Tudor Monarchy As Renaissance Monarchy

British historians are renowned for their Anglocentricity. None more so than those of the Tudor period, whose mantra is the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Parliament, and the institutions and mentality of the common law.1 Textbooks on Renaissance monarchy routinely discuss Charles V, Francis I and Henri II, but neglect Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Yet the political agenda of the Tudor and leading European monarchies shared common elements: their ideas of statecraft were linked. Politics and political commentary were informed by what Steven Gunn has called ‘an ideological ferment’ blending chivalric, humanist-classical, legal and ecclesiological concepts. 2 European values pervaded Court etiquette, set norms for political behaviour, and shaped the material culture. Commercial transactions, notably banking, were pan-European, as was the circulation of knowledge in classical languages, philosophy, theology, civil law and medicine. 3 Few books and manuscripts in early-Tudor England were wholly indigenous. Most were imported from the European printing centres or produced by Flemish or French craftsmen. An indigenous book trade developed late in England: Andrew Pettegree has questioned whether the English book world had the technical capacity to enable people to enter the Reformation debates in any meaningful way before the 1550s. Most obviously, artists, sculptors and musicians were brought by the Court and nobility from the Netherlands, France, Germany and (sometimes) Italy.

Several assumptions that underpinned the ‘insular’ view have recently been deconstructed. Religious historians have questioned the popularity and even the existence of the Tudor Reformation. 4 Parliamentary historians have stressed the subordination of political debates and ideas of representation to the business of the Crown, chiefly legislation and taxation. 5 Historians of cultural identity have reattributed notions of patriotism and anti-popery as much to Protestant internationalism and fears of the success of the Counter-Reformation as to xenophobic isolationism. 6 Political historians have interrupted their investigations of the institutions that allegedly comprised the state in order to make comparisons with Europe, 7 or else to reconstruct the ‘unofficial’ and ‘informal’ networks of power which overlay the ‘official’ and ‘bureaucratic’ agencies of a supposedly ‘central’ government. 8 Over-simplistic accounts of the process of state formation are being replaced by more nuanced and layered interpretations. 9 It is not simply that stale debates have encountered a blast of fresh air, but that the horizons of politics, and the agenda for political history, have been enlarged. 10

I want to pursue the argument by isolating some key conceptual elements of monarchy and politics, considering the Court and its culture, political ideas, and the government of the realm. There are obvious pitfalls in adopting a descriptive terminology that might properly be said to belong to art history. By ‘Renaissance monarchy’ I do not simply mean Continental monarchy. I mean monarchy centred on the Court and bolstered by the rituals and symbols conventionally deployed in the Renaissance to achieve the ‘imagination’ of majesty. I mean monarchy as a divinely-appointed institution subject to no earthly restraints except the king’s own wisdom, save that monarchs were sovereign rulers obliged to rule in the interests of the respublica, who therefore needed ‘counsel’ and advice. Lastly, I mean a model in which administrative power radiated outwards from the Court. The King’s Council was often divided into collateral political and administrative components. There was overlap of membership and agenda between these collateral councils, but none functioned as the chief political and executive agency in the state independently of the ruler.

By an ‘insular’ or ‘whiggish’ view of the Tudor monarchy, I mean one in which the debate is restricted to the arena of ‘public’ or ‘national’ institutions. 11 I mean one linked to a ideal of ‘constitutionalism’, whether based on the late-fifteenth-century model of Sir John Fortescue, or the achievements of Thomas Cromwell, Christopher St German, William Cecil or Thomas Norton. In this mode, the idiom is one of ‘mixed polity’: sovereignty lay in the ‘king-‘ or ‘queen-in-Parliament’ and not in the ruler alone. King, lords and commons in Parliament were ‘co-equal’ partners in the legislative process. 12 Lastly, I mean a model in which the Privy Council was the ruler’s chief political advisory body. It was not divided into collateral political and administrative components, and even if it met geographically within the precincts of the royal Court, it was not subsumed politically by the Court. It operated almost independently as the chief executive agency of ‘central government’, and was a buffer between the ruler and the ruled.

I shall begin with the Court and its culture, since early-modern monarchy was centred there. 13 Historiographically, the Valois Court is broadly defined whereas David Starkey’s influential study of the Tudor Court defines it narrowly in terms of those who enjoyed access to the ruler in the Privy Chamber. 14 This creates an optical illusion, since the Tudor Court can also be broadly defined. 15 Like other European Courts, it was politically inclusive and culturally polycentric. 16 The king’s privy lodgings formed only a small proportion of the enclosed space and Court protocol extended well beyond their limits. 17 Stipendiary and supernumerary offices linked to duties of service in the outer rooms or Presence Chamber, or on semi-public occasions in the Privy Chamber itself, were used as a means of binding together the interests of Court and country. 18 Court attendance was fluid: it comprised those who served the ruler at the particular moment in question. Simple to define in theory, this was in practice kaleidoscopic: it fluctuated continuously as councillors and office-holders oscillated in the ruler’s favour, or migrated between the Court and their estates, or departed, sometimes for years at a time, on military or naval expeditions, or were despatched on embassies abroad.

Whether rulers travelled on progress or remained at one or more of a network of ‘standing’ palaces in or about the capital, an audience existed for Court ceremonial which assured an element of public participation. 19 Ceremonies included outdoor as well as indoor events: coronations, weddings, funerals, saint’s days or other religious festivals, tournaments, the reception of foreign ambassadors, processions to Parliament, ceremonies associated with the Order of the Garter, and festive pageants or entries into towns. 20 Efforts could be made to elucidate the mise-en-scène for the benefit of spectators: the coronation and the funeral of Francis I were marked by the issue of printed orders explaining the significance of the events, as were the Elizabethan Accession Day tilts. 21 Access to the English and French Courts at this level was usually so attainable for anyone suitably dressed that in the case of the Elizabethan Court the issue of tickets for masques or theatrical performances became routine. 22

