The Elizabethan big society

Phil Withington explains how the current call for a big society echoes that created in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, back in the 16th century

A scene from Edmund Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar' (1597). The concept of 'society' entered the English language in the 16th century, and its influence was soon being felt in all corners of the nation. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


Imagine the scenario. A group of educated men latch onto the idea of ‘society’. These men are, for the most part, public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates, and they deploy their considerable learning and oratorical skills to argue that the right to form ‘societies’ should be a characteristic – the duty even – of subjects living in modern civilised nations. They write pamphlets and books proclaiming that people with a shared sense of civic duty and purpose should be allowed to organise themselves in order to serve the public good. They tell friends and patrons in positions of political influence the same thing.

These same men envisage that, depending on the purpose in question, societies should be endowed with distinctive powers and resources – that, indeed, in certain circumstances the said society should even claim some of the powers of sovereignty. They also stress that with the formation of these voluntary associations come responsibilities and obligations. The word ‘society’ does not describe the alliance of any old Tom, Dick or Harry but rather men (and they are mostly men) who are notable for their virtue, moral probity, and rational intelligence; men who are, in fact, rather like themselves.

If the scenario sounds vaguely familiar then that is hardly surprising – it bears more than a passing resemblance to the calls for a ‘Big Society’ which are currently animating political life in Britain. What is striking, however, is that the scenario in question occurred not in the sixth decade of the reign of Elizabeth II but in the second decade of the reign of Elizabeth I, 440 years ago.

The men in question are not David Cameron and his clever friends and think-tanks but rather Elizabethan statesmen, such as William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester), and their clever counsellors and advisors, men like Sir Thomas Smith and John Barston. And the older institution which ‘society’ was intended to replace was not so much the state but the medieval church.

Today’s Big Society encapsulates three related demands. It aims at the reduction of state involvement in the provision of public services and welfare, leading to the shrinking of the size and cost of central government. It encourages the replacement of state agencies by voluntary associations and contracted companies, with services supplied by publicly minded citizens and private employees rather than salaried bureaucrats. And it involves a shift in responsibility from central to local government, empowering counties, boroughs, and parish councils to co-ordinate the activities of voluntary groups, contractors, and any remaining state employees (though with much less financial leverage than before).

Taken together, this makes for a serious challenge to the broad consensus surrounding the British welfare state as it has developed since the Second World War. Yet no matter its revolutionary implications, in each of these respects the Big Society also echoes reforming elements of English political culture c1570. It therefore seems fitting to take a look at the nature, causes, and consequences of what might well be called the Elizabethan Big Society.

The word ‘society’ entered the English vernacular in the 16th century as a translation for the Latin concept societas and a synonym for the Romance word ‘company’. It did so as part of the widespread obsession with classical culture on the part of Renaissance humanists – those educationalists like Sir Thomas More, who was committed to recovering the wisdom of the ancients in order to reform contemporary Europe. Thus while ‘the Renaissance’ (‘rebirth’) is often associated with the flowering of Italian art and architecture, the humanist onus on recovering, translating, emulating, and popularising classical texts and learning was much more significant in its social impact and geographical diffusion.

Certainly the English embraced humanism with a vengeance. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge witnessed significant expansion as well as curriculum reform along humanist lines; hundreds of new grammar schools were founded; there was a remarkable rise in literacy levels among the wider populace; and by 1600 the English vernacular could be proclaimed as a language to rival not only Latin and Greek but also French and Spanish.

Enriching culture

The adoption of the word ‘society’ can be understood as part of this larger cultural process. This is true in the sense that it represented a classical concept becoming available to a vernacular audience: as a translation of societas, ‘society’ inevitably meant voluntary and purposeful association. It is also true, however, in the sense that its translation was intended not only to adorn the vernacular but also enrich civic life and culture. This is because Renaissance humanism was geared primarily to serving what Elizabethans described as their ‘weal public’ or commonwealth, by which they meant the people’s common life and interests and the institutions through which that life was protected and governed.

To this end the idea of society could encapsulate the very commonwealth itself. As Thomas Smith explained in 1583: “A commonwealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord… for the conservation of themselves as well in peace as in war”.

More usually, however, society described smaller associations which at once served the commonwealth and encouraged virtuous and civil behaviour on the part of participants. In The Safeguard of Society, for example, the Tewkesbury lawyer John Barston listed five kinds of society: “society of one country”, “society of one town”, “private society” (by which he meant ‘fellowships’ of crafts and guilds), “society of kindred”, and “society of friends”.

