Map of the UK with historical region boundaries

Regional variation in government

This map is supplementary material for the course Investigating the Elizabethans.

Map of Elizabethan England. Click on the regions and towns highlighted for more information explaining how they were governed.

Please note that Norwich (within Norfolk), is also clickable.

Northumberland, Westmorland and Durham

The government north of England had traditionally been dominated by members of the Neville and Percy families, Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland respectively. The area around Durham had a special independent status as a ‘palatinate’, with the Bishops of Durham sometimes known as the ‘Prince-Bishops’.

After the Reformation the bishops lost their independence and the Catholicism of the local lords meant that they were excluded from holding office in government;they rebelled in 1569. The failure of the rising meant that the north came under the direct control of the crown for the first time, ruling through the Council of the North, run by Protestant nobles loyal to Elizabeth.

Cheshire and Lancashire

The north-east of England provides an example of where an older form of local government remained in place and was not replaced by central government in Elizabeth’s reign.

The Stanley family, led by the Earls of Derby, retained control of the region, dominating local politics and government. They proved extremely effective and capable.


Compared to other parts of the country where noble families were able to retain control of local politics, in Sussex central government was able to break the power of the local lords.

At the start of the reign two local Catholic nobles, the Earl of Arundel and Lord Lumley were appointed to the office of Lord Lieutenant. After the position of Catholics was weakened by the northern rising of 1569 Elizabeth’s government was able to appoint its own candidates as Lords Lieutenant, the office shared between Lords Buckhurst and Montague – the latter a Catholic noble, but one who had been demonstrably loyal to the regime.

Devon and Cornwall

The south west was sometimes described as a separate country to the rest of England in the sixteenth century. It had a long history of resistance and rebellion but remained largely quiescent during Elizabeth’s reign. There were no local resident nobles.

In Cornwall, the stannaries – tin mining areas – were relatively prosperous and, as with towns and cities elsewhere, were granted special powers of self-government, with their own court system and coinage.


By far the largest city in England, London posed particular problems of control and order for the government, with a youthful population and higher levels of political awareness. It comprised two different systems of authority: the square mile at the centre, known as the City of London, and the remainder of the city.

Many noblemen owned houses in London and lived there when the queen and her court was nearby, but they were rarely directly involved in local government, which lay in the hands of the civic elite.


Norwich was the second most important city in England during Elizabeth’s reign. Its prosperity had led to special privileges of self-government being granted earlier in the sixteenth century.

The offices of local government were shared amongst the urban elite, with those holding offices such as ‘common councillor’ or ‘sheriff’ generally resident in the areas they held responsibility for and therefore able to exert hands-on control, dealing with problems such as food shortages or tension over immigrant communities before they turned into a crisis.


Norfolk was dominated by the Howard family, led by the Duke of Norfolk, cousins to the queen. The attainder and execution of the 4th Duke in 1572, the confiscation of some of his lands and the imprisonment of his son, the Earl of Arundel a few years later removed power from the Howards.

No family emerged to replace them and local government instead came into the hands of the local gentry, notable for their feuds. Politics and government in Norfolk therefore became less stable and effective during Elizabeth’s reign.


There were no resident noble families in Wales by the time that Elizabeth’s reign began, which meant that government in this region was in the hands of the gentry, who filled offices in local government with their own candidates and who took on the major tasks in person. The crown ruled through the Council in the Marches of Wales.

Members were drawn from the ranks of the local gentry and apart from the occasional local dispute the situation in the region was calm and stable.


The situation in Ireland was quite complicated throughout the sixteenth century. The area around Dublin was populated by long-standing English settlers known as the ‘Old English’; the rest was governed by the Gaelic lords, known for vicious infighting.

Elizabeth appointed a series of governors of Ireland who mishandled affairs. A policy of ‘plantation’ was adopted – in effect, the seizure of Irish lands by English settlers keen to make their fortune. A series of rebellions culminated in a nine-year revolt led by the Earl of Tyrone, 1594-1603.