Monopolies in Elizabethan Parliaments

Elizabeth defined the role of Parliament in her eyes by instructing the Commons to ‘meddle with noe matters of state but such as should be propounded unto them, and to occupy themselves in other matters concerning the commen wealth’. (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T.E. Hartley, i. 199) The term ‘commonwealth’ referred to the state as a whole and also the common good of the people; it had many uses in justifying both social and economic legislation and royal policy such as the granting of licences to enforce penal statutes or trade in prohibited commodities, and patents to protect new inventions and industries. The patent system was originally intended to foster economic growth, encourage investment and enterprise, and create employment for the poor; however, patents of monopoly also provided a source of extra-parliamentary revenue to the Crown and were a means of rewarding courtiers who brought new ‘projects’ to the queen’s attention. For this reason an increasing number were issued from the late 1580s onwards, including some that were nothing more than sinecures. Such monopolies, although usually glossed as being in some way beneficial to the commonwealth, had harmful consequences that became a serious grievance under the harsh economic conditions of the 1590s. Patents were authorized solely by the royal prerogative but when they turned out to be damaging this conflicted with the notion of ‘commonwealth’ that Elizabeth had explicitly entrusted Parliament to uphold. Her failure to respond to earlier parliamentary protests about licences and monopolies therefore meant that by 1601 they became the focus of one of the most dramatic constitutional confrontations of the reign.

The earliest recorded parliamentary objections were raised in the Commons during the 1571 Parliament by Robert Bell who complained that ‘by lycenses a fewe were enriched and the multitude impoverished’. For this he was severely reprimanded by the Privy Council. Elizabeth quashed the potential for further agitation by promising to ‘take order for lycenses, wherein she had bene carefull and more carefull woulde bee’. (Procs. i. 202, 238.) Licences such as trading exemptions undermined well-intentioned legislation and were in effect the same as monopolies. In the 1597-8 Parliament protests against monopolies were referred to an investigating committee who drafted a petition that was delivered by the Speaker at the close of the session. Elizabeth responded by graciously defending her prerogative ‘which is the chiefest flower in her garland and the principall and head pearle in her crowne and dyadem’, and claimed that having already begun to review offensive grants ‘soe she promiseth to continewe and that they shall all be examined to abide the tryall and true touchstone of the lawe’. (Procs. iii. 242.) In fact very few were cancelled, and new patents continued to be issued. By 1601 many MPs were determined to hold Elizabeth to her word and demanded not just that abuses be addressed but that the legality of all such grants be challenged: a clash over the prerogative was therefore unavoidable.

The campaign against monopolies in the 1601 Parliament was mounted by lawyers in the Commons who produced precedents dating back to the reign of Edward III when a licence for sweet wines had been repealed by Parliament. Lawrence Hyde began by introducing a bill for ‘exposicion of the common lawe toucheinge ... monopolyes’. (Procs. iii. 363.) Despite the stalling tactics of privy councillors in the Lower House such as Robert Cecil the ensuing debate dominated proceedings for almost a week. Numerous Members brought in evidence that the ‘principallest commodityes ... are ingrossed into the handes of these bloodsuckers of the commonwealth’, and attacked monopolies as ‘the whirlepoole of the prince’s profittes’. (Procs. iii. 371, 375.) Francis Bacon argued that they should proceed by petition rather than bill, but Robert Wingfield and others objected that this strategy had failed before. Cecil also strongly discouraged the Commons from pursuing Hyde’s bill, suggesting instead that ‘yt were verye ffitt to have a newe committment to consider what her Majestie maye graunte, what not, what course wee shall take and uppon what poyntes’. He furthermore complained that ‘Parleamente matters are ordinarye talke in the streetes’, having heard crowds of people railing against monopolies while driving back and forth in his coach. (Procs. iii. 386, 398.) With tension running high within and beyond Parliament Elizabeth eventually decided to revoke some patents and allow others to be put on trial in common law courts; a Proclamation to this effect was issued before the end of the session.

The queen’s famous ‘golden speech’ on monopolies to a delegation of around 140 Members was a master stroke that defused an ugly impasse and made her seem generous without, in fact, conceding a great deal. At the same time as admitting that some of her grants had been a ‘lapse of error’ she maintained her prerogative, asserting that ‘yt is lawefull for our kingly state to grant guiftes of sundrie sorts of whome we make election’. (Procs. iii. 292-3.) The Commons expressed effusive gratitude, nevertheless a bill ‘to prohibit transportacion of iron ordynance beyond the seas’, which was in fact targeted against export licences, attracted considerable support in the final fortnight of the Parliament. With time running out the Commons attempted to persuade the Speaker to insert it as a special petition to Elizabeth during his closing oration. His failure to do so on the last day despite having agreed was ‘greatlye murmured at and spoken agaynste ... but nothinge was done therin’. (Procs. iii. 490-1.) Thus the problem of monopolies was far from satisfactorily resolved in 1601 although, as with other points of conflict between Elizabeth and her Parliaments, underlying tensions were obviated by her knack of timely intervention and an outward show of making concessions.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi