Elizabeth's England

Elizabeth's England bannerWin hearts, and you have all men's hands and purses.
William Cecil (1520–98)

  • 'The Queen is dead, long live the Queen'
  • Elizabeth's England
  • Elizabeth's coronation
  • The religious settlement: the middle way
  • Restoring the English currency

Elizabeth's England bannerWin hearts, and you have all men's hands and purses.
William Cecil (1520–98)

Tudor government

ElizabethIn the 16th century, the monarch was most definitely the head of state. The Crown had the power to appoint all personnel (in both church and state), the power of veto and the final say on foreign policy. Constraints to the power of the Crown came from Parliament in financial matters, which voted subsidies for major expenditures such as war.

Another, less formal constraint at the time, was the power and influence of the nobility and the landed gentry, who often commanded the loyalty of the large number of people under them. This was a very real consideration for an incoming monarch, especially with the memory of the Wars of the Roses still fresh in people's minds, as well as the challenges to succession and uprisings of Elizabeth's own lifetime.

Since all political life revolved around the sovereign, those closest to the monarch were the most powerful in the land. Those closest to Elizabeth would be those whom she chose to be members of the Privy Chamber, Royal Household and the Privy Council. Since a change of leadership could change everything dramatically, all eyes were on Elizabeth at her accession to see who would be appointed.

The Privy Chamber included the closest body servants of the monarch. They lived in close quarters with the Queen, kept her company and represented the threshold between the Queen's public and private lives. Because of Elizabeth's gender, the Privy Chamber was female dominated and these prestigious positions were filled with the wives and daughters of powerful men.

The Royal Household was made up of Elizabeth's servants. While some members of the Royal Household also held government positions, many did not. The access to her that membership of her household provided made these positions highly esteemed and those in them very influential. Most of the positions were filled by her favourites and those who had demonstrated loyalty to her in the past.

The Privy Council was a smaller, more defined body, whose main functions were to advise Elizabeth and to act as the administrative centre for her government. Much like a cabinet or a board of directors, they were involved in matters of economy, defence, foreign policy and law and order.

Elizabeth's challenges

By all accounts Elizabeth was vain, headstrong, autocratic, a firm believer in her divine and dynastic right to rule, and determined not to be subject to anyone's will. She was also extremely intelligent and politically astute. She was not so unrealistic as to go it alone. She acknowledged the value and worth of advisers and consultants, both for the knowledge and expertise they could bring, the influence they could wield and the ownership in a project the process of consultation instills.

Elizabeth's challenge was to build a loyal staff of independent thinkers who would help her govern. She needed to do this without creating too many enemies and to reassure those not chosen that they still had a role to play. She also needed to make a good first impression as a strong leader, to command the respect of her new team and to communicate effectively to them the type of government that she proposed. Elizabeth met these challenges admirably.

Elizabeth learnt from the mistakes of her predecessors. For instance, Mary's council had expanded over time without any particular direction. This resulted in a large, unwieldy council riddled with leaks and in-fighting. Also, Mary was guided first and foremost by principles and doctrine, hence the burning of 'heretic' Protestants. Elizabeth wanted to avoid a dogmatic approach to ruling, preferring a more reasoned, pragmatic one. She was also well aware, from her own experiences, of the power of the nobility to raise challenges to her right to rule. All of these considerations would inform her decisions regarding the Privy Council.

Setting up the Privy Council

Elizabeth was at Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, when the news of Mary's death and the proclamation of her accession reached her on 17 November 1558. William Cecil, who would become her Secretary and most trusted adviser, was already with her. A little later they were joined by a delegation of Mary's councillors, wondering what lay in store for them.

Elizabeth told them that she believed it was God's will that she was now placed on the throne, thanked them for their service and told them, 'I mean to direct all mine actions by good advice and counsel'. She also tactfully let them know there would be changes:

And they which I shall not appoint, let them not think the same for any disability in them, but for I consider a multitude doth make rather disorder and confusion than good counsel, and of my good will you shall not doubt, using yourselves as appertaineth to good and loving subjects.

