This Parliament, like the 1572 Parliament, was summoned following the discovery of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. Spanish agents were implicated in the Throckmorton plot, and the ensuing diplomatic rift was especially worrisome since Philip II had added Portugal to his extensive dominions, thereby increasing the resources with which he could mount an invasion. Fears for Elizabeth’s safety were further fanned by news of the assassination of the Dutch Protestant leader William of Orange in July 1584. Ahead of the opening of Parliament Lord Treasurer Burghley (Sir William Cecil) and Sir Francis Walsingham devised the Bond of Association to provide for the elimination of suspected assassins; this laid the necessary groundwork for the execution of Mary despite Elizabeth’s past refusal to put her on trial. To reinforce and enshrine the intent of the Association in statute law a bill for the queen’s safety therefore topped the Privy Council’s parliamentary agenda.
The size of the Commons again increased to a total of 460 Members (compared with only 402 in 1559), of whom many were inexperienced and according to one observer assembled themselves ‘owt of all order, in troops ... making strange noises’.2 Several private diaries of this Parliament survive that supplement the clerk’s record of proceedings. William Fleetwood I, Recorder of London, kept an account of the opening week, 23-28 Nov., while the experienced diarist Thomas Cromwell only arrived on 1 Dec. and his journal covers the remainder of the Parliament to 29 Mar. 1585. An anonymous Member made notes of many important speeches but without attempting to keep a daily record. The fullest diary is that of William Fitzwilliam, MP for Peterborough. As the son-in-law of Sir Walter Mildmay he shared the same ‘godly’ outlook and took particular interest in Mildmay’s speeches. Elizabeth’s serjeant-at-law John Puckering was appointed Speaker. In response to his customary request for liberties including freedom of speech the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Bromley† made it clear that Elizabeth wished to bar the Commons from engaging in religious debates; in Fizwilliam’s words this injunction ‘was thought verye straunge’, and Puckering certainly found it increasingly difficult to enforce.3
National security dominated the opening weeks. However, the bill for the safety of the queen soon stalled amid debates over a proviso exempting Mary Stuart’s son, James VI of Scotland. A bill against Jesuits and seminary priests proceeded more smoothly until Dr. William Parry, MP for Queenborough, opposed it on 17 Dec. and was committed to the serjeant’s custody. Despite his protests of innocence, under interrogation it became apparent that he had links with Catholic conspirators at home and abroad, and on 2 Mar. 1585 he became the only serving Member of the Commons in this period to be hung, draw and quartered for treason.4 Parry’s case again highlighted the need for a statute to complement the oath of the Association, resulting in a new bill that was first read on 3 March and later passed.5
Shortly before the Christmas adjournment the Commons requested a conference with the Lords to discuss a petition of religious grievances such as the ‘unlearnednesse of the ministery’ and the deprivation of non-subscribing preachers; however, the Lords refused.6 The Lower House also wished to confer on a bill for better observation of the Sabbath, to which the Lords had made numerous amendments, but nothing more was heard of it until 22 Feb., by which time the Commons had presented a further sheaf of petitions on clerical abuses. In response they received a message from Lord Treasurer Burghley with detailed answers from Archbishop Whitgift. A committee was subsequently appointed to ‘set down th’insufficiency’ of Whitgift’s arguments ‘wherwith the Howse were nothinge satisfyed’.7 Its deliberations were interrupted, however, by news that Elizabeth was ‘greatlye agrieved’ that they were continuing to discuss religion; Speaker Puckering was so nervous about delivering this unwelcome message that he took a day’s sick leave to prepare his speech.8 The Sabbath bill conference finally took place on 4 Mar., but having at last passed both Houses it was vetoed by Elizabeth at the close of the Parliament, together with no less than eight other bills. These included one for disarming Catholic recusants, and a bill concerning appropriated parsonages.9
Mildmay’s motion for supply was delayed until 24 Feb. 1585. Some called for double taxes to be imposed on recusants, or for the subsidy to be made conditional upon the reform of religious abuses; however, this radical minority was overruled and a subsidy with two fifteenths and tenths was duly granted.10 Of a total of 31 Statutes and 18 private measures that received the royal assent there were several notable pieces of social and economic legislation such as an Act to preserve timber by regulating iron mills. The enforced eating of fish on Wednesdays that had been intended to strengthen the navy by bolstering the national fishing fleet was repealed despite a direct request from Elizabeth for its continuation. In her closing oration on 29 Mar. she reproved slanderous ‘faulte findars’ in religion for their presumption, and warned that she would not ‘tollerate new-fanglenesse’.11 Prorogued until 14 Nov. 1586, this Parliament was dissolved in September so that the 1586 Parliament could be summoned even sooner to deal with yet another conspiracy involving Mary Queen of Scots.
See also the Appendix to the 1558-1603 Introductory Survey.
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
Author: Rosemary Sgroi
- 1. (adjourned)
- 2. Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, ii. 65.
- 3. Procs. ii. 129.
- 4. Procs. ii. 77, 84-88, 158-9.
- 5. Procs. ii. 92, 176-8.
- 6. Procs. ii. 74, 79, 160-76.
- 7. Procs. ii. 44, 45-53, 77, 83, 89.
- 8. Procs. ii. 54-7, 90-1, 117, 182-4.
- 9. Procs. ii. 92, 103.
- 10. Procs. ii. 84, 178-80, 183-5.
- 11. Procs. ii. 31-2.