The History Woman's Blog

The ‘Monarchical Republic’ and its Critics

Posted in Early Modern, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 5, 2010

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). (more…)