Elizabeth I, Parliament and the creation of new peers, 1558-1603

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Andrew Thrush of the History of Parliament. On 7 June 2022, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Andrew will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on Elizabeth I, Parliament and the creation of new peers. Andrew’s full-length paper is available by signing up to his seminar and contacting seminar@histparl.ac.ukDetails of how to join the discussion are available here.

Students of Elizabethan England know why Elizabeth I ennobled her chief minister, Sir William Cecil, or so they assume. Generations of us have been taught that Cecil, who had served his political apprenticeship under Edward VI, was created Baron of Burghley in 1571 because of his years of loyal service to the crown. That, after all, was the explanation given by the queen herself at the time, in the letters patent which transformed Cecil into a nobleman. However, this document tells only part of the story. The main reason Elizabeth decided to ennoble Cecil was to make him capable of sitting in the House of Lords, as a fresh Parliament was shortly due to meet. In the previous Parliament, held five years earlier in 1566, the queen had lost control of the upper House, which joined the Commons in petitioning Elizabeth to marry and settle the succession. To prevent this situation from arising again, Elizabeth needed to ensure better management of the Lords. She could no longer rely on the Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, 1st marquess of Winchester, who had fallen sick in 1566 and was now, in 1571, too old and infirm to sit in Parliament. The obvious candidate for the job was Cecil, who could easily be spared from the Commons, where he normally sat and where there was always a raft of other able ministers.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, by unknown artist, oil on panel, after 1587 (via NPG under CC licence)

The close connection between Cecil’s ennoblement and the crown’s needs in Parliament has gone largely unnoticed, even though Cecil was created Lord Burghley just eleven days after writs summoning a new Parliament were issued. This is perhaps surprising, because a majority of the twenty-three lay peers created by Elizabeth over the course of her reign owed their elevation to the crown’s desire to bolster the size of the House of Lords. The largest number of new creations occurred shortly before Elizabeth’s first Parliament met in January 1559, when seven peers were added to the Lords. Such a large number was needed because the queen and her ministers anticipated opposition to the restoration of Protestantism and the royal supremacy in the forthcoming Parliament from the Catholic bishops and their allies among the nobility. However, as five of these new peers were created at the queen’s coronation, it is easy to see why the connection between their ennoblement and the crown’s needs in Parliament has been overlooked. A second tranche of new peers was created shortly before Elizabeth’s fourth Parliament, in 1572. On that occasion the driving force was Burghley, who feared that, without fresh creations, the House of Lords would look rather threadbare. Death had depleted the ranks of the nobility, as had treason: four noblemen were under house arrest and a fifth was in the Tower. The Lords’ ranks were further thinned by an embassy sent to France to ratify the recently signed Treaty of Blois. As a result of Burghley’s lobbying, four new peers were created before Parliament assembled.

After 1572, Elizabeth proved reluctant to create more new peers, evidently believing that the nobility was now too large. Indeed, in the remaining thirty years of her reign she created just six new peers (though she also elevated a seventh). Elizabeth’s belief that the nobility was too large was not shared by Burghley, who as early as 1572 accused her of being parsimonious in the distribution of titles of honour. In 1589, with another Parliament about to meet, he tried to persuade the queen to create a large number of new peers as once again he feared a low turnout in the Lords. At first Elizabeth agreed to create nine new barons. However, at the last moment she got cold feet and decided instead to summon to Parliament the adult heirs of the earls of Derby and Shrewsbury. In that way she temporarily expanded the size of the House of Lords without increasing the number of noble families, thereby squaring the circle.

Queen Elizabeth I, by George Gower, oil on panel, c. 1588; National Portrait Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/queen-elizabeth-i-156595

In all, at least fourteen new peers under Elizabeth owed their creation to the crown’s needs in Parliament. Those chosen were selected on the basis of wealth, local importance and pedigree. Sir Henry Cheyney, for instance, was created Lord Cheyney in 1572 because he was one of the leading magnates in Bedfordshire and owned a palatial residence at Toddington, where he hosted the queen for no fewer than ten days while she was on progress in August 1570. It may also have been significant that Sir Henry was the next male heir of John, Lord Cheyney, whose title had become extinct on his death in 1499.

The remainder of Elizabeth’s new creations owed their elevation to the peerage to reasons other than Parliament. Lord Robert Dudley, for instance, was made earl of Leicester in 1564 in order to make him suitable as a husband for Mary, Queen of Scots, while Reynold Grey was acknowledged as earl of Kent in 1571 because the queen accepted that his family should never have been deprived of its earldom. Elizabeth was particularly willing to restore those who had been removed without good cause from the nobility. In addition to Reynold Grey, she restored Gregory Fiennes to the barony of Dacre in 1559 and Peregrine Bertie to the barony of Willoughby de Eresby in 1580. The creation in 1561 of Lord Robert Dudley’s elder brother, Ambrose Dudley, as earl of Warwick was also, in some sense, a restoration, as the Dudley family had recently held the earldom of Warwick only to lose it by attainder under Mary I.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, attributed to Steven van der Meulen, oil on oak panel, c.1560-5; The Wallace Collection (http://www.artuk.org/artworks/robert-dudley-earl-of-leicester-209567)

Although Elizabeth created new peers for reasons other than Parliament, most of the men she elevated to the peerage, including Burghley, owed their advancement to the crown’s needs in the Lords. Undoubtedly more would have been created by the queen to fill the benches in the House of Lords had Burghley had his way. However, Elizabeth, unlike her successor James I, who sold titles of honour to help rescue the royal finances, preferred to keep the number of noble families firmly in check.


To find out more, Andrew’s full-length paper is available by signing up to his seminar and contacting seminar@histparl.ac.ukDetails of how to join the discussion are available here.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. You will also need to email seminar@histparl.ac.uk in order to receive a copy of the pre-circulated paper. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Andrew, please email seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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