Government of Elizabeth

It has already been seen that the liberties of the people were much favored by the frequent interruptions in the succession to the crown. Whenever one branch of the Plantagenet family displaced another, the new king, feeling himself weak, endeavored to strengthen his title by procuring a parliamentary enactment in support of it. It thus became established as a regular principle in the English government, that the people who were represented in parliament had something to say in the appointment of their king. A considerable change, however, had taken place since the accession of Henry VII. The great power acquired by that king, through his worldly wisdom and the destruction of the nobility during the civil wars, had been handed down through four successive princes, who inherited the crown by birthright, and did not require to cringe to the people for a confirmation of their title. The parliaments, therefore, were now a great deal more under the control of the sovereign than they had formerly been. From an early period of his reign, Henry VIII never permitted his parliament to oppose his will in the least. To the various changes of religion under successive sovereigns, the parliaments presented no obstacle. An idea was now beginning to arise, very much through the supremacy which the sovereigns had acquired over the church, that the right of the crown was one derived from God, and that the people had nothing to do with it, except to obey what it dictated to them. Of this notion, no one took so much advantage, or was at so much pains to impress it, as Elizabeth. No doubt her arbitrary measures were generally of a popular nature, yet this does not excuse them in principle; and their ultimate mischief is seen in the attempts of future sovereigns to pursue worse ends upon the same means. Elizabeth's government consisted entirely of herself and her ministers, who were, from the beginning to the end of her reign, the very spirit and essence of the enlightened men of England. Her prime minister was the celebrated Lord Burleigh, by far the most sagacious man who ever acted as a minister in Britain; and all her emissaries to foreign courts were of one complexion circumspect and penetrating men, ardently devoted to their country, their mistress, and to the Protestant religion.

On the accession of Elizabeth, the two celebrated acts of Supremacy and Conformity were passed, for the purpose of crushing the political influence of the Popish religion; an end which they sufficiently accomplished. By the act of supremacy, all beneficed clergymen, and all holding offices under the crown, were compelled to take an oath adjuring the temporal and spiritual jurisdiction of any foreign prince or prelate, on pain of forfeiting their offices, while any one maintaining such supremacy was liable to heavy penalties. The other statute prohibited any one from following any clergyman who was not of the established religion, under pain of forfeiting his goods and chattels for the first offense, of a year's imprisonment for the second, and of imprisonment during life for the third; while it imposed a fine of a shilling on any one absenting himself from the established church on Sundays and holidays. By means of a court of ecclesiastical commission, which the queen erected, these laws, and others of a more trifling and vexatious nature, were enforced with great severity. It may afford some idea of the barbarity of the age, and of the terror in which the church of Rome was now held, that, during the reign of Elizabeth, one hundred and eighty persons suffered death by the laws affecting Catholic priests and converts.