By Anthony Fletcher
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1985
Online Publication Date:October 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511560552.005
In Elizabethan and Stuart England, as in almost all settled states, order depended in the last resort less on courts and procedures than on officeholders and personal relationships. At the county level, government drew its strength from unity of purpose among groups of gentry who sat together on the bench and debated policy in their favourite hostelries. In the neighbourhoods, it drew its strength from the partnerships of able and vigorous JPs who were willing to be often in the saddle and constantly receiving constables and petitioners at their door. But officeholding was a public act which made men peculiarly vulnerable to defamation. Recent work on this period has established that men and women at all levels of society showed extreme sensitivity over slights against their good name. Office in county government – as a JP, a subsidy commissioner or a deputy-lieutenant – exposed a man on two fronts. While his credit among his peers might be elevated by their appreciation of his concern for justice, it could also be blotted if it became known or was believed that he abused his authority. His standing among the people could sink if gossip about his conduct, whether malicious or well founded, was allowed to spread unchecked. The theme of honour and reputation therefore provides an entry to the social world of Elizabethan and Stuart government, a world of ambition and assertiveness, sometimes of feud and personal conflict. Prestige not wealth was the principal reward of office.