Queen Elizabeth’s government

This page consists of excerpts from Chapter I of Alfred Hart’s Shakespeare and the Homilies (pp 10-76).  I’ve reparagraphed it and added a few subheads and a few notes or comments [in brackets] where it seemed useful.

Born in 1870 in America of British parents, Alfred Hart grew up in Australia, got his degrees from the University of Melbourne, taught math,  physics and chemistry at Australian schools, and earned a living as a chemical analyst.  He also earned renown throughout the English-speaking world for his work in Shakespeare Studies.  Taken from the perspective of a free colonial, this unapologetic view of the nature of life under the Tudors helps us better understand why the authors of the Shakespeare, Spenser, Nashe and Webster canons found it not only expedient but necessary to hide their identities.

Aftred Hart on Queen Elizabeth’s government

Shakespeare was born in an era and world of constant change, in an England that seemed on the verge of destruction.  Religion and politics had been inextricably intermingled since the middle of Henry the Eighth’s reign, and a rapid succession of nation-wide innovations threatened to end all hope of any permanent stability.  The divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the separatation of the English Church from communition with Rome, the suppression of the religious orders and the dissolution of the monasteries, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the declaration that the monarch was the supreme head of the English Church, the gradual extinction of the remnant of the feudal aristocracy that survived the Wars of the Roses, the creation of a new nobility, the rise of an official class, the numerous alterations made in religious dogmas and ceremonies, the reaction during the reign of Queen Mary and the accession of her sister Elizabeth, the daughter of the Reformation, all have happened within less than thirty years.

Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, religious wars had been devastating France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Ireland, yet England had remained in comparative peace and had steadily prospered.  Only three insurrections of any importance had broken out during more than a century; there had been some fighting, but little bloodshed [not true, there was considerable fighting and bloodshed, though perhaps not to the earlier level] and no civil war or foreign invastions.  When Mary died, the Tudor dynasty had been on the throne for 73 years; under the strong rule of Henry VII and Henry VIII there had been organized and firmly maintained a system of despotic government such as a Turkish pasha would scarcely have dared to employ in ruling a dependency of the Ottoman Empire.

No monarch of England ever exercised such absolute power as “good Queen Bess.” Autocracy was in her blood and the very breath of her nostrils.  She looked upon her Parliament, not as a pemanent institution or as a sovereign estate of the realm, but as a special assembly which custom compelled her to summon when she had need of money; being a thrifty woman she called it as rarely as she could.  Thirteen parliaments met during her [forty year] reign, and she dissoved each of them after a session of a few weeks.

Even in her last parliaments she expressly forbade the speaker to accept bills “touching matters of state or reformation in causes ecclesiastical,” and thus debates on the Church, the succession to the throne and foreign affaris were strictly tabooed.  Members of the House of Commons who disregarded her commands were sent to the Tower  till their zeal cooled; Peter Wentworth died there in 1596 after an imprisonment of three years.  Freedom of speech she contemptuously conceded to them; this freedom amounted to the privilege of saying Aye or No.  She bluntly told the Parliament of 1597-8 that such freedom did not entitle them “to frame a form of religion or a state of government as to their idle brains shall seem meetest.”  At the end of the session she vetoed 48 of 91 bills that had passed both houses.  The term “contrary to law” had no meaning when law came into conflict with her royal prerogative. . . .

Her tyranny was real and exhibited itself even in the ceremony of the Court.  Paul Hentzner’s description is well-known: “Whomever speaks to her it is kneeling, though now and then she raises someone with her hand . . . .  Wherever she turned her face as she was going along everybody fell down on their knees.”  He describes those who made ready her table for dinner on every occasion on which they entered or left the room.  “At last came a maiden of great beauty dressed in white silk (we were told she was a countess) accompanied by a matron bearing a tasting knife, who when she had prostrated herself three times in the most graceful manner, approached the table, and rubbed the plates with bread and salt with as much veneration as if the queen had been present.”