Courts exerted cultural influence mainly as exemplary centres. 23 At the international level, they were the focus of competitive display as at the Field of Cloth of Gold. At a national level, they reinforced ideals of politeness, public duty and social discipline. Etiquette based on clarity, dignity and decorum was obligatory. 24 As Elyot explained, the key to authority was the exposition of ‘majesty’, which is ‘the fountain of all excellent manners’. 25 Such courtesy manuals as his Book Named the Governor, Hoby’s translation of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, and North’s translation of Guevara’s Dial of Princes fused traditional ideals of nobility and magistracy with the civic humanism essential in the Renaissance to virtue. 26 The result was a revitalization of taste. 27 A shift occurred away from older forms of extroverted splendour and rituals of eating and consumption towards a more refined and classically-informed culture that paved the way for the age of the baroque. 28

Under Henry VIII and Wolsey, classical and Renaissance values permeated the Court circle in a significant way. The shift began when Pietro Torrigiano was commissioned to produce the tomb of Margaret Beaufort and that of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. 29 In the 1520s, Wolsey hired Benedetto da Rovezzano to construct his own tomb and design the high altar of Cardinal’s College. 30 He took a close interest in the preparations for the Field of Cloth of Gold, where the English temporary palace was marked by its classical embellishment. 31 In 1527, in readiness for the entertainment of the ambassadors sent to finalize the terms of the Anglo-French entente, a banqueting house and theatre were constructed next to the tiltyard at Greenwich. 32 At the heart of the banqueting house was a gilded triumphal arch on the back of which Holbein had painted a reconstruction of the Battle of the Spurs. The theatre was surmounted by a spectacular canvas ceiling, also by Holbein, which showed the planets in human form in their ‘houses’ as well as the stars and signs of the zodiac.

By the 1530s, classical styles were commonplace in England. 34 The Court circle embellished their houses with classically-inspired architectural designs, busts, roundels, cameos, and goldsmiths’ work. 35 Tapestries were still the most coveted artefacts, but were based on classical themes. Edward VI’s reign saw an abrupt halt to investment in royal buildings and artefacts, less because of the ideological demands of the Protestant Reformation than because Henry VIII’s later wars and currency debasements had impoverished the Crown. Thereafter, construction works at the royal palaces were confined to routine maintenance, improvements to fortifications, and the occasional special venue of ceremonial display. 36 The ‘preaching place’ at Whitehall was rebuilt either in the last years of Henry VIII’s reign or the first years of his son’s. 37 A woodcut in the earliest editions of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments records its pure classical lines. 38 Otherwise, it would be courtiers, not the Crown itself, who rebuilt or remodelled their houses. The trend began with Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who built a sumptuous Italianate house in Norfolk called Mountsurrey, demolished two years after his execution. 39 Thereafter, Somerset House, built in the Strand between 1547 and 1552, was the first classical building in England that could be called a prodigy house and compete on equal terms with the European models of classical domestic architecture. 40 Soon the values of the Court spilled down the Strand and into the West End, where nobles and privy councillors built city mansions, and into the country where they built prodigy houses to assert their status or for the entertainment of Elizabeth during her summer progresses. 41

Under Philip and Mary, a reinvigoration of Court culture on classical lines seemed likely. Philip was a patron of Titian, and commissioned a portrait of himself at the time of the marriage negotiations in 1553. Titian subsequently worked on the theme of Venus and Adonis for presentation to Mary, and another project was Jason and Medea, dropped when someone, possibly the Spanish ambassador, realized that this was an unsuitable subject for a gift to a foreign bride. 42 The Marian establishment included other Italians and Frenchmen, including Niccolò Bellin of Modena, who had worked at Fontainebleau and later Nonsuch, and Nicholas Lysory or Lizard, a Frenchman who succeeded the Florentine, Antony Toto, as sergeant painter in 1554, and held the post until 1571. 43

In Elizabeth I’s reign, Court culture returned to vernacular themes. This contrasts with France, where classical and Roman-imperial images characterized indoor and outdoor events. When Henri II entered Rouen in 1550, he did so through a Roman imperial arch adorned to celebrate his martial exploits. 44 What Malcolm Smuts has called the ‘reversion’ of English Court culture remains to be fully explained. It stemmed partly from the activities of the humanist-classical circle around Sir John Cheke in Cambridge and at the Edwardian Court, which consciously championed the remodelling of the vernacular in an attempt to construct a national identity. The movement sprang from the interest of Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith in Greek orthography and the correct classical pronunciation of Greek, and was amplified and modulated within a group which included Roger Ascham, Sir Thomas Hoby, Walter Haddon, Thomas Wilson, and the lesser figure John Hart. They committed themselves to a project of linguistic purification and reform whereby imports of classical vocabulary would be rejected. The aim was to eliminate jargon and dialect, and to naturalize or expunge foreign words, thereby standardizing English, which (in Wilson’s resonant phrase) would become the ‘King’s English’.

Although a link between the reform of language and the official Protestant Reformation is likely, Cathy Shrank has argued that what was at issue was the centralising urge to imagine and refashion one nation speaking, reading and understanding one tongue: a linguistic campaign of the type (later) imported by Smith into Ireland and more broadly investigated for Elizabeth’s reign by Richard Helgerson. As part of this process of cultural and literary appropriation, Chaucer and Langland were reinvented as Protestants avant la lettre, and a literary history of England imagined by Leland in conjunction with his chorographical project. This is the context in which Roger Ascham’s Schoolmaster advocated the Court’s example in religion, dress and manners, but decried the influence of Italy and boasted that he had stayed only nine days in Venice, where he had witnessed more licence and ‘liberty to sin’ than he had seen in London in nine years. Hoby’s translation of Castiglione belongs to this phase, and led to Ascham’s claim that Castiglione was more valuable if read in English than Italian. If diligently studied for a year by a young nobleman, the work was equivalent to three years travel abroad.

A further stimulus for an Elizabethan ‘reversion’ (if that is the right term) may have been a predilection for orders of chivalry that was innate to aristocratic identity and durable, since a high proportion of the outdoor events of the Court were staged by the heralds, or were privately promoted. 45 A redirected focus stemmed from Elizabeth’s status as an unmarried woman, which made her politics exceptional. She had no husband, children or acknowledged heir. Her image presented a unique challenge. 46 She reigned for 44 years, unlike Catherine de Medici, who, if a towering influence after the death of Henri II, was regent only for relatively brief periods during the minority of Charles IX and the absence of Henri III. The rituals of kingship in France were unchallenged by female rule, whereas in England a variety of ceremonies, including the celebration of new public anniversaries, were required to define and reaffirm Elizabeth’s position. 47 After the failure of the Anjou marriage diplomacy of 1579-81, 48 the official lexicon of the Virgin Queen was minted, which underpinned the final stages of the metamorphosis whereby the tournament was transformed into the Accession Day tilts. 49 Protestant humanism fused with courtly love and the chivalric and classical traditions to create the legend of Elizabeth as the Vestal Virgin of the Reformed Religion, worshipped by her knights on the occasion of a new ‘quasi-religious’ festival.