In this first address, Elizabeth made a decisive start by asserting her inalienable right to rule and assuring those present that hers would be a consensual government. She also made clear that the changes and job cuts to be made among her close advisers were not due to any fault of their own or out of vengeance, but from the need to streamline management for a more effective government.

True to her word, the following day Elizabeth met with a consultative committee made up of her own Protestant advisers and a few of Mary's Catholic ex-councillors, beginning the process of fusing the new with the old. The new team acted swiftly and efficiently, dismantling Mary's government and setting up Elizabeth's new one within three days of her accession.

The new Privy Council was a dramatically slimmed-down version compared to Mary's, numbering 19 as opposed to around 50. She retained a number of councillors from Mary's regime, such as the Earl of Pembroke. Although Elizabeth did not trust him, she felt he was too powerful to exclude, and since he had served under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, he had a stake in the continuance of the Tudor monarchy. As Elizabeth's goal was order and stability, she opted instead for a more inclusive, co-operative model drawing together the best of the old and the new to help her govern. This strategy worked and Pembroke proved a loyal servant, as did many of the others.

Members of the new council were drawn from the nobility, the gentry and business, in a skillful mix of the aristocracy and the meritocracy. Notably, most of the clergy were dismissed, signalling that while religion would be a concern of the state, it would not dominate it. The new coalition council represented all the major religious and political factions in the realm, and the experience they brought to the table balanced Elizabeth's youth and inexperience.

To unite and lead this disparate group, it was essential for Elizabeth to make her expectations of them clear. She did this in her address at the first official meeting of the new council on 20 November 1558:

I give you this charge, that you shall be of my Privy Council, and content yourself to take pains for me and my realm. This judgement I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be favourable to the state, and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best. And if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only, and assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein.

In this passage she charges them to commit themselves wholly to her and her realm, praises them for being honest and honourable men and makes it clear that she expects them to remain so. She assures them that she wants them to tell her what they think – not what they think she wants to hear – and makes a pact of confidentiality. While she does not expect them to agree all the time with her or each other, she does demand honest advice and a commitment to give their best for her and the country:

My meaning is to require of you all nothing more but faithful hearts, in such service as from time to time shall be in your powers towards the preservation of me and this commonwealth.

Procession into the City

With the machinery of government now in motion, Elizabeth's first public appearance as Queen took place on 28 November 1558, when she and her entourage processed into the City of London. The royal party was led by the Earl of Pembroke carrying the sword of sovereignty, followed by Elizabeth dressed in royal attire of purple velvet (the wearing of both velvet and the colour purple were restricted by law to the highest ranks of the nobility). Directly behind Elizabeth rode Lord Robert Dudley, her favourite whom she had made Master of the Horse, a highly coveted position.

This procession was fairly low-key in comparison with others, especially those later in Elizabeth's reign. Perhaps she did not want to be seen as gloating, but rather as dignified and assured; for Elizabeth had, after all, been Mary's opposition and the focus of a number of schemes to oust her sister during her reign.

The procession made a powerful visual statement of the new regime, with the new queen led in by Pembroke – a long-serving, familiar figure of the old guard – and followed by Dudley, symbolic of the new. The message was clear: this was to be a smooth transition and everyone was on side, both old and new. It communicated Elizabeth's desire for continuity without stagnation and symbolically announced that the new regime would take the best of both worlds by combining the old and the new.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley

William Cecil (1520–98) was Elizabeth's most trusted adviser and faithfully served in her Privy Council until his death in 1598. He served as Secretary of State (1558–72) and then Lord Treasurer (1572–98) and was known for his formidable administrative and political skills. Elizabeth's right-hand man, she nicknamed him her 'spirit', and the closeness of their partnership made him a very influential figure in English politics.

Elizabeth's coronation >>

Coronation procession


Mary I was buried on 14 December 1558 after a deliberately long delay, which allowed Elizabeth to ease herself into her new role. The date choosen for Elizabeth' s coronation was 15 January 1559, and the festivities kicked off on 14 January with a coronation procession through London. The day long spectacle saw the Queen taken through the crowd-lined streets carried on a golden litter. The procession was punctuated with a series of five pageants staged by various London bodies in honour of the new queen.

