Parliament and the Council

Until quite recently Elizabethan scholarship has concentrated almost solely upon the person of Elizabeth herself. The history was adulatory to the point of comedy (one student of the period apparently asked her tutor if he was in love with Elizabeth) and has consequently produced a rather distorted picture of the political scene. Recent historians, however, have now shown us that Elizabethan politics derived from central administrative rule and thus from institutions as much as charismatic leadership. Thus the systems of government that surrounded the Queen have come under closer scrutiny. Here I shall examine two of the most important: the Council and the Parliament.

The whigish view presents Elizabeth's Parliaments in terms of development: it was a step closer towards its present democratic form. The Houses Of Parliament were represented as being an organized opposition to the Queen based on Puritan influences looking to further the Protestant cause. However there is no evidence to show that any sort of Puritan party was operating in either House so this view has been largely debunked. This is not to say that Parliament was powerless. Parliament's power was, very broadly speaking, based on popular power (as opposed to the executive power operating in the council). Practically speaking, this gave it the right to grant taxes and affirm Common Law. In some respects it had a great mandate to govern: it was made up of those individuals who paid for England, and those who fought her wars; it represented those who had a real interest in her success. Yet the Council had a greater mandate: it was appointed by the Queen who in turn was appointed by God; a version of second hand divine right. However by Elizabeth's time Parliament was also getting more direct regal blessing. The Queen appeared more (despite her loathing of it) and continued to issue statutes in coalition with it.

The Queen had nearly lowered herself to a mere equal partner in law making, but not quite. Parliament could only form at the Queen's will and their bills could be vetoed at any time. Elizabeth was well aware of her superior hand and so adopted a condescending attitude towards her Parliaments: she called it only as an expedient and even then not often (far less than her predecessors, only thirteen times in forty five years in fact). What power Parliaments did have, furthermore, was seriously eroded by some rather self-destructive actions. Firstly, many of its members regularly failed to attend, most dropping off during the course of a bill (as in 1571 when the Treasons bill was presented). The House of Commons actually had to introduce a system of roll calls and fines to ensure enough members actually turned up to vote. Perhaps this is an indication of contemporary opinions of the importance of Parliament: it was suffered if necessary but not trusted as a vehicle for power. This is also apparent in the facts that only 10% of MPs were active speakers while the average voting rate was a mere 47%. Secondly, once a Parliament had been called most MPs took the opportunity to pursue their private interests. These were mostly land and property issues: small scale and lacking in national and historical interest. The effect of them, however, was to create a legislative logjam, holding up bills of greater importance and wider scope. This became a genuine problem, forcing the Queen in 1572 to order a ban on all private bills so that the Commons could concentrate on the problem of Mary Stuart. Parliament, therefore, was a rather poorly attended institution rife with selfish interests. Although the latter is true of most political systems the former cannot apply to the Council.

Elizabeth's Council, for the most part centred on William Cecil, was quite a small affair: nineteen members at most but down to eleven by the end of her reign. It was a very stable system, most members working well into old age. Cecil, himself, worked until his death in the 1590s. The Queen filled her Council with friends and relations that made for a mostly compatible and cohesive force and lessened the possibility of the Council being used against her (although this did not always work in practice). Parliament met only very occasionally whereas the Council turned into a day-to-day institution. It had a much more consistent importance than the Parliament running the general sweep of the country's government as opposed to exceptional imperatives. Of the 25 councillors that sat between 1568 and 1582 eighteen were relations, this brought cohesion and loyalty leaving less room for factional interests (or rather diverse factional interests). As the old guard succumbed to old age in the 1590s, sons followed in their footsteps: Buckhurst, Cecil, Hunsdon and Knollys all assuming their fathers' positions. The Council was a small compact group, altogether less cumbersome than Parliament but, importantly just as reliant upon its monarch. She chose who were members and if anyone became too powerful she could crush them as Essex all too clearly discovered.

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