The ‘Monarchical Republic’ and its Critics

Patrick Collinson first set out his idea of ‘The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I’ in a journal article in 1987. In this article he emphasised in particular two ways in which Elizabethan subjects conceived themselves as ‘citizens’ and displayed considerable self-governing capacities. First, there were Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors at the centre, who were hatching plans for a possible Interregnum in the case of the Queen’s sudden death. And secondly, there were the ‘chief inhabitants’ of localities such as Swallowfield, who made arrangements to govern themselves at their parish meeting because their governors were so ‘far off’. The first group was motivated by humanist ideals of the vita activa and counsel to the prince, the second group by a native English sense of independence as well as a Puritan concern for the community.

Some twenty years after Collinson’s seminal article, John F. McDiarmid has gathered a number of responses to his thesis of the ‘monarchical republic’ in a small volume of extremely useful and refreshingly short essays. None of them exceeds 20 pages, and most of them are immensely clear and readable.  As with the majority of volumes produced ‘in honour’ or ‘in response’ to an eminent historian, the essays treat Collinson’s ideas with great respect, and most of them show further examples or new aspects of the ‘monarchical republic’ in action.

Dale Hoak, for instance, argues that the monarchical republic of Queen Elizabeth actually had its origins in the earlier reign of Edward VI, when courtiers like Sir William Cecil and Sir Thomas Smith realised that the monarchy depended on the support of Parliament and the people. In particular, parliamentary backing was necessary for ‘a royal Reformation’ (54). The volume editor John F. McDiarmid similarly stresses the link between the leading thinkers and statesmen of the Edwardian and Elizabethan ages. He claims that these ‘Edwardo-Elizabethans’ (55), in particular Thomas Smith and his Cambridge circles, were ‘significantly informed by classical republican thought, especially Cicero’ (56), and that there was a clear ‘link between language and the polity in the Ciceronian tradition’ (59). Both, he argues, arose from the people and depended on their consent, and both language and the res publica were ‘the work of a community’ (59). However, as different communities spoke different languages, so different communities had different political structures. And these structures, like languages, were open to change and shaped by the community itself (60).

Stephen Alford meanwhile explores the paradox at the heart of William Cecil’s political creed that ‘government was too important to be left to kings and queens’. Though a ‘loyal servant of the crown’ on the one hand he also was ‘a republican’ whose ‘counsel and humble service’ at times might have sounded ‘too much like instruction’ (75) to a wilful Queen. Alford believes that Cecil was a ‘tough and clever politician driven by the “true religion” to fight Antichrist at home and abroad’ (76), and that his concerns with religion, security and the survival of the Tudor line often saw him at loggerheads with Elizabeth as the tried to make her do things she did not want to do. Elizabeth did not like this kind of interference from her counsellors, in particular with regard to her succession, and Cecil as an Edwardian, used to a king who responded well to counsel, was repeatedly disappointed by her stubbornness.

Scott Lucas engages with the sense in which magistrates might have felt a duty to resist this monarchical stubbornness. He argues that resistance theory was a key feature not just of Marian but also of Elizabethan political thought. Giving examples from the Mirror for Magistrates, Lucas shows that senior office-holders were not only allowed to disobey the monarch’s commands if they were against the will of God, it even was their duty to resist.

Andrew Hadfield similarly shows Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, as ‘a shrewd intervention into a political culture’. He argues that Shakespeare and his co-authors realized that they had chosen a theme ‘of great dramatic, topical and political significance’ because the plays dealt with ‘the disintegration of a political nation’ (149). According to Hadfield, they served ‘as a clear warning that the twin problems of autocratic rule and a contested succession invariably lead to civil war’, and the theatre was ‘ready to exploit’ this ‘potent topical charge’ (149/150). Or, as he puts it: ‘There was neat – albeit frightening – symmetry in staging plays which recounted the bloody origins of the dynasty that was just about to end.’ (163)