Elizabeth I Coronation portraitElizabeth I coronation portrait. Private collection

The first pageant laid out Elizabeth's genealogy, stressing her 'Englishness' (as opposed to the 'Spanishness' of Mary, who was half Spanish, and Philip, who was Spanish), and her descent from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, whose marriage had put an end to years of civil war. The pageant made clear the implication that the granddaughter of those who ended the War of Roses would herself reunify England and bring peace to it. The second pageant showed Elizabeth's government characterized by the four virtues of True Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom and Justice trampling their opposite vices, including Superstition and Ignorance. During the third pageant the Lord Mayor presented Elizabeth with a gift of gold, symbolically demonstrating the interdependence of the City and the Crown.

In the fourth pageant, a decaying commonwealth (Mary's) was contrasted with a thriving one (Elizabeth's). It featured the figure of Truth, who was carrying a Bible written in English and entitled the Word of Truth. Truth presented the Bible to the Queen, who kissed it and laid it on her breast to the cheers of the crowd. The task ahead of her was presented in the final pageant, with Elizabeth portrayed as Deborah, the Old Testament prophet, who rescued the House of Israel and then went on to rule for 40 years.

For her part, Elizabeth committed herself wholly to the Lord Mayor and the people of London during the day's activities, pledging:

And whereas your request is that I should continue your good lady and be Queen, be ye ensured that I will be as good unto you as ever Queen was unto her people. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all I will not spare if need be to spend my blood. God thank you all.

Elizabeth excelled in the starring role in such spectacles, managing gracefully to combine the dignity and grandeur of her position with a common touch that allowed the public to warm to her. The procession was basically a popularity contest and it was a resounding public relations success for the new queen.

Elizabeth's coronation

The actual coronation took place the following day, Sunday 15 January 1559, in Westminster Abbey. The ritual itself was a clever compromise between the Catholic practices that existed and the Protestant ones that she intended to introduce. She was crowned in Latin by a Catholic bishop but parts of the service that followed were read twice – in Latin and English. The changes in the service were a portent of the religious settlement to come and symbolic of her 'make-haste-slowly' approach to introducing change. She emerged from the ceremony to greet her adoring fans wearing a big smile, her crown and carrying the orb and sceptre of her new office.

The miniature of Elizabeth I in her coronation robes shows Elizabeth in the luxurious robes she wore on the day, with all the trappings of her new role.

Restoring the English currency >>

The Tudor treasury

ElizabethIn the 16th century, the expense of running the country was borne by the monarch. Regular taxation as we know it was not common: taxes were enacted by Parliament only when needed for specific purposes, such as war. The 'national treasury' comprised the Crown's personal fortune and revenue raised from crown lands and custom's duties.

As there was no concept of 'national debt', monarchs often used 'creative' methods to raise cash. Henry VIII, for example, raised money by minting new coins that were made of base metals mixed with a little silver or gold and circulating them at the same face value as solid silver and gold coins. This debasing of the coinage raised an enormous amount of money for Henry VIII's military ventures but it had adverse long-term effects.

At home, as people caught on to the 'scam', they began to hoard the older coins with a higher content of precious metal, leaving only the 'bad' money in circulation. Abroad, foreign bankers and vendors refused to accept the coinage and insisted on payment in gold. Both practices created a gold shortage at home, making gold harder to source for minting new coins and for foreign transactions.

Domestic reforms

When Elizabeth came to power, she inherited one of the most debased coinages in history, which damaged trade relations and the reputation of the monarchy. Elizabeth analysed the problem and formulated a solution in concert with her trusted advisers William Cecil and the financial genius, Thomas Gresham. Gresham was put in charge of the programme and acted swiftly and efficiently. Within a year (1560–61) the debased money had been withdrawn, melted down and replaced with newly minted Elizabethan coins of precious metal. The crown even made a healthy profit from the exercise, estimated at £50,000.

