HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 11

 - The Elizabethan "Monarchical Republic": Political Participation


In this lecture Professor Wrightson provides an overview of central political issues of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He discusses the Queen’s personal character and identity-forming experiences (and the challenges posed by her gender), the manner in which she interacted with her political advisors (notably William Cecil) and addresses the foreign and domestic crises which impacted her rule (such as the ongoing threat posed by the claims of Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne and England’s increasingly tense relationship with Spain). In particular, Professor Wrightson highlights the shifts in political culture which occurred during the period, as ideas concerning political participation and the role of institutions such as Parliament expanded. He introduces Patrick Collinson’s notion of the Elizabethan regime as something of a “monarchical republic,” with the Queen exercising power in cooperation with political stakeholders whose ideas about governance were informed by both their Protestant convictions and classical political principles.

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Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 11 - The Elizabethan "Monarchical Republic": Political Participation

Chapter 1. Elizabeth I and Her Councilors [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Okay.

Well, in retrospect, looking back from the perspective of the twenty-first century, the reign of Elizabeth I tends to shimmer in the historical imagination. She reigned for forty-five years; she restored political stability; she settled the religious question at least for the time being; she survived a powerful foreign enemy, Spain, and she presided in all of her iconic splendor over a brilliant court and the flowering of English literature. At the end of her last Parliament in 1601, the sixty-eight year old queen made her Golden Speech, as it’s called. She told the members of the House of Commons assembled before her that they may have had mightier monarchs but they’d had none who had shown greater care to defend them from “peril, dishonor, tyranny and oppression,” and she expressed her confidence that “though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your loves.” And she invited each member of Parliament to come forward and kiss her hand before they departed into their countries. And so each member filed forward to kiss the Queen’s hand before leaving her, probably knowing that they would never see her again.

Well, this is marvelous stuff, and she was great at it. It’s the theater of majesty. Generations of historians feel the urge to bow their knees and kiss her hand too. And me too; I confess it. [Laughter] When the present Queen Elizabeth came to the throne I was a little boy in primary school and our teacher, Miss Cranston, the lady who taught me to write, told us all stories about Elizabeth I and said that we should grow up to be the new Elizabethans, [laughter] which was a terrible psychological burden [laughs] [laughter] to place on small children.

Okay. That’s how we tend to look back on Elizabeth’s reign, but what we have to remember of course as historians, and it’s hard to remember, is that none of this was known in advance. It’s easy to forget the extent to which her reign was fraught with crises and danger, especially in its early decades, the role of her servants in surmounting those dangers and the subtle shifts which her long reign brought about in government and in political culture and the sheer exhausting struggle of so much of it. And these are some of the things that I want to talk about today.

When Elizabeth came to the throne on the 17th of November 1558, it was another sign of people’s continued recognition of the legitimacy and the authority of the Tudor line. Even her Catholic councilors readily accepted her accession. But the situation was far from stable, far less stable than it had been under Henry VIII for example. And that was evident in various ways, not only in the risks posed by the clear internal divisions in matters of religion, about which I talked last time, but also an international situation of considerable danger. England as an ally of Spain was at war with France. The city of Calais, the last English possession on the French coast, had just been lost. Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, then aged only sixteen, was married to the heir to the French throne and she had a claim to the English throne via her grandmother, Henry VIII’s sister. That raised the possibility of a French ambition of uniting both Scotland and perhaps England to the French crown. There was at this time a French army in Scotland supporting Mary’s mother who was ruling Scotland in her daughter’s absence. That posed a potential threat from the north. Spain was currently an ally because of Mary’s marriage to Philip II, but Spain was also the champion of resurgent Catholicism in Europe and closely identified with Mary’s Catholic restoration in England. So what might Philip II do with Elizabeth on the throne?

