Elizabeth hated summoning Parliaments and the decision to do so barely a year after the dissolution of the last assembly was forced upon her by the Privy Council in order to deal with the aftermath of the Ridolfi plot, a Catholic conspiracy to put Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The first session was the only meeting of Parliament during Elizabeth’s reign in which there was no request for supply. A former troublemaker Robert Bell, MP for King’s Lynn, was appointed Speaker. In addition to the Commons Journal separate diaries of the first session were kept by the clerk Fulk Onslow, an anonymous Member, and Thomas Cromwell, though only the latter provides a comprehensive account of the Commons’ proceedings across all three sessions.
On 13 May 1572 at a joint committee of both Houses the Privy Council presented their case against Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s cousin, who had been under house arrest in England since fleeing Scotland in 1568. The main allegations were that Mary had claimed title to the English crown for herself and her son James; had attempted to force the duke of Norfolk to marry her in order to strengthen this claim; had stirred up and aided rebellion in the north of England; and had with the assistance of the Pope’s secret agent Roberto Ridolfi incited the duke of Alba (governor of the Spanish Netherlands) and Philip II of Spain to invade both England and Ireland and overthrow Elizabeth.1 The Privy Council wanted Mary to be tried for treason as if she were an English subject; but Elizabeth refused to consider such a solution. With the exception of Arthur Hall, MP for Grantham, who spoke up in favour of leniency and was censured by the Commons as a result, there was almost universal parliamentary support for a petition that Mary be condemned to death.2 However, Elizabeth responded on 28 May with instructions to instead proceed with a bill excluding Mary from the English succession.3 She did finally authorize the execution of her second cousin Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk, who had already been convicted of treason and attainted in January 1572 for his role in the Ridolfi plot; he went to the scaffold on 2 June.4 The bill against Mary passed on 25 June after extensive debate only to be rejected by Elizabeth at the prorogation.5
The queen’s safety dominated proceedings at the expense of other business to the extent that only 14 Statutes and 3 private measures passed at the end of this session. Religious debates were thwarted by an intervention from Elizabeth on 22 May forbidding bills of religion to be brought into the Commons without the prior approval of the bishops.6 One significant piece of social and economic legislation was the enactment of a revised poor law, replacing that of 1563 which had lapsed in 1571.7 Many other bills expired due to lack of time. Much more legislation was processed during the second session, which although it lasted only 31 working days produced over 100 bills, of which 37 were enacted. These included a conciliar measure to reduce unemployment, and an Act against informers. Supply requested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer