The Reformation and the Towns in England: Politics and Political Culture, c. 1540-1640

By Robert Tittler | Go to book overview

10
Oligarchic Rule

i

Now that we understand something about the origins and development of oligarchic tendencies in urban government in the context of the time, we must step back and examine their implications, both for local government as a whole and for the specific offices therein. Thus far oligarchy, at least in the benign, contemporary sense of 'rule by the few', has been presented as an increasingly characteristic governing format, especially in the middling and larger towns, between the Dissolutions and the Civil War. Yet the oligarchic ethos consists of more than a tendency towards a rule by the few. Without wishing to press the argument to the point of anachronism in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it implies a more regular, bureaucratic, and impersonal form of governance which smacks of something more modern and, to our eyes, more familiar. In the effort to observe these characteristics as salient features of this era, we need to examine this more closely. We must ask about the practical implications of oligarchic rule, and of the prevalent ethos of which it formed a part. What additional characteristics of government and administration may we associate with it and, thus, with the era at hand? In what ways does it depart from prevalent characteristics of earlier times?

Answers to these questions coalesce around two themes which will form the heart of this chapter. The first is the notion that the forms, procedures, and mechanisms of administration came now to be more formalized and standardized. This is especially clear in the way in which administrative activities and decisions came to be better supported by record-keeping than ever before. The second is the point that the offices of local government proliferated in number and (in some cases) grew in both stature and authority. This proliferation appears particularly in the low and middle ranking offices which remained accessible to a relatively wide spectrum of the free-

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