Each of these societies were imbued with the values of classical citizenship as outlined by Roman writers like Marcus Cicero, (whose books were learnt by every Elizabethan grammar schoolboy and were available in English from the 1530s). Even societies of friends should be characterised by “that familiar trust, which by virtuous conditions and similitude of honest manners make men to be all one, and one to delight and love in the other, for that is true friendship indeed”. Taken together, this web of associations made for what humanists envisaged to be a genuinely ‘civil society’.

Savage religious conflict

English Renaissance humanism coincided with two other developments which shaped the practical impact of ‘society’. The first of these was the Reformation. On the one hand, the Reformation sowed the seeds of savage religious conflict in which people of both Protestant and Catholic persuasions organised themselves into groups in order to defeat their confessional opponents and convert the rest of the populace. The result was a proliferation of voluntary associations based on evangelical intent, of which the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and Society of Friends (Quakers) were only the most famous.

On the other hand, the dissolution of the medieval church in the 1530s left a huge vacuum not merely in people’s spiritual life but also the provision of charity and learning. These responsibilities shifted in the first instance to the crown, which in turn delegated public power to a range of local societies charged with the purpose of not merely maintaining but also enhancing the commonwealth.

The expanded business of governance which resulted devolved onto three types of society in particular: the gentry ‘county community’, communities of urban citizens and burgesses, and the ‘better sort’ of inhabitant within rural parishes. That these urban and rural inhabitants were able, and for the most part willing to accept the demands of citizenship points, perhaps, to the social reach of humanist idealism by the second half of the 16th century.

By 1700, if you wanted to do something then the best course of action was to form a group and call it a society

However, it also reflects the realities of economic and social change. Thanks to the pressures of a rising population and agrarian capitalism, Elizabethan England was socially mobile but also socially polarising: the ranks of the gentry and ‘middling sort’ swelled, but so did the number of labouring and vagrant poor. To be included in the society of local governors became a source of status and honour in the county, the borough, and the parish. In the absence of a bureaucratic state, such participation was a practical necessity if good order and the ‘weal public’ were to be maintained.

A combination of factors, then, made the concept of society at once desirable and necessary for Elizabethans. Established as a form of religious and political organisation, the idea of voluntary and purposeful association grew thereafter. Englishmen of a certain class not only governed their local communities through society but also colonised Ireland and North America in the same way.

Trade with Europe, the Americas, and Asia was conducted through societies and companies; the burgeoning legal and medical professions were organised as societies; men and women entertained and socialised with each other in societies; they participated in literary and scientific culture as societies; and they increasingly ran their fiscal and economic lives through societies.

By 1700, if you wanted to do something – anything – then the best course of action was to form a group and call it a society. This was the corporatist world of early modern Britain – a world which, whether consciously or not, the Big Society invokes today.

Social theorists: 3 Elizabethans with big ideas for England

The ‘new money’ William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1–98)

Elizabeth’s first minister, Cecil was born into ‘new money’ earned through service to the Tudors. He was educated at grammar schools in Stamford and Grantham and St John’s College, Cambridge. This was an institution designed specifically to educate the future statesmen of England and Cecil was one of the first to benefit from the humanist curriculum enjoined by royal injunction in 1535. Known as the ‘very Cato of the commonwealth’, Cecil became the lynchpin of a network of Cambridge humanists who dominated the public life of England during the Edwardian and Elizabethan eras and were integral in shaping the Elizabethan Big Society.

The arch humanist Sir Thomas Smith (1513–77)

The younger son of yeomen from Saffron Walden, Smith attended the local grammar school before joining Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1526. The foremost humanist of his generation, Smith enjoyed a stellar career as a scholar and administrator (in Cambridge and Eton) before entering public life. A close friend of William Cecil, Smith was a less effective politician but more accomplished author. He wrote the key tract of Tudor political economy, The Commonweal of the Realm of England, as well as The Commonwealth of England, which can be read as the manifesto of the Elizabethan Big Society.

The classic citizen John Barston (c1545–c1612)

Barston was probably born and educated in Tewkesbury (where the Barstons were prosperous local tradesmen), attended St John’s College and the Inns of Court, and by 1575 had returned to Tewkesbury to work as a lawyer. He oversaw the incorporation of Tewkesbury into a fully-fledged borough, by which a huge range of governing powers were devolved onto its citizens. Published in 1576, Barston’s The Safeguard of Society described the corporate life of Tewkesbury through the prism of classical citizenship and indicated the social depth of the Elizabethan Big Society. Barston continued as an important civic figure in Tewkesbury over the next 30 years.


Phil Withington lectures in the Faculty of History in the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of Christ’s College. He is the author of Society in Early Modern England (Polity, 2010).