Freedom of speech in Elizabethan Parliaments

By the mid-sixteenth century it was customary that at the opening of Parliament newly chosen Speakers would request confirmation of the ‘ancient liberties’ of the Commons, namely freedom of speech and ‘privilege’ from arrest during sessions. From the beginning of her reign Elizabeth qualified the former as ‘liberty of speech for the well debating of matters propounded’, thereby reserving to herself control over what the Commons may, and may not, discuss. (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, i. 42.) Some Members, however, notably Peter Wentworth and his brother Paul, challenged this restriction on the grounds that traditionally Parliament had a counselling role, no matter how unwelcome, for ‘no estate can stand where the prince will not be governed by advice’ (Procs. i. 431.). On successive occasions a handful of Members doggedly asserted their right to speak openly on any topic. In attempting to silence them it was Elizabeth, rather than the proponents of free speech, who was the innovator. She monitored the Commons via the placement of councillors and courtiers in the Lower House to a greater extent than her predecessors had ever done. (M.A.R. Graves, Elizabethan Parliaments 1559-1601, pp. 49-51.).

The first direct clash over freedom of speech occurred in November 1566 when the Commons, led by Robert Bell, asked the Lords to jointly petition Elizabeth to marry and settle the royal succession. She intervened to block further debate, prompting Paul Wentworth to question whether the queen’s commandment breached ‘the lybertie of the free speache of the Howse’, and if not ‘then what offence is it for anye of the Howse to err in declaryng his opynyon to be otherwyse?’ In response Elizabeth rebuked the Commons not to ‘doute whither a prince that is hed of all the body may not commaund the fete not to stray whan the[y] wold slip’.(Procs. i. 154, 174.) At the opening of the 1571 Parliament her instructions became more explicit than hitherto: the Commons were ‘to meddle with noe matters of state but such as should be propounded unto them, and to occupy themselves in other matters concerning the commenwealth’.(Procs. i. 199.) According to this formula the succession, foreign policy, and anything touching the prerogative including religious debates, were designated off-limits. Nevertheless this was insufficient to silence Bell, who complained about purveyance and licences – a grey area that concerned both commonwealth and prerogative. He was summoned before the Privy Council and returned, as Wentworth later recalled, ‘with such an amazed continnance that it daunted all the House’. Intimidation tactics were also deployed against William Strickland, who was cross-examined and briefly sequestered for introducing a radical bill of religious reforms; his absence roused a brave few to complain that the liberties of the Commons had been infringed, though their protests were quickly quashed by the councillors present.(Procs. i. 202, 237-9, 436.)

An element of self-censorship emerged in both 1572 and 1576 when the Commons took action against its own Members for speeches that were felt to have overstepped the mark. In the first case Arthur Hall was forced to retract his motion for leniency towards Mary Queen of Scots in the wake of the Norfolk conspiracy. Later in the same session when Elizabeth ordered that no religious bills were to be introduced without the bishops’ prior approval, an anonymous diarist commented that this ‘semed mutch to impugne the libertie of the House, but nothinge was saied unto it’. Fear of tale-telling and reprisals was further hinted at by Bell, now Speaker, at the prorogation in his declaration of the Commons’ loyalty to Elizabeth ‘whatsoever hath beene or shall be reported to the contrarye’.(Procs. i. 330-1, 417.) The same point was made more fulsomely by Peter Wentworth in his famous appeal for freedom of speech in 1576. His attack upon ‘rumours and messages’ was interrupted in mid-flow and he was committed to the Tower by order of the House, the majority of Members having been appalled by his outspoken criticism of the queen. Although later readmitted Wentworth found himself back in the Tower in 1587 and again in 1593 for his continued defiance of Elizabeth’s restrictions on freedom of speech concerning both religion and the succession.(Procs. ii. 320-31; iii. 68.)

Although no more than a minority ever dared to assert their right to speak freely about religion the few who did clearly attracted the attention and sympathy of many silent Members. When Speaker John Puckering delivered a message from Elizabeth banning religious debate in 1585 there were calls for him to be displaced for going to the queen ‘without the privitie of the House’.(Procs. ii. 90, 184.) In 1587 Job Throckmorton speaking in support of Anthony Cope’s radical ‘bill and book’ lamented that ‘there is layed before us a shew of freedome in our entrye, and yet we are threatened with bondage before we goe forth’. Sir Edward Hoby complained in 1589 that he was reproached outside the House by ‘a great personage’ for speaking against corruption in the Exchequer court, blaming those who made Commons business into ‘table talk’.(S. D’Ewes, Journals of all the Parliaments during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 432.) At the opening of the 1593 Parliament Elizabeth warned that freedom ‘to saye yea or no to bills’ did not include licence ‘as some suppose to speake ... of all causes’, nor ‘to frame a forme of relligion, or a state of government’, adding that ‘no king fitt for his state will suffer such absurdities’.(Procs. iii. 22.) Throughout her reign the majority of MPs apparently accepted these restrictions; those who did not were punished severely. Protests like Wentworth’s remained exceptional and the Commons, by self-censorship and by failing to defend imprisoned Members, was complicit in allowing free speech to be circumscribed.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi