Elizabethan Government

By Christopher W. Taylor

The National government of England in the Elizabethan Age consisted of three bodies: the monarchy, the Privy Council, and Parliament. There were also regional and county governments.

Although Elizabeth was not above the law, she was the most powerful person in England. Disobeying Elizabeth was against the law; hence her requests had to be obeyed. She prevailed over major decisions in religion, the dates Parliament met and what they talked about, warfare, education, foodways, and clothing styles (Thomas: “Monarch,” par. 2). The two institutions that Elizabeth governed with were her Privy Council (along with its daughter bodies: the Council of the Marches and the Council of the North) and Parliament (par. 4).

The Privy Council of Elizabeth consisted of about twelve active members: six peers and six commoners (Ponko 6). These twelve active members, however, rarely showed up at a meeting together (Ponko 6). William Cecil (1520-98) held the chief position in this group, with Robert Dudley (1533-88) and Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-90) below him. Elizabeth trusted Cecil in the head position of Secretary of State mostly because he was wise, cautious, and a good administrator (Thomas: “Privy Council,” par. 3). Later, Walsingham became Secretary of State (par. 4). Other important members of Elizabeth’s Privy Council were Christopher Hatton (1540-91) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) (Ponko 6). The Council was very important in deciding policy issues for the English government, but they were completely dependent on Elizabeth (Ponko 7). The primary concerns of the Privy Council were religion, military matters, diplomacy, the security of the Queen, economics, and the welfare of the English people. Along with Elizabeth, the Council issued proclamations of the Queen (Thomas: “Privy Council,” par. 2). In addition, Walsingham was known for his network of spies that kept Elizabeth and the country safe (par. 4).

In the Elizabethan Age, Parliament consisted of two houses: the House of Lords (the Upper House) and the House of Commons (the Lower House). Only bishops and aristocrats could be in the Upper House, and members of Parliament for the Lower House were elected from commoners. The latter members, however, were usually powerful members of the community that won their positions through rigged elections (“Parliament,” par. 1). Parliament passed laws and provided money to Elizabeth. Parliament was summoned by Elizabeth for two reasons: reforms and money. During her reign, Elizabeth only summoned Parliament ten times (par. 2).

Below the national level of government were the regional governments and the local government. The two main bodies of the regional governments were the Council of the Marches, which governed the North part of England, and the Council of the North, which governed Wales and some of the English border colonies. Royal representatives, such as Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, and Lord Lieutenants, were placed in every county in England. In addition, every town and city had its own government, with the mayor at the head of it (Thomas: “Power & Government,” par. 2). Most crimes, such as theft, witchery, recusancy, murder, and assault, were dealt with by the Great Session (Assizes) and the Quarter Sessions Court. Other important courts were the Star Chamber, the Court of Chancery, Exchequer of Pleas, and the Court of Requests (par. 3).


Works Cited

 Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. Cambridge: Perseus Books. 1991. 

 Ponko, Jr., Vincent. “The Privy Council and the Spirit of Elizabethan Economic Management, 1558-1603.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 58.4 (1968). The American Philosophical Society, 9 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.

 Thomas, Heather. “Power and Government.” The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 April 2007. <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/power/>.

 ---. “Monarch.” The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://elizabethi.org/us/power/monarch.html>.

 ---. “Privy Council.“ The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://elizabethi.org/us/power/privycouncil.html>.

 ---. “Parliament.” Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://elizabethi.org/us/power/parliament.html>.

 Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.