Internet Shakespeare Editions


Officers of the Court

From the Roxburghe Ballads.
University of Victoria Library.

To be a Gentleman Sewer of the Bedchamber* might sound more like an insult than a prize appointment, but to serve ("sewer" = "server") the Queen gave immense--and saleable--prestige.

Elizabeth was notoriously parsimonious, so government officials were either unpaid or received inadequate fees. Thus the administration depended largely upon perquisites inherent in all offices--that is, the ability to sell patronage to those seeking advancement or favour.

The Queen had enormous powers of patronage. She commanded appointments to the most lucrative positions in the government; she could confer offices and titles, distribute royal lands, sell licences and business monopolies, and grant pensions to particular favourites. Click here for more on court finances*.

Healthy competition?

Factions (teams?) of high officials, suitors, and courtiers competed at Court for influence over the monarch; balancing of factions became essential to political stability, since competition among throngs of suitors increased royal prestige, whereas control by a single faction would create enmity among those barred from patronage. Elizabeth skillfully maintained a creative balance of the various factions until late in her reign, when the ambitions of Essex forced her to concentrate her favour upon his rivals.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was the Queen's most trusted advisor because he was least susceptible to bribes; like others, he accepted "gratuities" from those seeking favour, but not from those whose advancement would be detrimental to government policy. His son Robert Cecil was less scrupulous.

The danger in a system dependant upon bribery was that corruption could become uncontrolled. Smooth functioning of administration required an elite officialdom whose interests were in line with the policies of the Crown, rather than simply concerned with pursuing their own ambition.

Shakespeare gives a cameo portrayal of the system of bribery in action in Henry the Fourth, Part Two, when Justice Shallow agrees to modify justice for the sake of his man, Davy. (More...)


  1. Henslowe the Sewer

    The manager of the main theatre company that rivalled Shakespeare's, Philip Henslowe was appointed a Gentlemen Sewer of the Bedchamber.

  2. Court finances

    The monarch was expected to "live off his [or her] own," financing all the grandeur of the royal Court and operating government using only traditional sources of crown revenue.

    Elizabeth restricted the expenses of her Court to £40,000 annually, far less than her extravagant successors. (Elizabeth spent about 10% of her revenue on the Court itself; Charles I spent 40%. ) In the 1590's her annual income totalled about £450,000, but expenses were far in excess of this (mainly due to war and inflation) and she died leaving a debt of £100,000.

    Sometimes the court's sources of revenue were ingenious, as in the case of "ship money."

    This was an old tax paid by coastal towns for the upkeep of the navy, which Elizabeth inventively extended to inland towns.

    More ingenuity...