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Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Counsel and Command in the English Civil War

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
This final instalment demonstrates how the centuries-long tension between counsel and command, which had been fostered by the conflict between humanist and Machiavellian models of counsel and the situation of late Tudor monarchy, breaks out in the lead-up to the English Civil War. It suggests that the breakdown of the discourse of counsel is an underappreciated cause of this monumental conflict, with lasting ramifications for modern political thought.
The early Stuarts had a difficult relationship with counsel, to say the least, caused in large part to the massive shifts in the English discourse of counsel we’ve been tracing. Both James VI/I and Charles I increasingly relied heavily on close favourites to advise them, a model of counsel that had been tainted by suspicions of Machiavellianism. They also both rejected the counsel of parliament, which had filled the authority vacuum in the reigns of the late Tudor monarchs. Parliament was seen to be more transparent than personal counsel, and so resolve the problem presented by Machiavellianism, at least by some. The mismatch between the Stuart view of counsel and that which had become embedded in English political discourse is an underemphasised cause of the English Civil War, as the sources attest. The Stuart position was heavily reliant on the thinking of the French theorist Jean Bodin, who advocated for a singular source of sovereignty and reinforced the distinction between sovereignty (or command) and counsel. As he wrote, if ‘the councillors would rule… This would not be without the diminution or even destruction of the sovereign majesty.” This was the view that James I brough to the English parliament, rejecting the power of parliament established “in the times of minors, of tyrants, or women or simple kings”.

It was Charles I, however, whose interactions with sources of counsel exacerbated the tension inherent in the relationship between counsel and command. He inherited his father’s reliance on the advice of the Duke of Buckingham and doubled down on the dislike of parliament’s increasingly mandatory advice, reminding them that “his Majesty does not forget that the parliament is his council and therefore it ought to have the liberty and freedom of a council, but his Majesty also understands the difference between counselling and controlling.”

It becomes clear how crucial these differing views of counsel – and their implications for questions of sovereignty – were to the English Civil War, when one considers the Nineteen Propositions presented by Parliament in 1642. The first three of these propositions address the issue of counsel, demanding that (1) parliament be given control of those appointed to the Privy Council, (2) the influence of private counsel be limited and (3) the major offices of the realm, likewise, be approved by parliament. Charles, in turn, recognized how the Propositions turned counsel into command, making him, the sovereign, but “the Picture, but the signe of a King.”

Counsel was also the central issue for the most influential parliamentarian writer of the conflict, Henry Parker. Parker presented himself as a counsellor to the people and argued that parliament was the realm’s greatest council, unmatched for its prudence, alignment with state interests and lack of personal self-interest (unlike the king). As such, his argument continues, when the king is seduced by privately interested counsellors, the parliament has the right to remove them, and what’s more, override the “ordinary course” in English politics and make counsel into command, even taking control of the militia: to “raise arms” in self-defence.

Even more telling than counsel’s central place in Parker’s work is its subjugation in that of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes attacks almost every element of the discourse of counsel that has been traced up to this point, especially the notion of prudence, which he dismisses in favour of reasoning and a science of politics. Assemblies such as parliament are more not less (as Parker held) subject to private interests, according to Hobbes, and so a sovereign is better counselled by individuals than groups.

Reflecting on the outbreak of the English Civil War, in his Leviathan, written in 1651, Hobbes articulates a strong distinction between counsel and command. The “confusion of Counsels, and Commands”, Hobbes maintains, is the cause of great conflict and discord, and he sets out clearly that counsel must be non-obligatory and in the interest of the one counselled. No one, he adds, “can pretend to be of another man’s Counsell”; for Hobbes even pressing a right to counsel crosses the boundary between counsel and command. Instead, the focus needs to be on indivisible sovereignty, as it was in Bodin, and counsel wholly subjugated to it. For Hobbes – and for modern political thought - sovereignty takes precedence, overthrowing centuries of political discourse based on the importance of counsel. Sovereignty becomes central, and counsel fades into the shadows of political thought. 
For more, see Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul.
Primary SourcesJean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, trans. Richard Knolles (London, 1606).

Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., (London: Bohn, 1839-45). 11 vols.

Nineteen Propositions... With His Majesties Answer Thereunto (Cambridge, 1642).

Secondary Sources

David Colclough, Freedom of Speech in Early Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Michael Mendle, Henry Parker and the English Civil War: The Political Thought of the Public’s ‘Privado’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Joanne Paul, ‘Counsel, Command and Crisis’, Hobbes Studies 28, no. 2 (2015): 103–31.

Gabriella Slomp, ‘The Inconvenience of the Legislator’s Two Persons and the Role of Good Counsellors’, Hobbes Studies 19, no. 1 (2016): 68–85.

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