Local government in Tudor England


  • For the purposes of this paper, the focus of local government in Tudor England can be said to be the Justice of the Peace [JP].
  • JP role had existed since C14th, but Tudors completely transformed it by adding powers and responsibilities
    • Tudors more than doubled number of their responsibilities between 1500 and 1600 by passing new laws
    • By 1600 expected to enforce 300 statutes, including …
      • Assessing collection of subsidies
      • Fixing the price of grain in time of famine
      • Collecting fines from Catholics
    • Heard all but the most serious civil and criminal cases – those were tried by “circuit” (travelling) judges sent from London
    • Effectively replace the sheriff – a role filled by a noble that had become ceremonial by the end of the century
    • They had no direct coercive power – ie no police force – so they rapidly become ineffective in time of rebellion
    • They were unpaid throughout, apart from a small amount of expenses
    • Although appointed centrally, about 50% passed the job of JP on to their sons

Under Henry VII

  • Mostly appointed from gentry class
    • However most senior in each county is usually a bishop
    • Required to have annual incomes of at least £20
  • Fivefold increase in numbers.
    • Fewer than 10 per county on average in 1485
    • More than 50 per county on average in 1509
  • Appointments lasted only for one year, so it was easy for the crown to replace poor or recalcitrant ones
  • From 1495, JPs were given more power to help them control local areas –could hear any case, except ones involving the death penalty, without a jury

Under Henry VIII

  • There were now 2,200 in England of which almost 90% were gentry – it was a source of social standing for them.
  • Became increasingly responsible for policing behaviour and morals
    • From loyalty to crown to homosexuality
  • Lord Lieutenants created in wake of 1549 rebellion to become supervisors of JPs, giving government better control of them
  • Wolsey uses JPs to gain better control of the north. He deliberately appoints non locals to northern posts from 1513
  • JPs fail to deal with disorder in relation to Amicable Grant – Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk have to deal with the rebellion
  • About 1/3 of JPs in the areas affected by Pilgrimage of Grace were replaced

Under Edward VI

  • JPs in Devon and Cornwall do provide early warning of trouble
    • Heard reports of discontent about sheep poll tax, rumours that pigs and geese would also be taxed, and wrote requesting postponement of poll tax on sheep
  • However they do not have enough backing from central government – hence fail to carry out orders to deal with Western Rebellion; they were unable to prevent rebels from assembling or arming themselves

Under Mary

  • A number of Protestant JPs were replaced by Catholics
  • The county militia is reformed. Theoretically every man aged 16-60 capable of bearing arms is required to report in time of crisis, but this had never worked well
    • Mary requires more regular drills
    • Larger contributions from wealthier citizens
    • However, all men still provide their own weapons – most common is the billhook (agricultural hedging tool – below)

      A billhook yesterday

      A billhook yesterday

Under Elizabeth

  • 1559 Act of Uniformity imposes annual 1 shilling fine on Catholics, to be collected by JPs
    • Permission for Catholics to travel more than 5 miles from home also has to be sought from JPs
  • Elizabeth reverses Mary’s policy and removes Catholic JPs
    • Eg 7 replaced in Hampshire after investigation by local bishop
    • Statute of 1563 requires all JPs to confirm they accepted the liturgy of the Church of England
  • Militia reforms discovered to be ineffective – they are not useful in Northern Rebellion of 1569
    • 1572 Militia Act – 10% of eligible men now made to train 10 days a year, and paid 8 pence a day for attendance – more would be too expensive
    • Equipment to be supplied by the county
    • Cost – £40 per year per county
    • Force of 26,000 is thus available by time of Armada and these could also be used to suppress riots and rebellion
  • There are now 1,500 JPs; they remain sufficiently independent to face down royalty
    • Elizabeth demanded funding for 10 ships from London in 1596 – she backed down after furious protests from JPs
  • JPs more influential in this reign – Elizabeth thinks lord lieutenants are unnecessary and expensive, so they are only appointed temporarily in times of crisis
    • Eg 1569 during Northern Rebellion

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