If a ‘reversion’ to chivalric and vernacular themes occurred in the literary and artistic culture of the Court, my emphasis on the Renaissance elements of Tudor monarchy is obviously weakened. Since, however, this alleged ‘reversion’ depended on the rise of a robust strain of Protestant humanism that drew in part on classical values and was itself indexed against Italy in the sense that it was predicated on the notion that a native English tradition could be imagined or reinvigorated that rivalled anything that Italy had to offer, the extent of the ‘reversion’ is mitigated. The result was undoubtedly a hybrid. Yet is this so far removed from wider European trends? The public perception and appreciation of classical iconography has been exaggerated by art historians, as Sydney Anglo has consistently argued. 50 In 1550, at Rouen, it was not the triumphal arch to which I referred that created the sensation, but a tableau of fifty native Americans transported from Brazil, displayed in a Disneyworld-type reenactment of a ‘native’ village and forced to engage in a ‘tribal’ war for the amusement of the crowd. As at the ill-fated Millennium Dome, public appreciation of cultural symbolism tends to work best when annexed to entertainment rather than pedagogy, which may set the Elizabethan ‘reversion’ in a different light. In devising a showcase of monarchy that attracted 10-12,000 paying spectators annually to Whitehall, the Accession Day tilts combined the appeal of the Eiffel Tower and the Millennium Wheel with the glorification of the queen that was intended.

I turn next to political ideas. As the Court was the seat and the theatre of majesty, it was the arena in which concepts of ‘counsel’ and sovereignty were moulded. In the humanist-classical tradition, ‘counsel’ was linked directly to virtue, since it was the dictates of virtue that impelled the ruler to act according to the common good. 51 In the traditions of ecclesiastical and legal conciliarism, it was ‘counsel’ and conciliar institutions that afforded consent and thereby conferred legitimacy. 52 The abstract noun for ‘sovereignty’ was originally French: it entered the English language after the break with Rome. 53 The first decision of Henry VIII’s divorce propagandists was to publish Latin and English editions of the Disputation between a Clerk and a Knight, written by the French civil lawyers during the clash between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair. 54 The classic statements of Tudor ‘imperial’ monarchy are the Act of Appeals and a judgement in the Court of Queen’s Bench in 1591 following a legal challenge to the queen’s ecclesiastical prerogative in a case brought by James Morice and the supporters of Robert Cawdrey against the bishops. Morice sought to defeat the jurisdiction of the Court of High Commission, but Cawdrey’s case backfired, producing instead a vindication by the judges of the queen’s ‘imperial’ sovereignty as supreme governor of the church. In the 1530s, the Collectanea satis copiosa claimed that the kings of England had enjoyed secular and ecclesiastical imperium over their kingdom and national church since the second century AD, that the English church was an autonomous province of Christendom, and that papal jurisdiction in England was a usurpation. By exercising his imperium, the king could redefine the duties of ‘his’ clergy, summon church councils within his dominions, revise canon law, dissolve the monasteries, and even expound the articles of faith. Which in Henry VIII’s reign is exactly what he did. 55

‘Imperial’ monarchy was couched in the idioms of theocratic kingship. Yet the degree to which this was a transformation has been overdrawn. Historians have positioned the writings of Fortescue within an insular model of ‘constitutionalism’. At one level, this works. Fortescue bound the king of England to rule according to law and to submit his prerogative and powers of equity to the direction of suitable Crown officers. But as John Watts remarks: ‘the king cannot be forced to play the game’. I would stress this point more than he does. Early-modernists too often confuse what Fortescue wrote with the interpretation privileged by John Selden and others during the debates on the Petition of Right, when stereotyped versions of Fortescue’s theory were annexed by the common-lawyers to launch a juridical attack on Charles I’s prerogative. 56

I would concede that the ‘regal’ element in Fortescue’s dominium politicum et regale is in the last resort not a proper monarchy. The bureaucratic, legal and ‘formal’ institutions of the Tudor state had to be underpinned by the parallel but ‘informal’ networks of lordship that ultimately derived from the king. 57 How else would Henry VIII have got the Reformation Parliament to do his business? But what Fortescue actually said was that, unlike the king of France, the king of England does not change the laws or tax his subjects without their assent except in times of emergency. It is a model of a self-limiting king, who chooses by way of concession, or as a matter of honour or duty, not to infringe the law or act contrary to the ‘public good’. 58 This emerges more clearly from De natura legis naturae than from De laudibus legum Anglie. A debate about which version is more authentic would be instructive. What I wish to argue is that the dissonance between Fortescue’s supposed ‘constitutionalism’ and the models of ‘imperial’ or ‘absolute’ kingship as propounded by Henry VIII or Francis I is more apparent than real. Once again, Fortescue points up the contrast with France, but his analysis of the French monarchy is not profound and seems to be little more than an appeal to francophobia in a particular set of circumstances.

The royal supremacy sparked off a volley of critiques from humanists like Elyot and Thomas Starkey, and common lawyers like Christopher St German. All were religious conservatives with a strong aristocratic tinge, who (like Fortescue) invoked different strands of conciliarism as the antidote to the centralizing potential of secular and ecclesiastical ‘imperialism’. The effect of these writings, notably St German’s which were read at the inns of court, was to create a latent ambiguity, or binary opposition, within the theory of monarchy. ‘Official’ pronouncements claimed that the king was armed with imperium. By contrast, the critics stressed the role of councils, councillors and representative institutions if tradition and custom were to be preserved. The extent of this schizophrenia should not be exaggerated. The most accomplished defence of ‘imperial’ kingship, Gardiner’s De vera obedientia (1535), incorporated both viewpoints. He argued that the royal supremacy was ordained by God, but the people had consented to it by their free votes in Parliament. Apologists from Gardiner to Lord Chancellor Hatton, addressing Parliament in 1589, took this prudent line. The potential for the disengagement of ‘descending’ and ‘ascending’ or ‘theocratic’ and ‘populist’ interpretations of kingship and royal supremacy was checked by what David Sacks has termed ‘rhetorical rituals of accommodation’. 59

