Monopolies, a grievance that had previously been raised in 1571 and 1597-8, became a major talking point in Elizabeth’s final Parliament. The queen’s failure to fulfil her promise to expose all patents to the ‘tryall and true touchstone of the lawe’ produced a more cogent attack upon monopolies than had hitherto been attempted concerning any single issue in the earlier Parliaments of the reign.1 The proceedings were recorded in great detail by Hayward Townshend, whose private journal surpasses the surviving record of any previous assembly including his own diary of the 1597 Parliament. John Croke, Recorder of London, was appointed Speaker of the Lower House. In granting his customary request for freedom of speech, Elizabeth warned the Commons not to waste time on ‘ydle and vayne matter’, nor to indulge in ‘speeches made ffor contencion or contradiction sake’. She also instructed Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton to make clear in his opening oration her ‘desier of dissolucion before Christmas’; although there was a vast array of business on the agenda the session lasted only 42 working days.2
Egerton’s speech, relayed to the Commons by Sir Robert Cecil, set out the main reason for summoning Parliament: to replenish the queen’s coffers that had been bled dry by war in Ireland and the ongoing threat of Spanish invasion. News that Philip III of Spain had landed forces at Kinsale only a few weeks earlier added even greater urgency to the need for supply.3 A general committee was appointed at which on 7 Nov. Cecil declared that £300,000 must be raised before Easter; the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Fortescue therefore requested an unprecedented grant of four subsidies with eight fifteenths and tenths. This was debated before the Commons turned to consideration of grievances, despite the appointment of a committee for the latter on 3 November. The substance of the subsidy bill had been agreed by 9 Nov. with an unanimous vote that the first instalment should be collected by February 1602; following as it did upon grants of three subsidies in 1593 and again in 1597-8 this amounted to relatively steep annual taxation throughout the final decade of Elizabeth’s reign.4
No mention was made of monopolies until 18 Nov. when Lawrence Hyde produced a bill which he described as ‘an exposicion of the common lawe touchinge ... monopolyes’. Before this was read, however, a word from Cecil in the Speaker’s ear brought the day’s business to an abrupt end.5 Many Members in the days that followed prefaced complaints about abusive patentees by first expressing their fear of offending the queen. The courtier Sir Walter Ralegh, himself a monopolist of tin, was observed to blush and the ‘sharpe speeche’ he made in his own defence was met with silence. Francis Bacon disingenuously claimed that Elizabeth had already revoked some of the most offensive grants, and tried to persuade the Commons to proceed by petition rather than bill, a strategy that had failed in 1597-8; but this provoked even greater protest.6 Cecil scolded Members for behaviour ‘more ffitt ffor a grammer schoole’ than a Parliament; meanwhile outside a multitude of people calling themselves ‘commonwealthe’s men’ also demanded redress against monopolists.7 Ultimately Elizabeth personally intervened. In a ‘golden speech’ on 30 Nov. at Whitehall she assured an audience of around 140 MPs that she was never a ‘greedy scraping grasper... nor yet a wastere’, and had been deceived by projectors who ‘pretended to me that all my subjects should have a publicke benefitt and proffitt, as well as they should have private gaine’.8 Her promise to abolish some patents and expose others to trial by common law was published by Proclamation.
Social and economic legislation occupied much of the remaining time. The poor laws passed in 1597-8 were codified into a new Act which stood until 1834. Several penal statutes concerning alehouses and drunkenness, blasphemy, regulation of weights and measures, and the enforcement of church attendance were debated at length, though none ultimately passed.9 An official bill to enforce the growing of hemp (to make ropes for the navy) was rejected following a speech in which Ralegh criticised the existing restraints imposed by the Tillage Act; despite failing once the hemp bill was re-introduced and thrown out again by the Commons. The renewal of the Tillage Act itself was achieved despite heated opposition, particularly over certain exemptions and provisos.10 Religious debates concerning a bill against pluralities of benefices were halted by a warning from Serjeant-at-law Thomas Harris on 16 Nov. that as in previous Parliaments Elizabeth would not permit them to ‘meddle in cases of this nature, soe neerlye toucheinge her prerogatyve royall’.11 She also vetoed an attempt to legislate against corruption in the Exchequer court.
A sense of retrospection may be detected in the closing speeches of Speaker Croke, Lord Keeper Egerton, and Elizabeth herself at the dissolution on 19 December. Townshend had already noted that a statute limited to the lifetime of the queen ‘was greatlye whispered at and observed in the Howse’; evidently Members were just as aware as Elizabeth, now aged 68, that this Parliament might be her last.12 She reflected upon ‘the course which I have ever holden sinc I began to raigne’, and declared herself ‘content to be a taper of trewe virgin waxe to wast my self and spend my life that I might give light and comfort to those that live under me’.