Elizabeth I, Parliament, church and economy



Nowadays, the English Parliament is virtually continuously in session. In the reign of Elizabeth it was called only rarely. It sat for less than three years of her forty-five year reign.
Members of the House of Commons were elected by shires and boroughs.
The monarch had the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament.
Parliament had three main functions - legislation, advice, and taxation.
The first of these, legislation, required the consent of Queen, Lords, and Commons.
Every law began as a bill - bills on money matters had to be introduced in the House of Commons; bills affecting the nobility had to begin in the House of Lords.
After it had been read and approved three times in both houses, the bill was sent to the Queen for her assent. If she agreed, it then became an Act of Parliament (or statute).
Acts of Parliament were either public (applying to the whole realm) or private (applying only to certain localities or individuals).
Public legislation was often (but not always) introduced by the government.
Many members found private legislation extremely useful - it performed such functions as allowing a town to hold a market, or securing an individual's title to land. Only another Parliament could overturn a statute.
438 public and private Acts were passed by Elizabeth's parliaments, and many more were considered.

The official summons to Parliament called on the Members to advise the monarch, but in practice Elizabeth was rarely interested in the opinions of her Members of Parliament. One exception was in 1586, when Elizabeth summoned Parliament to ask its view of whether she should execute Mary, Queen of Scots.

"Your judgment I condemn not, neither do I mistake your reasons, but pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless"

The main purpose of Parliament so far as Elizabeth I was concerned was to vote taxation. (Of thirteen sessions of Parliament, she asked all but one for money).
It was generally believed that a monarch should pay for the day-to-day administration of government from ordinary revenues (customs, feudal dues, and the income from royal land). Parliamentary taxation was meant to cover extraordinary expenditure - especially war.
In fact Parliamentary taxation never supplied enough to cover Elizabeth's military expenditures, and so she was forced to sell land and resort to (dubiously legal) schemes.

Crown revenue did increase during Elizabeth's reign (although not as much as inflation). However, she failed to increase feudal dues or customs, and she made sales of royal land. This meant that the crown became increasingly dependent on direct taxation (parliamentary subsidies and forced loans).





25 January - 8 May 1559


12 January - 10 April 1563
30 September 1566 - 2 January 1567


2 April - 29 May 1571


8 May - 30 June 1572
8 February - 15 March 1576
16 January - 18 March 1581


23 November 1584 - 29 March 1585


29 October1586 - 23 March 1587


4 February - 29 March 1589


19 February - 10 April 1593


24 October 1597 - 9 February 1598


27 October - 19 December 1601

  1. 25 January - 8 May 1559
    The chief business of the 1559 Parliament was the religious settlement. General revulsion at the burning of heretics under Mary, the return of Marian exiles, and Elizabeth's known Protestant sympathies combined to produce a distinctly Protestant House of Commons. (Marian Catholic bishops in the House of Lords were rapidly replaced).
    The Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy undid Mary's return to the Papal fold, and proclaimed Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The Prayer Book approved in Parliament in  1559  was basically that of Edward VI.

  2. 12 January - 10 April 1563 and 30 September 1566 - 2 January 1567
    Both sessions were dominated by questions of succession and marriage. Lords and Commons alike wanted to gain some assurance of future stability by persuading the the Queen to marry and to declare firmly the succession. She refused to do either.


    Two of Elizabeth I's suitors

    There were also attempts to bring about some reform in the Church. These efforts, led by Thomas Norton (a client of Cecil) had the backing of other Privy Councilors and some of the Bishops, but failed. Elizabeth never had any truck with Parliament interfering with her ecclesiastical prerogatives.

  3. 2 April - 29 May 1571.
    The major legislation of the the 1571 Parliament was aimed against the Catholic threat following the pope's deposition of Elizabeth. (Later Parliaments extended and intensified the measures against Roman Catholics).

  4. 8 May - 30 June 1572
    In this session, the Commons demanded the execution of Mary , Queen of Scots following the exposure of the Ridolfi plot.
    The government attempted to deal with English social problems by passing legislation against vagabonds and requiring every parish to provide for the sick and aged poor.
    8 February - 15 March 1576
    In this session, Peter Wentworth made outspoken demands for free speech in Parliament. The House of Commons itself imprisoned Wentworth, believing that he had overstepped the line; most members accepted that they should not discuss matters such as foreign policy without the Queen's permission.
    16 January - 18 March 1581
    Tougher laws against Catholics were passed: recusancy fines were increased and it was made high treason to convert to Catholicism.

  5. 23 November 1584 - 29 March 1585
    This Parliament saw more anti-Catholic legislation. Sir Anthony Cope (1548-1614) attempted to introduce Presbyterian system into the English Church and revise the Prayer Book in a puritan direction. Wentworth supported him by agitating again for more free speech. Most members ignored their agitation, and both Wentworth and Cope were sent to the Tower of London for interference with the queen's ecclesiastical prerogative.