This is not to deny that conflicting positions existed. When in the 1550s the Protestant exiles assailed the Catholic Mary with objections to her rule on the grounds of religion and gender, ideas of ‘mixed polity’ and popular sovereignty resulted that were predicated more on Protestant providentialism and sharp-edged conciliarism than traditional Aristotelianism. There were also quasi-republican strands. 60 In the hands of the Marian exiles, conciliarism mutated into resistance theory. Christopher Goodman’s attack on Mary was predicated on the argument that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ – the slogan that Henry VIII had unleashed against the pope in his first divorce campaign. He argued that a ruler could be deposed by her subjects (and he did not distinguish between ordinary private persons and magistrates) if she violated divine or positive law, in which case she was a tyrant. John Ponet stopped short of deposition by private individuals, but otherwise took a similar line, emphasizing the distinction between the office and the person of a prince and the extent to which England was a ‘mixed polity’. In comparison, John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was a diatribe couched in the idioms of Old Testament prophecy and covenant theology. By publicly embracing Protestantism in the reign of Edward VI, England, according to Knox, had entered into a covenant with God which bound its magistrates and people to depose and destroy their idolatrous ruler. 61

Knox’s covenanting ideology was too extreme even for the Scottish Lords of the Congregation. It was Ponet’s idiom of ‘mixed polity’, and John Foxe’s vision in the Acts and Monuments of a ‘godly prince’ charged with the reform of the commonwealth, that most clearly evolved to counterpoint the notion of ‘imperial’ monarchy during the first thirty or so years of Elizabeth’s reign. In what Patrick Collinson has called the ‘acephalous’ conditions of the reign, England was governed by an unmarried woman of doubtful religion (at least from the Catholic viewpoint and that of the Calvinist humanist élite that straddled Europe), and one who refused to marry or settle the succession to the throne. The extent to which Elizabethan politics were driven by Protestant providentialism at the highest level has only recently received the attention it deserves. 62 William Cecil believed from the outset that the forces of darkness, in particular Catholicism, the papacy, Spain and the Guise, were mobilizing against England and that they intended to use Mary, queen of Scots, as their agent. For this reason, the Protestant ‘state’ and ‘imperial’ succession had to be secured under emergency conditions by every available means, even if Cecil had to subvert the queen in the process, and even if he took a cautious position (as compared to Leicester and Walsingham) on the issue of intervention in the Netherlands. 63

In these conditions, the binary opposition latent in the theory of monarchy was played out: the tension between Elizabeth’s view of her ‘imperial’ monarchy – the idea that sovereignty was vested in her alone – and the conviction of Cecil and the Privy Council that sovereignty lay in the ‘queen-in-Parliament’ if the Protestant state were to be preserved, and most especially when the (female) ruler declined to be counselled on urgent and fundamentally political topics. 64 In this way, it can be argued that the most powerful and subversive critique of the monarchy did not derive from the opponents of Henry VIII, from the Marian exiles, or from Thomas Cartwright and the presbyterian movement; it emanated from the heart of the Elizabethan régime itself.

Yet, if Tudor political ideas are pitted with crevices, why is this is so different from the Continental landscape, and especially that of France? In the reign of Francis I, there was no unitary doctrine of political power. Debate centred around the issue of legitimate authority, on which there was scope for a wide divergence of viewpoints. In Seyssel’s Monarchy of France (1515), the king was restrained by the three ‘bridles’ of religion, justice, and polity (meaning the customary institutions and ordinances of administration), but the king himself adopted these norms as a matter of self-limitation. A shift towards ‘absolutism’ is usually detected in the writings of Budé, which invoked civil law and the Platonic ideal of the philosopher ruler transmitted through classical humanism. 65 But the difference is one of emphasis: Budé made it plain that the ruler was free to accept or reject his counsellors’ advice, whereas Seyssel covered that point more by implication.

The crux is the concept of sovereignty. The French Wars of Religion, and especially the Massacre of St Bartholomew, exposed the paradox in what Adrianna Bakos has called ‘the idea of absolute self-limitation’ that was previously inherent in the idea of monarchy. The Wars of Religion were so cataclysmic that idioms of imperium and of ‘limited’ or ‘constitutional’ monarchy became detached, and conflicting positions began to reify. 66 At one extreme were the ‘royalists’, who espoused a notion of sovereignty indivisibly vested in the monarch. At the other were the ‘resistance theorists’, who, like George Buchanan in Scotland, took up the thesis of popular sovereignty. Yet, while these ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ or ‘theocratic’ and ‘populist’ theories started to disengage, they still represented no more than different wavelengths of what had previously been subsumed by the same spectrum. Resistance theory was underpinned by the conciliarism of Gerson, Almain and Mair, by populist Roman-law interpretations that turned ‘imperial’ theory on its head, and by fundamentalist interpretations of law, custom and history. Moreover, the French resistance theorists emasculated the more subversive implications of ‘populist’ theory and rejected acts of resistance by private individuals. Is this ensemble so very different from that in England, where the ‘imperial’ or ‘royalist’ view of the ecclesiastical supremacy, as vindicated by the Queen’s Bench decision of 1591 in Cawdrey’s case, was counterpointed by what Patrick Collinson has called the ‘monarchical republicanism’ of William Cecil and the Privy Council and the (related) radicalism of John Foxe and the Protestant providentialists?