So the young queen needed advice, she needed counsel, and it’s the relationship between Elizabeth and those who sought to counsel her that gives the early and most decisive part of her reign its distinctive political flavor. As her sister, Mary, had approached death late in 1558, the nucleus of Elizabeth’s council was already forming. And the central figure amongst those who advised her was William Cecil, later Lord Burghley.

Now Cecil was a somewhat older man; he was in his mid-thirties. He’s nearly always represented in television and film productions about Elizabeth as an old man but he was in his mid-thirties at the beginning of her reign. He was to serve the Queen for no less than forty years and he forged a very close and remarkable partnership with her, which was truly central to the Elizabethan regime. Traditionally, he’s portrayed as highly capable but rather staid, rather dull, perhaps unimaginative, congenitally cautious, a bureaucrat. But as is increasingly appreciated, this was far from being the whole man. Certainly, he was a very good servant of the state and he was a judicious, deliberative person and a prodigiously hard worker. He left behind him masses of papers, many of them in his own hand, which to this day have never been fully explored. He had the habit of working out decisions which had to be taken by setting out the pros and the cons on any question in lists in his personal papers as he worked his way through. He called this “reasoning by question upon a matter uncertain,” and it was derived from the methods he’d learned in his classical education.

But he wasn’t simply the Queen’s cautious, plodding adviser. He also had his own ideas and his own ideals. Cecil and some of his closest colleagues in Elizabeth’s first council were essentially Edwardians, by which I mean they’d cut their political teeth in the reign of Edward VI as servants, junior servants at that time, of a regime that was governed by a privy council in the absence of an adult male ruler. So Cecil was the Queen’s man but he wasn’t just the Queen’s man. He had a very strong sense of public service, again derived in part from his classical education, and he had a very strong sense of a state which was independent of the person of the monarch. He also explicitly subscribed to the view that in England sovereignty lay not in the crown alone but in the crown in Parliament. He was very keen on the notion that the consent of the whole political nation, Queen, lords, and commons in Parliament, should be obtained for any major political initiative. A strong sense then of the state as an entity.

And secondly Cecil and his colleagues had an agenda of their own, which was essentially the reestablishment and preservation of the Protestant state. He wasn’t a dogmatist in religion. He was considerably less advanced in his religious views towards Protestantism than some of his colleagues, but nonetheless he was a sincere adherent of the Reformation. Indeed, back in 1552 some of the meetings about the second Edwardian prayer book had been conducted in Cecil’s house. So the importance of this ideological element, this ideological undertone in the politics of the early reign of Elizabeth, mustn’t be underestimated.

Okay then. Elizabeth’s councilors had certain ideas and certain purposes of their own to be pursued in a very dangerous situation. And finally they had certain assumptions also about the new monarch and about the nature of their relationship to her. Obviously, Elizabeth was a woman, a young unmarried woman, and in 1559 shortly after her accession the Scottish reformer, John Knox, with quite appalling timing, issued a book called The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. It was an attack upon what he regarded as the unnatural nature of female rule, the ‘regiment of women’. This book was directed against Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I of England, and against Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was ruling Scotland as regent. But by the time it came out it was deeply embarrassing, because it appeared when Mary had died and Elizabeth was on the throne.

One of Elizabeth’s bishops, John Aylmer, quickly was recruited to answer it, and he wrote a book called An Harboowr for Faithful and True Subjects to defend her rule. But it was a very odd defense. He maintained that Elizabeth’s rule posed no threat since, to quote him, “first it is not she that ruleth but the laws,” and secondly “she maketh no statutes or laws but in the honorable court of Parliament.” Therefore, “what may she do alone wherein is peril?” In short, what he’s saying is that she would not really rule. Government would be conducted in her name and by her royal authority, but the general assumption was that she would soon marry appropriately and in the meantime the privy council would assert its role in running the country and Parliament would provide safeguards. It’s hard to imagine any of this being written about a male ruler.

