Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime

Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime

by Wallace T. MacCaffrey


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Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime by Wallace T. MacCaffrey

"A fresh and quite original contribution to an understanding of an extremely important period in English history and to a quite remarkable discussion of the role of Queen Elizabeth in the complex diplomacy and policy of the era.... An original, a learned, and very persuasive history of these years.... This is political history at its best."—W.K. Jordan

“It will be both important and useful to other scholars since it is the first effort of such dimensions since Froude to deal in a narrative pattern with the extraordinary complex problems of power that emerged during the first years of Elizabeth I's reign.”—J.H. Hexter

Originally published in 1968.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691622231
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 520
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime

Elizabethan Politics, 1558â"1572

By Wallace T. MacCaffrey


Copyright © 1968 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05168-0



Few periods in English history have attracted so much serious attention as the reign of Elizabeth I. Since the time of the great Froude a sequence of major historians have devoted their life's work to this age. In earlier generations Froude, Cheyney, and Pollard worked on the grand scale, taking the whole course of national history as their subject. More recently their successors have turned their attention to specific men and to particular aspects of the era. Conyers Read's major biographical studies of Walsingham and of Cecil have illuminated the careers of Elizabeth's two greatest servants. Neale's work on Parliament has given new shape to our understanding of that institution and of the Elizabethan age. More recently still a group of able historians have concentrated their efforts on the institutions of government, on the lesser political figures, and on the religious changes of these years and on their social and economic history. Consequently, a word of explanation is needed to justify yet another stirring of soil so well cultivated.

The primary purpose of this book is to examine the fifteen years which lie between Elizabeth's accession to the throne and the death of the Duke of Norfolk in 1572. This was the testing-time of the regime — whether it was to live or to die. For contemporaries they were years of hope and despair, always shadowed by agonized uncertainties about the morrow. By 1572 the question of survival had been settled and the very struggle for survival had molded the regime into a form which would endure almost as long as Queen Elizabeth lived.

The study of these years requires a dual perspective. From the shorter-term point of view of the sixteenth century they mark the last stage of a forty-year crisis which at times had threatened the very existence of basic political order in the English state. They brought to a close the alarming political disturbances attendant upon the English Reformation and, in a generation when much of Europe suffered from the terrible scourge of religious civil war, Englishmen were to enjoy domestic peace and general good order. This was no mean achievement; but it was one by no means in the cards when Elizabeth assumed power: the events through which a political stability lacking since the early decades of Henry VIII's reign was restored deserve careful attention and some reconsideration.

From the longer perspective of four centuries these years mark a fundamental turning-point in the history of English politics. Slowly and awkwardly England was turning away from the now archaic world of late medieval times, from a political universe paternalistic and dynastic in outlook, and since the 1470's very much royally-centered. In the era now beginning the magnetic pole of politics would not quite coincide with that visible and apparent center of attraction, the throne, and as a consequence the very nature of political activity would change. By the early 1570's there existed in England a hybrid political order, viable but fragile, accommodating in uneasy partnership a still potent monarchy and an as yet ill-defined political elite. The first hesitating experiments in a new politics were being made at this time, in which the initiatives to action came not solely from the sovereign but also from partisan aristocratic groupings, linked loosely but effectively by the common ideology of Protestantism. It was the first painful stage of a process lasting over more than a century by which the power of the Crown would be gradually reduced and that of the aristocratic classes, especially the gentry, steadily augmented.

The mode in which this study is cast is one of compressed narrative, but the prime concern is not to rehearse once more the well-known events of these years so much as to understand their significance in the course of English political life. In the past these years have, perhaps unconsciously, often been regarded as a kind of prelude to the later triumphs of the Elizabethans. Posterity has been loud in its applause of those successes and it has sometimes seemed as though they were predetermined, imprinted in the very fabric of history, and, in some sense, self-explanatory. But to understand the Elizabethan achievement it is signally important to remember that the regime, during its first decade and a half, seemed to contemporaries to be a very fragile creation with a very precarious future. These men led lives conditioned by frightening and incalculable incertitudes. To them the sudden death of the Queen, a ruinous marriage with Robert Dudley, privy conspiracy in favor of Mary Stuart, or even foreign invasion, formed the all-too-probable shape of the future. The worst of these fears were not realized, but their very existence is a vital fact of politics in these years. It is all the more important to forego the delusive advantage given by four centuries of hindsight and to keep steadily before us the anxious forebodings with which contemporaries faced the grim uncertainties of these first Elizabethan years.