It is a mistake to conflate Renaissance monarchy with stereotyped models of ‘absolutism’ and to posit ‘absolutism’ and ‘constitutionalism’ as rival and incompatible ideologies. As rulers increasingly resorted to the idioms of sovereignty, it came to be argued that sovereignty was indivisible, that the ‘sovereign’ was above the law, and that subjects must obey except in cases where divine or natural law had a different prescription. However, the locus of sovereignty and the form of government and administration are entirely different things. 67 Bodin, whose Six livres de la république appeared at the height of the Huguenot revolution in 1576 and was widely read in England, held in essence that the king was to set a good example, not wilfully to flout the law of the land, promote salus populi, and be the fount of justice and equity. Bodin had little difficulty in including England (along with France, Spain, Scotland and a long list of other realms) among countries where the prince was ‘an absolute sovereign’. As J.H. Burns has remarked, the concept of absolute monarchy ‘was not only compatible with but in fact inseparable from a framework of fundamental laws’. 68 In this respect, English and Continental political theory converged. The difference is that in Elizabethan England the question was left unanswered as to whether the ‘godly prince’ was to be a legislator reforming her commonwealth, or a single element in a ‘mixed polity’ in which she formed an essential part but could not by definition be the sole incorporating principle. 69

I turn finally to the government of the realm. Here the focus of historians has been on the rise of the centralized state, an alleged ‘crisis’ of the aristocracy, and the process whereby a shift occurred from a ‘patrimonial’ system of Crown finance to one rooted in the exploitation of concessionary interests and monopolies. 70 Around 1460, England and France were to a greater or lesser degree poised between unitary and decentralized models of the state. 71 Edward IV and Louis XI each began the refoundation of their monarchies. Thereafter, the territorial policies of Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I parallel the measures adopted by Henry VII and Henry VIII to reduce the northern borderlands, Wales, Ireland and Calais to the authority of the Crown. 72 Both Francis I and Henry VIII attacked the ‘franchises’ and feudal liberties which thwarted the full operation of royal justice and taxation. Both sought to subordinate the nobility and construct provincial affinities whose members were first and foremost royal servants. Both emphasized the role of legislation and a unified legal system, the use of a common vernacular, and in the case of Ireland even the wearing of English dress.

Clear distinctions characterize French and English attempts at centralization. In France, where problems of scale and distance were paramount and central institutions weaker, the emphasis was more on centralization through delegation of power, whereas under Henry VIII the objective was to consolidate control and bring the administrative structures for the ‘peripheries’ or borderlands into line with existing arrangements for the government of lowland England. 73 These efforts met with mixed success. Tudor policy put a considerable strain on relations between the Crown and the communities of the frontiers and borderlands, as Kildare’s revolt in 1534 and the Pilgrimage of Grace exposed. In France in 1548, a massive rebellion against the gabelle erupted in the south-west, which was ruthlessly suppressed by Henri II. 74 Yet, if there is a vigorous debate over whether Francis I presided over a ‘centralized’ or ‘decentralized’ monarchy, the overall strategy of the French and English Crowns was one of territorial and political unification. 75 Steven Ellis argues that the price of centralization was heavy. Wales and the far north of England were more easily dominated from London and presented fewer problems, whereas by Elizabeth’s reign Gaelic Ireland was ‘thoroughly disturbed’. The exclusion from power of the Old English and the consolidation of New English power through the purchase or acquisition of ex-monastic and Gaelic land, in conjunction with the ‘programmatic’ style of government associated with Sir Henry Sidney and his successors, created an influential lobby of adventurers with a vested interest in military conquest.

The comparison with France should not be overdrawn. The early Tudors experimented with novel forms of taxation culminating in the directly-assessed subsidy, whereas Francis I did little to reform the tax system and continued to rely on the taille and the gabelle. The French nobility were exempt from taxation – the opposite of the protocol of Henry VIII and Wolsey – even if they sometimes helped their tenants to pay their taxes or allowed a proportion of their taxes to be deducted from their rent. On the other hand, taxation could be successfully and even violently resisted in England as well as France, and the law of diminishing returns was equally apparent. 76 Innovation in taxation ceased in Elizabeth’s reign: the policy switched after 1572 to the exploitation of customs and excise revenues.77 The key element was the shift away from a patronage model based on leases or alienations of the Crown lands to a system based on export concessions and grants of licences or monopolies. Given the severe dearth of patronage during the war with Spain, it was but a short step to the use of monopolies purely for the purpose of rewarding courtiers, thereby shifting the costs of these rewards from the Crown to the commonwealth. This paralleled the process in France whereby royal offices were allowed to become hereditary. 78

In order to ‘centralize’ government in the early-modern period, the nobility had to be accommodated to the power of the Crown. Aristocratic values remained resilient. Peers and gentry shared a common culture. Historians have now rejected the notion of a ‘crisis’ of the aristocracy or else circumscribed it with reservations. 79 Whether sectional groups declined among the peerage is still an issue worth debating, as is the question (posed by Linda Levy Peck and Simon Adams) of whether anything approaching political power could have existed among the English nobility or courtiers in the absence of financial independence. 80 In sixteenth-century France, noble affinities and the patron-client relationship were the cornerstone of politics. 81 In England, the debate is tinged with an anti-aristocratic bias, a legacy of the Victorian emphasis on ‘bastard feudalism’ and ‘overmighty subjects’. As George Bernard has noted, it is too often assumed that noble power was, by definition, antithetical to royal power or characteristic of purely medieval forms of government. 82 What is consistent about successive Tudor régimes is the degree to which they relied on the nobility as councillors, members of the House of Lords, lords lieutenant in peace and war, military and naval commanders, and agents of crown and local administration. Far from the European ‘military revolution’ undermining the nobility’s function, it is likely that they were willing collaborators in the appropriation and redistribution of royal power, a trend reinforced by the willingness of the gentry and lesser nobility to staff the professional officer corps during the Elizabethan war with Spain. 83 A contrast between England and France is the degree to which the French army was hardly French at all. It relied on foreign mercenaries for 70 per cent of its troops by the end of the Habsburg-Valois wars, a result of the Crown’s failure to develop an infantry to match the quality of its native gendarmes and artillery. 84 Since, however, military recruitment was scarcely a strength of the late-Tudor state despite the Marian and Elizabethan reforms of the militia, the difference is mainly one of scale.

