‘Meddling and troublesome’- how accurate a description is this of Elizabeth I’s parliaments?

Henry VIII’s reign had seen the monarch using Parliament as a way of sanctioning his own religious and political wishes, to give legitimacy to constitutional changes as by gaining the consent of Parliament, technically a representation of the English people, Henry could claim that the changes had the support of the country. However, Parliament had merely passed all the Bills and Acts that Henry had requested with little or no discussion.

However, neither Elizabeth nor her siblings possessed the force of personality necessary to control Parliament with such ease, and it was during her reign that they began to increase in power. Due to the structure of the English government there existed technically a balance of power between the monarch and Parliament, in which Parliament had to give its consent to proposals by the Queen in order for them to become law. However, final authority undoubtedly lay with the monarch and according to custom and tradition, Parliament was expected to merely consider the issues that the Queen raised, and give their consent for them to become laws, which was seen as their duty as loyal subjects.

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There were certain subjects which lay within the royal prerogative, which Elizabeth did not wish to have Parliament discuss or advise her on. Within this domain lay issues of national importance, such as religion, foreign policy, royal finance, whether or not she should marry, who should succeed her, and matters of a personal nature such as who she chose to favour. When they did attempt to involve themselves in these issues there was often friction, but it is perhaps unfair to go so far as to describe Elizabeth’s Parliaments as meddling and troublesome.

The main bones of contention between Elizabeth and Parliament appear to have been the issue of her marriage, and dispute over the rate of reform within the Church of England (the Commons had some fairly radical Puritan MPs and Elizabeth was unwilling to sway from her moderate and somewhat conservative religious views). The fate of Mary Queen of Scots was also another area where Elizabeth’s Parliament had a clash of opinion with Elizabeth.

Many people felt that the Elizabeth’s hold on the throne would only be secured once she married, as the view that a woman could not rule effectively was held to be self-evident. Therefore, the hope that she would marry and produce an heir (to ensure the continuation of the Tudor dynasty and avoid a return to the factional infighting of the Wars of the Roses) was widely expressed even in Elizabeth’s first Parliament. By 1563, the second time that parliament met, many MPs were determined that the marriage question would be resolved. Elizabeth’s attempts to warn her Parliament that she was not willing to discuss the matter with them were ignored. However, she summoned both houses and made a statement that clarified her wish to be left alone on this issue. The fact that this was not received with widespread dissatisfaction indicates respect for Elizabeth’s wishes and trust in her intentions and actions. It appears that Parliament realised that this matter should be left in Elizabeth’s own hands for the time being.

However, by the time of her next Parliament in 1566 they appeared to be somewhat troubled by her lack of action concerning her marriage (especially in light of her episode of smallpox during which it was feared she would die and leave England without an heir that was desirable to any of her Privy council or MPs), and they sent Elizabeth a petition regarding marriage and succession. Their attempt to persuade her into marriage was not met with any desire for discussion. Her reply was “At present it is not convenient; nor shall be without some peril unto you and certain danger unto me”. This firmer tone than she had used three years earlier indicated to all that as far as Elizabeth was concerned she did not wish to be troubled on the issue of marriage or the succession, and that it was the queen’s business. It became clear in the years to follow that as far as Elizabeth was concerned, the time was never ‘convenient’ to discuss this particular issue.

This was heavily linked to the problem of Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s failure to name her successor led to ambiguity over who was to be heir to the throne of England in the event that Elizabeth was to die childless. Mary was Elizabeth’s cousin through her father Henry VIII, and due to the lack of surviving offspring of Henry, she was the most obvious choice for the succession based on precedence of birth. However, she was an unpopular choice for most English politicians due to her ties with Catholic France (she had been brought up in France in preparation for her marriage with the heir to the French throne, Francis). Despite the dissolution of this link when Francis died in 1562, the English suspicion of a Scottish-Franco alliance was still prevalent. Many feared that were Mary to take the throne, England would become a mere pawn of the continental power of France. Her Catholicism was also of course a huge threat as she became the figurehead for various Catholic plots, and hence her very existence was presented a threat to Elizabeth and her Government. As Catholics believed Elizabeth to be illegitimate they were anxious to have her replaced with the ‘rightful’ heir who in their eyes was Mary.

