During her time as the queen of England, Elizabeth Tudor had to make many decisions on matters both political and personal, such as new religious policies, whether she would marry, whom she would name her heir and also how much power and privilege to delegate to her parliament. The House of Commons and the House of Lords made up Elizabeth’s parliament; the Commons consisted of citizens elected by their constituency, and in the Lords there were around 100 hereditary peers and bishops. At the time, the reigning monarch got a lot more input as to what laws could be passed, and so when decisions had to be made Elizabeth was often very involved in the process. However, this occasionally led to disputes between her and her parliament, as they did not always agree on every matter.
Overall, most of the disputes between the queen and her parliament were easily solved – mostly, when such an issue occurred, the queen exercised her prerogative powers to overrule the parliament, and through various methods such as banning topics of discussion, arresting any opposition and occasionally using her power of veto, she prevented any major parliamentary disagreements throughout her reign. In reality, she exercised her power of veto only a few times, and this shows that for the most part she managed to get her parliament to cooperate with her during her reign. When Elizabeth first came to the throne in 1558 she was faced with the difficult task of establishing a new common religion in a country fraught with religious tensions.
The first parliament called under Elizabeth convened on 25th January 1559, and its chief business was forming the new religious settlement. The general hatred of the burning of heretics under Mary, the rapid return of exiled Protestants to England, and Elizabeth’s known Protestant sympathies were all factors that led to a distinctly Protestant House of Commons. The Reformation Bill that was drafted by the Commons was recognisably biased against Catholicism; it defined the Communion in terms of Protestant theology (disagreeing with the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass), ordered that ministers should not wear vestments, banned images from churches and included abuse of the Pope in the litany. Naturally, this was met with much resistance in the House of Lords, as there were many Marian Catholic bishops who opposed the anti-Catholic ideas.
The Lords reworked much of the Bill, bringing back allowances for the belief in transubstantiation, the wearing of vestments and also refusing to give Elizabeth the title of Supreme Head of the Church. Elizabeth managed to move past the issues between the Commons and the Lords, opting to let the Catholic Lords keep many of their amendments in the Bill. Although she was known to be Protestant, she felt less strongly than many of the members in the Commons that Catholicism should be dealt with harshly. The historian Sir John Neale believes that a so-called ‘Puritan Choir’ worked to make the reforms more radically Protestant, but MPs forced Elizabeth to accept a more radical religious settlement than she wanted. However this is generally disputed nowadays; the queen’s priority was finding a compromise between the two factions and establishing a stable religion in her country.
She knew she would have to compromise with the Catholic bishops and take some of their demands into account in order to avoid angering the Catholics throughout the country. However, despite her lenience towards Catholicism in the Bill, she went on to replace many of the Catholic bishops in the House of Lords, showing them that although she let them amend the settlement, she had the ultimate power and could use it to overcome any opposition. The next time Elizabeth called parliament to session, several Privy councillors and bishops (led by Thomas Norton) tried to bring about further reforms in the Church. However, these attempts failed when Elizabeth effectively banned the topic of religion; she never allowed parliament to interfere with her ecclesiastical privileges.
In 1571, William Strickland called for Elizabeth to make amendments to the Prayer Book – she had him arrested, showing once and for all that decisions regarding religion were her responsibility and nobody else’s. Therefore, Elizabeth effectively made sure that parliament would cooperate with her over matters of religion. She made allowances during the first session of 1559 since drawing up a new Bill required input from both Protestant and Catholics in order to create a religion that would satisfy most of England. However, once this was established, Elizabeth used her powers to ensure that there were no further issues regarding religion; she did so effectively, and despite a few small problems such as Strickland’s arrest in 1571, the parliament understood that she did not want religion discussed, and for the most part they did cooperate with her desires on this matter. Another issue that challenged the parliament’s ability to cooperate with Elizabeth was that of marriage and succession.