The restoration of the coinage improved the dealings of English merchants abroad and secured the trust and respect of the City for Elizabeth and her government. The success of the initiative and the maintenance of the integrity of the coinage throughout her reign led to an economic recovery. The confidence that it bred allowed for the expansion in trade and industry that followed. The boldness of the venture and the skill and efficiency with which it was executed boosted Elizabeth's reputation at home and abroad.

Small change and reforms to the system of standard weights and measures were also introduced during Elizabeth's reign, which allowed for more accurate transactions. They also point to an awareness on the part of Elizabeth and her government of the need for quality control and strict regulation of standards to maintain faith in a product or organization.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham (1517/18–79) served as Elizabeth's chief financial adviser, negotiating loans on the Crown's behalf and advising Elizabeth on the necessity of recoinage.

A very successful businessman, Gresham paid for the establishment of an exchange in London, the precursor to the London Stock Exchange, which was completed in 1569. After Elizabeth visited 1571 it became known as the Royal Exchange.

The Exchange was very successful with merchants from England and Europe. It provided a valuable symbol of the nation's increasing wealth as well as of its changing status from an 'island nation' isolated from power to one that was a seat of power and commerce, independent of the problems in continental Europe.

The religious settlement: the middle way >>

Elizabeth's challenges

ElizabethUpon her accession in 1558, Elizabeth inherited a nation that had suffered religious flux between Protestantism and Catholicism for many years. The Reformation of Henry VIII had made the monarch the spiritual as well as secular head of the realm, with Protestantism coming in under Edward VI. Mary reversed all of this when she restored Catholicism as the state religion and the Pope as the head of the church. Elizabeth wished to create a new moderate religious settlement derived from Henry VIII's break from Rome. She established the Church of England.

Elizabeth's goal was that of a stable, peaceful nation with a strong government free from the influence of foreign powers, whether in matters of church or state. In order to realise this vision it was necessary to reassert the power of the state over religion and to reach a religious settlement that was as inclusive as possible. These changes needed to be introduced with a minimum of confrontation, in order to overcome fear and suspicion at home and abroad, and to carry as many people with Elizabeth as possible.

The choice of state religion would have consequences both at home and in the international arena. For instance, choosing to remain Catholic would be surrendering power to Rome and would ally England with other Catholic states, such as France and Spain, but possibly alienate the Protestant Dutch, who were England's main trading partner. Returning to Protestantism would antagonize Catholic Spain, the most powerful nation in the world at the time. It might also strike fear into the hearts of English Catholics, fearing retribution and persecution from Protestant reformers, particularly those following the more evangelical strains developing on the continent.

A delicate, considered balancing-act had to be sought and found.

Mission statement

Nicholas BaconNicholas Bacon. Private collectionElizabeth's first Parliament was inaugurated on 25 January 1559. The new queen was in attendance for the opening speech, which was delivered by Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. As spokesman for the government, Bacon delivered its mission statement: to unite 'the people of this realm into a uniform order of religion'.

He also outlined the course to reach this goal by explaining that 'all sophistical, captious and frivolous arguments and quiddities … [were] comlier for scholars than for councillors,' and that members were not to insult each other with terms like 'heretic', 'schismatic' or 'Papist'.

They were not going to waste time on abstract theological debates but were going to get down to the business at hand of finding concrete solutions to the problems of the day.

Likewise, matters were to be debated in a respectful fashion: extremism would not be tolerated and name-calling and mud-slinging would not help them move forward.

The message was very clear: that they were all, including Elizabeth, members of the same team, working together for a common goal – that of a united, prosperous England. Extremes were to be avoided in order to unite, not divide. In this address, Elizabeth very deliberately disassociated herself from the unpopularity of Mary's regime by signalling how hers would be different.

Religious statement

The first act passed by the House of Commons in February 1559 joined together a bill of supremacy, establishing Elizabeth as head of the church, with one of uniformity, dealing with the type of faith and service. The proposed settlement was roundly rejected and adulterated by the House of Lords, with its Catholic majority. The bill proposed by the House of Lords was unacceptable to the government, as was conceding defeat.

