How was Elizabethan England Run?

Key Terms

Elizabethan Politics revolved around five key establishments and practices:

  1. The Royal Court (and Patronage)
  2. The Privy Council
  3. Parliament
  4. Royal Progresses

Key Terms

  1. Nobility: Wealthy families who owned significant amounts of land and had a title.
  2. Gentry: Gentry were well-born families, still wealthy, who owned land, but did not have titles so were below the nobility.
  3. Patronage: Using wealth, power and influence to promote individuals, who then owe you loyalty. Elizabeth used this to gain loyalty in court.
  4. Star Chamber: The Tudor Court of Law
  5. Todelegate: To give a person a task to complete or give them a form of responsibility.
  6. PersonalMonarchy: When the monarch runs the government and controls court.

The Royal Court

How was Elizabethan England Run?, figure 1

As a place where the greatest and wealthiest in society would gather, The Royal Court was also host to shows and experiments from artists and even scientists.

The Royal Court was run by Lord Chamberlain and moved to wherever the Queen was. It consisted of the Queen’s household, made up of over 500 nobles, advisors, officials and servants who all lived with her and competed for power and influence. These people were called Courtiers. In an age of ‘Personal Monarchy’, having access to the Queen as crucial to any politician.

The Court served a number of functions. As well as being a social hub for the Queen and her courtiers, it was a political nerve centre. It also gave the Queen a position of power by displaying the Queen’s magnificent influence to foreign visitors. Mostly, the court set the social norms and trends for the country.

There were lavish banquets, elaborate masques, musical plays and tournaments, that acted as subtle propaganda, glorifying Elizabeth’s image. Strict court ceremonies were followed that encouraged loyalty and obedience to Elizabeth.

On feast days, Elizabeth dined in public, marching from the Chapel to the dining hall behind her councillors who carried sceptres and a sword of state. These rituals were well rehearsed and were designed to impress people about how magnificent Elizabeth was. Elizabeth understood how powerful these performances were and she played the part to perfection.


Patronage involved showing favouritism by rewarding men with important jobs, and sponsoring their way through Court. She managed this very carefully. She gave her male courtiers political roles and was equally careful to give key politicians places at court. The jobs given were highly sorted after, as they gave people wealth but also made them feel important and close to the Queen. In exchange for Elizabeth’s favour, absolute loyalty was expected in return.

Although it was a highly corrupt system, it was very effective. It caused intense competition and rivalries between people. This suited Elizabeth very well as it made people more loyal to her. It also ensured that the Court remained a political centre, and made sure that Elizabeth remained at the heart of the whole political system.

The Privy Council

How was Elizabethan England Run?, figure 2

This picture shows the type of person on Elizabeth’s Privy Council: old, white, and male. In general, the Privy Council was Elizabeth’s greatest political asset.

The Privy Council coordinated financial departments, law courts such as the Star Chamber, and regional bodies such as the Council of the North. It issued instructions to local officials such as Lord Lieutenants and Justices of the Peace. Members were generally chosen from the nobility, Gentry and The Church. Elizabeth could choose and dismiss members of her Privy Council as she chose.

Elizabeth would delegate tasks to the Privy Council and their workload increased under her reign. The Privy Council would meet at court almost daily, but Elizabeth did not always attend the meetings. She came to trust the Privy Council and rarely interfered with what they were doing on a day to day basis. She kept notes to monitor their work.

The key role for the Privy Council was to advise and direct policy, but the Queen was not forced to take their advice. Elizabeth often demonstrated her right to ignore their advice and show her political independence. It was Elizabeth who made policy decisions, but the council had significant powers. It could issue Proclamations in the Queen’s name, which had the force of law. Only the Queen could overpower these. It could also command the arrest and imprisonment of individuals.

Changes in the Privy Council

Over time Elizabeth increased in confidence. The nobility were gradually moved out of the Privy Council, and in the second half of her reign, the Privy Council was a small, highly efficient group of educated, full time politicians largely from the Gentry. Some argue that this smaller Privy Council became a weakness as it caused resentment between powerful nobles.

The members of the Privy Council were ambitious, but Elizabeth was careful to control them. She sometimes showed affection and rewarded her ministers but she also showed them when she was annoyed too. Elizabeth excluded Dudley and Walsingham from Court at various points. She imprisoned others and even went as far as executing two members from her council for treason.

Elizabeth deliberately would appoint men who were hostile to each other and this meant that the men would compete against each other for her affection. This was known as ‘Divide and Rule’. They would give her contrasting advice, which meant that she had a variety of arguments or options to consider.

Despite all of this, the Privy Council had a professional working relationship and helped the Queen rule successfully for her 45 years on the throne.