Richard Cust focuses on another side of the ‘monarchical republic’ by exploring the ‘the ideals of the numerous “gentry republics” and parish meetings of the day in which systems of self-government were devised and acted on by groups of men who acknowledged each other as virtuous citizens.’ (182) Using the example of the magistrate Sir John Newdigate, Cust demonstrates how the ‘core values’ of the monarchical republic were ‘formed and transmitted at the level of the provincial magistracy’ (183). These values, Cust argues were derived from classical authors such as Plutarch, Sallust and Cicero came to be absorbed and assimilated by the English gentry. Following Kevin Sharpe, Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, Cust shows how men like Newdigate studied their classics for very practical, utilitarian purposes and often maintained a life-long regime of continuous self-education. This education translated into political action when magistrates had to stand up to their monarchs to remind them of the limits of royal authority, or bring their grievances into Parliament. In any case, political loyalty to the monarchy was never unquestioning.

Andrew Fitzmaurice considers how the ‘monarchical republic’ of England and its ideals of virtue and the common good were transplanted to the American colonies. That such a concept as the ‘monarchical republic’ existed, however, only became apparent through its failure as the new communities on the other side of the Atlantic ignored ‘the laws and customs of England’ (220). Although civic values seemed to have broken down on many occasions, republican language was still used as the problems were articulated in the idiom of ‘corruption’ (222). The governors were corrupt, but ‘they nevertheless held office, they participated in a monarchical republic, albeit one that resembled the court of Tiberius, not a republic of virtue.’ In this way, Fitzmaurice argues, ‘the monarchical republic in America was distinguished by the degree to which it departed from civic ideals.’  (230)

Quentin Skinner, meanwhile, praises the ultimate success of the ‘monarchical republic’ in England in the Glorious Revolution. While some republicans might have wanted to set up such a state in 1642, he argues, this aim could not be achieved under Charles I. The events of 1688/9, however, paved the way for a constitutional arrangement that would eventually reconcile the political nation. While Skinner depicts the ‘enthronement’ of the ‘monarchical republic’ as the end point of a long journey towards constitutional government, however, he conveniently forgets to mention that many of his ‘neo-Roman’ authors still saw the 1689 settlement as unsatisfactory and pleaded for further change, and that the ‘real’ republicans continued their fight against the encroachments of the government on the liberties of the people.

Fewer essays in the volume, and they are probably the more remarkable and productive ones, are openly critical of some aspects of the ‘monarchical republic’. Ethan H. Shagan, for instance, reminds the reader that Collinson was actually talking about two very different types of ‘monarchical republic’ in Elizabethan England: first, the humanist republic of public-minded Privy Councillors, and secondly, the republic of ordinary people characterised by ‘participatory local self-government’ (19). These two ‘monarchical republics’, Shagan points out, did not necessarily ‘converge’ (22). In fact, the two concepts were in conflict with each other as humanist government reform from the centre depended on the destruction of the federalist system of local republics. Or, as Shagan puts it, ‘while humanist civic reformers may have understood the need to work through local government to implement their agendas, they believed that their agendas could not be implemented without the reform of local government.’ (26)

Markku Peltonen ‘examines the centrality of eloquence in the Elizabethan notion of citizenship’ and questions how inclusive Collinson’s monarchical republic would have been. While it was ‘was widely agreed that rhetoric was central to active citizenship’ (110), it was contested how inclusive citizenship should be and how far it should descend down the social scale. Some wanted to extend it to a large body of the people, others wanted to confine it to ‘a more exclusive body of councillors and nobles’ (111). Because eloquence was seen as a means to power, many aristocrats wanted to see it restricted to the better sort and thus also restrict power to their own elites.