During the Wars of Religion, the ability of the Guise to rally their affinity in Normandy and northern France posed a direct threat to the monarchy. 85 Their role conforms to K.B. McFarlane’s model of an ‘undermighty’ monarchy ceding power and authority to the ruling élites in the provinces. Court factionalism increased the atmosphere of fear and insecurity among these élites, while the nobility (especially the lesser nobility) sought advancement and rewards from an impoverished Crown in return for political and military service. This model cannot be applied to England. Despite the disruptive tactics of Essex at Court and the marked deterioration in relations between centre and localities under pressure of war and socio-economic strain, the Privy Council maintained its authority and the subversive potential of the nobility was restrained by a mixture of conciliar vigilance and aristocratic poverty. It is fundamental to any assessment of the Elizabethan nobility that Leicester, and later Essex, were almost entirely dependent on Crown patronage in order to maintain their status in the localities. 86

Yet, if the agenda is to set government within a Renaissance context, the crux is the Privy Council. There is no dispute that the strength of the Tudor monarchy and its conciliar régime were linked. Whatever Elizabeth’s personal convictions on issues of high policy or prerogative, the Privy Council acted as the superior administrative authority in England, and in Wales and Ireland too, insofar as the Councils of the North, Wales and Ireland were unable to prevent appeals (except in criminal trials) from their jurisdictions to the English Privy Council. 87 The Privy Council collectively managed Crown finance and national defence and fortifications, enforced the ‘official’ – and sometimes the ‘unofficial’ – Protestant Reformation, took control of the vetting of grants of Crown lands and reversionary interests, appointed magistrates in the localities, enforced law and order, and regulated economic affairs. Leading privy councillors served as lords lieutenant or justices of the peace. In other words, the Privy Council lies at the heart of the debate as to whether the ‘official’, ‘public’ or ‘bureaucratic’ institutions of the Tudor ‘state’ had gone ‘out of Court’ and reached a point where the Privy Council acted as a buffer between the ruler and the ruled so that England was indeed distinct from the Renaissance model whereby ‘counsel’ and policy-making were politically subsumed within the Court.

The issue is best approached through a comparison. Before the 1530s, the King’s Councils in England and France were extremely large. Under Wolsey, 120 councillors attended meetings of the Council in Star Chamber, even if attendances at individual meetings rarely exceeded a maximum of 30 and generally varied between 11 (frequent) to 25 (less usual) of the Council. Under Louis XI, 462 held the title conseiller du roi, since the term applied to everyone nominated to a royal institution with the result that a minimum of 51 conseillers seem never to have participated in conciliar business. 88

As soon as Francis I returned from captivity in Madrid, the Council was reconstructed. The grand conseil was restricted to legal cases, while in the conseil du roi the previously informal arrangement whereby power was concentrated in a select council called the conseil étroit or conseil privé was formalized. The conseil privé by the reign of Henri II had been further split into two. There was the morning council, which discussed high politics and finance and advised the king. This was reinforced in the afternoons by councillors who discussed general business and heard judicial suits presented by the masters of requests. 89 The morning council met behind locked doors with the ushers excluded. It was wholly subsumed within the Court and defined by the ruler’s personality: business was conducted at the King’s will within the royal suite. The afternoon council was fundamentally an administrative council and generated the bulk of the council’s records.

Some years ago I noted that, if a comparison were to be made between Francis I and Henry VIII, who during the crisis years of his first divorce campaign took counsel on an ad hoc basis in his privy lodgings outside the remit of his formal council, the convergence would almost be exact. I then spoiled my case, or at any rate missed an opportunity, by depicting as a decisive shift towards the ‘public sphere’ or, according to my current criteria, towards the ‘insular’ model of counselling, the reconstruction of the Privy Council during the crisis months of the Pilgrimage of Grace and its re-establishment as a corporate board in 1540 after Cromwell’s fall, when a clerk was appointed to attend its meetings and keep registers of its proceedings as a ‘perpetual memorial’.

I now think this notion of ‘insularity’ or a decisive shift towards the ‘public sphere’ is wrong-headed. As the Ellesmere extracts suggest for the years of Wolsey’s ascendancy, and the registers of the Privy Council confirm (with some gaps) for the rest of the century, the monarch never attended the institutional Council or Privy Council after the death of Henry VII with the exception of a handful of meetings mostly under Wolsey. And these exceptions were invariably large public relations events or ceremonial occasions that might better be described as assemblies of the Great Council to attract publicity for a public announcement or the promulgation of a policy, but were not intended as meetings to achieve the determination of that policy. Historians cannot have it both ways. It is conventional wisdom that the Privy Council was the ruler’s chief political advisory body and that government policy was decided there. That the Privy Council was a more authentic forum for the expression of the royal will than the Court is a shibboleth. And yet after the death of Henry VII and indeed for several years before, the ruler never attended the institutional Council. The point cannot be overemphasized. If the ruler never attended its meetings, the Council and Privy Council could still have been the chief administrative and administrative policy-enforcement instrument under the Crown – and it undoubtedly was. But it could scarcely have been the ruler’s chief political advisory and policy-making body after the ‘constitutional’ model of the Victorians and their intellectual heirs.

Glyn Redworth claims that Philip I, while in England, attended meetings of the Privy Council on Tuesdays and Fridays. 90 This evidence derives from a Spanish relation and rests on a misunderstanding, possibly a confusion with Philip’s Select Council, a distinct group of personal advisers of whom the leading member was Cardinal Pole, who was not a member of the Privy Council. Quite apart from the fact that Philip’s attendance would have been recorded in the Privy Council registers, it is inconceivable that the King could have attended the Privy Council without the presence of interpreters. No established mechanism whereby Mary or Philip was briefed on their Privy Council’s proceedings can be detected, except that Philip liaised weekly, or several times a week, with his group of selected councillors. The regular correspondence between Philip and the Select Council, while the king was out of the country, almost certainly corresponds to the conversations that he would have had with them had he been present at Court.

Such conversations would have been routine before, after and in between regular meetings of the Privy Council. Henry VIII obtained most of his information through conversations with his ministers while they were at Court and by correspondence when they were away. He received weekly reports from his London Council in the 1540s. 91 More generally, conversations with councillors and nobles (and even non-members of the Privy Council) were the point of contact. A note by William Thomas suggests that at one point during Edward VI’s reign, the clerk to the Privy Council delivered sealed packets reporting the state of play in the Privy Council to a designated gentleman of the Privy Chamber for onward communication to the King, but the practice may have been geared to the requirements of a royal minority. 92 Sometimes memoranda were used, as in 1557 when the Privy Council were attempting to oppose the slide into war. 93 In Elizabeth’s reign, the queen received letters from Cecil and others, reinforced by conciliar memoranda or ‘consultations’ on sensitive political topics. 94

In the 1560s the institutional Privy Council for the first time asserted (or attempt to assert) a role as the chief political and executive body in the state: this is the context in which conciliar ‘consultations’ were formally submitted. 95 These documents continued until at least the collapse of the Anjou marriage negotiations, and reflected the efforts of Cecil and the Privy Council to make headway on issues such as the queen’s marriage and the succession to the throne which she found repugnant to her prerogative. 96 She refused to budge, and by the time that the Anjou negotiations reached their climax, even Walsingham had thrown up his hands and proposed that the queen should simply decide what she wanted to do and tell the Council so that policy could be moved on, since it was better that something should be decided than the matter left in limbo.

