“For Elizabeth, parliamentarians were little boys-sometimes unruly, usually a nuisance, and always a waste of an intelligent woman’s time.”
Elizabeth did not like her Parliaments, illustrated in the quotation. She saw matters of religion and foreign affairs as falling within her prerogative as God’s representative on earth and therefore not to be discussed in Parliament, except by invitation.2 This view however is relatively new. The old Orthodox view is that Elizabeth looked upon her Parliaments as a forum where she could maintain contact with her loyal subjects. It is unclear from where this view originated. It may have been from evidence contained in Elizabeth’s speeches to Parliament where she appeared to look upon them fondly:
“I do assure you there is no prince that loves his subjects better, or whose love can countervail our love.”
The writings of others, such as Sir John Neale during the 1930s to the 1950s provided a stark contrast, establishing a new orthodoxy which characterised Elizabeth and working against them throughout her reign, making a great deal of the times when they acted in a way foreshadowing the events that led to the civil war. He also highlighted the “struggle for power between Monarch and Commons.”5 The Neale interpretation subsequently collapsed with the more recent writings of historians such as Elton. The revisionist’s case revolves around the view that the Neale interpretation encourages people to exaggerate the extent to which Elizabeth disliked, and worked against Parliament. Whilst the evidence does clearly show her lack of enthusiasm (during her 44 year reign there were only 10 Parliaments called with a total of 13 sessions.) Elizabeth viewed Parliament as an unfortunate necessity, with the emphasis on the word ‘necessity.’6 However much of a necessity Parliament was to Elizabeth, many members believed the Queen was reserving too many decisions for herself but were reluctantly prepared to respect her wishes. When they didn’t, sparks were likely to fly.
An example of when sparks did fly was over the issue of marriage, and particularly the succession. Parliamentary pressure in 1559, 1563, 1566 and 1576 was strong, however so were Elizabeth’s methods of control. The Queen delivered many speeches to the commons saying that she would marry but never did. In 1563, 1566 and 1576 she told Parliament that, although for herself she would prefer to remain the ‘Virgin Queen’ but for the sake of her subjects she would marry and produce a successor. Later attempts made by Parliament to secure the succession were connected with the desire to secure the exclusion of Mary Queen of Scots. The Privy Council took the lead here, applying pressure on the Queen through the Commons and the Lords. Bishops produced theoretical arguments and a committee of lawyers produced legal reasons. As a result of this, two bills were produced, one a petition for Mary’s attainder for treason, the other excluding her from the succession.
Neale, however does not acknowledge the Privy Council’s role in the matter, saying that the Commons took the lead and that the Lords, in fulfilment of their promise to the Commons had drafted their own bill.8 This view has been seen by the Revisionists as focusing too much on merely the role of the commons here. It has now been proven that Parliament was working under the Privy Council. This shows that parliamentary pressure was largely only effective when orchestrated and supported by other forces such as the Privy Council. This issue resulted in the execution of Mary. However the extent to which the issue shows a struggle for power between the Queen and Parliament is debatable. JE Neale has emphasised the role of the ‘Puritan Choir’ in the issue, pressuring Elizabeth to take a strongly Protestant successor and pushing for the execution of Mary who was a Catholic. This view however collapsed when it was discovered that Neale’s ‘Puritan Choir’ theory was based on the misinterpretation of evidence. It has now been widely accepted that the struggle for power here (if there even was one) lied between the Queen and the Council, with the Council using the Commons as an area for extended pressure.
Another area of conflict was that over the church. The extent to which this has showed a struggle for power has been greatly over emphasised by Orthodox historians. Neale has emphasised:
“The desire of Puritans to modify the church settlement of 1559 and the Queen’s determination to resist such changes.”
This pressure on Elizabeth pushed her to forbid the discussion of some of the reform bills, claiming that they infringed on her Perogative, she also vetoed another. Neale saw this as the work of the ‘Puritan Choir’, a group of Puritan MPs that he credited with working together in order to force Elizabeth to adopt policies that were to its liking. This can be seen, if the Neale interpretation is followed, as the struggle for power between the Queen and the ‘Puritan Choir’, who had already forced her to adopt a more Puritan religious settlement in 1559 than she had actually wanted. However, Neale’s interpretation collapsed when it was discovered that leading members of the ‘Puritan Choir,’ notably Thomas Norton and William Fleetwood, were actually agents of the Council.13 Also, that the pressure exerted on Elizabeth in 1566 and 1571 was from a combined force of Councillors, bishops and Protestant MPs, managed by the Council’s ‘Men of Business.’
