The ‘Answer Answerless’ and Elizabeth I’s attitude towards the Parliament of 1586-7

In the latest blog from our First Elizabethan Age series Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our Lords 1558-1603 section, discusses the words- or lack of- given by Elizabeth I on this day 1586, and some of the more unusual features of the monarch’s sixth Parliament…

At Richmond Palace on 24 November 1586, four hundred and twenty-six years ago to the day, Elizabeth I delivered a speech which profoundly disappointed her listeners. After almost four weeks of intense parliamentary activity, the delegation sent to hear her reply to a petition from both Houses had expected better than to receive an ‘answer answerless’, as Elizabeth herself described it.

The Parliament of 1586-7 – the sixth of Elizabeth’s reign – had been called after the discovery of the Babington Plot, whereby Elizabeth’s prisoner, the deposed Scottish queen, Mary Stuart, had plotted to murder Elizabeth and take the throne for herself. The purpose of the Parliament, summoned at the behest of Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley and his fellow privy councillors, was to decide what to do with Mary, who had been convicted by a jury of English noblemen and sentenced to death shortly before Parliament met. Unlike her Parliament, however, Elizabeth was reluctant to order the execution of a fellow monarch, for reasons both political and personal. Mary was not only a kinswoman but also the heir-apparent. Elizabeth was worried, too, that Mary’s execution would merely fuel the claim, widely expressed in Continental Catholic courts, that England’s Queen was a tyrant and worthy of death herself. And while most of Elizabeth’s Protestant subjects believed that their Queen would only be safe if Mary were to be executed, Elizabeth herself feared that execution of her rival would merely increase the risk to her own safety. Caught between the danger involved in not executing Mary and the peril she faced if she did, Elizabeth did what she did best: she prevaricated. The result was her ‘answer answerless’, in which she declared that she would neither agree to order Mary’s execution nor decline to do so. She thereby wrong-footed Lord Burghley, who had tried to use Parliament to force Elizabeth to order the Scottish Queen’s death and was now compelled to employ underhand means to secure Mary’s execution. As a result, he incurred the wrath of Elizabeth and his own temporary banishment from Court.

Portrait of Elizabeth I. She is dressed in a black gown with large puffed full length sleeves, a white lace ruff around her neck and matching lace cuffs. The gown is covered in gold embellishments. There is a small white ferret on her arm and a sprig of herbs in her hand. Elizabeth has red hair, pulled up with pearls around it, and is wearing a gold crown with black and red stones.
The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England,
William Segar c. 1585,
Hatfield House via WikimediaCommons

The evasive nature of the ‘answer answerless’, and Elizabeth’s thwarting of Burghley, were arguably the two most striking features of the 1586-7 Parliament. However, there were two significant points of difference between this assembly and most other parliaments, both of which also deserve our attention.

The first was that this Parliament was summoned almost immediately after the dissolution of its predecessor. Elizabeth, like her predecessors, usually left an interval of three or four years between meetings of Parliament. By contrast, for the first time in English history, an interval of just one day separated the dissolution of the 1584-5 Parliament on 14 September 1586 and the summons of the 1586-7 Parliament. (Not until 1690, following the Glorious Revolution, did the practice of summoning one Parliament hot on the heels of another become established.) The reason for this departure from customary practice was the urgent need to deal with Mary Queen of Scots, which was considered incompatible with the continued existence of the 1584-5 Parliament. Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot was exposed in August 1586, but the prorogued 1584-5 Parliament was not due to reconvene until 14 November 1586. As no mechanism for shortening a prorogation existed – not until 1667, following the Dutch Raid on the Medway, was the solution of holding an extra-sessional meeting devised – the Council urged the Queen to dissolve the 1584-5 Parliament and summon a fresh assembly which, it was planned, would meet on 15 October, one full month before the 1584-5 Parliament had been due to reconvene.

The second extraordinary difference between the 1586-7 assembly and all other parliaments was Elizabeth’s decision to distance herself from the meeting. When the new Parliament finally opened on 29 October 1586 it was without the Queen who, though in good health, remained at Richmond. No English monarch before or since has ever failed to attend the State Opening for reasons other than physical or mental infirmity. It seems likely that Elizabeth’s decision, which was reached as early as 4 October, aroused strong opposition in the Council, for on 26 October Burghley reported that Elizabeth would now open Parliament in person after all. In the event, Elizabeth reverted to her original plan, so leaving Parliament to be opened by Burghley and two of his fellow ministers, acting as commissioners for the Queen.

Sketch of Richmond Palace, drawn on discoloured yellowed paper in pencil. The Palace is drawn from the view of the river, with the main keep in the centre and an expanse of various smaller buildings behind it. The main Palace has many windows looking over the river, with 10+ towers with domed roofs.
Richmond Palace from SW,
Wyngaerde c.1558-62,
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford via WikimediaCommons

Elizabeth’s refusal to attend the State Opening, and her continued residence thereafter at Richmond, led to widespread speculation that the Queen was afraid that returning to the capital would invite assassination. There were certainly good grounds for the belief that the danger remained: although the 14 conspirators involved in the Babington Plot had already been put to death, another assassination plot was uncovered in January 1587. Elizabeth naturally denied that her absence from Westminster was occasioned by fears for her safety, telling a parliamentary deputation on 12 November that the real reason was grief, as she could not bear to be repeatedly reminded of Mary’s crimes. A less plausible explanation would be hard to imagine.

Aside from considerations of personal safety, probably the main reason Elizabeth chose to distance herself from Parliament was that she wanted to avoid incriminating herself on the European stage. She hoped that someone else would rid her of Mary, so that she might avoid the blame. This was not entirely unreasonable, as many members of the gentry and nobility had previously sworn to hunt down and kill anyone who attempted to assassinate the Queen (the Bond of Association, 1584-5). Elizabeth later expressed disappointment that Mary’s gaoler, Sir Amias Paulet, who had taken the Oath, had not quietly murdered the Scottish Queen. Elizabeth did not want to be seen as complicit in regicide and bitterly resented Parliament’s expectation that she herself would wield the knife. Her desire to keep Mary at arm’s length was evident even before Parliament met. In the wake of the discovery of the Babington Plot, Mary had not been placed in the Tower and tried in Westminster Hall, as would normally have been the case for such a high-profile prisoner. Instead, she was transferred to Fotheringhay Castle, in Northamptonshire, where her trial (and ultimately her execution) took place, well away from Elizabeth, London and Westminster.


Further reading:

Antonia Fraser, Mary, Queen of Scots (1969)

Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (1960)

Read more from our First Elizabethan Age blog series here.

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