Thursday, January 29, 2009

Question from Tom - Location for daily business of the realm


I am writing a novel of historical fiction about Elizabeth I, Walsingham and the Tudor period. We know that the queen owned and lived in several castles, but where was most of the "business of the kingdom" conducted.

Today, we have specific locations such as the West Wing of the White House, where the American president conducts the actual management of the country, or Whitehall in England where the modern prime minister performs similar tasks.

Where would the queen's ministers such as secretary of state Walsingham and other members of the Privy council write orders, hold meetings, etc. Was it several places, or one did one location contain most of the meetings?

This is very hard to determine from most historical references. Since the queen was the official head of state, wherever the royal person was, so was the government. But the "business end" of the government had to be conducted somewhere, and these seems hard to determine. The home offices of individual ministers is also known, but where did they usually meet in the late sixteenth century?

Thanks,

Tom Rodgers



3 Comments:

Blogger kb said...

Hi Tom,

The short answer is that the business of the kingdom was done wherever and whenever it seemed convenient. This will provide you with lots of flexibility.

There are several details and references I can point you towards if you like. For example, in one letter from Thomas Kitson to Gilbert Talbot (1590 - so after Walsingham's death) he says he delivered 'your letter as soon as ever my Lord's chamber door was opened, which, when he had read it he presently sent for Mrs. Cecil and by her did presently advertise her Majesty.' (Talbot, Dudley, Devereux Papers, p. 102) Essentially Cecil is in bed when he recieves the letter, sends for his wife who reads the letter and then sends his wife to the queen to brief her.

There was quite a bit of business conducted in houses of the various ministers as you noted. The privy council generally met in a room near the queen's chambers, sometimes in a room adjoining her privy chamber. David Starkey has argued that under Henry VIII the privy council was an outgrowth of those men who surrounded Henry in his privy chamber and originally met within the privy chamber, hence the moniker privy council. You might want to take a look at Starkey's "The English Court from the War of the Roses to the Civil War". In describing the spatial relationship at Whitehall he says on p. 17
'The doors of the Council Chamber and the Bedchamber were thus separated by only the few yards of the width of the gallery.' Elizabeth maintained this general arrangement.

HOWEVER, I STRONGLY caution you regarding the essay in the same volume about Elizabeth written by Pam Wright 'A Change of Direction'. It is contradictory and in some places, just plain wrong.

As you may know, much of the records of the Privy Council from Elizabeth's reign are missing. This will also serve you well as a fiction writer. In the main though, whichever councillors were close at hand would meet in a nearby room. Don't forget that furniture was moved around a great deal and 'desks' were essentially portable boxes with a slanted writing surface on top. Secretaries could carry them from room to room or on progress without too much trouble.

There were several instances where the women of the privy chamber were better informed than Walsingham which made his job harder. As he was trying to brief Elizabeth on Anglo-Scottish relations in 1581, the women had already informed Elizabeth in more detail than he had wanted to tell her. This happened again in 1582 when he was trying to get Elizabeth to support William of Orange because he was godly and the women of the chamber contradicted Walsingham in front of the queen by pointing out he had illegitimate children. This undercut his authority with the queen somewhat.

Walsingham was also related to Sir Francis Knollys and therefore had an extensive kinship network at court. If you would like to discuss this further, please ask Lara to give you my email address.

January 29, 2009 4:53 PM  
Blogger Foose said...

Just as a side note, I picked up an interesting tidbit in my recent reading -- that from the 1540s (at least) onward, the sovereign (or even just the princesses, as there are records of Mary and Elizabeth, pre-accession, doing just this) -- receiving as a matter of routine ambassadors or envoys in their own bedrooms. I don't know if actual government business was ever conducted there, I'll do some more investigation, but apparently no one on either side had any problems with being in a royal lady's bedroom, with her gigantic bed (the most important piece of furniture, often) looming in the background. Of course there were ladies in waiting and courtiers as well, but it strikes the modern mind as a bit odd since our bedrooms are fairly intimate and private (and in my case, embarrassingly untidy) spaces.

Receiving these envoys in the bedroom was a sign of favor, but not really an "exclusive" privilege since the queens were generally inclined to be favorable to all diplomatic representatives as a rule (presents, flowery speeches, etc.).

But in these cases the queen was prepared to receive. Contrast this to the incident where Essex burst into Elizabeth's chamber while she was unprepared, apparently being still dressed by her maids.

February 02, 2009 2:29 PM  
Blogger kb said...

Royal bedrooms were very social places.

I know that ministers entered Elizabeth's bed chamber frequently to discuss business. However, I don't know of any references of, say, the privy council meeting in her bedroom. I imagine that there were never more than a couple ministers at a time in the bed chamber.

February 02, 2009 7:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home