2Much had changed in the interval following the 1593 Parliament. Four successive bad harvests had plunged England into a crisis of dearth and spiralling inflation; by August 1597 the price of flour had tripled. Rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1594 led by Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, whose resistance to the English settlement of Ulster resulted in a bitter war that Elizabeth could ill afford at the same time as maintaining defences against Spain on several fronts at home and abroad. Supply was as always the ostensible reason for summoning Parliament, but there was an equally urgent need for social and economic legislation to address the ills of the commonwealth and try to mitigate the impact of heavier taxation. Serjeant-at-law Christopher Yelverton, MP for Northampton, was appointed Speaker. The only surviving private journal of this Parliament was kept by one of the youngest Members, Hayward Townshend, a law student elected to represent Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire despite being technically underage. His diary reflects his inexperience of parliamentary procedure, but also permits us insights lacking from the official record such as the presence of a ‘rebellioues corner in the right hand of the Howse’.3
Although only three privy councillors found seats in the Commons – the smallest contingent in any Elizabethan Parliament – their efforts were supplemented by Francis Bacon, who opened the first full day of business, 5 Nov., with a motion concerning tillage, enclosure and depopulation. He presented two bills for the maintenance of husbandry which, as he explained, were grounded upon former statutes such as the Tillage Act of 1563 that had been quietly repealed in 1593 being then deemed ‘not much needfull’. Dire consequences of legalizing enclosures had since been highlighted by agrarian unrest and violence that broke out in Oxfordshire in 1596. Now Bacon argued that although ‘it maie be thought ... verie predudiciall to lordes that have inclosed great groundes ... and converted them to sheepe pastures’ tough measures enforcing the re-conversion of pasture to arable were essential ‘considering the increase of people and the benefitt of the common wealth’.4 Some objected that it was simply not possible to keep certain types of land under the plough, and therefore unreasonable to tear down all enclosures; Henry Jackman sensibly pointed out that dearth had been caused by rain which no number of laws could prevent. After heated debates and numerous conferences with the Lords two completely redrafted husbandry bills were enacted, with a proviso for the exemption of Shropshire, the ‘dayrie howse to the whole realme’.5 A further Act to restrain malting, intended to preserve grain, was passed. However, other ‘commonwealth’ bills that failed include two measures concerning the corn trade, to prohibit exports and regulate abuses such as forestalling and engrossing, and sumptuary legislation to restrict ‘excesses in apparel’.
Also on 5 Nov. Henry Finch drew the House’s attention to the ‘miserable estate’ of the poor and increase of vagrancy. Numerous solutions were proposed; at one point the committee appointed to consider this problem was faced with eleven bills ranging from a traditio