New project: the Elizabethan House of Lords

A new year at the History of Parliament Trust sees the start of a new project. Research on the House of Lords 1558-1603 will complement our Commons project during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by exploring the members of the upper chamber. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the project, explains more…

The History of Parliament is delighted to announce the creation of a new, five-year long House of Lords project covering the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Elizabeth’s was the longest reign of any English monarch since that of Edward III (1327-77). Her period on the throne witnessed no fewer than ten parliaments, which met at fairly regular intervals, roughly once every four years. Two of these parliaments consisted of more than one session. Her fourth, which sat over the course of three sessions between 1572 and 1581, was not only the longest running Parliament of the sixteenth century but also the longest up to that time – the ‘Long Parliament’ of its day.

The official Journal of the House of Lords during this period is notoriously meagre, and there are no known Lords’ diaries or ‘scribbled books’ kept by the Clerk either. However, there is a wealth of associated material available, both in the records of the House of Commons and in the State Papers. New sources have also been discovered, most notably a list of the procession to Parliament in 1572 compiled by one of the heralds and now in the archives of Gonville and Caius College, and an account in the College of Arms of the opening proceedings in 1601. The most interesting find to date is a sketch of the Queen seated in Parliament attended by the peers, made on the final day of the 1597-8 Parliament and presumably drawn by one of the heralds.

By exploring this information the team hopes to shed fresh light on the activities of the House and its members, of which there were about 250 in total, including some of the most powerful and influential personalities of their day. Elizabeth’s chief minister, Sir William Cecil, was ennobled as Baron Burghley in 1571 and so sat in the Lords in seven parliaments. Elizabeth’s great favourite and master of the horse, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, was also a member of the Lords, though his duties as commander of the English forces in the Netherlands in the mid-1580s meant that he was not always able to attend in person.

Biographies will take as their focal point the parliamentary and political aspect of each peer’s career. Among the many questions we shall address, both in the biographies and the accompanying Introductory Survey volume, is the extent to which peers exploited their links with members of the Commons to put pressure on Elizabeth over such matters as the succession and further reform of the Church. We shall also examine the divisions between peers and the role of faction at Court, not only in the 1590s, when the Court was split between the partisans of the Cecils on the one hand and the supporters of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex on the other, but also in the 1560s and 1570s, when courtiers were sometimes to be seen sporting the colours of rival factions. The role played by Catholic peers, of whom there were many, will also be examined. In particular, we will look at the extent to which Catholic peers accommodated themselves to the Protestant regime and continued to participate in parliamentary affairs.


The project’s research staff will blog about their methods and discoveries as the project progresses on a dedicated strand of posts on the History’s blog site. Keep an eye on our feed for new posts.

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