Elizabeth was always the Queen.  “Daily and nightly ceremony, state and formality held sway.  It was not the precise and pompous ceremony of a later day; like all else, Court ceremonial was still inartificial.  But it was none the less real and extreme.  When the Queen visits a country house its mistress receives her at the threshold “most humbly on her knees.”  When the House of Commons visits her at the close of the session they kneel during her long address. . . .  Another traveller,  visiting England in 1585, describes the nobles kneeling on one knee while they conversed with her, and men and women falling on their knees as she passed.  The Duke of Stettin, who visited her in 1602, records, “At last the Queen to show her royal rank ordered some of the noble lords and councilors to approach and they in their stately dress were obliged to remain on their knees all the time the queen addressed them. . . .”  When (the ten lords of the Order of the Garter) attended morning chapel, where R. Bull played and the gentlemen of the chapel sang, each lord on his entrance and departure made three obeisances to the empty seat of the Queen.”

The rigid exaction of such slavish servility drove self-respecting men of high birth from the Court.  Thus Naunton says of Peregrine Bertie [Oxford’s brother-in-law], the brave Lord Willoughby of the ballad: “had he not slighted the Court, but applied himself to the Queen, he might have enjoyed a plentiful portion of her grace.  And it was his saying, (and it did him no good) that he was none of the Reptilia, intimating that he could not creep on the ground, and that the Court was not in his Element; for indeed, as he was a great soldier, so he was of a suitable magnanimity, and could not brook the obsequiousness and assiduity of the Court.”

Such of the peers as were descended from the old nobility, the Percies, Nevilles, Clifffords, Devereux, Veres,  Ratcliffes and Staffords must have drunk more than their fill of the bitter waters of humiliation when they were forced to grovel at the feet of the descendant of a Welsh mercenary soldier and a London tradesman to make sport for a petty German princeling.  She kept her young nobles in leading strings, and they could not travel or marry without her consent.

She governed through the Privy Council, and its paternal activities took everything said or done or left undone by any man or woman in any part of England to be its province.  Certainly at no time in our history has a body of officials exerted such extensive, despotic and arbitrary power over every detail of human life.  The Venetian ambassador remarked, “These lords of the Council behave like so many kings.”  They broke almost every law and custom of the constitution, [England has no constitution as such; he is probably referring to the Magna Carta] put anyone in prison and kept him there at pleasure, without trial or appeal or any redress, ordered prisoners and suspected persons to be tortured and fined; imprisoned juries for returning verdicts contrary to the Council’s will; pressed soldiers and sailors for service outside the kindom; prevented merchants importing or exporting goods; exacted loans under th Privy Seal without paying interest; interfered with elections of members of Parliament; and sat with the judges in the Star Chamber to enforce punishment for violating the royal proclamations which they had issued in the Queen’s name.

The Tudor administration was easily alarmed, because it had no standing military force at its disposal to subdue an insurrection, and it punished savagely to conceal its weakness.  The Queen imposed martial law on London in 1595 on account of a petty riot and ordered the provost-marshal to hang anyone taken in the act without any form of trial; subsequently five apprentices were tried, convicted of high treason and executed.  Walsinghham and the Cecils controlled an efficient secret service, and any person of local importance who criticised any action or proclmation of the Council ran the risk of being summoned to London.  There he might wait for weeks in idleness and continuous apprehension till the Council was disposed to cite him before them, and he might count himself fortunate if he escaped after making a humble apology and paying a heavy fine.  A vigilant eye was kept on the press; only three towns were permitted to print books, and a rigorous censorship restrained the expression of discontent and criticism of the government and its actions. . . .

Elizabeth inherited and habitually used the system of absolutism created by her grandfather and father.  She had almost as exalted ideas of her sovereign power as Shakespeare ascribes to Richard II; but her subjects accepted her semi-divinity and practised the passive obedience which Richard preached, because the doctrines of passive obedience and the divine right of kings were two fundamental articles of the Tudor state religion.  The members of her House of Commons admitted that her prerogative power enabled her to override any laws made by them.  Even such an eminent jurist as Coke declared in writing that Parliament was powerless if the Crown chose to exert its full power, and, when he was Speaker, he did not hesitate to obey the Queen’s command and refuse to submit to the House bills on prohibited subjects.

Concentration of power in the Crown: destruction of the feudal nobility

We may ask how had the limited monarchy of the Lancastrian kings described by Fortescue developed into what Coke admitted was in reality the absolute monarchy of Elizabeth.  For an answer we must go back to the reigns of her father and grandfather.  With the almost complete destruction of the feudal aristocracy during the dynastic Wars of the Roses disappeared the rough and variable balance that till then had existed between the king and the three estates [the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons] .