Well, such expectations showed that Aylmer didn’t really know Elizabeth and indeed perhaps even Cecil didn’t yet fully appreciate her potential. She had had a very long schooling in caution and in the avoidance of danger, but she was also in many respects very much her father’s daughter. She knew what it was to be a monarch. She had an imperious temperament and she was perfectly prepared to assert it when she was crossed. Nor did she intend to allow her sex to inhibit her in doing that. In 1566, at the age of thirty-three in response to representations made to her by a parliamentary delegation over the succession she stated, “though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had. I am your anointed queen. I will never be constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of this realm in my petticoat I were able to live in any place in Christendom.” She could play the gender card to her own advantage, and of course she was to do so many times, most famously in her speech to her troops at Tilbury during the Spanish Armada campaign: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England.”

Well, as statements like this were repeatedly to show, she had a great sense of her own capability and a very strong sense of her place as monarch, and assertions of this kind were most likely to come when she felt that her royal authority was being encroached upon. She knew of course that she ruled under the law, but firstly she had no doubt of her right to the crown. She was a monarch ordained by God and anointed at her coronation. Secondly, she believed that in her person the imperial kingship of Henry VIII had been restored. She did not regard her supreme governorship of the Church of England as something which had been granted to her by Parliament; rather it had been given to her by God and confirmed by parliamentary statute. And thirdly, she regarded certain ‘matters of state’, as she termed them, as lying ultimately within the sphere of her ‘prerogative power’: her sole power of decision, her prerogative power, things to be decided by her. And notably they included the crucial matter of religion, foreign policy and the succession to the throne.

On these matters she would certainly listen to advice and counsel, but she alone had the last word and she strongly believed that Parliament in particular had no business in meddling in such matters. As she told that same parliamentary delegation in 1566 when they pressured her on the matter of the succession, “it is a strange thing that the foot should direct the head in so weighty a matter.” All of this considered, a great deal then would depend upon how the Queen and her councilors would get along in handling the central issues of her reign. And on the whole they got along pretty well.

On a day-to-day basis, the privy council ran the affairs of government under the secretaryship first of Cecil and then of Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth would attend council frequently, but on many days they were allowed to simply proceed with administrative matters. Cecil was given a particularly free hand in his efforts to address the problems of the commonwealth in economic and social affairs, to plan legislation to be brought before Parliament intended to stabilize and strengthen the nation, some of these things I’ve touched on already.

Chapter 2. Foreign Policy [00:15:37]

But what about those vital ‘matters of state’, the really central issues as far as the Queen was concerned?

Well, the first order of business of course was religion, the religious settlement, and as we saw last time there was essential unanimity between Elizabeth and her councilors on that issue in shaping the religious settlement and in getting it through Parliament, though the Queen’s personality was to become very evident in the way in which, as I described last time, she set the limits to the further reform which might proceed.

The issues of foreign policy and of the succession were much more fraught. And here you’ve got a pattern, repeatedly, of pressure being brought upon the Queen and of resistance on her part to such pressure; pressure on her to make decisions which her councilors believed to be absolutely crucial, and on her part a great unwillingness to take categorical decisions which might prove to be irreparable and which might prove to have unforeseen consequences. She was very anxious to avoid decisions which might lead in directions which might prove disastrous.

So, to look at foreign policy first of all: early in the reign, in April 1559, the war with France was ended by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. England suffered the humiliation of losing Calais, its last French possession once and for all, but that could be blamed upon Mary and Philip — it had happened under Mary’s reign — and there was the positive benefit of the treaty that the peace treaty meant that the other monarchs recognized Elizabeth as Queen of England. That still left, however, the problem of Scotland. Scotland was still being ruled as a French protectorate by Mary of Guise, and then in 1559 Mary, Queen of Scots, became Queen of France when her husband, Francis, acceded to the French throne. To Cecil, the best hope of achieving security in this situation was to encourage resistance to French domination in Scotland, to encourage, in particular, the resistance of the Scottish lords known as the Lords of the Congregation who were Protestants and who were engaged in what was at that time still a largely unsuccessful resistance to French dominance.

