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If you're going to study Elizabethan England and you have no idea where to start or what to read up on, below is a background overview of the things you need to know and understand before you begin your studies.

I will, in this node, try and give you an overall light understanding of England's society, government structure and court system from around 1550. I will endeavour to explain generally the characteristics of the monarch, the monarch's prerogatives, the concept of patronage and touch briefly on the characteristics of the governing class.


England was a hierarchical society, a graded society. Marx would've said it was divided into classes.

Back then the monarchs ruled, today they only reign. They were practical, hands on, runners of the government (depending on their personalities of course, eg. James I was lazy). The most important division of society was between the governing class and the governed class.

Who were the governing class? People that were eligible to be called upon by the monarch to help them govern the country, e.g., a Sheriff, JP (Justice of the Peace) or Master of the Court of Wards. Of course, the governed class were not eligible to help govern the country but they still had certain rights as Englishmen, e.g., Freedom of Speech.

Who were the governed class? These were the peasants and lower class citizens of England. They would rarely own much land and they relied heavily on the governing class for jobs.

Notice this powerful group within the governing class: the peerage. There were 5 different ranks of the peerage, Dukes being the most important and powerful, followed by marquises, Earls, Viscounts and at the bottom of the top, Barons. The rest of the governing class were called the gentry. There were also minor ranks in the governed class - a Yeoman was the most important.

Society was overwhelmingly rural. People tended to live in manors or castles in the country. If you owned a castle or a manor, you had status. This was hugely important if you wanted to get anywhere in life or just generally wanted to be respected as a member of the governing class.

How do we know this? London was one of the only urban centres. Norwich was second to London, it had 15,000 to London's 200,000. There were 18 places of over 5,000 people. This tells us that most people lived in rural areas.

Government Structure

There were 3 branches of government

  • Executive
  • Legislative
  • Judicial
  • The Executive Branch of government were the people that carried out - executed - laws. The Crown was the head of the executive branch, next was the privy council. There were also officials at the local level, the three officials here were, in order of importance: Lord Lieutenant Sheriff JP (Justice of the Peace)

    In remote areas there were councils, e.g., The Council of the North. These councils mainly operated because they were too far from London to be sufficiently controlled by the government. They were staffed by the local governing class - sort of like a mini Privy Council. We begin to see that the crown relies heavily on the governing class.

    The Legislative Branch of government, i.e., parliament, was obviously there to pass laws. Where did these laws come from? Normally from the executive branch of government. If the monarch wanted a law passed (e.g., to get some money) they had to draw up a Bill and put it forward to the Legislative Branch of government at parliament.

    Today, one of its most important functions is to call to account the activities of the other parties. Particularly the party which controls the executive, mainly to critisise. It didn't quite have that function back then, if it did the peerage and the gentry would be constantly questioning the monarch.

    Parliament had a key role in granting the monarch money and passing other laws. The monarch couldn't pass laws by itself, e.g., Elizabeth's first Bill (1559). Elizabeth called 10 parliaments in her 55 year reign. They sat for 130 weeks in total. If the monarch wanted to levy income tax they had to call parliament and get it to pass a law, once again you can see how the crown relied on the governing class.

    The Judicial Branch of government was obviously the courts.
    It handled, apart from law and order issues, disputes between citizens and the executive branch of government. The courts in England implemented what is called "Common Law". E.g., one court was called "The Queens Bench", it later became "The Kings Bench" in 1603 when James I took over.

    The common law courts were located in London, but judges went of tour and held cases in the larger towns. The monarch appointed judges, as one of their functions was to give out justice. It was expected that the monarch would set up a system of court/justice. There was also another group of courts called the "Prerogative Courts", e.g., High Commission. Often the common law courts were too slow so the monarch had set up another layer of courts.

    The Court System

    The court was, by definition, wherever the monarch was. It was the centre of government and the source of all political power. Its main functions were a) allowing the monarch to call leading subjects to council her, arbitrate in their quarrels and to employ and reward their services and b) displaying the power and magnificence of the monarch to impress foreign observers and reinforce obedience at home. The court would meet every day upon the monarch.

