In December 1586 a group of justices of the peace met in 'conference" at Maidstone to discuss recent letters from the Privy Council. The harvest had failed and the Council had written ordering searches of barns, provisioning of markets, and the setting of 'reasonable' prices for grain. One of the magistrates, William Lambarde, said afterwards that he had spelt out what was in all their minds: these were 'commandments proceeding from absolute authority'. He did not say they were improper. The word for that would have been 'arbitrary'. But Lambarde was in no doubt that naked exercises of executive authority-which is what he meant by 'absolute' -- were unpopular: there was 'nothing more hardly digested by the common man', and nothing less likely to be 'earnestly attempted' or 'willingly obeyed'. 'To say the truth,' he wrote to the local power-broker and Privy Councillor, Lord Cobham, 'I wish that absolute power should not be extended where ordinary laws may effect our desires.'1
Over the next fifty years, however, absolute power was more and more extended, and put to a variety of uses for the public welfare. By 1609 the Council could write to sheriffs and justices pointing out 'how great a portion of power and government' was left to their care, not only in enforcing ordinary laws but in executing 'extraordinary directions derived from the prerogative power of his Majesty by proclamations, letters and commissions', all 'much importing the common weal of this kingdom'. According to a proclamation of the same year, James I had learnt from observing other Christian princes 'how far the absoluteness of sovereign power extendeth itself'.2 Here was another reforming drive, and one with considerable potential. If its policies had had the coherence and conviction of those of godly magistrates, the Crown might have put forward a distinct strategy for social reform; and if it had had real power, it might have implemented it.
Simply to present these conditions is, of course, to suggest that neither____________________