Elizabeth And Her Parliament by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The year 1566 was a remarkable period in the domestic annals of our great Elizabeth; then, for a moment, broke forth a noble struggle between the freedom of the subject and the dignity of the sovereign.

One of the popular grievances of her glorious reign was the maiden state in which the queen persisted to live, notwithstanding such frequent remonstrances and exhortations. The nation in a moment might be thrown into the danger of a disputed succession; and it became necessary to allay that ferment which existed among all parties, while each was fixing on its own favourite, hereafter to ascend the throne. The birth of James I. this year, re-animated the partisans of Mary of Scotland; and men of the most opposite parties in England unanimously joined in the popular cry for the marriage of Elizabeth, or a settlement of the succession. This was a subject most painful to the thoughts of Elizabeth; she started from it with horror, and she was practising every imaginable artifice to evade it.

The real cause of this repugnance has been passed over by our historians. Camden, however, hints at it, when he places among other popular rumours of the day, that “men cursed Huic, the queen’s physician, for dissuading her from marriage, for I know not what female infirmity.” The queen’s physician thus incurred the odium of the nation for the integrity of his conduct: he well knew how precious was her life![1]

This fact, once known, throws a new light over her conduct; the ambiguous expressions which she constantly employs, when she alludes to her marriage in her speeches, and in private conversations, are no longer mysterious. She was always declaring, that she knew her subjects did not love her so little, as to wish to bury her before her time; even in the letter I shall now give, we find this remarkable expression:–urging her to marriage, she said, was “asking nothing less than wishing her to dig her grave before she was dead.” Conscious of the danger of her life by marriage, she had early declared when she ascended the throne, that “she would live and die a maiden queen:” but she afterwards discovered the political evil resulting from her unfortunate situation. Her conduct was admirable; her great genius turned even her weakness into strength, and proved how well she deserved the character which she had already obtained from an enlightened enemy–the great Sixtus V., who observed of her, Ch’era un gran cervello di Principessa! She had a princely head-piece! Elizabeth allowed her ministers to pledge her royal word to the commons, as often as they found necessary, for her resolution to marry; she kept all Europe at her feet, with the hopes and fears of her choice; she gave ready encouragements, perhaps allowed her agents to promote even invitations, to the offers of marriage she received from crowned heads; and all the coquetries and cajolings, so often and so fully recorded, with which she freely honoured individuals, made her empire an empire of love, where love, however, could never appear. All these were merely political artifices, to conceal her secret resolution, which was, not to marry.

At the birth of James I. as Camden says, “the sharp and hot spirits broke out, accusing the queen that she was neglecting her country and posterity.” All “these humours,” observes Hume, “broke out with great vehemence, in a new session of parliament, held after six prorogations.” The peers united with the commoners. The queen had an empty exchequer, and was at their mercy. It was a moment of high ferment. Some of the boldest, and some of the most British spirits were at work; and they, with the malice or wisdom of opposition, combined the supply with the succession; one was not to be had without the other.

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This was a moment of great hope and anxiety with the French court; they were flattering themselves that her reign was touching a crisis; and La Mothe Fenelon, then the French ambassador at the court of Elizabeth, appears to have been busied in collecting hourly information of the warm debates in the commons, and what passed in their interviews with the queen. We may rather be astonished where he procured so much secret intelligence: he sometimes complains that he is not able to acquire it as fast as Catherine de Medicis and her son Charles IX. wished. There must have been Englishmen at our court who were serving as French spies. In a private collection, which consists of two or three hundred original letters of Charles IX., Catherine de Medicis, Henry III., and Mary of Scotland, etc., I find two despatches of this French ambassador, entirely relating to the present occurrence. What renders them more curious is, that the debates on the question of the succession are imperfectly given in Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s journals; the only resource open to us. Sir Symonds complains of the negligence of the clerk of the commons, who indeed seems to have exerted his negligence, whenever it was found most agreeable to the court party.

Previous to the warm debates in the commons, of which the present despatch furnishes a lively picture, on Saturday, 12th October, 1566, at a meeting of the lords of the council, held in the queen’s apartment, the Duke of Norfolk, in the name of the whole nobility, addressed Elizabeth, urging her to settle the suspended points of the succession, and of her marriage, which had been promised in the last parliament. The queen was greatly angered on the occasion; she would not suffer their urgency on those points, and spoke with great animation. “Hitherto you have had no opportunity to complain of me; I have well governed the country in peace, and if a late war of little consequence has broken out, which might have occasioned my subjects to complain of me, with me it has not originated, but with yourselves, as truly I believe. Lay your hands on your hearts, and blame yourselves. In respect to the choice of the succession, not one of ye shall have it; that choice I reserve to myself alone. I will not be buried while I am living, as my sister was. Do I not well know, how during the life of my sister every one hastened to me at Hatfield; I am at present inclined to see no such travellers, nor desire on this your advice in any way.[2] In regard to my marriage, you may see enough, that I am not distant from it, and in what respects the welfare of the kingdom: go each of you, and do your own duty.”

27th October, 1566.


