Parliament and Prerogative in the Reign of Elizabeth

1. The current state of the historiography:

  • Neale (whig): rise of a puritan parliamentary opposition.
  • Russell (revisionist): no ideological conflict, rather faction, patronage, pressure on government institutions, e.g. taxation and war. Parliament an ‘event’.
  • Elton (whig in one sense, revisionist in another): supremacy of statute and thesis of ‘king-in-Parliament’ since 1530s; conceptual nature of Parliament to be derived from study of its ‘normal’ functionality, i.e. legislation and taxation. Parliament an ‘institution’.
  • Jones (revisionist): settlement of 1559 was the government’s settlement (but who is the ‘government’, problem of Elizabeth and Cecil, problem of queen’s religion).
  • Graves (revisionist): follows Elton on ‘king-in-Parliament’, emphasis on ‘men-of-business’ as the agents and servants of privy councillors.
  • Dean (moderate revisionist): Parliament as an arena where the political and religious and (especially) social and economic issues of the nation could be aired.
  • Collinson (whig rehabilitation?): restores Neale’s emphasis on politics in a more restrained and nuanced way, argues for independence of ‘men of business’ and power of religion.

2. How did this situation arise?

  • Problems of the sources: bills and acts and journals versus diaries, i.e. official versus unofficial records (Elton versus Neale).
  • Different interpretations in the 16th century of the conceptual nature of Parliament: variant models (e.g. of Sir Thomas Smith, De republica anglorum [c.1565] and John Hooker, Order and Usage of the Keeping of a Parliament in England [1572]).
  • Confusion over issue of ‘counsel’. What was the status of Parliament here? Writs of summons to peers invited them to ‘counsel’ the queen on religion and the defence of the realm. Elizabeth ambiguous on the matter. The closest she came to acknowledging MPs were ‘counsellors’ was 1593, when she told the Commons that ‘common knights and burgesses of the House … [were] councillors but during the parliament’ in contrast to privy councillors who were always counsellors.
  • Confusion over political dynamics of the clashes over ‘matters of state’. Matters which Elizabeth held to be part of her prerogative and did not allow to be discussed, or else she did not take advice when they arose: her marriage (sometimes), the Protestant succession (always), foreign policy (especially Scotland and the Netherlands), Mary, Queen of Scots, the further reformation of religion. These became arcana imperii, or ‘mysteries (matters) of state’. Result was clashes of 1563 (marriage/succession), 1566 (marriage/succession, religion), 1571 (religion), 1572 (queen of Scots), 1584-5 (Bond of Association), 1586-7 (queen of Scots). NB Cecil and 1563, 1566, 1584-5 (Alford, Collinson). Cecil’s letter to Walsingham after the Babington plot, when Elizabeth was refusing to sign the death warrant, ‘We stick upon Parliament, which her Majesty mislikes to have, but we all persist, to make the burden better borne and the world abroad better satisfied’.

3. Parliamentary functions, procedure and management; role of the Speaker; the rise of committees; membership, elections etc.

  • Functions: legislation (crown, commonwealth), finance, communication with localities.
  • Speaker was a crown nominee and closed monitored by privy councillors who sat close to the Speaker’s chair.
  • Divisions or votes the exception; ‘voices’ the rule. Privy councillors and ‘men of business’ carefully steered debates.
  • Business prepared by Privy Council in advance of session.
  • Elections rarely contested before Elizabeth (Hartley, Kishlansky). Emphasis on ‘selection’. Perhaps half of late-Elizabethan county elections may have been contested (1584, 1586, 1597, 1601), but only a handful disputed.
  • Stabilising influence of House of Lords.

4. Did Parliament become more important? Was there a growth of political consciousness?

  • Law and sovereignty: Elton and Graves argue for king, Lords and Commons as co-equal in the legislative process and as a ‘parliamentary’ trinity since the 1530s, but this makes a nonsense of the 1640s and 1680s. Prerogative and parliament, or (as it was often put in the 16th century) ‘imperial’ kingship (Henry VIII, Elizabeth I) and ‘king-in-Parliament’ (St German, Richard Hooker) were in tension. Did sovereignty lie in the ruler, or in ‘king-in-Parliament’? When Henry VIII said in 1542, ‘we at no time stand so highly in our estate royal, as in the time of Parliament, wherein we as head, and you as members, are conjoined and knit together into one body politic’, he had imagined an untrammelled legislative sovereign that with the assistance of Parliament had enabled the king to escape from the control of the Church and local custom (including the common law in the sense that the common law could be changed or reformed by acts of Parliament) and in theory allowed him an absolute power or (as Elton said) ‘omnicompetence’ over all his dominions.
  • The Reformation and royal supremacy are crucial. The Reformation drove the view that the royal supremacy (= a dimension of royal prerogative) should properly be exercised in Parliament and not by the monarch alone (St German, Cecil, Cartwright, Hooker).
  • General taxation could only be granted by Parliament. Cf. Wolsey and the Amicable Grant.
  • The ex-religious lands and the issue of their retention by their purchasers heightened the role of Parliament (Richard Hooker noted this, and this continued to the 1680s [Marvell]).
  • Printing of statutes and transcription of debates and speeches; encouraged a parliamentary consciousness and a meticulous attitude to law and legal citation.
  • Localities and socio-economic legislation: JPs and gentry sought to use Parliament to achieve economic relief and legislation for the commonwealth, poor laws, road building schemes, drainage etc. Part of the social as well as the political fabric.
  • Monopolies debates of 1597 and 1601: genuine ideological splits over prerogative papered over by rhetoric (Sacks). Moreover, debates occurred when the succession was de facto settled. Rise of lobbying. The crux is that monopolies overrode the common law and rested solely on the prerogative. A crisis averted at the expense of the patentees. 12 monopolies annulled, and others deemed litigable in the courts of common law, but this promised more than it delivered. NB Lack of rewards for royal service in 1590s.
  • Rise of a ‘subversive constitutionalism’ (Cromartie). Culminates in debates of 1628, when Commons presented themselves as guardians of the common law and argued that the common law was itself omnicompetent, that it subsumed the royal prerogative, and that common law was itself the custodian of the rights of ‘propriety’ enjoyed by subjects in their lands and estates, i.e. the basis of their ‘liberty’ and ‘property’.

5. The basis of change

Four things altered the relationship of Parliament and prerogative in the reign of Elizabeth: the Protestant settlement in 1559, the ‘British’ succession crisis, the view that the royal supremacy be properly exercised in Parliament, the clashes over monopolies at the end of the reign. In the ‘acephalous’ (Collinson) conditions of Elizabeth’s reign – rule by an unmarried female with no heir – the tension between Elizabeth’s view of her ‘imperial’ monarchy — the idea that sovereignty was vested in her alone — and the conviction of Cecil and the Privy Council that sovereignty lay in the ‘queen-in-Parliament’ if the Protestant state were to be preserved – was played out politically.

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