Whatever view is taken over the issue, it is notable that these attempts failed and the church remained at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, as it was established in 1559. After Neale’s ‘Puritan Choir’ theory collapsed, it became apparent to revisionist historians that there was no organised opposition to Elizabeth in Parliament, at least not to the extent that Neale has argued Therefore, Neale’s view that this issue showed a struggle for power between Elizabeth and Parliament is no longer credible. What is more likely, as with the issue of Marriage and the Succession, is that Parliament was used by the Privy Council as a tool to exert greater pressure on Elizabeth.
Arguably the only purely Commons victory of the reign was that over the issue of Monopolies in 1601. It was the last conflict of her reign and was of great threat to Elizabeth as it involved a challenge to the Royal Perogative for regulating trade and industry. Elizabeth had granted numerous monopolies on certain goods as a way of rewarding loyal subjects. This was unpopular with the people as it allowed monopoly owners to force prices as high as they chose and during the 1590s, people had to pay these prices against a backdrop of serious economic depression. It should not be thought here, that Parliament wanted to deliberately challenge the powers of the monarch by invoking her Perogative in novel ways. In fact, long debates were held about how to address a subject that touched so closely on Elizabeth’s sovereign authority. The fact that such caution was taken here shows that the issue does not illustrate a struggle for power, but rather Parliament wanting to work under Elizabeth and not bring the issue to open conflict. Neale however, took a very different view of the issue, seeing the predominance of economic issues as the consequence of “The eclipse of Puritanism after which a vacum existed, into which rushed concern for the economic issues of the day.”
The main reason that Parliament had their way over the issue was that it remained undivided as the issue affected all members. It also had the full support of the people. The issue was increasingly being discussed by the people which was unheard of at the time. Sir Robert Cecil even told the house in 1601 that he had even heard someone on the street shout to him:
“God prosper those that further the overthrow of…monopolies. God send the prerogative touch not our liberty.”17
Commons pressure forced Elizabeth to withdraw the most objectionable grants and to expose the rest to be considered in the common law courts. Whilst at the time, this was seen as a triumph for the house as a whole, in hindsight, the concession promised more than it achieved as monopolies were again to provoke angry protests under James I18. This is a clear example of conflict between Elizabeth and Parliament, although Parliament did not intend this to be seen as a struggle for power, shown in their caution when addressing the subject.
It is sometimes a danger when looking at relations between Elizabeth and her Parliaments, to focus on the times of conflict alone. With the exception of the afore mentioned incidents, Elizabeth used her Parliaments to great effect on a day to day level. They were seen mostly as co-operating with her.
“It is arguable…that Parliament should be regarded more as a legislative than a political institution.”19
Virtually all Elizabethan Parliaments were asked to pass legislation. Many Private Members’ Bills were passed for example the nineteen Private Acts of 1563. As historians such as Elton have pointed out, men who wanted appointments to the Privy Council often started their political careers by taking a seat in the Commons.20 Openly working against the Queen whilst in Parliament may not have been an intelligent way to scale the political heights. It is also notable that Elizabethan Parliaments were very ill attended, with a respectable attendance early in each session that rapidly declined as the session wore on.
“When Elizabeth met her Parliaments, she did not face the serried ranks of rising gentry, baying for their constitutional rights; at the end of a session she faced only the unfortunate few who had nothing better to do.”
Due to the Members’ apparent lack of enthusiasm, it is difficult to see Parliament as the forum for the ongoing struggle for power as Neale has suggested. The main usage of Parliament for Elizabeth was to obtain supply. Elizabeth asked twelve of the thirteen sessions of Parliament for increased taxation. This does not show Parliament as a force struggling for power, but rather as necessary for Elizabeth (however unfortunate she felt this was) in running the country.