    The court could go on tour (it was, of course, wherever the monarch was). For Elizabeth, her most elaborate court was at Whitehall. It had many functions. It's most important were: It was the political powerhouse, the centre of political power. The Queen was there (that alone made it very important) as were the Privy Council and other great officers of the State. Anyone who was anyone had political ambition - you got yourself to the court and hopefully you might land yourself in an important job.

    Of course, the privy council was at court - it had three very important functions.

    The other great function of the court was to promote the fact that it was a great political power and promote the monarch and their splendour - this tied the governing class to them.

    The Monarch

    They were appointed by God. Some looked upon themselves as "Mini" or "Demi" Gods. This was called The Divine right of Kings, it helped strengthen their authority. To go against a monarch (i.e., overthrow them) was considered a sin.

    Government was, in a real sense, personal monarchy, a) it was Royal and b) Ministers worked for it. Monarchs back then ruled, today they only reign (really they still rule, but it's a restricted rule). Obviously the personality of the monarch determined the style, the intensity and efficiency of government. Today of course, that is not the case.

    These wee the powers that a monarch was given to enable them to govern. They were known, they were defined and they were under the (or subject to) Common Law. There was often dispute and court cases over what they actually meant. E.g., a man names Bates took James I to court.

    English monarchy was potentially strong, but remember their strength was not unlimited. Their exercise of their prerogatives could be questioned in parliament and they could, of course, also be challenged in court which did limit them.

    There was, however, one exception of limitation to these prerogatives (which was abused by Charles I). there was an emergency prerogative, a monarch could declare an emergency, e.g., they could claim that England was in danger of being attacked. Charles did this and collected money in the form of Ship Money, i.e., the country paid for the ships to be built. The only thing was, there was actually no emergency. This continued for some time until John Hampden took Charles to court. Ultimately you could say there were limits on this prerogative but only in extreme cases.

    There were also other limits on the governments power, a) they were extremely poor and b) they did no have a standing army. Tthis meant that they could not coerce or push round a whole class, namely the governing class. The monarch had only a small Secret Service and they primarily caught catholic priests.

    At the end of the day, the monarch relied heavily upon the voluntary cooperation of the governing class which included many very powerful individuals.

    This was the system where the material and political interests of the governing class were bound to the monarch, it linked their interests to the fate of the government. It was an important link. Leading patrons would have direct contact with the monarch and if you were in their faction (i.e., you were one of their clients) you would have indirect contact with the monarch.

    The country got governed on the cheap! Remember the crown was very poor, so most of the government jobs paid nothing. Here are some examples of patronage:

    The Duke of Norfolk was a privy councillor and the head of a very large faction.
    Faction: A faction was a group of people who attached themselves to a person who could give out patronage. A patron.

    Characteristics of the Governing Class

    They accepted that they had an obligation to give out charity to those below them, they didn't just turn their noses up and refuse to help.

    They accepted the keep an open house for members of their class and most important the monarch, e.g., it cost the Earl of Lester six thousand pounds when the monarch visited him.

    You were judged not on the amount of wealth you had, but on how you spent it. You had to spend conspicuously. Good breeding, however, demanded lavish spending on food, clothing, gambling, houses, courting, etc.. There were also court expenses for some.

    There was some social mobility - Robert Spencer was a sheep farmer! He became quite a prosperous Yeoman, this was top of the governed class. Yeomen owned a substantial amount of land or they had a long-term lease. As his wealth increased he got ideas to improve his status, his wealth gained him a Knighthood - he then applied to the College of Arms who invented a pedigree. In other words, "you have gentle blood! You've had it all these years, only you didn't know it!".

    The life of this group of people is well documented as they were literate. Many of them kept diaries and land records. They also appear in public institutions.

    This node was written to help those who are beginning to study Elizabethan England understand the basic concepts of government and society. You will, of course, need a more in-depth knowledge to write essays on each of these sections.

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