The process of differentiation whereby judicial business was distinguished from political and administrative business between Wolsey’s Eltham Ordinance of 1526 and the appointment of Paget as the Privy Council’s permanent clerk in 1540 is comparable to what happened in France after Francis I returned from captivity in Madrid. The Court of Star Chamber resembles the French grand conseil. Pace Sir Geoffrey Elton, it was not simply the Privy Council and leading judges sitting as a court. In Elizabeth’s reign its composition included the leading nobility and selected bishops, even though these members were neither privy councillors nor judges. 97 Increasingly Star Chamber was styled a ‘counsel of state’ by commentators and law reporters. 98

On the other hand, the reconstructed Privy Council was administrative. Policy-making at the highest level (i.e. policy other than administrative policy) except under the special circumstances of minority rule is likely to have been settled in conversations between the monarch and selected individuals who used their positions in the Privy Council, Parliament, or the ‘formal’ institutions of government to achieve the preferred solutions. 99 And not every ‘counsellor’ was a privy councillor. Pole was arguably the main source of ‘policy’ advice under Philip and Mary. Henry VIII and Elizabeth sought the advice of nobles who were not privy councillors, notably at times of crisis. Other examples can be instanced of advice that was sought from courtiers who were neither nobles nor privy councillors. 100

If this interpretation is correct, the template for the analysis of policy-making will be an integrated model of ‘Court’ and ‘counsel’ in which the dynamics of ‘counsel’ and ‘counselling’ were subsumed within the Court. Even the obstacle of collateral councils is scarcely significant, since a translator like Thomas Blundeville had little difficulty in remapping onto the English administrative structure the equivalent of a Continental system of collateral councils in a largely convincing way. 101 A different angle is suggested by John Watts, who argues that the legacy of the lawyer-bureaucrats of the reign of Henry VII was ‘to increase the power and authority of the ruling part of the kingdom, whilst reducing the power and authority of the king himself within it’. 102 This is the ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’ by stealth! At an administrative level there is much to be said for it. My analysis of mid-Tudor and Elizabethan politics in Tudor England largely relies on it. 103 When policy-making is isolated, however, the procedure is more akin to that of the French morning council, where selected councillors met the ruler informally. Even if this comparison is overdrawn, debates on politics or ‘policy’ (as opposed to administration and administrative policy) in the Privy Council were the exception rather than the rule before the special circumstances of the 1560s. The ‘informal’ conversations between the monarch and his councillors and intimates at Court and elsewhere were likely to have been far more significant than anything done through the supposedly ‘official’ channels. 104

Tudor historians are straightforward creatures. They are largely impervious to the social sciences and unaccustomed to polymorphism or convergence theory. Biologists or mathematicians might cope better with the structures of Tudor monarchy, but at the very least the conceptual basis on which Court and conciliar politics have hitherto been discussed will have to be reworked. Existing accounts have largely focused on constitutional or administrative concerns. The wider theoretical and cultural resonances have been passed over. If there is a significant divergence between the monarchies of western Europe and England in the sixteenth century, it lies in the implications of the royal supremacy. The power of religion was intrinsic to the prestige and authority of Renaissance monarchy, but as Conrad Russell and Ronald Asch have separately argued, the position of the ruler as the supreme governor of the Church of England was a short-term asset but a long-term liability. 105 The Jacobean union debates after 1604 reflected the incompatible norms of ‘godly’ Reformation in England and Scotland. Nor could the status of the Irish church be resolved, with its potential claim to leadership of the ancient ‘patriarchy’ of Britain. When the Convocation of Canterbury enacted the canons of 1640, the opponents of Charles I glimpsed Leviathan in clerical clothes. This is not to deny that the Bourbons, like the Stuarts, shrouded the monarchy in a quasi-sacerdotal mystique. But Henri IV had to act as the guardian of a faith which, before his conversion in 1593, had not been his own. 106 He sought ‘to underline the majesty of kingship through the humanity of its possessor’. 107 He turned ‘the Most Christian King’ into the ‘roi artisan’, indexing his legitimacy to the welfare of his subjects rather than to his duty as ‘vicar of God’. 108 This outlook was rejected by the early Stuarts, who were constrained by the obligations of the royal supremacy, not to mention Elizabeth I’s posthumous reinvention as a Protestant heroine. The question of ‘Britain’, the rise of the ‘confessional state’ and the rhetorical reinvention of Elizabeth were, of course, the products of the seventeenth rather than the sixteenth century. They were nevertheless shibboleths of ‘whiggish’ or ‘insular’ historiography by the early eighteenth century, and did as much as anything to inform the still endemic, but in my contention, largely erroneous view that Tudor monarchy was conceptually ‘different’ from Renaissance monarchy. 109


