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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (often mistakenly called the Kingdom of England) is the most well known monarchy in the world today. However, at one point, the monarch was not the figure head they are today; they actually held considerable power. How it survived its transition from a powerful monarch to figurehead will be examined in this section.

England is also one of those countries where the monarch has never held absolute power in the strictest sense. Although

at one time the monarch did wield considerable power, today the monarch takes on a symbolic role. In the days of the Anglos Saxon monarchies the Witan council also held considerable power and influence over the king. During the to times immediately after the Norman conquest the barons held a lot of power over the king and it was their pressure in 1215 that led King John (1199-1216) to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede which was a step in limiting the power of the crown. The English Parliament began taking shape in England during the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307). From Edward I’s reign onwards, the authority of the English Parliament would depend on the strength or weakness of the incumbent monarch.

After the One Hundred Years Wars and the Wars of the Roses the power of the monarch grew as the power of the nobility had been greatly diminished. It was during the reign of the Tudor monarchs that the personal power of the monarch reached its zenith. However, even then the monarch had to deal with Parliament which was also beginning of its birth pangs for political power. During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) many statesmen such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Richard Rich, and Thomas Cranmer all carried out their duties in the name of the king.

Often while these statesmen where hard at work the king was off engaged in pleasurable activities while keeping an eye on the government. Unlike today where government officials close to the king (what eventually was called his cabinet) are elected, in Tudor times they were appointed or dismissed at the will of the monarch demonstrating that is was the monarch who actually held the power. Very frequently if you fell out of favor with the king it often lead to not only a dismissal from your high office, it lead to a trial on the charges of treason and losing ones head was often the result. Cardinal Wolsey held so much power and money it was said to have rivaled the kings power and riches. But once the good Cardinal failed to secure the annulment for Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he was arrested and removed from office. The only thing that prevented Wolsey from losing his head was that he died before any trial establishing his guilt could be arranged. It was clear that Henry VIII was the one that wielded the power.

Edward VI (1547-1553) succeeded his father, Henry VIII, and since he was a minor he was under the supervision of regents who acted in his name. After a short 5 year reign Edward died and was succeeded by his sister Mary I (1553-1558). Mary’s short reign was occupied mostly with her desire to return England back from Protestantism to the Roman Catholic Church. She did have considerable power but was also under the influence of advisers. One notable example is in 1557 when her husband, King Felipe II of Spain, requested that Mary support Spain in a war against France. Mary was all for supporting her husband but her advisers were not so in this instance she listened to her advisers.

It is impossible to do the reign of Elizabeth I justice in this short piece. I will just say that Elizabeth was a shrewd and wise monarch. In many ways she mirrors today’s Constitutional monarchs in that she would not always divulge her opinions on the issues of the day. She lived her motto: “video et taceo” (“I see, and say nothing”). The reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) the last of the Tudor Dynasty was busy with problems both foreign and domestic and Elizabeth guided the ship of state by wisely listening and taking the advice of council although everyone in her council and Parliament knew that the decisions of state rested on her head.

Ironically, It was during the reign of the Tudor monarchs that the modern structure of the English Parliament began to be created. Even though the Tudor monarchy was powerful and there were often periods of several years time when parliament did not sit at all, the Tudor monarchs were wise enough to realize that they needed parliament to legitimize many of their decisions, mostly out of a need to raise money through taxation legitimately without causing discontent. Parliament held the purse strings and it was during the Tudor years that this leverage became important in the growing power of Parliament. In 1603 with the death of the childless Elizabeth I came the accession of her cousin, James VI, King of Scots as James I of England (1603-1625) of the House of Stuart. James was not used to dealing with a legislative body such as the English Parliament and in the reign of the Stuart Dynasty we will see the battle between Crown and Parliament and whether or not the monarch can adapt to the changing political structure of the kingdom.

Next week: The Stuarts.

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