The Tudor Privy Council

Privy Council was the hub of the Tudor political system – an elite executive board; governed England under the Crown. It was the main permanent institution of government: cf. Parliament which was an intermittent institution (e.g. in Elizabeth’s reign Parliament sat only 5 per cent of the time). The members of the Privy Council were exclusively men: the point may seem obvious but needs to be stated, because the gender issue is relevant in one particular respect. Under a woman ruler, and especially an unmarried woman ruler — i.e. Elizabeth — the Privy Council was bound to rise in importance because the inherent social assumption was that the business of government was properly conducted only by men. Elizabeth, of course, largely overcame this obstacle — usually by pretending to be a man: but the point still stands, especially in 1559 with the making of the religious settlement which scholars increasingly believe to have been chiefly the work of William Cecil and not Elizabeth herself — but we can return to this point in questions afterwards.

The Privy Council sat virtually every day. Within it Court and State became as one, for the Privy Council met almost exclusively at Court after the reconstructions of 1536-7 and 1540. It also sat judicially as the Court of Star Chamber on Wednesdays and Fridays: councillors commuted by horse or barge to Westminster. Under Elizabeth there were therefore problems of numbers, since she allowed the membership to drop to 10 by 1598.

Following the reconstruction of 1536-7, the Privy Council usually had 19 or so members. There were 19 in 1536-7; 19 again in 1540; 50 under Mary (but only 19 were working councillors); 19 in 1559; 19 in 1586; 11 in 1597; 10 in 1598, and 13 in 1601. Worked harder as reign progressed; in 1560s met three or four times a week, but by the 1590s met nearly every day, sometimes in both mornings and afternoons.

The Privy Council worked after 1540- as a corporate board: letters and warrants were signed by councillors collectively at the board (i.e. no ‘minister’ in sense of Wolsey or Cromwell). Collective responsibility and corporate decision-making were the key to the Privy Council’s structure. There was no room for an all-powerful minister who would dominate the Council’s proceedings: or if there was, the Council was likely to be subverted. Such tensions can be discerned until Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, who monopolized the affairs of state and took decisions privately with Henry VIII before consulting councillors about important policy issues.

The institutional origins of the Privy Council are significant. Of course, there had been a working King’s Council since the Anglo-Saxon Witan, and the councillors surrounding the king at Court had been termed ‘privy councillors’ throughout the Middle Ages. But the Privy Council which flourished after 1540 was different. It had

  1. a fixed and restricted membership, i.e. exclusion of former councillors;
  2. it could issue proclamations and administrative orders in the name of the king;
  3. it could govern the realm by state paper: that is by writing letters or issuing warrants signed collectively by the membership at the board. The settled Privy Council after 1540 did not need to rely on writs of privy seal or other exclusively royal or judicial instruments. It could issue orders and commands in its own name. For a time in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s reigns it even had its own seal.

It cannot be stressed enough that the fully-developed Privy Council was created in reaction to the ministerial careers of Wolsey and Cromwell: it is often said that there was no third minister in Henry VIII’s reign after Cromwell’s fall because the king could find no one of Cromwell’s ability, but this is misleading. The reconstruction of the Privy Council by 1540 reflected a conscious political choice: collectively the Privy Council was itself the third minister. In future no one man under the Tudors was to have the ascendancy of Wolsey and Cromwell, and William Cecil (who might be thought to have possessed something like it under Elizabeth) positively shunned the title of minister because of its earlier associations.

It is important to recognize that the Privy Council was not created by Thomas Cromwell as a fundamental administrative reform: we can discuss this issue more fully in question time. Let it be said for now that the evidence for Cromwell’s role as architect of the Privy Council is slender to non-existent. And even if we allow that he was the architect, we immediately have to explain why it was that the moment of change was the period of Cromwell’s twin crises: the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-6 and his fall and execution in 1540. Why if Cromwell were the architect of the Privy Council would he have appointed a majority of his political opponents to the board? And why did he consistently refuse to allow the Privy Council to fulfil its purpose by appointing a secretariat or to take its decisions independently of Cromwell’s authority as Henry VIII’s personal servant? Throughout the Middle Ages, conciliarist solutions had been the instinctive response of subjects to arbitrary rule by kings, popes and their personal servants. In England the barons aimed to limit the power of Henry III, Edward II and Richard II by the use of aristocratic councils. Again, the conciliar movement of the late 14th and 15th centuries was the reaction of Christendom to the new powers of the papal monarchy. (And the comparison with ecclesiastical conciliarism is highly relevant to England in the 1530s, when the claims of Henry VIII’s Acts of Appeals and Supremacy cast the king in the role of Constantine and Justinian, and seemed to threaten a wholesale increase in the scope of the royal prerogative.) In a very real sense, the reconstructed Privy Council was the ruling elite’s verdict on the careers of Wolsey and Cromwell. The 3rd duke of Norfolk had a keen sense of this: after Cromwell’s fall he insisted that suitors and ambassadors should write to the Privy Council collectively: to the whole body in committee, and not to any one individual councillors, however eminent or powerful.

Moreover, after 1540 members of the Privy Council increasingly saw themselves as the public servants of the state rather than as the private servants of the ruler. This was especially true in Elizabeth’s reign, when Burghley and Walsingham invoked the classical theory of the state. That is to say: they spoke of their public duty to serve and govern the state, rather than of their personal allegiance to Elizabeth as an individual ruler. The contrast with Henrician political theory is considerable. A striking contrast can also be made between the Privy Council and the French Conseil privé, which met in the royal bedchamber each morning while the king performed his ablutions, conducted its business as the private business of the king, and kept no formal registers as did the Privy Council.

