The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII

By G. R. Elton | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER IV
PRIVY SEAL, SIGNET, AND SECRETARY

The financial administration supplies more, and more detailed, instances of the reforming activity of the early sixteenth century than does any other aspect of government. The story of the clerical organization of the seals is less plain; though the changes are in reality as marked, they are neither so easily seen nor so complete and indisputable when discovered. This word of warning is necessary; it does not, however, alter the fact that there is a story to tell. The clerical organization of the middle ages centred, as has been outlined, on the three seals and their keepers -- on great seal, privy seal, and signet, on chancellor, lord privy seal, and principal secretary. Of the three, the great seal was on the face of it the most important which alone could give the royal will the fullest expression; the privy seal acted as a sort of general clearing house, receiving orders from the king's officers and transmitting them for execution; the signet office with the king's secretary at its head did the most confidential work, being nearest to the king and entrusted with the writing of his letters. In actual fact, however, the great seal was by this time so firmly bound in routine and so securely wedded to its rules of warranty that it had no original force left outside matters of law; in the administration of England it was the least significant of the seals, though none the less, in its formal capacity, quite indispensable. The privy seal, on the other hand, was the true centre and mainspring of fifteenth-century government, even though it had long left the household and was therefore to suffer when the revival of active household government under Edward IV and Henry VII enlarged the sphere of the signet. This last seal was yet closely linked with the household, as was its keeper, the secretary, and as late as 1529 it could still seem that the normal medieval development might take place, producing yet another seal of state to take the place of the privy seal. Either that or a simple stagnation of things was to be expected during Wolsey's administration when the state of affairs produced by Edward IV and Henry VII was not sensibly changed.

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