of their local clergyman. The church courts summoned and punished people for a variety of offences - for instance, fornication, adultery, failure to attend church, and malicious gossip.

The Church Courts' main penalty was excommunication. This not only involved exclusion from church services, but carried serious civil liabilities, such as not being able to plead in court.

Heretics were handed over to civil authorities for burning.


The last person burnt for heresy in England was Edward Wightman in 1612


Blessed with a captive audience each week, the clergy were also the Monarch's main propaganda agency.
England was divided into approx 10,000 local parishes; these were partly administrative units (for example, poor relief was organized on a parish level) but mainly their functions were ecclesiastical.
The minister (or priest) of the parish was the rector or vicar. Sometimes a deputy - or curate - conducted the services on his behalf.

Higher church officers included archdeacons, deans, and - at the top of the scale - 21 (later 26) bishops; each bishop controlled a diocese from a cathedral town.

There were two English Archbishops -  of Canterbury and of York - who led the two archdioceses of England.

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