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Elizabethan Parliaments

There are several ways of approaching our understanding of Parliament during its development in the 16th century, and there have been many debates between historians, especially concerning the Parliaments of Elizabeth I.

Free discussions

Peter Wentworth became a famous Member of Parliament in the reign of Elizabeth I after he was arrested on three separate occasions for arguing that the Commons should have the freedom to discuss whatever it wished, especially on the controversial topic of religion, without fear of reprisal from the Queen.

Some historians have been fascinated by characters such as Wentworth and see in them an indication of a rise in importance of the House of Commons which was maturing, becoming more self-confident and developing an organised oppositional stance to the Crown.

Interpretations and debates

Other historians have detected in this view of the 16th century Parliament a tendency to read history backwards from the 17th century conflict between King and Parliament, an outcome already known but still with murky origins. These historians have looked more carefully at the daily business of Parliament and do not see it full of opposition, organisation or ideology. Parliament, even under Elizabeth I, was summoned by the monarch and was a branch of royal government, and it would have been failing in its duty if there were constant disagreement with the monarch.

The high road to civil war?

While it is certainly incorrect to ignore Wentworth and the oppositional voices he and others like him represented, it needs to be remembered that throughout the 16th century and for most of the following century, Members of Parliament saw themselves as the monarch's servants and Parliament as a place to deal with local matters and to pass necessary legislation.

It was not primarily a debating chamber where great issues of politics and ideology were to be talked over. Nor were the 16th and early 17th century Parliaments on a "high road to Civil War”. That cataclysmic event had its own more immediate causes, largely depending on the character and actions of the King, Charles I, and on extreme religious elements among members.


You can access biographies of

Elizabeth I
Charles I

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Also within Living Heritage

Did you know?

By the reign of Elizabeth I the Commons was meeting in St Stephen's Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. The choir stalls facing each other in the old chapel have influenced the seating pattern in the modern House of Commons.

Find out more about the use of St Stephen's Chapel by the Commons