In the parliaments of 1563 and 1566, the parliament urged the queen to marry, and later on in the sessions of 1572 and 1586 the queen was pressed to name a successor. In 1562, Elizabeth almost died after a bout of smallpox, being unmarried and childless, this made her subjects worry about the situation they would be left in if she did not survive; facing a potential war over who would succeed to the throne. Not long after, in the parliamentary session of 1563, the Commons drew up an official petition, asking Elizabeth to choose a suitor to marry and name a successor – her response was to tell them it was none of their business. However, she was up against a large group of influential opposition; the committee that drafted the petition included all eight Privy Councillors sitting in the Commons. This meant that she couldn’t go to her Council for advice as to how to respond – instead she had to rely on her own strength of mind and character to show the Commons that she did not approve of their pressuring her to make decisions.
Elizabeth had established herself as a capable queen from the start of her reign, and the main way she avoided being influenced on the matters of marriage and succession was her strong-mindedness and her ability to command her parliament. When it came to the topic of marriage, she was quoted as having said ‘I would rather be a beggar and single, than a queen and married’ – making several such statements during her time as queen, she had made it clear by the latter years of her reign that she would not marry. Whether she planned from the start to remain single, or whether this was the approach she adopted once she had grown too old, she always remained adamant that she would not let her parliament influence her.
However, throughout her reign, MPs and members of her Council continued to try, and so marriage was one issue that they were clearly more reluctant to cooperate on, despite Elizabeth’s ability to control how far they took their disagreements. When it came to the issue of succession, once again the parliament wouldn’t cooperate as much as it would on other issues, for example that of religion. From the first parliamentary session, Elizabeth was asked to name a successor, and it was a constant source of tension in the parliament when she refused to do so. Mary Queen of Scots, the next legitimate heir to the throne, married to the French king, and a Catholic, was seen as a threat to Elizabeth’s security, and Elizabeth was always faced with pressure from her parliament to do something about this. In 1572, the parliament tries to have Mary excluded from the succession, accusing her of treason as an excuse.
However, Elizabeth refused to sign any bill accusing Mary of treason, thus meaning she would not be ruled out of the succession, and so in 1586 the parliament took this one step further, demanding Mary’s execution. Although Mary was a potential threat to Elizabeth’s throne, Elizabeth respected her as her cousin and as the monarch of Scotland, and so parliament was prorogued for several months while Elizabeth tried to get out of signing her death warrant. However, this is one of the few cases where parliaments refusal to cooperate with Elizabeth’s wishes led to the queen being influenced, and eventually she signed a bill calling for Mary’s execution. This caused many issues between the queen and parliament, as she clearly regretted being influenced by the parliamentary pressure, trying to distance herself from the incident afterwards and using several men, such as the Scottish diplomat William Davison, as scapegoats for the event.
It is clear to see that the issues of marriage and succession were not ones that Elizabeth’s parliament wanted to cooperate on – they felt strongly that, should Elizabeth die, she should not leave them without an established successor, and they were willing to defy the queen’s wishes in order to push her on these issues. As a result of this refusal to cooperate, the queen lost her willpower – one of only a few times in her reign. Therefore marriage and succession are significant issues faced by Elizabeth and the parliament where they could not agree on what to do. All members of parliament were entitled to their parliamentary privileges; mainly freedom of speech and freedom from arrest. However, for some MPs this was not enough, and at times during Elizabeth’s reign certain members of parliament tried to increase their privileges, clearly acting against the queen’s wishes.
For example, in 1576, Peter Wentworth of the House of Commons made a speech publicly saying that the queen should not be allowed to dictate conversation topics. During Elizabeth’s reign she did exercise her royal prerogative and her power as monarch to forbid certain topics she didn’t want discussed behind her back, such as religion – and as a result the parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech was reduced during her reign. Wentworth demanded that all MPs should be able to use their privilege of freedom of speech. This seems like an example of parliament refusing to cooperate once more with Elizabeth, however Wentworth was only one man, making such statements unsupported by most of parliament.
