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During her reign, one of the most turbulent relationships for Elizabeth I was not with any minister, foreign power or family member; it was with her own Parliament. The Elizabethan Parliaments were the central point of some of the most pivotal decisions of the Queen's reign. Let's examine what these were and the impact they had on Elizabeth I.
The Elizabethan Parliament did not function in the same way as the modern-day British Parliament. Whilst it did consist of the same two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, they were smaller - the House of Commons only had around 400-450 MPs during the Elizabethan period. Needless to say, the Members of Parliament were not representative of the entire country. Only the wealthy could vote in elections, and only those with a certain level of wealth could run to be MPs.
Parliament had two main roles; granting extraordinary revenue and passing laws, known as Acts.
An abbreviation of "Member of Parliament". In Elizabethan England, MPs were voted into office by wealthy landowners who could vote, notably not by the general population.
The Crown had two types of revenue; ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary revenue consisted of profits from Crown lands, feudal dues, and customs duties. Extraordinary revenue, by comparison, was made up of grants and taxes, which were given by Parliament.
While these were both important duties, Parliament was not strictly necessary for the monarch to run the country, and it met very irregularly - throughout her 45-year reign, Elizabeth only convened Parliament ten times. Parliament could not meet without being summoned by the monarch.
So far, we have established that the Elizabethan Parliament had a significant degree of power but that they were not necessary for the monarch to rule. So, exactly what place did Parliament have in the Elizabethan government?
The only aspect of governance that Parliament was absolutely necessary for was the raising of extraordinary revenue. While most laws were passed through Parliament, the Queen could still make laws through a royal proclamation without the need for Parliament's approval. Equally, the day-to-day running of the country was done by the Queen's Privy Council, not by Parliament.
Below is a table which lists all the Parliaments during Elizabeth's reign, when they occurred, what they discussed, and how they ended.
|Number||Date||Issues of Discussion||Outcome|
|1||1558-9||Mainly religion - this was the Parliament that restored much of the Reformation-era legislation that had been undone by Elizabeth's predecessor, Mary I. Questions were asked about marriage and succession.||The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were passed to create the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. The Treason Act and the Act of First Fruits and Tenths (a tax on the clergy) were also passed.|
|2||1562-3||Religion and Taxation. Parts of the Religious Settlement had still not been carried out, and Elizabeth wanted money for national defence - particularly with the Scottish border. More questions about succession.||A committee was set up to deal with the defence budget, and this was sorted out in the second session of this Parliament. Several other pieces of legislation were also passed to improve poor relief, land usage, wages, and the navy.|
|3||1571||Religious issues took centre stage again alongside the usual calls for Elizabeth to marry.||Two bills regarding religious matters were passed before Elizabeth decreed that, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, religious matters were hers to deal with and were not Parliament's business. She once again rejected the calls to marry.|
|4||1572 - 1581||First Session: Discussion of the consequences of the Ridolfi Plot that had aimed to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.||First Session: Elizabeth agreed to the execution of the Duke of Norfolk. Parliament voted nearly unanimously for Mary to be executed, but Elizabeth vetoed that.|
|Second Session: General legislation on things like poor relief and unemployment. Wentworth made his speech.||Second Session: Several bills concerning poor law were passed.|
|Third Session: Dealing with Jesuits.||Third Session: An Act against Sedition was passed.|
|5||1584-6||Called to deal with the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, which had raised big concerns about the safety of the Queen - this was exacerbated by the recent assassination of William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch Prince.||Laws were passed to control the movement and actions of Jesuits and Seminary priests; treason laws were tightened. An MP, Dr William Parry, was found to be a Catholic spy and was executed in 1585. Discussions of further religious issues were stopped by Elizabeth.|
|6||1586||Called to discuss the Babington Plot that had been discovered and to finally deal with Mary, Queen of Scots.||On 12 October, both houses presented a joint petition calling for Mary's execution. Eventually, Elizabeth signed the death warrant, resulting in Mary's execution in February 1587. Afterwards, Puritan MPs tried to discuss religious reform but were quickly shut down by Elizabeth and sent to the Tower for several weeks.|
|7||1589||Summoned following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Elizabeth asked for a double subsidy to strengthen England's defence against Spain. The opening was delayed for as long as possible as Elizabeth did not want to face the inevitable calls for religious reform.||In spite of opposition, the double subsidy was approved. At the opening of the session, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton, ordered both houses to avoid talking about religious reform.|
|8||1593||Called to deal with the threat of Spanish invasion and the Queen's expenses.||MP Peter Wentworth tried to present a bill to establish the royal succession - Elizabeth I was greatly offended, and Wentworth was thrown in the Tower.MP James Morice introduced a bill to restrict the jurisdiction of bishops, but it was rejected by the Queen, and he was put under house arrest.Two more bills were passed to restrict the rights of Catholics.|
|9||1597||Summoned to address food shortages and the need for more social legislation.||Bills to reduce enclosure and increase farmland were passed. Multiple bills to aid the poor and homeless were also passed. Taxation to support the war in Spain and to quell unrest in Ireland was also approved.|
|10||1601||Taxation for national defence and the question of the Crown's granting of monopoly rights, which many MPs did not like.||The subsidy was agreed upon fairly quickly. However, debate on the abuse of monopolies was incredibly fierce. Elizabeth defused the situation by inviting all MPs to her house and giving her 'Golden Speech'. The Elizabethan Poor Laws were passed; these would stay in English law until 1834.|
As previously stated, Elizabeth I did not have a particularly easy relationship with Parliament. It seems that she viewed Parliament as a necessary evil, as she carefully restricted what was talked about in Parliament. This created a lot of conflict between Elizabeth and her Parliaments over several issues during her reign.