  6. 29 October 1586 - 23 March 1587
    This Parliament was mostly concerned with the debate over whether to execute Mary, Queen of Scots.

  7. 4 February - 29 March 1589
    This short session passed only sixteen laws - all (apart from the taxation bills) on minor matters such as horse stealing.



  8. 19 February - 10 April 1593
    The main work of the session was severe legislation against anyone (puritan or Catholic) who refused to attend church.

  9. 24 October 1597 - 9 February 1598
    Elizabeth called this parliament to recoup the immense expenditures involved in the war with Spain. It was called at a time of poor harvests and scarcity, so social legislation was also important.


    Sir Walter Mildmay
    One of Elizabeth I's
    Chancellors of the Exchequer


  10. 27 October - 19 December 1601
    An obstreperous House of Commons complained volubly about monopolies. Elizabeth gave her 'Golden Speech' promising reform in general terms.




The Church

Under Elizabeth, the English Church assumed many of the characteristics that were to typify it until the middle of the seventeenth century. In particular, the Queen used the church as a source of patronage and revenue - Elizabeth did have some religious beliefs but not ones that clashed with using the revenues from church land and offices to support secular ends.
Elizabeth often bullied her deans and bishops into exchanging good church land for the bad landholdings of her favorites. She regularly left bishoprics vacant so that the the Crown could collect episcopal rents.
Elizabeth's father (Henry VIII) and sister (Mary I), like most medieval monarchs had promoted clerics (Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Bishop Stephen Gardiner) to positions of great power,  but Elizabeth's senior advisors were all laymen. John Whitgift (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583-1604) was the only clergyman Elizabeth appointed to her Privy Council (1586).

In post-Reformation England, the power of clergymen was entirely dependent on the state, and Elizabeth did little to support clerical power or prestige. Notoriously, clerics came a very poor second to gentlemen under Elizabeth. Only in the later years of her reign did she support an promote a few clergy - i.e. those who shared her hostility to Presbyterians.

John Jewel (1522-1571)
John Jewel

The  Church of England's doctrine and worship developed piecemeal: - the personal preferences of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I; the need to persuade Parliament to approve changing legislation; and fear of outraging the population at large all helped decide its final form. Two theorists attempted to prduce a coherent intellectual justification of the end result - John Jewel and Richard Hooker.


Richard Hooker (1554-1600)
Richard Hooker

John Jewel's Apologia pro Ecclesia Anglicana (1562) was aimed primarily against Roman Catholic arguments; Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593) also took on puritan objections. Both insisted that 'the English Church' and 'the English state' were just different names for the same English people regarded either as Christians or as subjects, consequently their governor - Elizabeth - could legitimately determine indifferent religious matters ("adiaphora").
[More about Richard Hooker.]

Many of the Protestants who returned to England after the Marian exile took their beliefs from the 'thoroughly-reformed' churches of Germany and Switzerland, and had no taste for the ceremonies of the English church. Some even had their doubts about government of the church by bishops. They saw the retention of 'papist' symbols as a stop-gap measure, intended to keep the mass of the population happy until the Continental Catholic threat was defeated.


John Whitgift (1530?-1603)
John Whitgift -
leader of a newly self confident
Church of England

However, by the later years of Elizabeth's reign, a generation had grown up knowing no other way of doing things. These Anglicans were far less defensive about the English Church and began to argue that it was superior to both Rome and Geneva because it preserved the best of both.

 Economy and society

The recoinage of 1560-61 slowed inflation, but the English population continued to rise.
About three million in 1558, it rose to 4.2 million in 1603 - an increase of about forty percent.
More people meant more demand, and food prices rose about 75%, while the prices manufactured of goods increased about 45%.



The government tried ineffectually to preserve social stability. The Statue of Artificers (1563) attempted to make men stay in the locality where they were born and to do the same work as their fathers. Apprenticeships were to last seven years. Justices of the Peace were to fix wages. It was reasonably effective (by early-modern standards) at regulating industrial labor, but had little effect on poverty and vagrancy.

The framers of the Statue of Artificers aimed to:

"…banish idleness, advance husbandry, and yield unto the hired person both in the time of scarcity and in the time of plenty a convenient proportion of wages …"

The English government passed various laws to try and cope with these social problems.
Acts were passed throughout the reign (especially 1572 and 1597) and consolidated in the Poor Law of 1601.
Elizabethan poor relief legislation distinguished the able-bodied (who could work but did not) from the 'impotent poor' (those too old or sick to provide for themselves).


The first group - 'vagrants' or 'sturdy beggars' - were treated punitively - whipped all the way back to their home parishes.

The second group - the deserving poor, impoverished by misfortune and sickness - were to be given support and materials for a productive activity (usually spinning or weaving). Overseers of the poor in each parish were authorized to levy a 'poor rate' on all the householders to cover the costs.
The resources of the English government were quite inadequate to the social and economic problems it faced, but the government did manage to maintain some stability. Even the dire harvests of the 1590s did not produce the rebellions and unrest of 1549.


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