Despite their occasional disagreements, parliament and Elizabeth were on the same side and so by standing up and speaking against the queen, Wentworth had effectively made a speech against his fellow parliamentarians as well. John Neale believes that Wentworth made his speech on behalf of the ‘Puritan Choir’, in support of a large portion of the Commons – however the Revisionist theory sees Wentworth as a rogue radical, an exception amongst the MPs. The events that followed suggest that the Revisionist theory is correct in this case; shortly following this speech, the House of Commons had Wentworth arrested and put in the Tower, thereby proving his point that certain topics could not be discussed without the threat of arrest.
However, in arresting Wentworth, the Commons were effectively acknowledging their reduction in freedom of speech and supporting the queen nonetheless, proving that at times parliament could cooperate with Elizabeth very well indeed. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, an issue came about between the queen and parliament that became known as the ‘monopolies crisis’ – monopolies were a form of patronage granted to courtiers by Elizabeth, favoured by the queen because they cost her nothing and bought her support from people at court. However, monopolies over basic commodities (such as giving a courtier exclusive control over the salt trade) led prices to rocket and lined the courtier’s pocket at the expense of the whole country.
As a result, monopolies were disliked greatly by members of parliament. Privy Council members benefitted too much from monopolies to support the MPs, however, and Robert Cecil’s resultant refusal to sympathise with parliament made the disagreement worse, until any subsidies requested by the government were unlikely to be supported by the Commons due to the tension. At this point, Elizabeth saw how much conflict was caused by the continuance of the giving of monopolies, and had to step in. She conceded to the Speaker’s request for her to suspend some monopolies, and the Commons were immediately satisfied. This movement signified the start of Elizabeth’s decline in power and status towards the end of her reign.
Although she remained the same powerful queen that she had been in her earlier years, respected by her subjects and capable of handling situations, her willpower had seemingly declined and rather than fight a further battle with the Commons she decided to give them what they wanted. In 1601, the queen made ‘The Golden Speech’, where she significantly reduced the number of monopolies amongst the courtiers. Although her message showed that she was conceding to the demands of parliament, she made the speech so well that this U-turn in her policies was as dignified as it could have been. Despite the Commons pressuring her into reducing monopolies, the queen remained respected in her defeat. However, this was another example of an issue over which parliament didn’t manage to cooperate well with the queen.
To conclude; there were several different issues throughout Elizabeth’s reign that led to disputes between her and parliament, and each time the two sides tackled the problems with varying levels of cooperation. The debate over parliamentary privileges is an example where the majority of the parliament in fact agreed with the queen, and the lack of cooperation in fact came from only a few individual members, for example Wentworth. The parliament also cooperated fairly well with Elizabeth on the matter of religion, as in 1559 they managed to draw up the new Religious Settlement having reached a fair compromise. The slight lack of cooperation experienced in further years, when members of parliament tried to bring up the topic of religion against the queen’s will (for example in the session of 1584-1585), again came from individual MPs, such as Strickland, rather than from parliament as a whole.
The two examples where cooperation between Elizabeth and parliament was lacking are in the case of deciding whom Elizabeth should marry and name her heir, and also what to do about the issue of monopolies. In one instance – that of the debate over marriage and succession – Elizabeth remained strong and would not let the parliament pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to. She remained in control throughout the decision making process, however it was an issue that continued to arise throughout her reign, in 1563, 1566 and 1586. The fact that the topic was raised by parliament so frequently shows that it was a matter on which they were never willing to cooperate.
When it comes to the issue of monopolies, parliament only considered this a problem in the final session of 1601, and the queen conceded soon afterwards. Therefore we cannot tell if this was an issue on which the parliament would eventually have managed to compromise. Overall, parliament did manage to mostly cooperate with Elizabeth I throughout her reign. There were a couple of times when individual MPs stood up against the queen, but in every instance she managed to quash the opposition using her prerogative powers and strong willpower.
Although the issue of marriage and succession seems like it was raised many times throughout her reign, it is worth remembering that in her 44 years as queen Elizabeth only summoned parliament 13 times, and so the parliament did not have many chances to disagree with the queen, let alone fall into serious disagreements. Therefore, despite the lack of cooperation over a few issues such as marriage, succession and monopolies, overall the queen managed to maintain control over both parliament and the amount of power the MPs held – and as a result the two sides were mostly able to cooperate throughout her reign.
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