Elizabethan government


Elizabeth's Advisers


William Cecil (1520-1598)

Sir William Cecil (1520-98)
(who in 1571 received the title of Baron Burghley) rose to eminence under Somerset and became Secretary of State under Northumberland. His discrete silence about his Protestant sympathies enabled him to serve Mary I on several diplomatic missions.
He served Elizabeth as Secretary of State from 1558 to 1572, and as Lord Treasurer  from 1572 until his death in 1598.
He was Elizabeth's chief adviser and supervised the whole of English administration.


Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-90)

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-90)
was appointed Secretary of State in 1572 on Burghley's promotion to Lord Treasurer. He held the post until his death in 1590. Walsingham had chosen exile when Mary I became queen and he always remained a fervent Protestant. He showed a particular talent for uncovering Catholic plots against Elizabeth. He played a key role in the exposure of Mary, Queen of Scots' part in the Babington conspiracy and in her subsequent execution


Sir Rober Cecil (1563-1612)

Sir Robert Cecil (1563-1612)
was the second son of William Cecil. He was born slightly deformed - short and hunchbacked. In the 1580s, he sat in Parliament and acted as Elizabeth's envoy in unsuccessful attempts to negotiate peace with Spain. During the 1590s he took over the responsibilities of Secretary of State and was formally appointed to the post in 1596.
He clashed with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex over who should become master of the Court of Wards (a lucrative office): - Cecil won the appointment. After Essex's fall, he became dominant in government and helped organize James I's unchallenged succession.



Elizabeth's Bureaucrats

Sir Nicholas Bacon(1510-79). He became Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1558 and a member of the Privy Council; in 1559 he was authorized to act as Lord Chancellor and retained the post until his death in 1579.  Nicholas Bacon


Sir Francis Bacon Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He was Sir Nicholas Bacon's son and also became Lord Chancellor. A man of immense ability, Sir Francis Bacon was the author of some of the finest essays in the English language, wrote the first systematic exposition of the inductive method in science, as well as being an important lawyer and politician.

Sir Francis Knollys (1514-96). His strong Protestant convictions helped him to rise at court under Edward VI, but he moved to Frankfurt and then to Strasburg while Mary ruled. He returned on Elizabeth's accession and she appointed him to her Privy Council in December 1558. Knollys married Catherine Carey, (Mary Boleyn's daughter by Sir William Carey) and therefore first cousin to Queen Elizabeth. For much of Elizabeth's reign he sat in Parliament and acted as government spokesman there. In 1568-9 he was jailor to Mary, Queen of Scots, and tried to teach her English and convert her to his own Genevan brand of Protestantism.

Sir Walter Mildmay (1523-1589). The son of a wealthy merchant, Sir Walter Mildmay married Sir Francis Walsingham's sister, Mary, in 1546. Elizabeth appointed him to her Privy Council and in 1566, made him Chancellor of the Exchequer. Like Knollys, he had strong puritan sympathies. In 1584, he founded Emmanuel College, Cambridge with the specific aim of training learned, godly ministers.


Elizabeth's Favorites

Robert Dudley (1532-88) was a younger son of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.
Robert was Elizabeth's most important favorite during the early years of her reign. She made him Earl of Leicester, and apparently seriously considered marrying him after the (suspicious) death of his wife in 1560. He remained influential at court and in 1585 was placed in command of the English army sent to the Netherlands. In 1586 -  without Elizabeth's permission and much to her annoyance -  he accepted the title of governor of the Netherlands. Elizabeth recalled him in 1587 and he died just after being appointed general of the armies raised to repel the feared Spanish invasion.

Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-92).
Hatton caught Elizabeth's eye by his skill at dancing. She appointed him the captain of her bodyguard in 1572. He was Elizabeth's spokesman in the Commons, ( for example, urging the Commons to provide taxation to support Elizabeth's foreign policy) until 1587, when the Queen made him Lord Chancellor (despite the fact that he had little legal training). He disliked puritans and was a patron of John Whitgift.

Sir Walter Raleigh Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618)
arrived at court in 1581 - when he was twenty-nine and Elizabeth forty-eight. She took a fancy to him and showered him with gifts (until she learnt of his secret marriage in 1592), including the right to take possession of land in the New World. He organized the exploration of Virginia (named for Elizabeth - the virgin queen) but did not go there himself.
[More on Ralegh]


The Privy Council and central government

Elizabeth reduced the number of Privy Councilors to nineteen and later to fourteen (by eliminating some of the noblemen).

Elizabeth generally left routine administration to the Privy Council but occasionally intervened on apparently trivial matters.

Elizabeth was firmly in control of major policies and on many occasions obstinately ignored the Council's advice. The Council conscientiously carried out the Queen's wishes even when it had advised otherwise.

One of the Privy Council's duties was to advise the Queen on policy matters, but it did not always speak with one voice.
In the 1570s Dudley and Walsingham advocated sending troops to help the Dutch fight the Spaniards, while Cecil (fearful of the enormous expense involved) counseled caution.