Elizabeth and her pro-reform ministers had to regroup and plan another strategy. A debate was scheduled during the Easter recess between a team of Catholics and a team of Protestants, with the Privy Council as judge and Bacon as chairman. The debate quickly descended into name-calling and two of the Catholics ended up being sent to the Tower for contempt.

During this interlude, Elizabeth and her team learnt not to underestimate the opposition, as well as the need for compromise to achieve their aims. When Parliament reconvened in April, the two issues were presented separately and considerable concessions had been made.

The Act of Supremacy still abolished papal supremacy but defined Elizabeth as Supreme Governor, instead of Supreme Head, of the church. This change of title placated those on both sides who did not feel that a woman could be the head of the church and the act passed fairly easily.

The Act of Uniformity of 1559 set out the groundwork for the Elizabethan church. It restored the 1552 version of the English Prayer Book but kept many of the familiar old practices and allowed for two interpretations of communion – one Catholic and one Protestant. The bill was hotly debated and eventually passed by only three votes – a narrow victory indeed, considering that two of the Catholics were still imprisoned and another was absent.

On 8 May 1559, Elizabeth attended Parliament to give her approval to the two new acts. In Bacon's closing speech he portrayed the length of the proceedings as having been necessary for a full and weighty debate which resulted in a 'well nigh an universal consent and agreement'.

A new Church of England

Royal Arms of Elizabeth IRoyal Arms of Elizabeth I. The Parochial Church Council of Preston St Mary, Suffolk; copyright The Friends of Preston St Mary ChurchIn December 1559 Matthew Parker was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Canterbury of this new Elizabethan church. A moderate, scholarly man, he helped Elizabeth to guide the new church and to withstand attempts to reform it further during her reign. Both were opponents of religious extremism, of whatever sort, and while drawing on aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism, avoided the extreme practices and beliefs of each. Parker and Elizabeth both had great respect for history and sought to ground the new church in past traditions.

Parker was involved in formulating the doctrines of the new church in 'The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion Produced by Convocation' in 1563. The new hybrid Elizabethan church looked Catholic but its beliefs were largely Protestant. One of the major tenets of Protestant belief is in the importance of the scriptures – the 'Word of God' – and that access should not just be reserved for the clergy through being written in Latin, but should be available to all in their own language. Parker supervised the publication of the Bishops' Bible in English, for use in churches and homes.

The process of building a strong independent England by re-asserting the authority of the Crown and consolidating power away from outside influences, whether foreign states or the church, had begun. The 'Painted Triptych of the Royal Arms' provides a visual representation of the religious settlement of 1559 and its legacy. It simultaneously asserts the supremacy of the state over religion and the unity of church and state as a new independent entity.

While the 1559 settlement could not satisfy either orthodox Catholics or hard-core Protestants, the majority accepted it. The framework for the Church of England had been laid and the sheer longevity of Elizabeth's reign allowed it to take root and become a national institution. Despite changes in the intervening years, the 1559 settlement still informs the Church of England of today. (See the timeline of Elizabeth's early years [PDF fie].)

Sir Nicholas Bacon

Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509–79) was a lawyer and a scholar. He was appointed Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal in December 1558, perhaps at the suggestion of Cecil, who was his brother-in-law. Shortly afterwards he was knighted, made a member of the Privy Council and Lord Chancellor. Bacon acted as Elizabeth's trusted mouthpiece in Parliament. His motto was Mediocria firma – 'the middle ground is best' – and he was an influential adviser on the religious settlement.

Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker (1504–75) had served as chaplain to Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, and her brother, Edward VI, before being consecrated Elizabeth's first Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1559. A moderate, scholarly man, he helped guide the Anglican Church during its formative years, withstanding pressure from both Catholics and Puritans. His diligent research on the origins of the church in England earned him the nickname 'Nosey Parker'.

The Queen's court >>