11. The Elizabethan “Monarchical Republic”: Political Participation

Prof: 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.>
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,
>which was a terrible
psychological burden>
to place on small children.
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.
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
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. 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 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 Alen�on.
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,
>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.

Maurice Vega

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