What was the outlook when Elizabeth succeeded her sister in November 1558? At the moment of accession there was both relief and rejoicing. Mary Tudor had died after an illness of some months. For the third time in less than a dozen years there was a change of sovereigns in England. In the sixteenth century such a change was at best an unsettling experience for the nation. In this case Mary's long illness had given warning of impending change, but the conventions of monarchy precluded any public preparation. Hence there was an air of crisis, an atmosphere of mingled apprehension and expectancy. Many feared disturbance, but at the center of government the Council methodically took the usual measure attendant upon a royal death — the closing of the ports, alerting of garrisons, and other cautionary moves.

Thus the shock of Mary's death, when it came, was easily met; the new Queen was proclaimed without incident and amid rejoicing that seems to have been more than merely conventional excitement; the shift of power to the new sovereign was swiftly achieved. Awkward and urgent problems had to be faced without delay. The country was still at war with France although active hostilities had ceased some months earlier. For weeks English commissioners in Flanders had been engaged in the painful task of negotiating a peace with France which could at the best be but a face-saving operation. The crushing defeat of the previous January had left England without a continental base, with negligible military resources, and, indeed, without much will to continue the struggle. A little less urgent but more deeply troubling was the great question of religion. All England and half of Europe waited with nervous expectancy for the new Queen's first moves in this all-important matter. Yet, for the moment, in the jubilance of her peaceful accession Queen and subjects could pause to catch their breath.

During the years immediately ahead — between 1558 and 1572 — England was to pass through the last phase of a grave political disturbance which had begun thirty years earlier with Henry VIII's "great matter," the divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The original problem, difficult enough in itself, had soon snowballed into one of the major transformations of English history, with consequences, both religious and political, which reached far beyond the end of the sixteenth century. The first phase of this disturbance — up to about 1540 — was largely one of institutional change. Under the ruthlessly efficient management of Thomas Cromwell the links with Rome were quickly snapped, a new national ecclesiastical establishment set up, and — a by-product — the monasteries swept away and their wealth scooped into the royal coffers. Except for the lonely resistance of More, Fisher, and the Carthusians and the confused and ineffective protest of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the new order met no obstacles of any note.

Perhaps the ease of this first transition obscured the difficulties which lay ahead. Henry had hoped for a limited revolution, carefully restricted to jurisdictional and constitutional changes, untainted by any hint of religious heterodoxy. But unluckily for the king his rupture with Rome coincided with one of the great revolutions in Western Christian history. However much his servants might labor to draw distinctions between Henrician orthodoxy and Lutheran heresy, the flood of history was too much for them. The waters of the Reformation were about to overflow England and the king by his actions in the 1530's had unwillingly and unwittingly opened the dikes.

Even the reluctant Henry, at the end of his life, began to sense that the break with Rome could not be confined to merely institutional changes but necessarily brought in its train a whole new religious order. Before his death there was the nucleus of a Protestant party in the realm and under his successor the circumstances of a minority gave them the freest possible scope to realize their hopes. The resistance of the religious conservatives was no more effective now than in the thirties; the obstacles in the Protestants' path lay in their own uncertainties as to what new forms of worship should replace the now prohibited mass and on what doctrinal bases they should rest. The English Reformation threw up no Calvin or Knox to give focus or offer guidance to a new religion. When Edward's death in 1553 halted the development of English Protestantism in mid-career, there was little agreement among its adherents except in their wholehearted anti-Catholicism, i.e., their rejection of Rome's jurisdiction and of the Roman sacramental system. English Protestantism was not to find its focal point in a charismatic leader, in a confession of faith, or in a system of church government. Its own individual character had yet to crystallize.

But the problems raised by the second stage of the long crisis lay not solely in the choice of a new national form of Christianity; they had larger dimensions still. These middle decades of the sixteenth century saw a profound transformation in the whole nature of English politics. The previous century had been one of open and violent disorder, in which brute force was repeatedly the final arbiter in the national political life. The revulsion against those unhappy times was deep and long-lasting, and a vivid memory of the War of the Roses was an important element in Elizabethan attitudes. Monarchical leadership, more or less in abeyance since the fourteenth century, was reasserted with great vigor by the Yorkist and then by the Tudor kings. From the late 1490's down to the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-1537 England enjoyed a long generation of civil peace. The official political doctrine of the Tudors naturally reflected these facts. The old formulas of divine-right monarchy were given revived cogency even before their vigorous use in royal defiance of divine-right Papacy. The alternative tradition of English medieval political thought — that the king was subordinate to God and the law — receded into the background. Now it was the monarch's divine lieutenancy which was constantly being emphasized, in a simple and already rather archaic doctrine of right political order. This doctrine envisaged a ruler hallowed by divine sanction and sustained by the facts of nature and history alike, who displayed an authoritarian but paternal solicitude for his people and whose task was to insure their welfare and secure their best advantage. His subjects, on their side, had the simple obligation of unquestioning obedience to God's nominee.

