Governing by Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England

By Almasy, Rudolph P. | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Governing by Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England


Almasy, Rudolph P., Anglican and Episcopal History


Governing by Virtue: Lord Burghley and the Management of Elizabethan England. By Norman Jones. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, Pp. 256. $99.00, doth.)

If one is looking for a fascinating, well-organized, and highly readable description of how England was governed during Queen Elizabeth Es more than 40 year reign, Norman Jones' Governing by Virtue is the study to take in hand. The book, however, is not about Elizabeth's reign, her powers, and her policies. Rather, as the subtitle has it, this is a description of how Elizabeth's chief minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, managed just about everything for the central government. That is, the study shows how the Elizabethan state got things done-like collecting revenues, administering justice, preparing for war, and running a state church. And much of this work, which took place through an unwieldy system, was complicated and unpredictable since Burghley dealt with a spectrum of personalities with no state bureaucracy (nor bureaucrats) to rely on. What he had was the local, and here Jones does an outstanding job in describing how Burghley was able to utilize local people of power and means, nobles and gentry, bishops and lawyers, to implement national policies. The reader sees these "interlocking chains of local and regional authorities that tangled and crossed all the way up to the royal court" (76) in chapters that cover managing the Elizabethan hierarchy, propaganda, money, war, and the protestant state.

Lord Burghley was at the center of it all, first as Principal Secretary of Elizabeth's Privy Council and then as Lord Treasurer. Almost on a daily basis, he was managing the government, and managing quite successfully despite a number of challenges which Jones lucidly identifies. These challenges arose because England was not at this time a modern state and so there was not much of a central government to get things accomplished. Much of what happened was informal. What worked was trust, tradition, goodwill, honor, as well as negotiation and coercion, by individuals in London and throughout the country who cooperated through mutual self-interest. Burghley was the one who figured out how to manage conflict and get the local to cooperate with London. He also tried to make sure that justices of the peace, those local key administrators, shared his values. As Burghley attended to local needs and was expert in working the system, Jones argues that many solutions to national problems came from "below" rather than from above. Burghley understood and respected this dynamic.

But one of the powerful people Burghley had to deal with was Elizabeth the Queen, and Jones does a commendable job is showing how Burghley managed the conservative and strongwilled Queen. That Elizabeth's reign was by and large reasonably stable is a credit to this extraordinary civil servant and his relationships with various members of the Privy Council. Burghley fully believed that God was best served by serving and protecting Elizabeth. And he was genuinely interested in serving both. Although this study is the story of Burghley's work, it is not a biography. Rather it is a discussion (and this is one of Jones' contributions to Elizabethan history) of the values Burghley brought to the task and how he got things done by joining with those at the local and regional levels who shared, with Burghley, a humanist sense of the need to work for the good of the commonwealth. And here is where Burghley's genius is seen: by keeping track of everything and everyone (so it seems) he was able to persuade or reward or coerce or negotiate or bargain with those he needed in order to implement broad national goals. …

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