After systmatically killing off all the descendants of John of Gaunt that fell into his hands, Edward IV began the creation of a nobility dependent on himself from among the numorous relatives of his wife.  [These were] promptly executed [by Richard III] as a preliminary to the secret murder of his nephews.  Henry VII [then] persistently depressed the remnants of the old baronage, depriving them of their privilages and enforcing obedience to his laws.  He derived his title to the throne from his mother, the heiress of the elder branch of the legitmated Beauforts, and having neither brother nor sister, left his son his inheritance without any fear of rivalry in his own house.  He united the rival Roses by marrying the heiress of Edward IV, and took the additional precaution of imprisoning and subsequently executing the last male of the House of York.

When Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, he was the first English king for more than a century whose title was accepted by all his subjects.  He also had the advantage of not having a brother.  He steadily maintained hi father’s policy of destroying the independents of the feaudal baronage, created a new nobility, and governed England personally with the advice and assistance of ministers whom he appointed and dismissed at pleasure.  Like the Turk he bore no rival near his throne.  He determined to prevent a disputed succession after his death by exterminating the last scions of the Plantagent stock; he began by executing the Duke of Buckingham, and later in his reign, he executed his cousins, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence [Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury] and her eldest son [Henry Pole, Baron Montagu].

The gentry and commons pitied his victims, but approvoed of the security thus provided for the future peace of the land.  “Bluff King Hal”was for more than twenty years the most popular king of England since the time of Henry V.  He was very handsome, fond of outdoor sports, a a good scholar, a patron of the arts,  profuse in his expenditure, and like Francis I of France and Charles V, Emperor of Germany, maintained a magnificent Court, full of pomp and ceremony.

After the breach with Rome his imperious nature took a tyrannical turn.  Scenes of slavish adulation were exhibited at the opening of Parliament; the lords used to rise and bow to Henry whenever words “most sacred Majesty” were used.  Henry refers to the “Kingly Power given him by God” in the preamble to the an Act of Parliament.  His young son was surrounded with abasements and semi-divine reverence.  He was served at his table by the highest nobles on their knees, and even by his elder sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, who dined at lower tables than their young brother.  Elizabeth continued the practise of her father and brother; she was received by her nobles with such bowings and prostrations as seemed to the French and Venetian ambassadors unworthy of free men.

When  Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the English Church, he united in himself, as English Pontiff and King, two titles, hitherto distinct, to the reverence and obedience of his subjects.  Not many years had passed before his obsequious clergy, soon to be stripped of almost all their wealth, invented for their self-elected royal semi-divinity a new system of despotic theocracy.

A principal article of the new creed was that the King was God’s immediate deputy on earth, no longer liable to deposition on account of misrule or disobedience to the Church; obviously the supreme and infallible head of the English Church could not disobey or excommunicate himself.  The second new tenet of importance was that the obedience of subjects to the prince was passive and without reservation of any kind, and the allegience of subjects could not be withheld on any pretext whatsoever.  Both these tenets were contrary to the teaching of the Catholic faith.  This is set out in a book entitled De Unitate Ecclesiae, written by Reginald Pole, Henry’s second cousin [son of the soon to be executed Countess of Salisbury and brother of the soon to be executed Baron Montagu] early in 1536, and was sent by him to the King. . . .

In October 1536 occurred the great northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, which endangered Henry’s throne; in May of the following year appeared a book entitled The Godly and Pious Institution of a Christian Man, commonly known as “the Bishop’s Book.”  Drawn up in convocation three years previously for the direction of the clergy, it was printed by the order of the king [and] contains what is, as far as I can discover, the earliest official statement of the new doctrines.  In treating of the Fifth Commandment [“Honor thy father and mother”], the authors declare that subjects may not withdraw their allegiance from their Prince upon any pretext whatsoever; it is unlawful “for the subjects to draw their swords against their sovereign for God has not made subjects their judge.  No!  He has made the supreme magistrate unaccountable to the people and reserved kings for His own tribuanal; all subjects may do is to pray to God that He will turn the heart of their Prince.”  Six years afterwards the book was re-issued with certain changes in doctrine, but the passages on divine right and passive obedience were unaltered.

