Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Elizabeth I and her Parliaments

Elizabeth is here presented as the true heir of Henry VIII. Her reign
ushers in peace and plenty, whereas Philip and Mary had
brought only war.
What was the situation of Parliament at Elizabeth’s accession? See here for a full account.

Historians know more about the Elizabethan parliament than its predecessors, largely because of the Journals of the two Houses. From 1510 the House of Lords kept a record of its proceedings and from 1547 the Commons kept its own Journal. By Elizabeth’s reign these records had become very full and in the seventeenth century the antiquarian Sir Simons D’Ewes collected copies of speeches and notes of debates.

St Stephen's Chapel, where the Commons
sat from 1547 to 1834
By Elizabeth’s reign, too, the Commons had a permanent chamber. In 1547 they moved into St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster, where they continued to sit until the great fire of 1834.

The issue of free speech

By the mid-sixteenth century it was customary that at the opening of Parliament newly chosen Speakers would request confirmation of the ‘ancient liberties’ of the Commons, namely freedom of speech and ‘privilege’ from arrest during sessions. Here, Elizabeth did not see eye to eye with the Commons. For her, ‘liberty of speech’ meant debating what she allowed to be discussed. 

Throughout her reign, there were bones of contention between her and her parliament, all of which raised the issue of freedom of speech:

  1. Religion: The House of Commons in general was more radical in religion and more anti-Catholic than the queen
  2. Marriage and the succession: Elizabeth’s refusal either to marry or name her successor became an issue of increasing urgency
  3. How to deal with Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many believed to be her obvious successor, once she was a prisoner in England and the centre of plots against Elizabeth
  4. Monopolies: the queen’s attempt to solve the financial problems of the Crown by granting monopolies to favoured courtiers aroused furious resentment.

The religious settlement

From the start, two things were clear. The first was that as the child of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth would reverse her sister’s religious policy and return to at least some of the reforming measures of her brother’s reign. The second was that this would have to be enacted by acts of Parliament. However, she faced two problems. The first was that her religious sympathies were much more conservative than those of many of her advisors and many members of Parliament. The second was that the House of Lords, including the bishops, was staunchly Catholic.

When Parliament assembled in January 1559, the initiative was taken by Cecil, who quickly introduced bills to re-establish Protestant worship, based on the 1552 book. By 21 February these were integrated into a single bill. However, in March the bill was wrecked in committee in the Lords. The Lords continued to be obstructive, forcing Parliament to reconvene for a second session on 3 April.  Two bills were drafted, so that if the one failed, the other might get through.  On 29 April both were finally passed, after bruising battles in the Lords. The Act of Supremacy declared Elizabeth to be the Supreme Governor (not Head) of the Church. The Act of Uniformity recomposed with 1552 Prayer Book with minor revisions. Together the two Acts created the Church of England. Its origins and nature reflected a compromise between the queen and her parliament. It was a Protestant church, but, thanks to the queen, retained some aspects of Catholicism, most notably bishops and cathedrals. If you like choral evensong, then you have Elizabeth to thank!
Elizabeth depicted by the martyrologist, John Foxe as
the new Constantine, bringing true religion
to England

Marriage and the succession

As Elizabeth was an unmarried young woman it was natural for Parliament to be preoccupied with the problem of the succession. The obvious answer to the problem was for her to marry and have a child. Her long-term intentions are extremely ambiguous.  There is no evidence that she had an emotional dislike of marriage, and/or was unable to bear children. But judging from her statements early in the reign, she was certainly considering the benefits of remaining single.

The question was raised as early as the first week of the 1559 Parliament. On 4 February the Commons put forward arguments ‘that a request be made to the Queen’s Highness for marriage’. On 6 February the Speaker and others approached the Queen, who told them that it was her wish never to marry’ to remain in ‘this kind of life in which I yet live’. If God did incline her ‘heart to another kind of life’, she would never marry against her subjects’ interest; ‘therefore put that clean out of your heads’; if she never married, an heir would be chosen ‘in convenient time’. She ended

And in the end, this shall be for me sufficient that a marble stone shall declare that a queen having lived such a time lived and died a virgin.

It was difficult for Parliament to believe that Elizabeth might have meant what she said. The idea of an unmarried queen posed the problem of who was to succeed her. After Elizabeth reached the
Elizabeth with an ermine,
the symbol of chastity
end of her childbearing years, she was pressurised to name her successor. Her response was to present her virginity as a positive asset. This was clever politics but it did not solve the succession

Clashes over free speech

The lead in demanding greater freedom of speech was taken by the Wentworth brothers, Paul and Peter.

