Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI: Of Edward the Sixth—Mary—and Elizabeth.—General Review of the Government.—Conclusion of the Period from the Norman Conquest to the Accession of the House of Stewart. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER XI: Of Edward the Sixth—Mary—and Elizabeth.—General Review of the Government.—Conclusion of the Period from the Norman Conquest to the Accession of the House of Stewart. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Of Edward the Sixth—Mary—and Elizabeth.—General Review of the Government.—Conclusion of the Period from the Norman Conquest to the Accession of the House of Stewart.
By the minority of Edward the sixth,1 the ambitious designs of his father became entirely abortive. The administration was committed to a council of the nobles; who, from want of authority, from disagreement among themselves, or from the desire of popularity, were induced to retrench all the late extensions of the prerogative. The very first year of this reign produced a repeal of that offensive statute, by which royal proclamations had, in any case, obtained the force of laws. Other innovations, which had proceeded from the extraordinary influence of Henry the eighth, were likewise abolished; and, in a short time, the former constitution was completely restored. The reformation, although it continued the direction which had been<445> given to it by Henry the eighth, was carried, in this reign, to an extent, and acquired a form, somewhat more agreeable to the general sentiments of the party by whom it was embraced.
The reign of Mary is chiefly distinguished by the violent struggle which it produced, in order to re-establish the Roman catholic superstition.2 Although the reformation was, at this time, acceptable to the majority of the nation, there still remained a numerous body, zealously attached to the ancient religion, and highly exasperated by the late innovations. With this powerful support, and by the most vigorous exertion of crown-influence upon the elections of the commons, Mary was able to procure a parliament entirely devoted to her interest, and willing to execute her designs.* The restitution of the revenues, of which the monasteries had been plundered, and in which a great part of the nobility and gentry had been sharers, was the only measure at which they seemed to feel any scruple of conscience. But the reign of Mary, though it occasioned a violent shock to the reformation, was too short<446> for extirpating those religious opinions, which had taken a deep root through the kingdom; and which, upon the accession of her successor, were prudently cultivated and brought to maturity.
In the English annals, we meet with no reign so uniformly splendid and fortunate as that of Elizabeth.3 Never did any sovereign, since the days of Alfred, enjoy such high and such deserved popularity, or procure such extensive advantages to the nation. To her the nation was indebted for the security of religious, the great forerunner of civil liberty. Her own religion coincided with that of the greater part of her subjects; who looked up to her as their deliverer from a superstition which they abhorred. Nor did she appear in this light to her own subjects only: she was the great support and protector of the protestant interest in Europe; and, while this drew upon her the enmity of all the Catholic powers, she was endeared to her own people by the reflection, that her zeal in defending them from the tyranny of Rome, was continually exposing her to machinations, which threatened to bereave her of her crown and her life. Her magnanimity and<447> public spirit, her penetration and dexterity, her activity and vigour of mind, her undaunted resolution, and command of a temper naturally violent and impetuous, were equally conspicuous in her domestic and foreign transactions; and, in the whole course of her administration, it will be hard to point out an instance where she mistook her political interest, or was guilty of any error or neglect in promoting it. Notwithstanding the number and power of her enemies, and in spite of all the combinations that were formed against her, she maintained invariably the peace and tranquillity of her own dominions; and her subjects, during a reign of five and forty years, enjoyed a course of uninterrupted prosperity and happiness.
Whether Elizabeth entertained a just idea of the English constitution, has been called in question.4 But such as her idea was, her behaviour seems to have been strictly conformable to it. Between the prerogative, and the privileges of the parliament, she appears to have drawn a fixed line; and, as in her greatest prosperity she never exceeded this boundary, so<448> in the utmost distress and perplexity she never permitted the least encroachment upon it.
With the legislative power of parliament she never interfered. The exclusive privilege of that assembly, in imposing taxes, was neither controverted by her, nor impaired. There is no vestige of her either attempting, or desiring, to violate these important branches of parliamentary authority.* Mention is made of her having, in one or two cases, obtained a loan from her subjects: but there is no appearance that any compulsion was employed in making it effectual; and her conduct is, in this particular, illustriously distinguished from that of most other princes, by her punctual repayment of the money.
Instead of asking a benevolence, she even refused it, when offered by parliament. Such expedients, indeed, for procuring supplies, were in a great measure superfluous. So rigid was her oeconomy, so great and so apparent were<449> the occasions upon which she ever demanded a supply, such was the confidence reposed in her by parliament, and so intimately did they conceive her enterprizes to be connected with the public welfare, that they never discovered any reluctance to grant whatever sums of money she thought proper to require.
There was one point invariably maintained by Elizabeth, in which, to those who form their notions of the English government from what is at present established, she appears to have been guilty of an encroachment. An act of parliament originally proceeded upon a petition to the sovereign for the redress of a grievance, or the removal of some inconvenience; and when this petition had obtained the king’s consent, it acquired the force of a law. According to this method of conducting the business of legislation, the king had no occasion to declare his resolution concerning any bill, until it was discussed, and finally approved of, by both houses of parliament. Before this was done, it could not be considered as a national request, to which an answer from the throne was demanded.
