In the interval of five years since her last Parliament Elizabeth had faced an uprising of rebellion fomented by Catholic nobles in the north of England, and received a bull of excommunication from Pope Pius V.1 Discontent and pressure for change was mounting on both sides of the Elizabethan Settlement of religion. Her current negotiations for marriage with the Catholic duke of Anjou (future Henri III of France) furthermore added to the anxieties of Protestant reformers. Anticipating that the Commons would be eager to enter into religious debates and again press for the royal succession to be settled, Elizabeth instructed them at the opening on 2 Apr. to ‘meddle with noe matters of state but such as should be propounded unto them, and to occupy themselves in other matters concerninge the commen wealth’.2 The selection of a royal serjeant-at-law, Christopher Wray, as Speaker was perhaps intended to ensure that this injunction be strictly enforced; it was he, sitting as an assize judge, who had recently dealt with the northern rebels at Lancaster, York and Carlisle. Fewer privy councillors than hitherto were available to help manage the Commons. Elizabeth’s right-hand man Sir William Cecil now sat in the House of Lords having been ennobled as Baron of Burghley shortly before the election writs were issued. It may be for this reason that conferences between the two Houses, which had previously been unusual, gradually became a standard parliamentary procedure on major subjects of debate during the rest of the reign.3
The size of the Commons had risen by nine percent since 1559, to a total of 438; at a call of the House on 5 Apr. several boroughs were found to have returned Members that had not done so in the last Parliament, prompting the appointment of a committee to investigate.4 This is the first Parliament of Elizabeth’s reign for which unofficial diaries of the Commons’ proceedings are extant; one was kept by an anonymous MP covering 2-21 April, and another of the whole session by John Hooker, burgess for Exeter. These provide a much fuller account of debates than the Commons Journal, which also became more detailed than in preceding Parliaments following Fulk Onslow’s appointment to replace John Seymour† as clerk.
The session began with an attempt to re-introduce several religious measures known as the ‘alphabetical bills’ that had failed in 1566. On 6 Apr. two notable parliamentarians, William Strickland and Burghley’s client Thomas Norton, made a ‘motion for uniformity in religion’ whereupon a committee was immediately appointed to confer with the bishops. A new bill to enforce church attendance was also read twice and committed. Thereafter things rapidly began to go awry. Strickland introduced a much more radical bill to revise the prayer book; this clearly did not have official backing but by association sabotaged the bishops’ programme of moderate reforms. Only two religious measures were eventually enacted, namely an ‘Act to reform certain disorders touching ministers of the church’ that required all clergy to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Article of religion, and an Act against simony in ecclesiastical leases. Elizabeth vetoed the bill ‘for coming to the church and receiving of the communion’ despite considerable support for it in both Houses and the Privy Council, and put a stop to further debate with a message on 1 May that ‘concerninge rytes and ceremonyes she, beinge supreme hedd of the Church, wolde consider thereof as the case sholde require’.5
At the first mention of a subsidy the notorious troublemaker Robert Bell (nicknamed “Bell the orator” for his role in 1566) raised a number of complaints particularly concerning the abuses of purveyors and royal licencees, and demanded redress of grievances before supply. In addition to the appointment of a committee to draft the subsidy bill a general committee for grievances was established for the first time, but Bell did not escape the queen’s displeasure. She sent a message on 10 Apr. that the Commons was not ‘to make new motions every man at his own pleasure’ or discuss matters touching her prerogative without prior permission.6 Both Bell and Strickland were summoned before the Privy Council and reprimanded; Strickland was even sequestered from the Commons for a short time before being permitted to resume his seat. After the Easter recess Peter Wentworth, whose brother Paul had defended freedom of speech in 1566, made an impassioned appeal against the intimidation of Members and called for the preservation of the Commons’ liberties. Speaker Wray restored order by reporting that the queen had promised ‘to take order for licences, wherein shee had bene carefull and more carefull woulde bee’, but in fact this ugly clash over the prerogative foreshadows the end of El