By 1571 Parliament demanded the execution of Mary, following the exposure of the Ridolfi plot. Elizabeth’s reluctance was seen as exasperating but of course, she held final say over the matter and Mary survived. She held her ground over the unremitting pressure and fought proposals to have Mary attainted and barred from the succession. It is not clear why she felt such reluctance to execute Mary, but perhaps it was a personal dislike of executing monarchy (she didn’t want to give the impression that this was an acceptable thing to do), however unpragmatic this may have been. Elizabeth used her customary skill to divert parliament’s attention to another matter. However, by the 1580s Mary represented such a danger to Elizabeth’s personal safety that it became impossible for her to ignore the issue. Mary’s treasonous behaviour was apparently exposed in 1586 by letters in which she plotted with Anthony Babington, a fervent Catholic, to murder Elizabeth and place herself on the throne. Unbeknownst to her, the correspondence was being read in Walsingham, and relayed straight to Elizabeth. Babington was arrested, but Mary’s fate still lay in Elizabeth’s hands. Her Privy Council persuaded her to call another parliament in the hope that she could be pressured by popular opinion in to executing Mary. But even with the huge pressure of impending assassination plots and the lobbying of her entire Parliament, Elizabeth dithered. In the end of course, Mary was executed, but Elizabeth maintained that she regretted the decision, and it was taken without her final consent.

The issue of religion was another area in which Elizabeth wished to be free to exercise the royal prerogative, but over which her parliaments became more and more vocal, despite her efforts to suppress this. The Neale interpretation would lead us to believe that Elizabeth was constantly at war with her Parliament over her reluctance to form a Church of England that was completely free from all Catholic trappings. The evidence used to support this theory is that during her first parliament of 1559 she was forced to adopt a more Protestant religious settlement than she really had intended. This so-called ‘Puritan Choir’ are also credited with lobbying her for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and stirring up trouble in 1563 and 66 over her refusal to marry or name a successor. Indeed, the fact that in 1566 parliament attempted for the first time to refuse to meet her demands for tax until she had satisfied their own grievances is made much of. However, it has come to light that all the members of this Puritan Choir were closely affiliated with members of the Queen’s Privy Council.

Indeed, about a dozen who were considered by Neale to be part of this ‘pressure group’ were in fact the Queen’s councillors. So it appears that on these occasions they were merely using the House of Commons as an extension of the Council to place pressure on the Queen over issues where she appeared irrationally reluctant to take action, but which they felt were especially pressing to the Queen’s personal safety and the securing of the Tudor monarchy, such as her marriage and succession, and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. So in fact they did not represent an opposition party in any sense, but were working in conjunction with the inner circle of Elizabeth’s government. The only significantly outspoken MPs appear to have been the Wentworth brothers Peter and Paul. Peter made speeches in the Commons, criticising Elizabeth’s religious policies and advocating further reform within the Church of England. He desired a Church that closely represented Puritan ideals, and was more similar to Calvinist churches in Europe. However, he was the exception rather than the rule within Parliament, and his speeches were met with warnings that he should moderate his conduct (indeed he was not even able to finish his speech attacking Elizabeth due to interruptions from other MPs) and he was eventually thrown in to the tower where he died four years later.

Hence, it appears that although on the surface Elizabeth’s reign represented the beginning of the shift in the dynamic between the monarch and Parliament, there is a danger of viewing events with hindsight and trying to make them fit in to the sequence of time more neatly than they perhaps do. On reflection Elizabeth’s parliament still had a great deal of respect for her and in no way set out to undermine her authority or question her right or the right of the institution of the monarchy over them. When they did clash it was over issues on which Elizabeth’s safety or that of the Tudor dynasty was at stake, indicating a concern for her welfare and that of the country rather than any significant differing of opinion or wish to create unrest. This is especially well illustrated over the marriage and succession issue, and the problem of Mary Queen of Scots.

Therefore, although perhaps Parliament can be said to have illustrated more independence of opinion than ever before, Neale’s theory of the Puritan Choir representing an opposition party within Parliament has been significantly discredited for us to safely say that Parliament was in fact an extension of Elizabeth’s Privy Council, therefore working with her rather than against her. If anything on occasions where her occasionally irrational decisions threatened to pose a danger, her parliaments merely attempted to put enough pressure by public opinion to coerce her in to taking the lesser of two evils. So, while perhaps being more meddling than previously seen, it would be unfair to describe Elizabeth’s Parliaments as troublesome as they were ultimately acting out of concern for Elizabeth’s safety and a wish to create stability within England.