Elizabeth was willing to go so far as to act covertly in the Scottish situation, even authorizing the smuggling back to Scotland of the preacher, John Knox, in order to stiffen Scottish Protestant resistance. But she was exceedingly reluctant to intervene openly to help any rebels against their true monarch. This time, however, Cecil managed to persuade her because of the obvious threat, and in 1560 some English troops and ships were sent to aid the Scottish covenanters. They were not very successful militarily, but in June 1560 Mary of Guise died and in July the war in Scotland was brought to an end with the Treaty of Edinburgh. French troops were evacuated from Scotland and the Protestant lords took control in Edinburgh.

So, that won a breathing space but it was only a short breathing space, because in December 1560 Francis II of France, the young king, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, died, leaving Mary an eighteen year old widow. She returned to Scotland. She accepted the Protestant settlement which had taken place there, though she was herself a Catholic, but she also made great show soon after her return to Scotland of the fact that she maintained a claim to the English throne, a claim to the succession. And this made — this situation became even worse in the mid-1560s, first of all when Mary married. She married Henry, Lord Darnley, who was also descended from the same Tudor grandmother as Mary, Queen of Scots herself by a second marriage that she contracted, and who also had a distant claim to the throne. They married and then in 1566 they had a son, James, who was baptized a Catholic, a potential successor to the English crown.

This time the situation was resolved not by any English intervention but by Mary, Queen of Scots’ own errors of judgment. By 1566, she had fallen out of love disastrously with Lord Darnley. He was a wastrel; he was a rake; he resented deeply his exclusion from real power. In a jealous rage he assisted in the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, at one point; and in 1567 he was murdered by a group of Scottish lords acting, it was said, with the covert assistance of Queen Mary herself. With Darnley dead, Mary embarked upon an adulterous affair with Lord James Bothwell, a rather romantic figure, one of the lords of the Scottish border area, with whom she was in love, and remained with him until he managed to obtain a divorce from his wife and they married in May 1567.

All of this was too much for the Lords of the Congregation; they rebelled. In June 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate and the Earl of Moray took power as regent for her infant son, James. A year later Mary managed to escape from her imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle but, having failed to raise adequate support to restore her to the throne, she was forced to flee to England. She crossed the border and she appealed to Elizabeth for help in restoring her to the throne. Well, this was a highly embarrassing situation, and in this situation Elizabeth and her council had to act very circumspectly indeed.

They didn’t want to restore Mary, Queen of Scots to the Scottish throne, because the Scottish — power in Scotland was now in the hands of friendly Lords of the Congregation who had proceeded to bring up the young James as a Protestant. They couldn’t let Mary go to France either. If they allowed that, she might in France reassert her claim to the English throne as well as the Scottish and perhaps try to be restored to Scotland and possibly to England with French military aid. Elizabeth offered to hear both sides of the story, and commissioners met to hear the charges of murder and adultery which were laid by the Lords of the Congregation against Mary and to hear Mary’s countercharges of treason and rebellion against her Scottish subjects. And judiciously Elizabeth eventually determined that the case had not been proved either way. Scotland was neutralized — it was to remain under the rule of the Protestant regency — but Mary could not be released. Instead she was held in what was deemed honorable imprisonment in a succession of English castles.

So that brought a temporary resolution to England’s advantage, but it also meant that Elizabeth was saddled with what was described as “a permanent and lively danger” in the person of Mary, Queen of Scots. She was held in custody, but as you know, almost from the beginning Mary became the focus of plots against Elizabeth. Indeed, already by 1572, after the first of these, some members of Parliament, some members of Elizabeth’s council, including even some of the bishops, were calling for Mary’s head in order to resolve this danger. But Elizabeth wouldn’t countenance that. She would not execute an anointed queen. When Parliament asked her to do so she vetoed the bill that was brought before her with the words “la reine s’avisera,” “the queen will think about it.” And she did — for about fifteen years. [Laughter] She wouldn’t execute an anointed queen, nor would she quietly accede in Mary’s assassination, which was also suggested to her as a way out of the problem. Some of her councilors simply despaired and they were vigilant on her behalf, especially Francis Walsingham, the head of her intelligence service, but as yet the Queen would not budge.