“By my last despatch of the 21st instant,[3] among other matters, I informed your majesty of what was said on Saturday the 19th as well in parliament, as in the chamber of the queen, respecting the circumstance of the succession to this crown; since which I have learned other particulars, which occurred a little before, and which I will not now omit to relate, before I mention what afterwards happened.

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“On Wednesday, the 16th of the present month, the comptroller of the queen’s household[4] moved, in the lower house of parliament, where the deputies of towns and counties meet, to obtain a subsidy;[5] taking into consideration, among other things, that the queen had emptied the exchequer, as well in the late wars, as in the maintenance of her ships at sea, for the protection of her kingdom, and her subjects; and which expenditure has been so excessive, that it could no further be supported without the aid of her good subjects, whose duty it was to offer money to her majesty, even before she required it, in consideration that, hitherto, she had been to them a benignant and courteous mistress.

“The comptroller having finished, one of the deputies, a country gentleman, rose in reply. He said, that he saw no occasion, nor any pressing necessity, which ought to move her majesty to ask for money of her subjects. And, in regard to the wars, which it was said had exhausted her treasury, she had undertaken them for herself, as she had thought proper; not for the defence of her kingdom, nor for the advantage of her subjects; but there was one thing which seemed to him more urgent, and far more necessary to examine concerning this campaign; which was, how the money raised by the late subsidy had been spent; and that every one who had had the handling of it should produce their accounts, that it might be known if the monies had been well or ill spent.

“On this, rises one named Mr. Basche,[6] purveyor of the marine, and also a member of the said parliament; who shows that it was most necessary that the commons should vote the said subsidies to her majesty, who had not only been at vast charges, and was so daily, to maintain a great number of ships, but also in building new ones; repeating what the comptroller of the household had said, that they ought not to wait till the queen asked for supplies, but should make a voluntary offer of their services.

“Another country gentleman rises and replies, that the said Basche had certainly his reasons to speak for the queen in the present case, since a great deal of her majesty’s monies for the providing of ships passed through his hands; and the more he consumed, the greater was his profit. According to his notion, there were but too many purveyors in this kingdom, whose noses had grown so long, that they stretched from London to the west.[7] It was certainly proper to know if all they levied by their commission for the present campaign was entirely employed to the queen’s profit. Nothing further was debated on that day.

“The Friday following when the subject of the subsidy was renewed, one of the gentlemen-deputies showed, that the queen having prayed[8] for the last subsidy, had promised, and pledged her faith to her subjects, that after that one she never more would raise a single penny on them; and promised even to free them from the wine-duty, of which promise they ought to press for the performance; adding, that it was far more necessary for this kingdom to speak concerning an heir or successor to their crown, and of her marriage, than of a subsidy.

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“The next day, which was Saturday the 19th, they all began, with the exception of a single voice, a loud outcry for the succession. Amidst these confused voices and cries, one of the council prayed them to have a little patience, and with time they should be satisfied; but that, at this moment, other matters pressed,–it was necessary to satisfy the queen about a subsidy. ‘No! no!’ cried the deputies, ‘we are expressly charged not to grant anything until the queen resolvedly answers that which we now ask: and we require you to inform her majesty of our intention, which is such as we are commanded to by all the towns and subjects of this kingdom, whose deputies we are. We further require an act, or acknowledgment, of our having delivered this remonstrance, that we may satisfy our respective towns and counties that we have performed our charge.’ They alleged for an excuse, that if they had omitted any part of this, their heads would answer for it. We shall see what will come of this.[9]

“Tuesday the 22nd, the principal lords, and the bishops of London, York, Winchester, and Durham, went together, after dinner, from the parliament to the queen, whom they found in her private apartment. There, after those who were present had retired, and they remained alone with her, the great treasurer having the precedence in age, spoke first in the name of all. He opened, by saying, that the commons had required them to unite in one sentiment and agreement, to solicit her majesty to give her answer as she had promised, to appoint a successor to the crown; declaring it was necessity that compelled them to urge this point, that they might provide against the dangers which might happen to the kingdom, if they continued without the security they asked. This had been the custom of her royal predecessors, to provide long beforehand for the succession, to preserve the peace of the kingdom; that the commons were all of one opinion, and so resolved to settle the succession before they would speak about a subsidy, or any other matter whatever; that, hitherto, nothing but the most trivial discussions had passed in parliament, and so great an assembly was only wasting their time, and saw themselves entirety useless. They, however, supplicated her majesty, that she would be pleased to declare her will on this point, or at once to put an end to the parliament, so that every one might retire to his home.

“The Duke of Norfolk then spoke, and, after him, every one of the other lords, according to his rank, holding the same language in strict conformity with that of the great treasurer.

“The queen returned no softer answer than she had on the preceding Saturday, to another party of the same company; saying that ‘The commons were very rebellious, and that they had not dared to have attempted such things during the life of her father: that it was not for them to impede her affairs, and that it did not become a subject to compel the sovereign. What they asked was nothing less than wishing her to dig her grave before she was dead.’ Addressing herself to the lords, she said, ‘My lords, do what you will; as for myself, I shall do nothing but according to my pleasure. All the resolutions which you may make can have no force without my consent and authority; besides, what you desire is an affair of much too great importance to be declared to a knot of hare-brains.[10] I will take counsel with men who understand justice and the laws, as I am deliberating to do: I will choose half-a-dozen of the most able I can find in my kingdom for consultation, and after having their advice, I will then discover to you my will.’ On this she dismissed them in great anger.

