Power & Government
William and Robert Cecil
The Privy Council was responsible for the general administration of the country. Who was on the Council depended on who
Elizabeth wanted on it, but as some of the nobles of her realm had a lot of money and influence in the places that they lived,
Elizabeth had to make sure that the most powerful men in her country had their interests represented. If she did not, they could
rebel against her. In the reign of Queen Mary, the Council had been rather large, but Elizabeth did not want this,
believing that too many people with different ideas would only cause more problems than solve them. Her first Council only
had nineteen members, compared to about fifty members under her predecessor, and by her death in 1603, this had been reduced to thirteen.
The Privy Councillors were involved in an array of governmental areas, including religion, military matters, the Queen's security, economics, and the welfare of the people. They could be called on to deal with matters of national interest, and also, surprisingly, very mundane issues that effected individuals rather than the country. The Council issued proclamations in the Queen's name, and supervised the enforcement of statutes. One of the Council's principal roles was to advise Elizabeth when she needed advice. The Councillors did not always agree on matters, however, and Elizabeth would have to listen to all sides of the argument, and then make up her own mind what to do. This increased her power to a degree, as it meant that she was never faced with a united Privy Council. If, for example, the Privy Council had agreed upon a husband for her, it would have been rather difficult and awkward for Elizabeth to disagree with them. They were all agreed that she should marry, but could not decide who she should marry.
In the early years of the reign, the Council met only three times a week, but by the end of the reign, it was meeting almost everyday. The Council did not do all the work themselves, however, but delegated a lot of it to secretaries. William Cecil, who as Secretary of State was effectively head of the Council, had his own personal secretaries, and his son, Robert Cecil, who became Secretary of State late in the Queen's reign, had four secretaries helping him with his duties. The Secretary of State was effectively Elizabeth's personal secretary, and a very influential man. William Cecil is the most famous of the Queen's Secretaries of State, and his great administrative ability has earned him the reputation of one of the greatest statesmen in history. He was wise and cautious, and worked well with Elizabeth. She trusted him above all men, and he was her chief advisor until he died in 1598. So well did they work together that some historians have debated whether the success of the Elizabethan regime was due to Elizabeth herself, or whether it was down to Cecil.
The role of the Secretary of State was mainly to advise the Queen, oversee the preservation of law and order, defend the realm against plots, and general security. Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil's successor, and mastermind of the great Elizabethan spy network, began as William Cecil's servant in 1568, and was responsible for giving him information on spies in London. In 1570 he was nominated ambassador to France. In 1573 he was recalled and made secretary. He was a gifted, able man, and his spy-network defended Elizabeth against foreign powers. Once he had 53 agents in foreign courts and 18 other spies. The practical defence of the country, however, was done by the Army and the Navy.