Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: The 16th Century ‘Parliamentary Mind’

Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons reports back from our first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of 2014…

This term’s programme for the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar opened with a paper from Catherine Chou, of Stanford University, on ‘The Parliamentary Mind and the Mutable Constitution’.

The starting point for Catherine’s paper was the problem posed in 1558 by the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I, which placed the country in the unprecedented situation of having an unmarried queen regnant. The question of who would succeed her generated considerable contemporary debate, not least because the individual who arguably had the best hereditary claim was Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots), who was half-French, half-Scottish, and a Catholic.

Catherine’s engaging paper examined three of the dozen or so surviving succession treatises which formed part of this debate, namely

  • Allegations against the Surmised title of the Quine of Scots (1565);
  • an anonymous ‘Letter’ (probably written in 1567);
  • and John Leslie’s Defence of the honour of the right, highe, mightye, and noble Princesse Marie (1569), a reworking of an earlier manuscript by the lawyer Sir Anthony Browne.

The main focus of the paper was not what these treatises argued in relation to the succession, but rather what the arguments they deployed can tell us about sixteenth-century views of the ‘parliamentary mind’. Elizabeth’s own reluctance to address the question of her succession created a discursive space in which the polemicists who authored these tracts sought to form their own interpretation of past parliamentary pronouncements on this question. Rather than looking merely at the letter of the law, they tried to analyse parliamentary intentions in framing a particular statute, and to unpick the thought processes of the ‘parliamentary mind’.

This meant that, for example, the key statute of 1351, De natis ultra mare, which stated that the crown could pass to ‘the Children of the Kings of England, in whatsoever Parts they be born’, was open to being interpreted in different ways. Yet, as Catherine pointed out, those who argued for the constitution’s ‘mutability’, and for each individual Parliament’s power to alter laws passed by its predecessors, were faced with a diminishing likelihood that the changes they sought would have permanence.

John Hales by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), after Unknown artist. Etching, 1825 or before. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London.
John Hales by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), after Unknown artist. Etching, 1825 or before. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London.

The paper was followed by a lively discussion, in which the significance of 1567 as a pivotal date was highlighted. The differing roles of the Lords, Commons and monarch as part of the parliamentary body were also considered. A particularly interesting theme was the question of the circulation and intended audience of the treatises. Catherine noted that their distribution was generally clandestine and could be highly dangerous to those involved: John Hales was sent to the Tower for his authorship of one succession tract (see our two biographies of Hales, in the 1509-58 volumes and the 1558-1603 volumes). Yet while their circulation may have been limited, these documents prompted a considerable amount of consternation from Elizabeth, and as, Catherine ably demonstrated, they have much to tell us about sixteenth-century conceptions of the rational and equitable ‘parliamentary mind’.


For more on the Elizabethan succession debates, see our ‘Explore’ article: ‘Royal Succession Under Elizabeth’.  

The Parliaments, Politics and People seminar returns next week when our own Dr Hannes Kleineke will speak on ‘The English parliaments of the Yorkist kings: a breed apart?’. See here for this term’s full programme.

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