In the sixteenth century, parliaments were not only summoned but also prorogued at the behest of the monarch. In this blog, Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project, discusses an exceptionally large but often overlooked number of prorogations that took place during the mid-Elizabethan period…
Before the Long Parliament of 1640-53, the Parliament of 1572-81 bore the distinction of being the longest in English history. It was even longer than one might suppose, as it was not formally dissolved until 1583. Unlike the Long Parliament, this assembly, the fourth of Elizabeth’s reign, did not sit continuously, but sat over three short sessions, in 1572, 1576 and 1581. These lasted just over seventeen weeks in total, meaning that the intervals before and after each session were considerably longer than the individual sessions themselves.
During these long intermissions, the Parliament of 1572-81 was kept in a form of stasis by means of commissions of prorogation, which had the effect of fixing the start of the next session to a certain date. When the time prescribed by the commission arrived, Parliament would either reassemble or be prorogued again. The chief advantage of prorogation was that it kept Parliament on hold. Summoning an entirely new Parliament, by contrast, was a time-consuming affair, as parliamentary elections required a minimum of six or seven weeks. Even a Parliament that was prorogued for several months could be reassembled faster than it took to convene a new one.
There was no limit to the number of prorogations a monarch might order between sessions, and it was not uncommon for a Parliament to be prorogued four or five times in a row. Under Elizabeth’s half-brother Edward VI, for instance, the parliamentary sessions of 1549-50 and 1552 were separated by six prorogations, as were the sessions of 1563 and 1566 under Elizabeth herself. However, during the Parliament of 1572-81 customary practice was thrown out of the window. Parliament was prorogued on ten occasions between 1572 and 1576, and no fewer than twenty-six times between 1576 and 1581, twelve of them in 1580 alone. Following the 1581 session, Parliament was prorogued a further eighteen times before being finally dissolved, in April 1583. In all, the 1572-81 Parliament was prorogued fifty-four times. Consequently, there were more prorogation days than there were days of sitting in 1572, the longest of the Parliament’s three sessions.
This staggering number of prorogations requires an explanation. However, with the exception of the late Sir John Neale, who discussed it only briefly, Elizabethan parliamentary historians have largely ignored this subject. That is regrettable, as the intervals between sessions necessarily reveal something important about a monarch’s attitude towards England’s representative assembly or about the timing and purpose of subsequent meetings.
On the face of it, the high number of prorogations between 1572 and 1583 suggests that Elizabeth I had developed a marked distaste for parliaments, rather like her successor James I, who repeatedly postponed re-summoning Parliament following the Commons’ rejection of his pet project, the union of England and Scotland, in 1607. Elizabeth certainly had reason to dislike parliaments. Ever since 1563 they had been badgering her to marry and settle the succession. At the very least, as Neale remarked, ‘experience had not taught Elizabeth to love parliaments’. However, there is little evidence to suppose that had the queen been able to do without parliaments ‘she would probably have done so’. Indeed, there is no evidence at all that this thought ever crossed Elizabeth’s mind.
The repeated prorogations of 1572-83 were, as Neale realized, a consequence of interrelated foreign policy crises and matrimonial negotiations rather than of the queen’s disillusion with Parliament. To illustrate this point, we need look no further than the late 1570s, which saw the growing threat of French involvement in the Spanish Netherlands on the side of the rebellious Dutch provinces, and which also saw Elizabeth open marriage negotiations with François, duc d’Anjou, brother of the French king, Henri III. By initiating these negotiations, Elizabeth hoped to divert Anjou from his planned intervention, or at the very least to prevent him from acting without her approval. From the outset it was clear that there was a close relationship between the marriage negotiations and repeated prorogations of Parliament. Indeed, when Anjou’s agent, Jean Simier, arrived in London in November 1578, Parliament was prorogued to 22 Jan. 1579, in the hope that by the time Parliament met the outlines of a marriage treaty would be clear. In the event, the negotiations proved to be more difficult than was at first imagined, not least because Anjou, a Catholic, demanded freedom of worship. However, a preliminary treaty was finally drawn up on 24 November 1579, on which day Simier departed for France and Parliament was again prorogued, to 20 January 1580. The English subsequently expected Anjou to respond by sending commissioners over to work on the remaining points of disagreement. However, when these commissioners failed to appear Elizabeth, believing the problem to be no more than a short delay, again prorogued Parliament, this time for ten days.
Of course, the queen did not need Parliament to ratify the marriage treaty, as her marriage was a matter for the royal prerogative rather than Parliament. However, prudence suggested otherwise. Unless Anjou abjured his Catholic faith, Elizabeth, who had already faced one major rebellion in 1569-70, risked alienating her own people. Moreover, the queen and her ministers understood that two of Anjou’s key demands required parliamentary approval: his insistence on a large annual pension for life, and his demand that he be crowned as king. Thus, while the marriage negotiations with Anjou continued, Elizabeth was locked in a seemingly endless cycle of parliamentary prorogations. Repeated prorogations were thus evidence of the queen’s inability to obtain from Anjou satisfactory turns. At times, such as on 20 January 1580, it must have seemed to the queen as though a new session was just around the corner. Just how often Elizabeth came close to re-summoning Parliament, only to pull back at the last minute, is a subject that requires further study.
Susan Doran, Monarchy and Matrimony: the Courtships of Elizabeth I (Routledge, 1996)
J.E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments, 1559-1601 (Jonathan Cape, 1953)
Read more research from our Lords 1558-1603 project via the First Elizabethan Age blog series.