Peter Lake emphasises the religious angle of the monarchical republic. He argues that the Puritans in particular were a strong pillar of this self-governing polity. Their envisaged church structure was democratic and in conflict with Elizabeth’s wishes. However, the fate of the Puritans under Elizabeth also shows the limits of the ‘monarchical republic’, because the queen in the end asserted herself over her Puritan subjects, rejecting their self-governing ideals. Lake illustrates the limits of the ‘monarchical republic’ with the example of Archbishop Grindal who promoted prophesyings, but who was then replaced by Elizabeth with more traditional candidates. As Lake puts it, ‘one reason why we should not, and contemporaries could not, regard Elizabethan England as, in any unproblematic or straightforward sense, a “monarchical republic” was because the Queen herself, and an emergent body of (anti-Puritan) theorists and polemicists, did not think that it was such a polity and, on a series of crucial issues, refused to act or to talk as though it were.’ (145)

Anne McLaren argues that the ‘monarchical republic’ came to light whenever the people of England felt threatened by popery or absolute monarchy.  Therefore, the ‘monarchical republic’ did not die with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had caused an Exclusion Crisis under Elizabeth, but remained dormant until conflicts such as the English Civil Wars or the Exclusion Crisis brought it back to light, and it finally showed its face for the last time in 1689. However, McLaren also emphasises how the Stuart kings in particular contested the concept of the ‘monarchical republic’. Using examples from a tract by the Scottish lawyer and jurist Sir Thomas Craig on The Right of Succession to the Kingdom of England, written around the turn of the C17th, she shows how supporters of James I emphasised his natural right to the throne at a point when his chances of succession ‘appeared to be rapidly receding.’ (170) Craig argued that monarchy was ‘the most Ancient, and the Best of all Governments’, that it was instituted by God in conformity with the law of nature, and that it was hereditary, not elective (171). Therefore Englishmen should not embark on republican experiments.

With Johann P. Sommerville another early Stuart scholar seems to think that some of Collinson’s followers have taken his concept of the ‘monarchical republic’ and the presence of quasi-republican ideas before 1642 too far. He thinks that the concept originally referred to the relationship between centre and locality as well as to emergency measures. To him ‘the sense in which England was a monarchical republic was that sovereign power was held by the monarch, while in day-to-day administration there was a large degree of local autonomy, often involving people of quite humble social station.’ (210) Many of the concepts understood as republican by Collinson’s followers, however, were in fact ‘commonplace’ (virtue, the rule of law), while the defence of English liberties was usually put in common law terms, not in ‘neo-Roman’ language. Some of the ideas ascribed to the monarchical republicans, such as the care for the common good and the principle of virtue in action, had ‘nothing particularly republican about them’, Sommerville argues, but were used widely across the political spectrum (203). However, there is at least one point in which Sommerville is wrong. When he argues that the principle of “salus populi suprema lex” (the well-being of the people is the highest priority) was used by royalists/ absolutists and republicans alike, he ignores the fact that it meant different things to different people. He rightly states that the royalist Sir Robert Berkeley meant the concept ‘was intended to justify a discretionary, emergency power which in normal circumstances would have been invalid.’ However, republicans might have interpreted the “well-being of the people” in quite a different way, as an argument for popular sovereignty (204).

Nevertheless, despite valid criticism of Collinson’s thesis, it is still worthwhile thinking about the subject-citizens of old that negotiated their own way around the powers that be. As McDiarmid rightly observes, the current boom in the study of republicanism is in part due to contemporary concerns ‘in Europe, the United States and elsewhere … with the questions about self-governing, liberties and the political involvement of citizens that historians of the early modern era are asking’. We should definitively keep up this dialogue between past and present.

Finally, it might have been useful – for students who are new to the subject – to include Collinson’s original essay in the volume. However, McDiarmid’s useful introduction and Collinson’s synthesizing afterword compensate for that. The book is clearly worth a read.

John F. McDiarmid (ed.), The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. Really useful article: nice neat summaries of the arguments of the contributors. However, do you know where I could access the original Patrick Collinson 1987 article?

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