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Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Weak Monarchs and Tyrannous Counsellors

The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’ (political advice-giving) and ‘command’ (sovereign authority) developed and came into conflict, writers also touched on issues of free speech, political prudence and reason of state. This blog series explores these topics and the essential changes to ideas of politics that came about, drawing on material from Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul
The usual response to monarchs unable to rule fully for themselves was to bolster them with good advisers and councils. These could be seen as ‘bridling’ monarchs sorely in need of the rule of reason. But, with the introduction of Machiavellianism, they were too often seen as power grabs from counsellors out to secure their own power, regardless of the damage to monarch and country. This was the paradox in which the three English monarchs of the second half of the sixteenth century found themselves.

Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all perceived as weakened by their age or gender. In other to counter this, conciliar institutions were strengthened. Under Edward VI, a ‘regency council’ was established to rule in his stead. Though this bowed to the might of the Duke of Somerset as Lord Protector, it was revived toward the end of Edward’s reign under the Duke of Northumberland. When Mary I came to the throne, her marriage to Philip II – though controversial – did at least provide the guidance of a male head, and he instituted a ‘Select Council’ to rule in his stead when he left the country.

The most significant developments came with the much longer reign of Elizabeth I. Her Privy Council actually declined in influence over the course of her reign, but this made way for the rise of Parliament as co-legitimising her rule. It was also suggested at various points in her reign that in the event of her death, an interregnum council would rule, who would then decide on the heir to the throne.

From one perspective, these conciliar measure were seen as important ways of ‘bridling’ monarchs sorely in need of it; from another they were power grabs from Machiavellian counsellors out to secure their own self-interest. Both Edward VI and Mary I received Machiavellian advice, which was viewed with suspicion. But it is under Elizabeth I that the spectre of the ‘Machiavel’ fully manifests, and there are several pamphlets written in her reign, warning queen and country about the ‘tyrannous counsellors’ in her midst. It is to these counsellors, not the queen, which works such as the 1571 Treatise of Treasons attribute the real authority in the realm. The queen rules ‘but in name’.

This fear of counsellors is rooted in paranoia about the queen’s gender. As John Stubb’s treatise Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf puts it, these counsellors are ‘not Satan in body of a serpent, but the old serpent in the shape of a man, whose sting is in his mouth, and who doth his endeavour to seduce our Eve’, Elizabeth. Another pamphlet, from 1584 suggests that Elizabeth’s ‘weak sex’ is an ‘infirmary’ which makes her easy to ‘seduce’.

Such fears emerge from the central tension in the discourse of counsel, present for centuries, between counsel and command. The sovereign is expected to take counsel, and give commands. But if the sovereign lacks the authority to do so, then the counsellors start to give the commands. Some might find this reassuring, others clearly did not. Regardless, this situation established in England a strong conciliar framework to bolster the authority and legitimacy of the monarch, as well as a deep-seated suspicion of overly powerful counsellor figures. This arrangement, however awkward, dealt sufficiently with the paradox of a queen regnant through the almost five decades of Elizabeth I’s reign. It would pose a significant problem, however, when there was, at last, an adult male monarch on the throne of England.

The next part of this series will explore how the tension between counsel and command at last broke out in the lead up to the English Civil War. For more, see Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul.
Primary SourcesTreatise of Treasons (Louvain, 1572).

William Allen, The Execution of Justice in England, by William Cecil; and A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics, by William Allen, ed. Robert MacCune Kingdon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965).

John Stubbs, Gaping Gulf, with Letters and Other Relevant Documents, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968).

Secondary Sources

Peter Lake, Bad Queen Bess?: Libels, Secret Histories, and the Politics of Publicity in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

A. N. McLaren, Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I: Queen and Commonwealth 1558-1585 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Joanne Paul, ‘Sovereign Council or Counselled Sovereign: The Marian Conciliar Compromise’, in The Birth of a Queen: Essays on the Quincentenary of Mary I, ed. Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 135–53.

Glyn Redworth, ‘“Matters Impertinent to Women”: Male and Female Monarchy under Philip and Mary’, The English Historical Review 112, no. 447 (1997): 597–613.