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.