The four key members of her Privy Council were:

  1. William Cecil
  2. Robert Dudley
  3. Francis Walsingham
  4. Christopher Hatton

William Cecil was one of Elizabeth’s first appointments, and also her most important. Elizabeth relied heavily on him and they had a very successful working relationship until his death 40 years later. He was always in contact with the Queen and stayed loyal to her. Cecil was loyal in most ways, but he knew how to manage the Queen. He threatened to resign and make her co-operate and carefully used Parliament to manipulate the Queen into taking the position he wanted. Elizabeth respected him for speaking his mind, but she knew that he would eventually carry out her wishes even if he disagreed with them. Cecil did not get on very well with Robert Dudley, a close childhood friend of Elizabeth’s who was also part of the Privy Council. Walsingham was Elizabeth’s spy master, and showed unfailing loyalty towards her, helping her overcome Catholic plots several times.


How was Elizabethan England Run?, figure 3

This illustration shows Elizabeth presiding over Parliament. As with all illustrations from Elizabeth’s time, this serves as propaganda. (We will cover this in another lesson). Note the regal way in which Elizabeth is portrayed, and how she is painted to dominate the room.

The Monarch decided how often Parliament should meet and for how long for. Parliament was called if the monarch needed new laws to be passed or wanted to introduce new taxes.

Elizabeth saw Parliament as an inconvenient
necessity. Her very first Parliament in__ 1559 _created a new Protestant church (_As her sister, Mary, had reverted the country back to Catholicism), and restored the royal supremacy over the Church of England.

Since Henry VIII broke away from the Church in Rome, Parliament’s powers in England had increased. The ideas had developed that the monarch and Parliament would share power. Elizabeth was also having financial problems and had to rely on Parliament taxes to help her with this. As such, Parliament had much to gain during Elizabeth’s reign.

Changes in Parliament

MP’s began to become more confident in arguing against the Queen. They were better educated than they had been in the past, and over half of them had a university education. Members of Parliament were supposed to have better privileges, allowing them freedom of speech and freedom of arrest. Heated debates did take place, and MPs sometimes made comments that Elizabeth disliked. These included Elizabeth’s marital status, competing for trading monopolies, and religious issues. Some Historians have suggested that in this way, Elizabeth lost some of the control in her reign.

However Elizabeth made use of her powers to limit the influence of Parliament. As with the Privy Council, she used the force of her own personality, attending Parliament in person when necessary and using speeches to both charm and bully its members. Elizabeth also had the right to appoint the speaker who was able to control the topics that were discussed and steer clear of the debate.

The Queen could also block measures proposed by MPs through the Royal Veto. Elizabeth imposed limits on the MP’s right to speak freely, and she imprisoned MPs, such as Peter Wentworth in 1576, who argued for freedom of speech! She imprisoned him three times. Elizabeth also had the power to dissolve Parliament if she wished to. It has been debated as to how much Parliament moved forward in terms of progress under Elizabeth’s reign, or whether it was still very much controlled by Elizabeth. Whilst Elizabeth’s control was fairly ‘soft’, there is no question that Elizabeth got what she wanted.

In addition to the Queen’s influence, members of the Privy Council also sat in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Most MPs were clearly vetted by Elizabeth and her Privy Council, so their independence was restricted.

Royal Progresses

How was Elizabethan England Run?, figure 1

It was not just Elizabeth herself who would go on Progresses. When a new portrait was unveiled, Elizabeth would also send these on tour!

Most summers, Elizabeth would travel with her court on tours called Progresses, visiting the homes of the nobility. Her journeys covered the South East, Midlands and East Anglia. Historian Christopher Haig has called them ‘major public relations exercises’ as they allowed Elizabeth to be seen by the British Public and build up a relationship with the people.

The Court would use__ 400 wagons__ to move from house to house and these would be piled with all the Queen’s luggage, as well as documents, furnishings and gifts she received along the way. She also insisted on bringing her own bed with her!

To her subjects, she would appear as a goddess in her fine clothes.

Progresses also helped her financially. Elizabeth did not have as much money as her father, and staying with the nobles was a good way of saving money for her own household, as they would host her, feed her and her Court, and would also lavish her with gifts.

The Progresses also removed the court from the sweltering heat of London in the summer, where the Plague was rife. The palaces could then be cleaned for the Queen’s return.

Define the following Key Terms:

Your answer should include: wealth / families / titles / land
Your answer should include: well born / wealthy / no title
Your answer should include: promote / individuals / influence / court
Personal Monarchy
Your answer should include: monarch / runs / government / controls / court
Robert Cecil
Your answer should include: Privy Council / strong ally
Francis Walsingham
Your answer should include: spymaster / spy master / Privy Court
Royal Progress
Your answer should include: Elizabeth / tour / country / visit nobility / see people
Your answer should include: pass laws / raise taxes