In November 1566 the Commons asked the Lords to join with them in petitioning the Queen to marry and settle the succession.  Elizabeth responded with an assertion of royal power:  the Commons should not 
‘doubt whether a prince that is head of all the body may not command the feet not to stray’. 
At the opening of the 1571 Parliament she told the Commons that they were not to meddle with matters of state. Members who dissented from this view were subjected to intimidation.

The Commons was frequently hostile to those members who asserted the right of free speech in too forthright a fashion. In 1576 Peter Wentworth made a speech attacking the way ‘rumours and messages’ were undermining the freedom of Parliament, and criticising the Queen for permitting such tactics. He was interrupted in mid-flow and committed to the Tower by order of the House. He was later re-admitted, but imprisoned again in 1587 and 1593. It is likely that many members sympathised with his views, but prudently kept silent.


From the time of Henry VIII the Crown’s perennial problem was shortage of money. In theory the monarch was meant to ‘live of his own’, with the income from the crown lands and from customs duties. However, the rise in government expenditure and the unprofitability of many of the crown estates led monarchs to look for extra ways of raising money. One of Elizabeth’s favourite devices was the granting patents of monopoly to favoured courtiers. From the 1580s increasing numbers of these patents were issued. These tended to raise the price of goods, and in the harsh conditions of the 1590s this became a grave issue. 

In the 1597-8 parliamentary protests against monopolies were referred to an investigating committee who drafted a petition that was delivered to the Speaker at the close of the session. Elizabeth responded with a conciliatory speech, but nothing was done. 

In the 1601 Parliament MPs were determined to hold her to her word and in the tense and noisy debates the Queen’s prerogative was challenged. Elizabeth issued a proclamation stating that she would revoke some patents and submit others to legal judgments. She met a delegation of about 140 Members and delivered what came to be known as her ‘golden speech’, which cleverly disguised the fact that she had been forced to beat a retreat. However, her concession was a limited one. Monopolies continued to be a point of grievance and the underlying financial problems of the Crown remained unresolved.

The last years

The famous Ditchley portrait of the Queen
showing her standing triumphantly on the map
of England does not reflect the reality of
the many crises of her last years.
As Elizabeth grew older the question of the succession was the topic that was never spoken of openly but was in everyone’s mind. The irrepressable Peter Wentworth had been imprisoned in 1593 when the Council learned that he was going to raise it in the House. 

There were at least ten possible claimants to the throne. The most obvious English candidate was Lady Arbella Stuart (born 1575), the daughter of Charles Stuart and Elizabeth Cavendish ('Bess of Hardwick'). At the end of 1602 she planned a secret marriage to the grandson of the earl of Hertford and Katherine Grey. Hertford informed the Council and Arbella was confined to the house of her grandmother Bess of Hardwick.

The Queen’s Secretary, Robert Cecil, was corresponding in cipher with James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, advising him not to pester Elizabeth to name him as her heir.  James was a foreigner. On the other hand, he was an adult male, he had three children, and he had shown himself a successful king. In spite of Henry VIII’s will excluding the Stuart line, he was the obvious choice as Elizabeth’s successor.

By the middle of March 1603, the Queen was was dying. Throughout the country almost everyone acknowledged the claim of the King of Scots. Leading figures were writing to him, their names encoded. On 23 March Elizabeth (allegedly) at last signalled that James should succeed her. At 2am on 24 March she died. At 11 in the presence of the chief nobility, Cecil read out a proclamation declaring that James was King of England. 


  1. In Elizabeth’s reign, the House of Commons did not mount an explicit challenge to the royal prerogative. The balance of power between monarch and Parliament remained undefined.
  2. Nevertheless the Commons as a body had become more assertive, and many of its members were now prepared to debate matters that previously had been considered the sole prerogative of the Crown.
  3. Religion was potentially a point of conflict. The House of Commons was more strongly Protestant than Elizabeth herself and was therefore unwilling to leave religious matters solely to her. 
  4. Elizabeth bequeathed the financial problems of the Crown to her Stuart successors.  In order to balance the budget, the monarch either had to summon Parliament or find new ways of raising money. These new ways could create great resentment. 

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