Another issue that supports the view of a struggle for power between monarch and Parliament was that Elizabeth vetoed some bills. Looking more closely at the bills that were vetoed tells a different story. Eight of the thirty four bills were rejected because of flaws in their drafting and of the remaining, twenty one were vetoed because if they became law, they were likely to have damaged the interests of groups whose views had not been considered in Parliament. This shows that Elizabeth was not acting as dramatically as first thought, showing that these vetoes were not used by Elizabeth as a ‘last straw’ when she believed that the struggle for power was becoming too great.22
Elizabeth’s skill in her methods of parliamentary control meant that, when the two did clash, the conflict never spiralled into an open struggle for power. As much as the Privy Council seemed to be working against Elizabeth on certain issues, it must not be thought that the Council’s sole role was to oppose her. The Council had the function of working with Elizabeth on certain issues in order to manage the Commons. Bills were often referred to committees after their second reading in the house. Privy councillors were named on all of these committees. It is also important that it was often a councillor who laid the committees report before the commons. As has already been seen, the Privy Council was influential in directing the course of debates in the Commons. Whilst in some instances, this worked against Elizabeth (on issues such as the Church and the succession) the Council’s influence could also work in her favour.
For example, during the Parliament of 1601 Cecil, an influential councillor, whispered something in the Speaker’s ear, after which the speaker arose and closed the sitting without letting a member read a bill against Monopolies, as he had previously promised. The Queen and Council’s control of the Speaker meant that, as he was answerable to them, the government could control the parliamentary agenda. The speaker would also put the most important bills to the Queen at the start of a session, where more time could be taken over them. The Queen and Council also had control over who the speaker would be. The Speaker, in theory was elected at the start of a session by the House, although more often than not, he had already been named by the Government and these elections were just a formality. The role of the Privy Council here shows that, if there was a struggle for power between Elizabeth and Parliament, the Privy Council had the ability to tip the balance of power in favour of who it supported.
The role of the Lords over these issues, mainly because of the lack of evidence, is not clear. It was seen as working with Elizabeth by Neale. For example, if government measures were likely to meet difficulty in the Commons, they would often be introduced in the Lords. The Lords were also able to reject Commons bills of which the Government disapproved. For example, in 1589 they refused to read two bills, which touched on the Queen’s prerogative that the Commons had sent.25 Later evidence however, has suggested that:
“The idea that the Lords was very subservient to the Crown is almost certainly an exaggerated one.”
For example, pressure from the Lords in 1587 played a significant role in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
1 Elizabeth I, Christopher Haigh. Chapter Six, ‘The Queen and the Parliament.’
2 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
3 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
4 Elizabeth’s Golden Speech, made to Parliament before she died in 1603.
5 Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, JE Neale
6 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
7 Elizabeth I, Christopher Haigh. Chapter Six, ‘The Queen and the Parliament.’
8 Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, JE Neale.
9 The emergence of a Nation State- The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. AGR Smith. Chapter 15.
10 Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, JE Neale.
11The emergence of a Nation State- The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. AGR Smith. Chapter 15.
12 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
13 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
14 Elizabeth I, Christopher Haigh. Chapter two, ‘The Queen and the Church.’
15 Elizabeth I, Christopher Haigh. Chapter Six, ‘The Queen and the Parliament.’
16 The Reign of Elizabeth I. ‘The crown and the Counties.’ Penry Williams
17 The Government of Elizabethan England, AGR Smith. 40
18 The Reign of Elizabeth I. ‘The crown and the Counties.’ Penry Williams
19 The emergence of a Nation State- The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. AGR Smith. Chapter 15.
20 The Reign of Elizabeth I. ‘Parliament’ GR Elton.
21 Elizabeth I, Christopher Haigh. Chapter Six, ‘The Queen and the Parliament.’
22 Access to History. Elizabeth I and the Government of England, Keith Randell. Chapter 5 ‘Elizabeth and Parliament.’
23 JE Neale, The Elizabethan House of Commons. 365
24 The Government of Elizabethan England, AGR Smith. ‘Parliament.’
25 Elizabeth I and her Parliaments. JE Neale.
26 The emergence of a Nation State- The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. AGR Smith. 132