October 2012 workshop

The Politics of Counsel and Council in Britain, c.1400-1700

Report on a workshop held at the University of St Andrews on Saturday 27th October 2012


The Institute of Scottish Historical Research hosted this one day workshop, bringing together postgraduate and established scholars from a dozen universities across Britain, aiming to build bridges between both late medieval and early modern history, and research on England and Scotland.  Organised by four colleagues at St Andrews (Wayne Cuthbertson, Claire Hawes, Roger Mason, and Jacqueline Rose), the workshop highlighted the elusive yet ubiquitous role of counsel and councils in Britain between 1400 and 1700.  Participants discussed the blurred boundaries between counsel, petitioning, and lobbying, and considered counsel to and from various groups.  Papers also crossed the border between study of political languages/ideas and close archival work – one important recurring theme was the problems thrown up by the nature of the records: the need to draw reasonable conjectures where records are lacking, multiple versions of records on councils, and the gap between the theory of counsel and its practice.  Comparing different groups giving counsel also suggested the different contexts in which it developed – in political crises or ‘normal’ circumstances, and the importance (or not) which individuals attributed to counsel in politics.

John Watts (Corpus Christi, Oxford) began proceedings by dissecting ‘the mystery of Edward IV’s council’, asking whether a body called a council existed and elegantly demonstrating how the nature of record keeping has obscured this body’s role.  He showed the growing formality of this body towards the end of Edward’s reign, influenced by a number of developments in the personnel and business of government; and considered what sort of wider story it could be fitted into.  Claire Hawes (St Andrews) continued the combination of detailed archival study with attention to political language in her account of counsel in the Aberdeen burgh records of the mid fifteenth century.  Claire analysed the multiple meanings of certain terms (e.g. consent, community, common profit, common good) and their employment by the burgh and (occasionally) the king, also touching on the ritual enactment of community consent and counsel.

The workshop then moved to consider Elizabethan counsel, through papers by Joanne Paul (Queen Mary University of London) on ‘Machiavellians, monarchs, and counsel in the late Tudor period’ and Stephen Alford (Leeds) on ‘Counsel and compulsion in early Elizabethan politics’.  Joanne tracked the way in which ‘policy’ appeared in works on counsel, something utile rather than honestum.  She argued this theme shows an awareness of Machiavelli’s refutation of humanist models of counsel in the Prince.  Her paper was complemented by Stephen’s re-examination of the way in which Elizabeth’s advisors had to negotiate ‘that difficult no-man’s land between counsel and compulsion’ given their Queen’s ‘creative inertia’.  Discussion after this revealed the difficulty of even knowing what oath privy councillors swore and who tendered it to them.

Three papers then considered counsel in Scottish politics.  Amy Blakeway (Homerton, Cambridge) discussed ‘Counsel and political conflict in 1540s Scotland’, examining various plans for councils to aid the Governor Earl of Arran.  Her account brought to the fore the need to return to the original records to uncover the chronology and development of council meetings and attendees, and exposed the problems of enforcing attendance at councils.  Alan MacDonald (Dundee) offered a subtle account of the ‘depersonalisation of the Scottish monarchy’ with the union of the crowns in 1603.  Bringing counsel and consultation back into analysis of the impact of absentee monarchy, he highlighted the loss of the ‘almost obsessively consultative’ style of pre-union government as landed, ecclesiastical and burgh contact with the king changed.  Finally, Adrienne Miller (Edinburgh) spoke on ’The marquis of Hamilton, the earl of Menteith, and the question of proximity in Charles I’s conciliar relationships’.  She compared the careers of two of Charles I’s Scottish counsellors: Hamilton and Menteith, to demonstrate how, when both were accused of treason, Hamilton survived whilst Menteith declined due to the way in which different strategies of counsel shaped their different contacts with Charles.

This event was first of several on the subject of counsel.  For more information or to express an interest in involvement, contact Dr Jacqueline Rose (jer9@st-andrews.ac.uk).


All ijmages reproduced by kind permission of Special Collections, University of St Andrews.

Top right: Johannes Ferrarius, Touchyng the good ordering of a commonweale (1559)

Centre left: title page of 1602 translation of Innocent Gentillet’s attack on Machiavelli’s Prince

Bottom right:James VI presents his Basilikon Doron as an ‘impartiall counsellor’ for his heir.