Tuesday, 11 November 2014

King and parliament: the early sixteenth century

I have used the following books for these and other posts relating to the Tudors:
G. R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 1960)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Rosemary O’Day (ed.), The Longman Companion to the Tudor Age (Longman, 1995)
This depiction of Elizabeth I and her
parliaments shows Lords and
Commons in front of the

The nature of kingship

The dynastic troubles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had led to three depositions and four murders, but had not altered the potential power of the Crown.  The age was essentially monarchical and the king was held to be the centre of all political and social life. The Tudor monarchs employed new styles and placed a greater distance between themselves and their subjects. From the time of Henry VII the still continued to be referred to as ‘your grace’ or ‘your highness’, but increasingly the title ‘your majesty’ was used. As the sixteenth century progressed there was growing stress on the divinely ordained duty to obey the monarch.

However, there were always limitations, both theoretical and practical, to this view of kingship. In the 1460s the Lancastrian chief justice, Sir John Fortescue had described the English Crown as dominium politicum et regale and not dominum regale. It was not an absolute monarchy unrestrained by the law. The Tudor monarchs (especially Henry VIII) were often capable of arbitrary action, but they accepted the general tenet that monarchy exists under the law and is fully active only in cooperation with parliament.

The King’s Council

Edward IV and Henry VII were successful rulers partly because they availed themselves of the services of hard-working and experienced councillors, many of whom served both monarchs. Their functions were three-fold: to advise the king on matters of policy, to administer the realm and to adjudicate disputes.  Councillors also had the task of assessing wider opinion and when parliament was in session, this was their main means of testing the political temperature.


What type of institution was parliament at the beginning of the sixteenth century?

Parliament was an established part of the King’s government, but an intermittent part, called for special purposes usually the granting of money. It had its origins in the meeting of the King and his Council. The Council naturally included the great families and the Church - hence the Lords spiritual and temporal. The room where the Council met in Westminster was known as the Parliament Chamber. In 1544 there occurred the first known instance of this body being referred to as the House of Lords.

The Commons originated as a committee of Parliament, and usually met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. Its traditional function was the approving of taxation. In the 14th and 15th centuries, their deliberations grew in importance, and the Commons became a court for the consideration of public bills. (But by the 16th century the function of settling legal problems had devolved to the Conciliar Courts.) The highest expression of the law became the King in Parliament. The Commons represented the counties and the boroughs. It was lower in status than the Lords, but of equal importance in the making of statute law.

The King/Lords/Commons represented the whole state of the realm. Lords and Commons worked together. The Commons were often the younger sons of the great families and they were bound to the Lords by networks of patronage.

The Lords 1529-36 
50 Lords Spiritual (21 archbishops and bishops; 29 abbots)
57 Lords Temporal (3 dukes, 2 marquesses, 13 earls,1viscount, 38 barons)

The Commons 1529-36
310 MPs (74 knights of the shire, 236 burgesses)

County members were elected by 40s freeholders, following the statute of 1430. They were usually chosen from among the local magnates; elections were rarely held.

Borough members were elected on a varied franchise, depending on the wording of the royal charter which allowed them to be represented in the Commons; in practice, they were controlled by the municipal corporations.
Private bills usually concerned particular towns or individuals. Public bills were drafted in committee.

Statute law

The traditional medieval view was that statutes did not make law - merely declared an interpretation of natural law, which was the reflection of the eternal law in man’s nature. Statute law was thus limited by divine law, and there was no doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. But in practice King-in-Parliament was the ultimate arbiter of the law.


Parliament was not regularly in session. The king did not have to summon it - he did so when he needed money. It was also a useful way of keeping in touch with what was going on. He could control parliamentary business because those of his Counsellors who were not peers had seats in the Commons - they were seen as the eyes and ears of the King.

Members did not welcome too many sessions, as they disrupted their lives. No sessions were held in the summer because of plague. But when Parliament was sitting, members used it for the passing of bills to benefit their localities.

Henry VIII and Parliament

In 1542 Henry declared to judges and the Commons:
We are informed by our judges that we at no time stand so high in our estate royal as in the time of parliament, wherein we as head and you as members are conjoined and knit together in one body politic.
There is no reason to doubt his sincerity or the fact that he was interpreting legal opinion. The image of the body politic fitted in well with the thinking of the time. But it would have been extraordinary if Henry had not also used parliament. Previous monarchs had bent it to their own purposes: in 1484 Parliament had declared Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and their children illegitimate; Henry VII had used Parliament in passing Acts of Attainder.

Free Speech

Thomas More, Speaker in 1523, was notably independently minded, and the Parliament of that year turned out to be one of the most outspoken of the reign.  More made the first known request for parliamentary free speech.  In the same Parliament, Thomas Cromwell, then an unknown member, wrote a speech against the king’s foreign policy - though it was probably never delivered. This kind of individual opposition to matters of state was not considered dangerous unless it came from people high in public service.


As future posts will show, the Tudor period was to see a significant extension in the powers of parliament.

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