|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.
|St Stephen's Chapel, where the Commons|
sat from 1547 to 1834
The issue of free speechBy 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.
- Religion: The House of Commons in general was more radical in religion and more anti-Catholic than the queen
- Marriage and the succession: Elizabeth’s refusal either to marry or name her successor became an issue of increasing urgency
- 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
- Monopolies: the queen’s attempt to solve the financial problems of the Crown by granting monopolies to favoured courtiers aroused furious resentment.
The religious settlementFrom 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.
|Elizabeth depicted by the martyrologist, John Foxe as|
the new Constantine, bringing true religion
Marriage and the successionAs 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.
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
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 problem.
|Elizabeth with an ermine,|
the symbol of chastity
Clashes over free speechThe 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.
MonopoliesFrom 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.