Chapter 3. Succession [00:25:13]

She also refused to budge on another vital matter, the matter of the succession, and here the tension at the very heart of the regime is perhaps most clearly revealed. Initially of course people expected that Elizabeth would soon marry and that she would bear children, bear an heir. In 1559 to ‘61, various candidates were being talked about. Philip II of Spain, the former husband of her sister, Mary, offered his hand in marriage, but that was diplomatically and politely rejected. There was talk of Lord Robert Dudley as a possible husband but there were problems there. First of all, he was already married, and then in 1560 when his wife was found dead at the foot of the staircase in their country home there was much suspicion that Dudley might have had a hand in her death in order to clear the way. I think there’s little question that Elizabeth loved Robert Dudley, but to marry him would have been an act of supreme political folly. They considered Prince Eric of Sweden, but he was rumored to be mentally unstable. They considered the Archduke Charles of Austria but he was a Catholic. And so it went on.

Nothing had come of all of this by 1562 and nor would Elizabeth name a successor in the meantime. And then in 1562 she nearly died of smallpox and the fragility of the situation was vividly demonstrated. What would happen if she were to die? In 1563 when Parliament met it almost immediately petitioned the Queen to marry and to name a successor. Both the House of Lords and the House of Commons were involved and they were not very discreet in approaching the Queen. The Speaker of the House of Commons, using his privilege of free speech, reminded her of the history of Alexander the Great and the disastrous consequences of his failure to provide for a clear succession. Almost certainly at this point the members of Parliament were actually being covertly encouraged by William Cecil and the privy council who wanted pressure put upon the Queen in this matter, but she gave only evasive replies and Parliament eventually gave in and went into recess without any definite result.

By the time they met again in 1566, the situation was even worse because of Mary, Queen of Scots’ marriage to Lord Darnley and her pregnancy, and again Parliament was encouraged to raise the matter and did so pretty bluntly. They declared that they would not pass any taxation bill unless she replied to their petition of 1563 asking her to name a successor. That was why Elizabeth rebuked them in the words I’ve already quoted to you for encroaching on her sovereign rights, though she also promised that she would indeed in good time marry; she intended to. When Parliament pushed again by trying to incorporate that verbal promise into one of their money bills she rejected it angrily. She told them they would not have dared have treated her father thus; nor indeed would they, she was right. But under the pressures of the times there had been something of a shift in political life. As Stephen Alford says, in writing of William Cecil and the privy council, these were men who were “redefining their relationship with a monarch who refused to play by the rules of monarchy and name her [correction: select a] successor.”

The role of the council, one could say, was shifting somewhat from that of being merely an advisory and an executive body to that of attempting to put political pressure on the Queen herself. And Parliament was taking something of a novel role in calling openly for definite policies, definite courses of action in matters the Queen regarded as solely her own prerogative. And Parliament was to do it again very soon in 1572 when it called for the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. Sir Francis Knollys, one of the council, told the Queen in 1569, “it is not possible for your majesty’s most faithful councillors to govern your state well unless you will resolutely follow their opinions in weighty matters.” There was a ring of compulsion in that, reflecting a rather unfamiliar set of political assumptions about the relationship between the Queen and her council. As Patrick Collinson has put it, there were “citizens concealed within subjects” in Elizabethan England.

