The Banana Republic of Elizabethan England

Summary of a talk given to the Society on 23rd October 2018

By Simon Healy

Typically, a banana republic has a society of extremely stratified social classes, usually a large impoverished working class and a ruling-class plutocracy. Simon Healy (researcher in Parliamentary History) identifies Elizabethan England as just such an economy under William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley.

Photo:William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, KG, PC (13 September 1520 - 4 August 1598)

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, KG, PC (13 September 1520 - 4 August 1598)

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On 17th November 1558, Burghley was with Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield House when news of Queen Mary’s death reached her. Her first appointment was Burghley as Secretary of State. For the next forty years he was Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisor, although she did not always take his advice.

He was undoubtedly a great statesman - diligent and prudent - and had the country’s long term interests at heart. But he could be devious in achieving his goals. He aimed to preserve the country’s security, avoid costly wars and ensure the government’s survival. In doing so, he became very rich. Burghley was responsible for collecting income from the Crown Estates - at a profit to himself.

The insufficiently taxed rich

Elizabeth I inherited a debt of £227,000, most of it owed to the Antwerp Exchange at 14% interest. In 1571 Parliament rewrote the lending laws of Great Britain. No longer would the monarch need to go to other nations to beg for loans. Now her own countrymen would lend her money for patriotic purposes (including Burghley). In 1574 Elizabeth was able to announce that she was not in debt for the first time since 1558.

The war with Spain in 1585 meant Elizabeth had to borrow again. Parliament granted money to the Queen (i.e. from taxes). The rich were allowed to assess their own tax contribution - often the money they gave was not proportionate to their wealth. Even so, the full amount of tax collected by local gentry did not arrive in the Queen’s coffers.

Many wealthy people didn’t fully pay their debts. Merchants increased prices by up to 50% as a means of recouping their losses – in effect imposing inflation on the whole nation.

The poor in ‘the Golden Age’

Although there was prosperity for those with inherited wealth and opportunity, the poor really suffered from the financial problems of Elizabeth’s reign. The population increased from 2.8 million to 4.1 million. Crop production was reduced, due to field enclosures for sheep rearing.  Very bad harvests in the 1590s led to scarcity of basic foods and prices increased by up to 75%. Agricultural labourers suffered a drastic fall in wages during the same period, so those with work found that they could barely afford food, while those out of work could not. Bubonic plague and other infections broke out several times during the Elizabethan era, with dire results for the poor, who lived in unbelievably unsanitary conditions. 

Burghley’s legacy

Photo:Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563? - 24 May 1612)

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, KG, PC (1 June 1563? - 24 May 1612)

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England became wealthier and more stable during Burghley’s time in office. He himself amassed a fortune and three large houses – in Stamford, London and Hertfordshire. He trained his capable son, Robert Cecil, in statesmanship. After Burghley’s death, Robert continued his father’s service to the elderly Queen, working discreetly to achieve a peaceful union with Scotland after her death. King James was offered the crown of England in 1603. The change from Tudor to Stuart rule in England went smoothly, thanks to Robert’s efforts.

Photo:Burghley House, near Stamford  built between 1555 and 1587

Burghley House, near Stamford built between 1555 and 1587

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Burghley was Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire 1588-1598. He left thousands of volumes of correspondence, now divided between the National Archives at Kew, the British Library, and Hatfield House. He was a great collector of books and maps, and also indulged a passion for architecture. His home at Burghley still stands, a monument to a man of indefatigable energy and dedication.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 05/02/2019.

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