Below are the main causes of arguments between Elizabeth I and her Parliament.
Since the minute she came to the throne, the question of who Elizabeth I would marry became one of Parliament's greatest concerns, as with a husband, Elizabeth would have children and therefore continue her line of succession. Elizabeth's death with no children would end the Tudor line of succession, and the crown would pass to either the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, or her son, James VI of Scotland, which worried Parliament greatly.
Did you know? Parliament was mostly Protestant, so they did not want a Catholic successor. Also, they wanted to avoid the chaos that a Catholic monarch might bring - as had happened during the mid-Tudor crisis.
In 1559, Elizabeth delivered a speech in response to the first of many petitions from Parliament to marry. In the speech, she explained that her primary concern, as given to her by God, was the governance of the realm and the wellbeing of her subjects - and that it would be silly to try and devote herself to marriage at the same time.
To conclude, I am already bound unto a husband, which is the Kingdom of England; and that may suffice you: and this makes me wonder if you forget yourselves, the pledge of this alliance which I have made with my kingdom.1
- Elizabeth I, 1559
Elizabeth's response was clear and firm. While she did not rule out marriage altogether, she stated that her primary concern was her duty to rule the country, and nothing would come before that. Despite this speech, it would not be the last time Parliament would petition her to marry.
In 1566, Parliament tried to force the subject by putting it up for discussion in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Needless to say, Elizabeth I was furious at Parliament's boldness and railed against them in another speech, saying how the issue of her marriage was an entirely personal one to be decided by no one else but her.
Did you know? Panic about the succession was especially high at this point; four years earlier, Elizabeth had caught smallpox and nearly died, revealing how much of a crisis her succession might create.
It is hardly surprising that religion was a contentious issue between Elizabeth I and her Parliament. Generally, the main threat to her authority was Catholicism. However, in Parliament, it was the Puritans, the extreme Protestants, who angered Elizabeth the most with their attempts for further reform of the Church of England.
Did you know? The Puritans wanted the Church of England to be more like the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. This Church was not run by Bishops and Archbishops but by committees of elected clergy.
One culprit, in particular, was Walter Strickland, a Puritan MP who made several attempts to force the discussion of religion. In 1571, he put forward a bill to change the Book of Common Prayer and ban the wearing of vestments. Elizabeth ended up closing Parliament so that his bill could not be discussed, effectively censoring him. In her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth I felt that matters of religion should be her prerogative and hers alone - Parliament should not be involved.
This is the name for the sole authority a monarch has to make decisions in certain areas. For Elizabeth I, this consisted of religious matters, her succession, and some foreign policy.
The use of the Royal Prerogative and her abrupt shutting down of Parliament made some MPs angry. In particular, Peter Wentworth, a Puritan MP, reacted to Elizabeth stopping the discussion of her marriage and succession by saying that Parliament should have the right to discuss whatever it wanted.
In 1576, Wentworth made a famous speech in which he claimed that MPs did not have freedom of speech, describing Elizabeth's demands on Parliament to be 'injurious to the freedom of speech and consultation.'2 Wentworth was thrown in the Tower of London for his trouble - which only leaned more weight to his cause! Elizabeth I would eventually ban the discussion of religion in Parliament in the 1580s.
On 30 November 1601, Parliament met to hear a speech from Elizabeth I. It was expected that this would be a speech giving her opinion on the very pressing matters of pricing and economics. However, Elizabeth proceeded to deliver a speech, not about economics, but rather one expressing her love for her subjects.
And though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser Princes sitting in this Seat, yet you never had, nor shall have any that will love you better.3
- Elizabeth I, 1601.
This was an incredibly unexpected and heartfelt gesture from the Queen. At the age of 68, it is likely that Elizabeth I realised that this could be her last Parliament, and those she was addressing knew it too. The speech left many of the MPs in tears; it was not an event that any of them would forget in a hurry. Queen Elizabeth I died two years later, in 1603, after a short bout of illness.
Elizabeth was very strict about what Parliament could and could not discuss. For example, she banned Parliament from discussing both religion and the issue of succession during her reign.
Parliament was worried about what would happen when Elizabeth I died, as she had no clear heir. This was why Parliament wanted Elizabeth I to be married.
Elizabeth I called Parliament 10 times during her 45-year reign.
Parliament had the power to pass laws and grant extraordinary revenue.
Elizabeth had a rough relationship with Parliament. Several times, MPs disagreed with how Elizabeth managed Parliament. For example, MP William Strickland claimed that Parliament did not have free speech.
How many parliaments did Elizabeth I have?
True or False: One of the most pressing issues for the Elizabethan parliament was Elizabeth's succession.
Complete the sentence: Elizabeth's final speech to Parliament became known as her ____ speech.
Which of these did Parliament have the authority to grant?
True or False: Parliament was responsible for the day to day running of the country.
When was Elizabeth I's last Parliament?
What was the name for the sole authority a monarch has to make decisions in certain areas?
What happened to MP Peter Wentworth when he tried to bring up free speech in parliament?
He was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
How many parliaments were called concerning the Catholic threat from Mary Queen of Scots?
When did Elizabeth I ban the discussion of religion in Parliament?
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