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Contracting Out: Administrative Privatisation in the Reign of James I

Conrad Russell looks at the perks and pitfalls of public office-holding in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

A critic, and not necessarily a captious one, might argue that this title is in that no-man’s-land in which paradox verges on contradiction. The concept of private property was so deep in Tudor and Stuart concepts of office that the auditor’s tenure, like the parson’s freehold, was regularly seen and treated as his property. He treated his office, within certain very broadly defined limits, as his own to do what he would with. When the first Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer of England, died in 1598, almost the first thing that happened was that, hard upon the Queen’s condolences to his relations, a series of carts arrived at his house to take away the government records he had had at home.

It was the decision to take these records back, rather than Burghley’s to take them home, which was remarkable in the administrative ethics of Tudor and Stuart England. Sir Thomas Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, took all the dockets authorising him to affix the Great Seal and all the correspondence about doubtful cases, back to his home at Crome Court in Warwickshire. The Crown did not take these papers back, and they remained in the family’s possession until they were deposited in Birmingham Reference Library during my own lifetime. Admittedly, the Elizabethan Auditors of the Exchequer who treated their records as private property were overdoing it, and got rapped over the knuckles. Yet their offence was over-zealousness, rather than a fundamentally wrong approach to their job, and the trouble they got into was not severe.

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