THE BACKGROUND TO THE CIVIL WARS IN THE STUART KINGDOMS
JOHN KENYON WITH JANE OHLMEYER
By the end of the sixteenth century the English nobility had lost one of the main functions of an aristocracy, which was leadership in war, and in the classes below them knowledge of the art and practice of war had also suffered a decline. Noblemen like Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, habitually kept large retinues of liveried (uniformed) retainers, which they could readily mobilize for war, but Leicester's unhappy record in the Netherlands in the 1580s, and Essex's in Normandy and Ireland in the 1590s exposed their deficiencies. Conversely, as the seventeenth century dawned the English crown was defended by a force which the lowliest German margrave would have held derisory: the picturesque Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London, and a personal bodyguard of about forty gentlemen pensioners.
However, it is a truism that the English monarchy at this stage needed no stronger defences. Despite innovations in ship design and maritime weaponry, the Channel still posed an almost insuperable barrier. Internally, the governing classes were constrained by a national legal system which was usually accepted as equitable and just, strictly administered by the king. In parliament they also enjoyed a system of representation which allowed them to initiate changes in the law and monitor the government's execution of it. This gave them a grip on government finance, and increasingly the power to assess and criticize policy. In turn they kept a firm hold over the classes below them, that 'many-headed monster' with an enormous potentiality for unrest and revolt, which (it was thought) could only be held down in co-operation with the monarchy. This'powder keg' mentality reaffirmed the autocratic power of the crown, and the Church of England was preaching the Divine Right of Kings long before James VI and I set his seal on it. The king was the keystone in an arch of government which held together a rigid social system.