~ or "sweet is the name of liberty, but the thing itself is of inestimable value"
The reign of Elizabeth I saw several parliamentary disputes that boded for the great constitutional questions of the next century which would eventually dissolve the country into Civil War. The Puritan party1 in the House of Commons (the lower house of England's bicameral legislature) were particularly disposed to take a principled and consistent stand which mercilessly retarded the discharge of good parliamentary business. It is both misleading and grossly anachronistic to think of the Puritans as an "opposition party" to the "Royal party" as has been inferred in past historical work, but the sombre and thrifty attitude of this group of people acting over the entire reign deserve to be grouped together in some way. There is an essential continuity between late sixteenth century parliaments and the troublesome Stuart assemblies. The self confident, increasingly more influential and educated2 gentry class were much more comfortable in the bosom of Puritanism and so it was unsurprising that opposition to the Royal perogative and this flavour of Christianity would tie together.
In 1571 William Strickland introduced a bill for reform of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the achivements of the Reformation Parliament (1529-36), so far as the Crown was concerned, had been the affirmation that religious policy such as this was the sole perogative of the Crown, and always had been - the Parliament was merely belatedly recognising this. Elizabeth saw Strickland's bill as a plain invasion of her perogative, and had him summoned before the Privy Council for his troubles. He was initially banned from attending further sessions of Parliament but the Queen reversed her decision amidst uproar in the House. As we shall see, a large majority of the House of Commons was essentially conservative, despite the efforts of agitators, but they saw freedom from arrest during a session of the House as one of their essential liberties. They ensured this, but Strickland's bill was not mentioned again. It seemed the Queen's policy had succeeded.
The next session of Parliament was held a year later in 1572, and in the intervening months the issue weighed heavily on the mind of one Puritan, Peter Wentworth MP of Northamptonshire. Whilst he was of course pleased that this right of Members at least had been guaranteed, he saw at stake a higher principle on which no compromise could be meted (as Puritans were wont to do). Privy Councillors sat in the House, and they reported its discourse back to the Queen, and by way of this rumours of what the Queen approved and did not approve of would filter back. Wentworth was concerned that this would hamper Members' desire or even ability to speak their minds. He was also concerned that rash words spoken in passion might be communicated to the Queen, who would make incomplete appraisals of Members based on them. Peter was not the first man nor even the first Wentworth to consider this issue, for Paul Wentworth MP, his brother, had raised the question in 1566 as regards the issue of the succession,
'Whether her Highness's commandment, forbidding the Lower House to speak or treat any more of the succession and of any of their excuses in that behalf, be a breach of the liberty of the free speech of the house or not?'
A veto was issued by Elizabeth banning the House from discussing the issue altogether, much less bombarding her with their unwanted advice. In Elizabeth's defence, it must be said that Parliament were indeed treading on unknown territory: in the past, the Lower House had been used mainly as a tool of the executive branch to change the succession. It attempting to do so with a will of its own was a relatively new development, and when they tried to tack a promise that Elizabeth would marry onto the end of a fiscal bill (a rather extreme and underhand form of redress before supply, one would say), the Queen was furious. She admonished the Lower House for their audacity and "lewd practices".
In 1576, Peter Wentworth gave one of the most remarkable orations in the history of the House of Commons, and one which he may have prepared up to three years before. "Sweet indeed is the name of liberty," declared Wentworth "and the thing itself is of inestimable value." He spoke of the use of rumours of the Queen's preferences and messages forbidding discussion of an issue, and admonished the speaker "I would to God, Mr. Speaker, that these two were buried in hell: I mean rumours and messages." Professor Elton says he indulged "in so much of his own desired freedom of speech that the house sat aghast". He then declared that "her majesty has commited great faults" at which point he was compelled to stop speaking. The Commons themselves commited him to the Tower "out of a reverent regard of her majesty's honour" where he spent four unrepentent weeks. The Queen eventually released him "absolutely persuaded that his speech proceeded of abundance of zeal towards her".
Here was the real tragedy of the Puritans: they were torn between two loyalties, to their sovereign and to God. They had no qualms over challenging the former's judgement and considered her capable of doing wrong, but they always claimed to give their advice out of genuine love. This certainly seems true of Peter Wentworth, who once grew indignant with his fellow Members for not explicitely recognising their Queen as "our Sovereign Lady" in a bill and instead referring merely to "Queen Elizabeth". He spoke out again against his old enemies (rumours and messages) in a remarkable and Biblical document in 1586 which read very like Stuart-era ones to come. Wentworth was ultimately defeated when he was commited to the Tower by the Queen, and would have precious little chance to speak on the subject again.
Constitutional niceties at the time differentiated between matters of 'state' and 'commonweal'. Parliament was free to discuss the latter, although all legislative proposals would require the Royal Assent. An example of this are the Elizabethan Poor Laws, which as a social and economic issue lay entirely within the realm of the House. Other matters did not, and the House was not even supposed to discuss things like the Queen's marriage, the succession, foreign policy or religion. Only on two occasions were they called upon to discuss matters of state, in 1572 and 1586, and in both instances this was the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots3. At all other times Elizabeth thought they should await the Government's legislative proposals in these areas: historically and constitutionally, she was justified. But these were changing times, and the love which she commanded from all kept the House together and prevented serious dissent. Only under the House of Stuart would the cult of monarchy break down and the House's audacity turn to scorn.
1. The Puritan party is often referred to as "the Puritan choir
", because they all sang from the same metaphorical hymn sheet.
2. All three of the great European revolutions - the French, the English and the Russian - occured as their literacy rates approached fifty per cent.
3. Such were this lady's transgressions and sins, one MP declared that after hearing her story he had feared to sleep until something was done with her.
Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors 2nd. ed.
: Methuen & Co, 1974.
Haigh, Christopher (ed.) The Reign of Elizabeth I: Macmillan, 1984.
Helm, P. J. England Under the Yorkists and Tudors 1471 - 1603: Bell & Hyman, 1968.
Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.
Neale, J. E. Queen Elizabeth I: Penguin, 1961.