  1. See also Smuts, Stuart Court.
  2. Gunn, Smuts, Sharpe and Lake.
  3. Woolfson.
  4. Haigh, Scarisbrick.
  5. Elton, Graves.
  6. Jonathan Scott.
  7. Steven Gunn.
  8. Cf. C. Carpenter and J. Watts.
  9. Michael Braddick.
  10. Cf. J. Watts.
  11. Elton, Tudor Constitution, cf. Tudor Monarchy. Politics and government were no longer subsumed within the royal household since the role of the household had ‘atrophied to the occasional participation of individuals’, while the government was ‘in the hands of established departments often resting on statute.’
  12. Elton, Graves.
  13. Knecht, Russell Major, Harding, Salmon, Potter, Elliott.
  14. Boucher, Potter, Starkey, cf D. Loades.
  15. Smuts, Linda Levy Peck.
  16. Starkey, versus Smuts, Peck.
  17. HKW, Colvin, Thurley.
  18. Guy various.
  19. Anglo, Young, McCullogh, Dean, Day, King, Hoak, Woodward.
  20. Smuts, Woodward.
  21. Potter.
  22. Astington.
  23. Elliott p. 9.
  24. Aristotle, Myers, Castiglione.
  25. Governor p. 99ff.
  26. Hoby, Elyot, Guevara.
  27. Elliott pp. 9-10.
  28. Buxton, Elizabethan Taste.
  29. Lindley.
  30. Lindley.
  31. Lindley, p. 283 and Anglo.
  32. Starkey.
  33. Foister, pp. 58-60.
  34. Foister, Lindley, pp. 284-5.
  35. Starkey, Rowlands, Tait, Glanville.
  36. E 351, E 101, Guy, Colvin.
  37. Likely because it shows the council chamber in the background which is now thought to have been built after Henry VIII’s death: see Thurley’s unpublished paper. See also references in Thurley p. 200.
  38. Howarth, pp. 24-5.
  39. Hearn, p. 52.
  40. Howarth, p. 20.
  41. Peck, Smuts, Girouard
  42. Trapp, Festschrift.
  43. Heard, p. 63.
  44. Potter, p. 45.
  45. Woodward, Dean in Hoak (ed.)
  46. Hammer, p.41.
  47. Hammer, Berry, McCoy.
  48. S. Doran.
  49. Doran, pp. 10-11 ff., Guy, pp.430-1, Young.
  50. Tudor Monarchy.
  51. Elyot.
  52. More, Starkey, Mair, Gerson.
  53. Potter.
  54. Disputatio inter clericum et militem super potestate prelatis ecclesiae atque principibus terrarum commissa sub forma dialogi (London, ?1531); A Dialogue between a Knight and a Clerk, Concerning the Power Spiritual and Temporal; STC2 nos. 12510-12511a; Ullmann, History of Political Thought, pp. 156-7. The work was originally written in 1296 or 1297.
  55. D. MacCulloch, The Reign of Henry VIII
  56. Kishlansky, Guy.
  57. Watts, pp.45-6.
  58. See also TRHS
  59. Sacks.
  60. Peltonen, Skinner, Tudor Monarchy.
  61. Mason, Kingship and Commonweal.
  62. Collinson, Lake, Alford, McLaren.
  63. Alford, Guy, Collinson.
  64. Guy, Collinson, Alford.
  65. Potter, pp. 35-6.
  66. Skinner, Bakos, Salmon
  67. Sommerville.
  68. Lordship, Kingship and Empire, pp. 156-7.
  69. Pocock, Albion; Peltonen.
  70. Elton, Stone, Adams.
  71. Potter p. xi.
  72. Potter, Knecht, Ellis, Glanmor Williams, Jacqueton.
  73. Roger Doucet, Étude sur le gouvernement de François I dans ses rapports avec le Parlement de Paris (2 vols.; Paris, 1921-26); Roger Doucet, Les institutions de la France au XVIe siècle (2 vols.; Paris, 1948); John Guy, ‘The French King’s Council, 1483-1526’, in Kings and Nobles in the Later Middle Ages, (ed.) R. A. Griffiths and J. Sherborne (London, 1986), pp. 274-94; Robert R. Harding, Anatomy of a Power Elite: the Provincial Governors of Early Modern France (New Haven, CT, 1978); R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I (Cambridge, 1994); J. Russell Major, The Crown and the Aristocracy in Renaissance France’, American Historical Review, 69 (1964), 631-45; J. Russell Major, Representative Institutions in Renaissance France (Madison, WI, 1960), pp. 126-47; J. Russell Major, Representative Government in Early Modern France (New Haven, CT, 1980), pp. 1-204; G. Jacqueton, ‘Le Trésor de l’Epargne sous François I, 1523-47’, Revue Historique, 55 (1894), 1-43; 56 (1894), 1-38; Roland Mousnier, Le conseil du roi de Louis XII à la révolution (Paris, 1970); Noël Valois, ‘Étude historique sur le conseil du roi’, in introduction to N. Valois, Inventaire des arrêts du conseil d’État, règne de Henri IV (Inventaires et Documents publicés par la Direction Générale des Archives Nationales, 2 vols.; Paris, 1886); Potter, Ellis.
  74. Gigon, Knecht.
  75. Potter, Knecht, Russell Major, Harding.
  76. Bush, Hoyle, Schofield.
  77. S. Adams, ‘The Patronage of the Crown in Elizabethan Politics: the 1590s in Perspective’, in John Guy (ed.), The Reign of Elizabeth I, pp. 20-45.
  78. Hoyle, Schofield, Guy.
  79. Russell Major.
  80. Stone.
  81. Salmon.
  82. Tudor Nobility.
  83. Hammer, Scott.
  84. Wood, pp.40-1.
  85. Carroll.
  86. Adams, Hammer, Peck.
  87. Williams, Crawford.
  88. Potter; Harsgor; Guy, pp. 26-7.
  89. Potter, pp. 101-2.
  90. Redworth (1997), p. 601.
  91. Guy (1995b), pp. 49-53; [State Papers] (1830-52), I, pp. 740-2.
  92. Ex inf. Stephen Alford.
  93. BL, Cotton MS. Titus C. 7, fos. 198-99; Loades (1988), pp. 191-2; Loades (1991), pp. 320-1.
  94. Alford (1996), 1997).
  95. Alford.
  96. Alford, Mears.
  97. pace Elton. See BL and HEH MSS.
  98. Hudson; HEH Ellesmere MS.
  99. Marian Council paper.
  100. Mears. In 1570, Sir Thomas Heneage was forced to reassure an irate Cecil that ‘mine own conscience cannot accuse me that I ever gave her majesty advice in a corner against the determination of her [Privy] Council, or ever opened my mouth to her highness in matter concerning the public state or government, except it pleased her to ask mine opinion’; Guy, p. 311.
  101. Translation of Federigo Furio’s treatise on counsel, published as A Very Brief and Profitable Treatise declaring how many Counsels and what name of Counsellors a Prince that will govern well ought to have.
  102. Watts, pp.49-50
  103. Guy, pp. 309-30, 379-407, 455-8.
  104. See also Watts (1996), pp. 81-2; Elyot, Guy.
  105. Munich paper; Origins of the English Civil War
  106. Crouzet, Asch.
  107. Salmon, pp. 320-1.
  108. Asch.
  109. Asch, Collinson, Cogswell.

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