Functions of the Privy Council:

  1. Advised the ruler and administered the realm. The Privy Council was the indeed the superior administrative authority in England, Wales and Ireland, because the Councils of the North, Wales and Ireland allowed appeals to be referred from their jurisdictions to the Privy Council. Also, the Privy Council appointed magistrates in the localities, and served themselves as justices of the peace in a wide variety of counties. In a very real sense by Elizabeth’s reign, privy councillors were the leaders of both the Court and the country. They built up networks in the counties and involved themselves personally in the details of local administration.
  2. Following the reorganization of Tudor finance in 1554, the Privy Council assumed corporate responsibility for the management of national finance. Whereas Henry VII had checked his accounts page by page in the chamber and privy chamber, the Privy Council managed finance in conjunction with the lord treasurer and the Court of exchequer.
  3. Managed national defence and fortifications:
    1. recruited armies in 1544
    2. 1573 — trained bands
    3. post-1585 — served as lords lieutenant and deputy lieutenants (many privy councillors were lords lieutenant)
  4. Privy Council increasing took control over the management and deployment of Crown patronage: especially in Elizabeth’s reign when lack of money required the development of innovative forms of patronage. Thus Burghley promoted concessionary interests and the ‘farming’ of the customs revenues as well as the use of reversionary interests — father to son ‘in survivorship’. Rise of the concessionary interest the alternative to venality and the sale of offices (as in France).
  5. The Privy Council enforced the Reformation, especially the religious settlement of 1559 — very important. Survey of JPs and other county and municipal officers in 1564 to obtain information. Also privy councillors enforced the recusancy and penal laws, kept lists of recusants, watched ports, etc. – assisted by their ‘men of business’.
  6. Enforced law and order and regulated economic affairs (i.e. supervised Poor laws, issued proclamations, fixed prices and wages in London, and advised JPs on wages elsewhere; regulated internal trade; controlled vagrancy and organized searches for Jesuits, etc. (Also used torture, but official warrants had first to be obtained.)
  7. The Privy Council sat in Star Chamber as a court of law reinforced by judges. Also Privy Council itself vetted petitions and investigated crime. Dealt especially with crime against property, official maladministration, and perjury in the courts of law, and investigated sedition and treason whenever these were reported (before passing those cases onto the ordinary courts of law).
  8. The Privy Council managed Parliament. And this ‘management’ of Parliament by the Privy Council is the key to Crown-Parliament relations under Elizabeth. For the clashes in Elizabeth’s Parliaments were in one way or another collisions between the ruler and Privy Council when the Privy Council was itself using Parliament as a weapon in its campaigns to change the ruler’s mind. Under Mary and Elizabeth, these were NOT collisions between the ‘government’ and an organized ‘opposition’ (puritan or otherwise). They signalled differences between the queen and Privy Council on issues which concerned the whole political nation. For Elizabeth believed in her absolute prerogative and sovereignty which she held to be ordained by God. The Privy Council, especially between 1558-1585, was conciliarist in outlook: privy councillors believed that Elizabeth’s sovereignty was mitigated or limited by their advice. And this created tensions. For there were some matters which — unlike Henry VIII — Elizabeth did not allow her Privy Council to discuss, and she did not take the advice of the Privy Council when they offered it.

    These issues were:
    1. Elizabeth’s marriage;
    2. the succession to the Crown;
    3. the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots.
    4. alterations to the religious settlement
    5. foreign policy, especially the case of intervention in the Netherlands

    Here Elizabeth more or less ‘invented’ the idea of arcana imperii, or ‘mysteries (matters) of state’. Accordingly, her frustrated privy councillors themselves turned to Parliament, where they orchestrated debates and persuaded their clients to deliver planted speeches. E.g.
    1. Clashes of 1563 and 1566 on the queen’s marriage and the succession
    2. The clashes of 1572 and 1586-7 on Mary, Queen of Scots. Note that after the Babington plot in 1586 when Elizabeth wouldn’t sign Mary, Queen of Scots’ death warrant, Burghley called for a Parliament: ‘We (i.e. the Privy Council) stick upon Parliament, which her Majesty mislikes to have, but we all persist, to make the burden better borne and the world abroad better satisfied.’
    3. Clashes of 1571 on six bills for religion (Privy Council supported ‘reform’ of clerical standards etc, but all but two bills were frustrated when puritan William Strickland produced a bill for a revised Book of Common Prayer — Elizabeth predictably intervened).
    4. The clashes of 1584-5 on the Bond of Association.
    5. NB only the monopolies debates of 1597 and 1601 signalled more serious opposition to the Elizabethan regime.


The Tudor Privy Council governed the state as a corporate board, and in general it was highly successful as long as workloads did not exceed the capacity of members to deal with them. Despite structural weaknesses and pressures in Elizabeth’s reign and in particular the stresses of the long war with Spain from 1585 to 1604, the system held together. This was almost entirely due to the partnership between Elizabeth and her Privy Council. True, in the 1590s the 2nd earl of Essex provoked factionalism and friction in Court and country, while the second generation of Elizabethan bishops attacked puritanism with what can only be described as counterproductive overkill. Again, under James I the Privy Council lost ground to favourites like Somerset and Buckingham, so that by 1623-4 it was ignored even in crucial foreign policy decisions. The early-Stuart also failed to maintain the ‘country’ networks which had formed a pillar of the Tudor state, and in this sense the Tudor system fell apart. But it did not fall apart before 1603, and this is all I have to prove to sustain my argument. The origins of Stuart misgovernment have to be sought elsewhere. By 1603, the Tudor system was becoming increasingly fragile, but while Elizabeth lived, it continued to work.

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