Monarchy & government

The Great Seal of Elizabeth I



The monarch was at the center of English government in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Queen or King presiding in Privy Council acted as the national executive. The Monarch in Parliament passed legislation.


The judges who presided in central and local courts were chosen and appointed by the monarch, and served at royal pleasure.


The monarch also chose and commissioned the Justices of the Peace who formed the most important element in local government and administration.


The Monarch was the Supreme Governor of the Church in England.


The powers of the monarch were known as royal prerogatives. These prerogatives included

summoning, proroguing and dissolving parliament.


coining money.


licensing trade, issuing patents and granting monopolies (a contested power).


issuing proclamations.


imprisoning on suspicion without legal cause shown (until 1628).

Sir Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, Lord Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth (1599) and co-author (with Thomas Norton) of The Tragedy of Gorboduc (1561), a blank-verse play somewhat similar in plot to King Lear.

The Judiciary


There were few institutional limits on royal power.
One was provided by the Judges. Although appointed by the crown, they interpreted law independently and sometimes decided cases in ways the monarch disliked. Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), for example, opposed James I by deciding against royal policy on prohibitions and other matters, and was dismissed in 1616.


The Judges staffed three central courts - Exchequer, Queen's (or King's) Bench and Common Pleas. These sat in Westminster during the Law terms (Hilary, Easter, Trinity, and Michaelmas). The Judges toured the rest of the country on Assizes. The Assize courts heard cases too serious to be determined by local Justices of the Peace.


Sir Thomas Egerton (1540-1617), Baron Ellesmere and Viscount Brackley
Lord Keeper under Elizabeth I and made Lord Chancellor by James I

Another central court was the Court of Chancery. This did not administer the Common Law, but offered equitable remedies to petitioners where Common Law failed to provide justice.

Common Lawyers resented Chancery, and there was also personal rivalry between Sir Edward Coke, the foremost advocate of Common Law, and Sir Thomas Egerton.



There is some evidence that Shakespeare had a legal training.




Another institution that acted as a brake on royal power was Parliament. Parliament consisted of the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Only Parliament could make new laws or repeal existing ones. The consent of both Houses and of the monarch was necessary to legislation.


Statue law or Acts of Parliament began as bills in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Many bills were in practice instigated by the monarch's ministers who often sat in one of the two Houses.

bulletThe members of the House of Commons were elected by counties ("knights of the shire") and certain towns ("burgesses"). By tradition, only the Commons initiated taxation bills.
"And that's the wavering commons: for their love
Lies in their purses, and whoso empties them
By so much fills their hearts with deadly hate."

(Richard II, 2.2)



bulletThe House of Lords was made up of nobles and twenty-seven bishops (including the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York). Since the monarch dispensed titles of nobility and controlled the appointment (and dismissal) of bishops, the House of Lords tended to be far more amenable to royal control than did the Commons.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
soldier, conspirator, duelist and patron of Shakespeare


Government & administration

bulletThe monarch's closest advisors sat in the Privy Council. It usually consisted of between thirteen and twenty members, and included noblemen, professional bureaucrats and legal experts.
bulletWhen the monarch wished to enforce policies by judicial measures, members of the Privy Council sat alongside judges as the Court of Star Chamber. It specialized in cases that threatened to disturb civil peace, such as riots, perjury, slander, duels and treason. Star Chamber did not use Common law procedures, and there was no jury. It could question anyone on any matter (and occasionally used torture to obtain answers).

"Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star-chamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire."

(Merry Wives, 1.1)

Initially, Star Chamber was popular as a resort against local corruption and abuses of power, but under Charles I it became widely disliked as it was used to impose unpopular royal polices.

bulletThe main institution of local government was the Commission of the Peace. Its members - Justices of the Peace or JPs - were local gentlemen. They were not paid for their services, but the opportunity for power and influence meant men were generally willing - indeed, eager - to serve.
bulletBy modern standards, the number of bureaucrats who served in both local and central government was tiny. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries government intruded into far fewer areas of life than it now does. There was no state education system, no welfare state, no professional police force, and no income tax. Minimal policing and care for the poor were provided at the parish level, directed by voluntary, locally-elected officials (constables and churchwardens).
bullet Because the government had few paid employees, it was difficult for any monarch to enforce generally unpopular policies. In areas of the country where there  were many powerful Catholic families, for example, a blind eye was often turned to the enforcement of laws against recusants (people who refused to attend the official Protestant church established in 1559). Subsidies (taxes voted by Parliament) returned far less revenue than they should have, because the prosperous men  who had to pay these assessed the wealth of themselves and their friends at far less than its real value.
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