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“By this, sire, your majesty may perceive that this queen is every day trying new inventions to escape from this passage (that is, on fixing her marriage, or the succession). She thinks that the Duke of Norfolk is principally the cause of this insisting,[11] which one person and the other stand to; and is so angried against him, that, if she can find any decent pretext to arrest him, I think she will not fail to do it; and he himself, as I understand, has already very little doubt of this.[12] The duke told the earl of Northumberland, that the queen remained steadfast to her own opinion, and would take no other advice than her own, and would do everything herself.”

The storms in our parliament do not necessarily end in political shipwrecks, whenever the head of the government is an Elizabeth. She, indeed, sent down a prohibition to the house from all debate on the subject. But when she discovered a spirit in the commons, and language as bold as her own royal style, she knew how to revoke the exasperating prohibition. She even charmed them by the manner; for the commons returned her “prayers and thanks,” and accompanied them with a subsidy. Her majesty found by experience, that the present, like other passions, was more easily calmed and quieted by following than resisting, observes Sir Symonds D’Ewes.

The wisdom of Elizabeth, however, did not weaken her intrepidity. The struggle was glorious for both parties; but how she escaped through the storm which her mysterious conduct had at once raised and quelled, the sweetness and the sharpness, the commendation and the reprimand of her noble speech in closing the parliament, are told by Hume with the usual felicity of his narrative.[13]

[Footnote 1:
Foreign authors who had an intercourse with the English court seem to have been better informed, or at least found themselves under less restraint than our home-writers. In Bayle, note x. the reader will find this mysterious affair cleared up; and at length in one of our own writers, Whitaker, in his “Mary Queen of Scots Vindicated,” vol. ii. p. 502. Elizabeth’s Answer to the first Address of the Commons, on her marriage, in Hume, vol. v. p. 13, is now more intelligible: he has preserved her fanciful style. ]

[Footnote 2:
A curious trait of the neglect Queen Mary experienced, whose life being considered very uncertain, sent all the intriguers of a court to Elizabeth, the next heir, although then in a kind of state imprisonment. ]

[Footnote 3:
This despatch is a meagre account, written before the ambassador obtained all the information the present letter displays. The chief particulars I have preserved above. ]

[Footnote 4:
By Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s Journal it appears, that the French ambassador had mistaken the day, Wednesday the 16th, for Thursday the 17th of October. The ambassador is afterwards right in the other dates. The person who moved the house, whom he calls “Le Seindicque de la Royne,” was Sir Edward Rogers, comptroller of her majesty’s household. The motion was seconded by Sir William Cecil, who entered more largely into the particulars of the queen’s charges, incurred in the defence of New-Haven, in France, the repairs of her navy, and the Irish war with O’Neil. In the present narrative we fully discover the spirit of the independent member; and, at its close, that part of the secret history of Elizabeth which so powerfully developes her majestic character. ]

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[Footnote 5:
The original says, “ung subside de quatre solz pour liure.” ]

[Footnote 6:
This gentleman’s name does not appear in Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s Journal. Mons. Le Mothe Fenelon has, however, the uncommon merit, contrary to the custom of his nation, of writing an English name somewhat recognisable; for Edward Basche was one of the general surveyors of the victualling of the queen’s ships, 1573, as I find in the Lansdowne MSS., vol. xvi. art. 69. ]

[Footnote 7:
In the original, “Ils avoient le nez si long qu’il s’estendoit despuis Londres jusques au pays d’West.” ]

[Footnote 8:
This term is remarkable. In the original, “La Royne ayant impetre,”which in Congrave’s Dictionary, a contemporary work, is explained by,–“To get by praier, obtain by suit, compass by intreaty, procure by request.” This significant expression conveys the real notion of this venerable Whig, before Whiggism had received a denomination, and formed a party. ]

[Footnote 9:
The French ambassador, no doubt, flattered himself and his master, that all this “parlance” could only close in insurrection and civil war. ]

[Footnote 10:
In the original, “A ung tas de cerveaulx si legieres.” ]

[Footnote 11:
The word in the original is insistance; an expressive word as used by the French ambassador; but which Boyer, in his Dictionary, doubts whether it be French, although he gives a modern authority; the present is much more ancient. ]

[Footnote 12:
The Duke of Norfolk was, “without comparison, the first subject in England; and the qualities of his mind corresponded with his high station,” says Hume. He closed his career, at length, the victim of love and ambition, in his attempt to marry the Scottish Mary. So great and honourable a man could only be a criminal by halves; and, to such, the scaffold, and not the throne, is reserved, when they engage in enterprises, which, by their secrecy, in the eyes of a jealous sovereign, assume the form and the guilt of a conspiracy. ]

[Footnote 13:
Hume, vol, v. c. 39; at the close of 1566. ]

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