But whatever her councilors’ views the fact remained that Elizabeth was all they had and she was secure in that knowledge. She knew they depended totally upon her presence on the throne and she stood her ground, putting them off with what Cecil in exasperation described as “answers answerless” to their pressures; answers answerless. No one can really say when she decided that she would never marry and perhaps she never actually consciously took that decision; perhaps matters simply drifted in that direction. Any decisive action perhaps seemed unacceptable at particular points in time and gradually it emerged that she would indeed never marry. It’s difficult to believe that she was very serious, for example, about the marriage negotiations which were conducted between 1575 and 1581 with the French Duke of Alençon. She was by that time in her late forties and it’s unlikely that she really took this seriously. But if she conserved her freedom of action by refusing to act on certain critical matters that was also just prolonging what seemed to many of her councilors to be a never ending situation of insecurity.

And that was especially the case as England’s relationship with Spain deteriorated into one of permanent threat, particularly after 1567 with the Dutch Protestant revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands and the establishment as the result of a very powerful Spanish army just across the narrow seas. Again Elizabeth declined to act decisively. There were many in her council who urged her to intervene militarily in support of the Dutch, or later as the wars of religion broke out in France to intervene on behalf of the French Protestant cause. Robert Dudley, now Earl of Leicester, was one of those who pressed her to do so; so did Sir Francis Walsingham. They were frustrated by her willingness to countenance covert assistance to these rebels, to countenance an undeclared war against Spain being pursued by privateers like Sir Francis Drake in the Spanish-American possessions, but remaining unwilling always to openly support any rebels against their sovereign monarch.

Well, at this point we can pause briefly just to consider another dimension of the shifting structure of political life, one that you already have discussed or will discuss in section — the way in which under Elizabeth local government was gradually intensifying and an increasingly direct relationship was being built up between the privy council at the center and local justices of the peace, encouraging an extended form of political participation amongst the gentry elites of the English counties. These were men, as you know, who were very conscious of their role as local representatives of their counties, who pursued that role in their correspondence with the center in their petitions and the questions they raised in their attempts to modify and influence policy. And they were men who were also at the same time very conscious of their place in the national structures of government, above all when they periodically came up to the center to serve in Parliament. And indeed demand for places in Parliament was such that the number of members of Parliament was greatly increased under Elizabeth from 251 in 1547 to 370 by the end of her reign; representation was being extended. These things you’ll discuss in section, but remember that they also represent a further development of the nature of political participation under Elizabeth in the world outside Westminster and in Westminster itself when those people came up to take part in Parliament or visited the court.

Well, all of these various strands of the situation came together in the mid-1580s. In 1584, William the Silent, leader of the Dutch rebels, was assassinated. Spain looked like winning the war against the Dutch under the Duke of Parma, a brilliant commander. If that happened would England be next on the Spanish agenda? This, together with the discovery of the Throckmorton plot against Elizabeth, provoked in 1584 a movement known as the Bond of Association, the circulation and signing of a public oath by members of the political nation that they would undertake to revenge any successful attempt against Elizabeth’s life. The Bond of Association was signed by members of the privy council, by members of the nobility, by the gentry, by many clergy, by mayors of cities, even in some counties right down to the level of the leaders of parishes, yeoman farmers, church wardens and so forth. It had probably been designed by Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, but it clearly found massive spontaneous support nationwide.

In 1584, they also brought before Parliament and passed an Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Most Royal Person. This legislated an obligation upon the whole nation to take revenge and to exclude from succession anyone guilty of plotting Elizabeth’s death. Guess who that was aimed at. Cecil was also secretly drawing up contingency plans for what would happen if the Queen was assassinated. He’d actually considered such things as long before as 1563, but in the mid-1580s he went into great detail. If the Queen was to die or be assassinated, all officers of the crown were to remain in their posts. That was a constitutional innovation. A council of thirty was to be chosen to govern the nation. Parliament would then be called to meet and choose a successor. In other words, he was envisaging a kind of emergency republic if necessary, resulting in a parliamentary choice of king. It didn’t happen of course, but it’s still quite extraordinary. It shows just how far men like Cecil were prepared to go, if necessary, in order to secure the Protestant regime and national independence.

