Saturday, April 25, 2009

Question from Milly - How the Commons changed under Elizabeth

I am having some difficulties with the debate regarding whether the nature of the Commons changed under Elizabeth I. I study History A2, my exam board is OCR. In order to prove I’m not just being lazy I have read around and come up with this:

Neale – yes – power of commons increase – foreshadow civil war conflict –
Evidenced: Puritan choir – not present under Mary, of increasing importance
Elton – no – parliament was already well placed at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign = she couldn’t return the power to what it had been in the 1530s since it had already increased, but she did manage to monitor it and keep it from increasing anymore: the opposition within parliament was more marked not because it was of greater strength but because a large number of Mps were apathetic towards political affairs under E = the limited number of opponents was more notable.
1. I know that a large number of MPs played truant in Elizabeth’s parliament – I’m not sure how this compared to the parliaments of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I?
2. I know these as the two sides of the debate, but I don’t have any facts to back them up, particularly on Neale’s side of the argument.
3. I can’t find any information looking at, if commons didn’t increase in importance in relation to Elizabeth, did they in relation to the Lords?

I have read through my textbook and I have a copy of Stephen Lee’s The Reign of Elizabeth I but I can’t seem to find any concrete evidence for this debate. Any help would be amazing, even if you can only point me in the direction of historians that could help, or sites or lectures I could try and get access to. Obviously if anyone understands the debate well and could explain it to me a bit better this would be perfect.

The question that appeared in June 2003, OCR was “assess the view that the nature of the commons changed during Elizabeth’s reign” – however the OCR website doesn’t provide mark schemes before 2005.

Thank you in advance for any help you can offer,
Best wishes,


PhD Historian said...

WOW! That is an impressive question! And it only serves to reinforce my belief that the British are light-years ahead of the Americans when it comes to education in History. You would not see an essay question of that scope and depth in most US universities until the post-graduate level.

I am definitely not an expert in the history of Parliament, but one book does leap immediately to mind: Stephen Alford's The Early Elizabethan Polity. It reassesses the relationship between Elizabeth and Cecil and between those two and Parliament in the first ten to fifteen years of her reign. It might serve as a good counterpoint to Elton's more traditional argument, since Alford essentially argues that Elizabeth was far more "in charge" than many have previously thought.

You might also try searching the RHS's Bibliography of British and Irish History Online (if you have not already done so) using the keywords Parliament or Commons and limiting the dates to 1550-1600. I see quite a few journal articles that might be useful for framing your argument.

kb said...


Big subject much in need of more research.

You might want to check This site includes the Journals of the House of Commons as recorded by Sir Simonds d'Ewes. This reads a bit like a recording of the debates. However, it does not cover all Elizabethan parliamentary sessions.

Other sources you might want to look at include Hartley, "Elizabeth's Parliaments: Queen, Lords and Commons (1992), Graves, "The Tudor Parliaments: Crown, Lords and Commons" (1985). Graves also has an interesting article "The Common lawyers and the privy council's parliamentary men-of-business, 1584-1601" in the journal Parliamentary History 8 (1989) 189-215 and Adams "The Dudley clientele and the House of Commons, 1559-1586 in the same issue on pages 216-239.

If you are near a large university library you might want to ring them and ask if they have a copy of the History of Parliament: House of Commons that you can come look at. Usually it is not available for checking out of the library.

The argument is ongoing. Did parliamentary power increase under the 2 queens-regnant (Mary and Elizabeth) partly as a reaction to female rule, or as part of the natural course of the development of representative institutions and institutional power? Or did Elizabeth exercise firmer control over Parliament than heretofore recognized.

Neale is going to be an issue no matter what. You might also want to look at Stone, "The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642 (1972) where he also discusses the relationship between parliament and the crown.

I tend to side with Graves who argues that personality and relationships between parliamentarians and the privy council and the crown were key in managing the business of the commons. You might want to move from Neale to Graves for the opposing side of the argument to Elton.

I can't speak to truancy - check the History of Parliament (Bindoff and Hasler eds) for some discussion of truancy.

Elton himself might have revised his opinion of an apathetic commons if he had been privy to the latest research. The number of Elizabethan parliamentarians increased greatly. The Carey/Knollys kinship network had 29 members in Elizabethan parliaments. (The History of Parliament tome has a few inconsistencies on this point). George Carey, 2nd baron Hunsdon increased managed to get 6 additional seats/boroughs created for the Isle of Wight where he was Captain. This family block fairly consistently protected the queen's prerogatives and, in the case of Sir Francis Knollys, even when they contradicted with personal beliefs. Knollys tended to argue religion with Elizabeth which got him into trouble but he did not argue with her policy when in the Commons.

My personal opinion is that Elizabeth's government was dynastic in nature. This means that the relationships between the household, privy council, parliament and military and foreign relations were based on kinship networks that emanated from the queen. Therefore relationship to the queen was essential. If not a blood relationship like the Careys then at least one of intimacy or familiarity like Dudley's or Cecil's.

If you look through the dynastic lens - as opposed to the institutional lens - then the key question becomes how good was your relationship with the queen? How much did she trust you? How much did you trust her? In this light, your original questions, while accurately assessing the nature of the historiographial debate, beg for a revision to the terms of the debate.

Sorry - I seem to have gone on a bit too much here...but I hope the references help you out some.