Among the British Library’s Cotton manuscripts survives an eyewitness account of ‘Th’order in proceedinge to the Parliament on Tuesdaie 12 January’ 1563, a day later than intended due to ‘fowle wether’ and the queen being ‘somewhat sick of a styche’. It details Elizabeth’s procession from Whitehall with “trumpetters soundinge”, to the palace of Westminister and all the day’s ceremonies. The stated purpose of summoning this Parliament was twofold: firstly to uphold religion ‘notwithstanding that at the last parliament a lawe [the Elizabethan Settlement] was made for good order to be observed in the same but yet, as appeareth, not executed’, and also to request supply. Elizabeth declared that she was forced to ask for money ‘for the surety of this realme’, mentioning the great expense of northern border defences against the ‘attempted enterprises’ of Scottish factions; and furthermore desired that this and other parliamentary business be concluded ‘so speedilie as can be’, to make new laws ‘as playne and as few ... [and] as brief as the matter will suffer’.1 Thomas Williams, MP for Exeter and an Inner Temple lawyer, was appointed Speaker of the Lower House.
Almost a third of the men elected to the Commons had previously sat in 1559. In their eyes unfinished business dating back to the last Parliament included not just religious debates but the pressing matter of the queen’s refusal to marry or settle the royal succession. This had been lent greater urgency by Elizabeth’s recent near-fatal bout of smallpox, an all too prescient reminder of the current regime’s precariousness. Despite the firm rebuff they had received in 1559 the Commons immediately appointed a committee including all eight privy councillors amongst them to draft a petition that was delivered at Whitehall on 28 January.2 However, Elizabeth’s answer was characteristically evasive.3 On 1 Feb. the Lords presented their own entreaty that she provide for the succession in case ‘God call your Highnes without any heire of your body’.4 A further oration to be made on the Lords’ behalf by Lord Keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon† ‘moveinge her Maiestie to marriage’ was drafted but it is unclear whether or when it was delivered.5 Elizabeth certainly remained unwilling as ever to choose either husband or heir.
Secretary of state Sir William Cecil, representing Northamptonshire, made a declaration on 20 Jan. of the need for supply, and a subsidy committee was duly appointed a few days later. There is considerable evidence of the ‘stage management’ of this Parliament by Cecil and other privy councillors not just in matters of the subsidy and the succession, but for the passage of a body of social and economic legislation which has been dubbed the ‘Elizabethan economic settlement’.6 This included major statutes for tillage (regulating the use of land and against enclosure); poor relief; artificers (regulating wages and apprenticeship); and the maintenance of the navy. The latter, a particular project of Cecil’s, required the enforcement of fish eating on Wednesdays in addition to Fridays and holy days as ‘political Lent’, and provoked intense debate before it eventually passed.7 Among a total of 31 public and 19 private measures enacted at the end of the first session in April 1563 it is notable that very few concerned religion. One required all officeholders including MPs to swear the oath of supremacy; this passed after heated debate in both Houses.8 Another concerning excommunication received last-minute approval, but several bills for ecclesiastical matters were rejected or died at the prorogation.
Elizabeth initially set a date for reassembly six months later, but in the event the second session was delayed until September 1566. In the interrim Speaker Williams had died, and in his place was chosen another Inner Temple lawyer Richard Onslow, MP for Steyning, who had recently been appointed Solicitor-general. Elizabeth’s recurrent illness and the birth in June 1566 of James Stuart, heir to the Scottish throne, further heightened unresolved tensions over the English royal succession. The Commons led by Robert Bell agitated for a bill; some even suggested that supply be withheld until the succession was settled. They conferred with the Lords over how to proceed but Elizabeth intervened, sternly addressing a delegation of 30 members from each House on 5 November. Claiming that she intended to marry in due course she insisted that it would be perilous to name a successor who might then become the focus of plots and factions, and therefore forebade all further discussion.9 In response Paul Wentworth complained that this breached the Commons’ freedom of speech. He and others including William Lambarde and James Dalton refused to be silenced.10 By judiciously revoking the gagging order and remitting payments of the 1563 subsidy yet to be collected Elizabeth secured a new grant of supply; but little else was achieved in this session.11 Cecil privately lamented the failure of several measures including ‘the oppression of informers not amended’, and ‘the bill of relligion stayed to the comfort of the adversaryes’.12 This referred to one of the ‘alphabetical bills’ labelled A,B,C, and so on devised by the bishops concerning the improvement of the clergy and various ecclesiastical reforms but halted by Elizabeth on the grounds that they infringed her prerogative. Other religious measures were thwarted by the adjournment on Christmas eve and dissolution nine days later, when a total of 22 public and 12 private Acts received the royal assent.
For more information on this Parliament, see the appendix in the Introductory Survey.