Other factors entered the situation shortly. In 1585, Elizabeth was forced at last to accept the need for direct intervention in the Netherlands to prevent the victory of the Spanish army, and English troops were sent under the Earl of Leicester to stiffen the resistance of the Dutch. In 1586, following the clear implication of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Babington plot to kill Elizabeth, which may possibly have involved entrapment, Mary, Queen of Scots was at last sentenced to death. Elizabeth signed her death warrant, but then withheld it until the council acted without her permission by dispatching the death warrant to Fotheringhay Castle where Mary was promptly executed. When the news came to London the Queen was furious. She threatened to have the secretary of the council executed and she was probably serious, but that boil had been lanced. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, now age twenty and beginning to rule in his own right, protested against his mother’s execution. But he got over it, [laughter] knowing full well that being brought up as a Protestant as he had been, he was very likely to be the obvious heir to the English throne in due course.

So the reign had reached its crisis point and it had been surmounted by forms of action on the part of central members of the political nation which have led Patrick Collinson to describe all this as evidence of a kind of “monarchical republic,” as he puts it. Well, of course that term is something of an exaggeration. It’s rather being playful in putting it forward for the sake of argument, but it does make a very serious point about the changing structures of political life and about what the expanded, increasingly participating political nation was capable of conceiving of and even of doing; their capacity to act in defense of the state that they wanted with or without the Queen’s consent. The Queen had stood her ground. She retained the ultimate power of decision, but her councilors had got what they wanted too. The crucial decisions had been made. And who’s to say that the delays which Elizabeth had forced upon them hadn’t done a great deal to help in getting them right when they were finally made?

And so for the moment it rested there. The last years of the reign were focused upon the war with Spain and upon a united effort to sustain it, which was a tremendously debilitating effort given England’s limited resources. In 1588, the whole nation was mobilized as the Spanish Armada approached the English coast and the defeat of the Armada — the prevention of its loading troops from the Netherlands to land in England, and its eventual scattering as it made its way back to Spain around the northern coast of Scotland and Ireland — all of this was regarded as a providential deliverance of England from this tremendous threat. But that providential deliverance, as they saw it, was followed by a hard slog through the 1590s: the debilitating costs in treasure and in men of maintaining an army in the Netherlands, the costs of facing rebellion in Ireland where the Earl of Tyrone rose against Elizabethan authority aided by a Spanish expeditionary force which landed in Ireland.

As the war dragged on, Elizabeth’s older councilors gradually died away. Leicester died in 1588. She wrote on the last dispatch she’d received from him, “his last letter.” Walsingham died in 1590. Cecil died in 1598. The 1590s saw the absolute pinnacle of the cult of Elizabeth as a kind of national icon represented in the great paintings, the white face, the great, elaborate wig, the magnificent dresses and so forth. But also that period saw heads gradually turning away from the aging Queen and towards the assumed, but as yet formerly undeclared successor, James VI of Scotland. Court factions began forming, jockeying for position for when James was to succeed, and when the Queen finally died in 1603 somewhat withdrawn, certain perhaps that her age was over, James entered joyfully upon the inheritance for which he had waited so long.

But it was to be a rather more complicated inheritance than James appreciated as he rode south from Edinburgh to become not James VI of Scotland but James I of England. It was an inheritance which contained many concealed ambiguities about the nature of the relationship between the crown and the political nation, about the way power had come to be shared and exercised in a kingdom which remained highly centralized under the monarchy but which also operated a political system which was heavily consultative and in many ways participatory. And an inheritance which was also ambiguous with regard to the purposes which the political nation expected political power to serve if the monarchy was to retain its legitimacy in the eyes of members of the political nation. Before long, under the early Stuarts, some people were beginning to remember rather ruefully how much better things had been in the time of “Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory,” as they tended to put it.

“I will not make windows into men’s souls.” “I will never be constrained to do anything.” “I have the heart and stomach of a king.” “I have reigned with your loves.” She had.


[end of transcript]

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