Dudley and Walsingham saw the Roman Catholic threat as paramount and regarded the puritans as the queen's staunchest allies against the Pope; Christopher Hatton believed that puritans threatened royal control of the Church as much as Catholics

Hatfield House,
built by the Cecil family with the proceeds of office


The Privy Council also acted as a judicial body, especially when sitting as Star Chamber. In the 1590s it took an active role in the suppression of the Presbyterian movement.

However, the Privy Council's primary role was administration. It gave the Queen's wishes practical effect by drawing up and sending orders to local officials (for example, Justices of the Peace, military commanders, Lords Lieutenant) and to the institutions of central government (Chancery, Exchequer).

The major Privy Councilors employed assistants who did much of the spadework (for example,

Michael Hickes acted as secretary to the Cecils, and grew wealthy on the gifts of those eager to obtain Cecil help.

Sir Francis Walsingham employed a number of spies (including Christopher Marlowe) to find out what was happening in foreign courts and to infiltrate Catholic conspiracies.


Finance and Patronage

Elizabeth was unwilling to adopt new financial expedients. Despite inflation, she did not increase custom rates. Receipts from wardships did not keep pace with inflation. Rents  from royal land fell in real terms, and Elizabeth sold land to pay for war with Spain which decreased the base income.
Elizabeth made no real attempt to overhaul the system. Instead, she reduced government expenditure, rewarding officials so meanly that corruption increased, and diverted revenues from the Church of England into state coffers.  


Elizabeth's frugality did mean that despite long and expensive wars with Spain and in Ireland, she left a debt of only about 300,000 to James I. (This can be contrasted with Philip II of Spain, who repudiated his massive debts four times during his reign).
Like all early-modern states, England had neither a permanent paid police-force nor a standing army; the only full-time paid employees were in the tiny central bureaucracy. To enforce her will, the monarch had to resort to other methods.  

Court pomp and ceremony reinforced the mystique of monarchy.

Propaganda - disseminated largely through the church in homilies and sermons - stressed the sinfulness of rebellion.

" ...it is an intolerable ignorance, madness, and wickedness for subjects to make any murmuring, rebellion, resistance, or withstanding, commotion, or insurrection against their most dear and most dread Sovereign Lord and King, ordained and appointed of GOD'S goodness for their commodity, peace, and quietness."

From the Homily on Obedience (1562),  preached each year in Elizabethan English churches

Most importantly, the monarchy had powers of patronage that enabled the monarchy to reward its servants without cash expenditure. Forms of patronage included:

Titles of nobility and knighthoods
Discount leases of royal land
Stewardships of royal property
Offices in the church for royal servants and their relatives
Grants of patents and monopolies
Customs farms

Elizabeth was as stingy with titles of nobility as she was with cash.

Fulke Greville (left) was one of many loyal servants who had to wait until James I's reign before being rewarded for his services by promotion to the aristocracy.

Elizabeth was careful to dispense some patronage herself, and not to allow one minister or favorite to control access to her favor. Sir William Cecil and Sir Robert Dudley developed two major subordinate patronage networks, but there were also other minor networks. Until Elizabeth began to lose her grip in the 1590s, she exercised firm control over her subordinates and ensured that conflict between the factions at court remained muted.
By distributing patronage widely, Elizabeth helped ensure political stability, since everyone felt they had a chance to obtain advancement.


Local government

Rutlandshire -
England's smallest county


The central government relied on local volunteers to enforce its wishes in the localities.  Gentlemen and merchants were willing to accept the costs in time and money because it increased their local power and influence.
For example, a gentleman appointed to the subsidy commissions that were created to assess Parliamentary taxation could under-assess the value of his own and his friends' property.
The Commission of Sewers had powers to order that ditches be dug and river banks maintained - a gentleman on the commission could ensure that such orders never inconvenienced him or his family.
The office of sheriff continued to decline in influence, but sheriffs did act as returning officers in elections to Parliament. This gave them great scope for ensuring that a candidate they favored was returned.
In the 1580s, Elizabeth reintroduced the office of Lord Lieutenant of the County (the Duke of Northumberland had first created this office in the wake of the peasant rebellions of 1549). The Lord Lieutenant took over the sheriff's military duties in the county and was responsible for levying the militia (in practice the work was often delegated to Deputy Lieutenants).


Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk
who became Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire
and the Isle of Ely in 1598


The Lords Lieutenant (many of whom were Privy Councilors) and Deputy Lieutenants also supervised the selection and instruction of Justices of the Peace.
Throughout the sixteenth century the powers and responsibilities of Justices of the Peace increased. This was not only by royal fiat; Parliamentary legislation often settled on the Commission of the Peace as the best agency to enforce law.
Acting alone, a single Justice of the Peace could imprison a suspect. A quorum of Justices at the Quarter Sessions could impose the death penalty (although increasingly, the punishment of serious crimes took place at the biannual Assizes, where two Judges from the central courts were present).

Each county was divided into hundreds for the purpose of mustering militia. (The "hundred" was so-called because made up of 100 hides - a hide was originally 120 acres of land, but varied greatly over time). The official in charge of the hundred was the high constable.



The smallest administrative unit of English government was the parish. The parish was primarily the fundamental element of the English Church, but it was also the basis for secular functions such as poor relief and the upkeep of roads and bridges.

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