Publication of the Homilies

Upon the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, a boy of nine years became the Supreme Head of the English Church, and the Council of Regency, acting in his stead, advanced farther on the road to Protestantism.  They prohibited the preaching of all sermons except under special license, and they sent to every parish in the kingdom a book entitled “Certain Sermons or Homilies appointed by the Kings Majesty to be declared and read by all Persons, Vicars, or Curates every Sunday in their Churches, where they have cure.”  The tenth homily is “An exhoration concerning good order and obedience to Rulers and Magistrates,” and fills nine folio pages in the edition of 1640.  It is divided into three parts, one to be read on each of three consecutive Sundays, and it briefly expounds such politico-religious doctines as the divine right of kings, non-resistance, passive obedience, and the wickedness of rebellion.  Numerous editions of these offical sermons were printed during Edward’s reign.

The book was suppressed when Mary became queen and abandoned the title of Supreme head of the Church, [but] the homilies were reprinted soon after Elizabeth’s accession.  In 1563 appeared the Second Tome of Homilies containing 20 discourses,” each of these new sermons being on religious doctrine or morality.

Rebellion broke out in the north of England in November 1569, and after causing much alarm throughout the country, was suppressed three months later.  Almost immediately afterwards Pope Pius V issued his Bull of Deposition against Elizabeth, excommunicating her and absolving her subjects from their allegiance.  Next year Ridolfi plotted the invasion of England; for his share in this the last of England’s dukes, the Duke of Norfolk, was executed.

The Queen and her Council were seriously alarmed, and instructed the bishops to prepare a new homiliy on disobedience and wilful rebellion; this new and last additon fo the Homilies was printed without a title-page in 1573, and was included in all subsequent editions.  With the single exception to the controversial homily on “Idolatry,” this new homily was by far the longest, extending to 46 folio pages.  It is divided into six parts, to each of which is appended a special prayer to be said by the whole congregation; at the conclusion is added, “A thanksgiving for the suppression of the last Rebellion,” to which other references are made in the text.  In the preface to this new edition of the first part, published in 1562, we read, “And when the foresaid Book of Homilies is read over,  her Majesties pleasure is that it be repeated, and read again in such like sort as was before prescribed” . . . .

Such would have been part of the early religious training of almost all the numerous poets, dramatists, annalists [historians], and other prose writers that adorned the Elizabethan age, [through whom] we can mark the gradual spread and general acceptance of the doctine of divine right.  Sir John Cheke, afterwards tutor to Edward VI and secretary to the council, wrote, as a very young man, a tract entitled A Remedy for Sedition, “wherein are contained many Things concerning the true and loyal obeisance that Commons owe unto their Prince and Sovereigne Lord the King.”  After Ket’s rebellion he published another pamphlet, The Hurt of Sedition: how grievous it is to a Commonwealth.  We do not know the date of Bishop Bale’s anti-Catholic play, King John, but it was probably written during the reign of Edward VI.  Here we find the doctrines of divine right and passive obedience explicitly stated for the first time in drama.  Verity says,

For God’s sake obey, like as doth you befall;
For, in his own realm a king is judge over all
By God’s appointment; and none may him judge again
But the Lord himself; in this the Scripture is plain. . . .

My comments

We might wonder what it was that drove the English during this period to hand over so many rights to the Crown.  This was simply part of the process of nationalisation, or the creation of power centers in geographic sections that shared a common language and belief system, that is, the creation of modern nations out of feudal principalities and townships that was taking place all over the West at this time, although Germany and Italy managed to hold off for another century or two.  The twenty years of civil war in the mid-17th century was a painful period for the British, but by setting up Parliament as a balance to the power of the Crown, it also meant they escaped from the horrors of revolutions like those that, centuries later, tore France and Russia to bloody bits.

As for Elizabeth, harsh as she seems when focused on her prerogatives or when concerned for her own security, she was also capable of acts of kindness and forbearance that her father and grandfather had not been.  It was a harsh world, and she and her ministers had to be tough to survive in it.

One final note:  The character of Verity that Hart quotes from John Bale’s play King John was probably based on Oxford’s father, John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, Bale’s patron at the time the play was performed for Elizabeth in Ipswich, or at Hedingham Castle, during her progress through Essex in 1561.

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