Such a theory of right order sharply trammeled political activity. The ordinary competition for place or power was to be kept within limits laid down by the king; disagreement or criticism were by logic excluded. A ruler chosen from on high was supremely competent to make all decisions affecting his people and in such an organic view of society the notion of competing private or partisan thought or action was entirely abhorrent. Under the first two Tudors the theory and practice of politics were not far separated. These masterful kings monopolized to themselves all the great political decisions of the realm, leaving to their ministers — even a Wolsey or a Cromwell — the mere execution of royal commands. Seeking a maximum freedom of action, the first two Tudors had made royal service a career open to the talents and had recruited widely from the middle and upper middle ranks of society. However, they by no means excluded the greater aristocrats from their service and in their court there was a mingling of new aristocrats of the robe and old ones of the sword. But only a very few were admitted to assist in the highest mysteries of state — in the making of policy and the issuance of commands. To enter the royal service was to embrace the career of a bureaucrat not of a politician.

In this restricted political universe the course of the English Reformation produced explosive effects. First of all there was the irony of chance circumstance which, at the very crisis of religious revolution, placed on the throne first a child and then a woman of great personal courage but limited political acumen. Such circumstances would in any event have seriously disordered a political world so pivoted on the monarch, but these seasonal storms were warnings of long-term changes in the whole climate of English politics.

In the first and most obvious instance the Reformation altered English politics by fostering faction. Over the previous half-century the power of the monarchy had pretty effectively extinguished the dynastic or semi-feudal factionalisms of the past; now the realm was threatened by internal disunity of a more serious and far more dangerous kind. Even before the death of Henry the nuclei of two opposing religious parties were forming in the court, and in the years after 1547 England was governed successively by two rancorously partisan regimes, Protestant under Edward, and Catholic under Mary. Each of these sovereigns thus became the leader of a religious faction, and the Crown's neutrality towards the major religious issues of the Reformation, which Henry with some success had struggled to maintain, was irretrievably lost. Elizabeth was left with no choice but to assume a partisan position at her accession. The question now was whether or not the Catholic party, left leaderless by Mary's death, could recover itself for a return bout to recapture power. To contemporaries this seemed likely enough, and fear of this possibility haunted Elizabethan ministers in the first decade of the new reign; the Catholic political failure is one of the themes dealt with in this book.

The triumph of the Protestant faction settled, at least for the present, the religious complexion of the nation, but implicit in it was a series of alterations in the nature of English politics, novel, bewildering, and far-reaching. Even before Elizabeth's accession the intrusion of religious ideology into politics was introducing a perplexing confusion into the affairs of the English monarchy. In 1539 Parliament had, at Henry's irritable bidding, passed a bill hopefully entitled "An act abolishing diversity in opinions." It was an unavailing attempt to restore, under royal leadership, the kind of uniformity of faith which had hitherto been everywhere the norm of European life. But this particular Humpty Dumpty was not to be set up again in England although the efforts of all the king's horses and all the king's men would continue to be engaged at the task. More important still, royal control over the delicate process of religious change, so boldly assumed in the 1530's, was, after 1547, fatally loosened. Initiative towards change had now shifted to a group of subjects; henceforward there was to be a constant tug between a Crown desperately struggling to retain religious uniformity under royal auspices and a forward party of Protestants straining and pulling to reshape the national religion according to their own strongly held convictions.


Excerpted from The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime by Wallace T. MacCaffrey. Copyright © 1968 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Acknowledgments, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • Illustrations, pg. xi
  • Abbreviations, pg. xiii
  • I. Prologue to a Reign, pg. 3
  • II. The Making of a Government, pg. 22
  • III. The Opening Months, pg. 45
  • IV. The Shaping of The Regime, pg. 67
  • V. The Emergence of Dudley, pg. 93
  • VI. The Newhaven Adventure, pg. 117
  • VII. Succession and Marriage: The First Phase, pg. 145
  • VIII. Succession and Marriage: The Second Phase, pg. 178
  • IX. The Downfall Of Mary Stuart, pg. 216
  • X. Mary in England, pg. 247
  • XI. French Protestants And Spanish Gold, pg. 268
  • XII. The Norfolk Marriage, pg. 293
  • XIII. The Revolt Of The Earls, pg. 330
  • XIV. The Aftermath of The Storm, pg. 372
  • XV. The Ridolfi Plot, pg. 399
  • XVI. Conclusion, pg. 454
  • Index, pg. 489

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