|The Young Elizabeth|
With Mary’s death on November 17, 1558 Elizabeth Tudor came to the throne. She was a woman of 25 at the time of her accession. Ironically her father had feared a woman monarch would be unable to rule England and this woman would turn out to be the greatest monarch in England’s history. Her accession speech demonstrates just how savvy this woman was. When the Accession Council assembled at her residence at Hatfield, the home given her by Mary, she declared.
My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel
Elizabeth clearly states here the “doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies,” a principle that evolved in the Common Law and the unwritten English Constitution, but also which flows over into American Law. This is a difficult concept for most people to understand and it is more an exercise in arcane trivia than the exploration of a useful topic, but I love arcane trivia. So here we go.
The King (in Elizabeth’s case, Queen; by extension the Chief Executive—a President, Governor) has two bodies—the “natural body” and the “political body.” Today, for examples, in and under the Law, Elizabeth Windsor and Queen Elizabeth II are two distinct persons. Elizabeth Windsor, when driving her Land Rover through the mountains around Balmoral, is a private person subject to the same traffic laws as any other driver in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth, opening Parliament or performing any of her other constitutionally defined duties, is a symbol of the nation in a way that the lady behind the wheel of the Land Rover is not. As Queen she is subject to the Constitution but not to the law. The natural body dies; the political body does not—it simply passes into another as it passed into her on the morning her father died. The King is dead; long live the King. The King never dies. In the same way there is Barack Obama and there is the President of the United States. Barack Obama has to pay income tax and otherwise obey the law of the land. The President, however, in the performance of his Constitutionally defined duties, is shielded by the obligations and consequent prerogatives of the office, from personal responsibility for decisions which may not accord with the law. It is unfortunate, but the President—any President—may need to order someone to be killed for the sake of national security. He may need—as President Bush did—to order people abducted and held without charges for the sake of counter-terrorism. This not make the actions morally justifiable, but such actions are difficult—if not impossible—to prosecute as long as they are to fulfill the constitutional duties mandated by the office. Similarly, while presidents come and go, the Presidency remains. Whether by the death of a President in office or by the end of one’s term, the man goes but the President remains. And like the British Monarch, for good or for shame, the President is a symbol of the political structure of the nation. This is important as the vitriol that one faction or another of Americans tends to spew at whomever is in the White House is an indication only of their ignorance. Criticism, of course. Evaluation, a civic duty. But respect goes to the office and the man who holds it, whether or not it belongs to the man personally.
Of course, I am well aware that a significant number of readers will not agree with me on this, but I am just stating how the principle of the King’s Two Bodies, distinguishing between the Person in Office and the person in the office, has become part of the political heritage. Of course, in American law it is not as settled a principle as it is in English Law. People do try—even Congress tries—to bring suits against the President (as opposed to the individual in the office) but generally without much success as the judiciary sees the need to maintain the checks and balances. Whether or not this changes is an indication of the unsettled aspects of our Constitution, which though written, is always being re-interpreted by the judiciary.
Notice too that Elizabeth begins by declaring that “I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment …desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have the assistance of His grace to be the Minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me….” And that she continues “by His permission a Body Politic to govern …may make a good account to Almighty God.” Elizabeth clearly understands that she, in her “Body Politic” as differentiated from her private person and relationships, receives her authority from God. This is very different from our American principle where authority to govern is received from the consent of the governed, though the American principle will evolve from the British Constitutional tradition but only after many twists and turns—motivated by the radical Protestantism that was to be introduced into England under Elizabeth—but that is for postings down the line—considerably down the line. Elizabeth understood her authority was from God and she was his vice-regent.
This gives an interesting insight into Elizabeth’s religious consciousness. We will see in the next several postings that Elizabeth had some very definite ideas for the Church during her reign. But there was a religious dimension to Elizabeth that ran much more deeply than her ecclesiastical polity. I don’t mean to say that she was devout. I honestly don’t think she was. But she was theologically minded. She had been well schooled in Theology—certainly better than either her sister or her brother—and had a much more open mind than either Edward of Mary. I think for Elizabeth Theology was primarily political more than doctrinal, devotional, or liturgical. She wanted, as we will see, to use the Church and its liturgy to advance and impress on the consciousness of her subjects, a certain political theory. In this she will have to fight Parliament—and will be more often than not blocked by Parliament and its counter-vision. I don’t see much evidence that Elizabeth had a personal piety as did Mary and as did Edward—or even as much piety as had her father. Faith, for Elizabeth, was all cerebral and political but then I think this attitude will to a great extent stamp the Anglicanism of the next two centuries and also foment the rebellion against it.