From the nature of this transaction, and<450> from the view of saving trouble to the sovereign, a regular course of procedure was thus introduced, by which any new law received the assent of the crown, after the sanction of the other two branches of the legislature had been given to its enactment. This practice, deriving authority from custom, was at length followed independent of the circumstances from which it had been originally suggested; and was confirmed by the experience of a later age, which discovered, that any deviation from it would be attended with dangerous consequences. When the proposal of a new law, after being fully debated in parliament, has excited the public attention, and its utility has become apparent to the nation, the crown is, in most cases, unwilling to counteract the inclinations of the people, by refusing its consent to the measure. But if the sovereign were permitted to smother any bill, the moment it was proposed in parliament, there could scarcely exist a possibility, that any new law, disagreeable to the crown, or adverse to the views of a ministry, should ever be enacted. It has therefore become a fundamental principle of the constitution, that, with a few exceptions, the<451> king shall not take notice of any bill depending in parliament; and that, before it has passed the two houses, the royal assent or negative shall not be declared.
But that this rule was completely and invariably established in the reign of Elizabeth, there is no reason to believe. The political expediency of such a regulation was, in that age, not likely to become an object of general attention. Neither was it inconsistent with the nature of the business, however contrary to the usual practice, that the king, upon the introduction of a bill into parliament, should prevent the labour of a fruitless discussion by an immediate interposition of his negative.*
Of this interposition Elizabeth exhibited some remarkable instances. The first improvement of arts, manufactures, and commerce, by raising the lower class of the inhabitants to a better condition, disposed them to free themselves from the tyranny of the<452> great barons, and for that purpose to court the protection of the crown. But when this improvement was farther extended, the great body of the people became still more independent, and found themselves capable of defending their privileges, whether in opposition to the crown or to the nobles. This gave rise to a new spirit, which became conspicuous after the accession of James the first, but of which the dawn began to appear in the reign of his predecessor; a spirit of liberty in the commons, by which they were incited to regulate and to restrain such branches of the prerogative as appeared the most liable to abuse, and most inconsistent with the enjoyment of those rights which they were disposed to assert.
Whenever a bill of this tendency was brought into parliament; such as that for limiting the crown as head of the church, or for the diminution of its power in granting monopolies; the queen made no scruple to declare immediately her opposition to the measure, and even to prohibit any farther debate upon the subject. In doing this, she seems to have considered herself as merely defending those rights of the crown which had been<453> transmitted by her ancestors. Is not the sovereign, said the ministry in those cases, a branch of the legislature? Has she not a voice in the passing of laws? When her negative has once been interposed, all farther deliberation upon the subject must be entirely excluded; and the bill must be laid aside, in the same manner as if it had been rejected by either house of parliament.
This view of the prerogative suggested another exertion of authority, which, in the present age, has been thought still more illegal and arbitrary than the former. If, at any stage of a bill in parliament, the crown was entitled to interpose its negative, it seemed to be a consequence, that, upon the exercise of this right, any farther debate or deliberation upon the subject was precluded. The attempt to prosecute the bill, after such intimation was given upon the part of the crown, was to reject the determination of the legislature, to condemn the authority of the sovereign, and, by faction and clamour, to stir up disorder and discontent. A behaviour of this kind was thought liable to punishment; and Elizabeth, upon several occasions, adventured to imprison those members<454> of parliament who persisted in pushing forward those bills which had been refused by the crown.
It is proper to remark, that these exertions of her power were limited to cases of that nature. She never prevented the discussion of any bill in parliament, except in cases where her ancient prerogative was invaded; nor did she ever pretend to punish the liberty of speech, unless when indulged in continuing to push those bills which she had declared her final resolution to reject.
That such proceedings, however, by intimidating members of parliament, are calculated to prevent the proper discharge of their duty, is indisputable. The liberal ideas upon this point, which are now happily reduced into practice, may be regarded as one of the greatest improvements in the British constitution. That a senator may be encouraged to perform his duty to the public with steadiness and confidence, he ought to enjoy an unbounded liberty of speech, and to be guarded against the resentment either of the sovereign, or of any other persons in power, whom that liberty may offend. From the controul of that house, of<455> which he is a member, he is likely to be prevented from any great indecency and licentiousness in the exercise of this privilege; and his parliamentary conduct should not be impeached, or called in question, in any other court, or from any other quarter. This principle is now sufficiently understood, and universally acknowledged. Its establishment, however, marks a degree of refinement, and of experience in political speculation, which, under the government of the Tudor princes, the nation could hardly be supposed to attain; and the liberty of speech, then belonging to the members of parliament, was probably limited to subjects which that assembly had a right to discuss.
The situation of religious controversy, in the reign of Elizabeth, gave rise to a new ecclesiastical tribunal, which, in after times, was likewise held inconsistent with free government, the court of high commission.5 It must be acknowledged, that the primitive reformers, in any country of Europe, though they zealously opposed the papal tyranny, were far from adopting the liberal principle of religious toleration. Such a principle would, perhaps, have<456> been unsuitable to their circumstances, which required that they should combat the most inveterate prejudices, and overturn a system, which for ages had been advancing in respect and authority. As, in England, the king succeeded to the supremacy, which had been vested in the Roman pontiff, he became the judge of orthodoxy in matters of religion; and assumed the power of directing the modes and forms of religious worship. This authority was, by Henry the eighth, delegated to a single person, with the title of Lord vicegerent. In the reign of Elizabeth, parliament thinking it safer that such jurisdiction should be entrusted to a numerous meeting, empowered the queen to appoint a commission for the exercise of it.* This alteration was a manifest improvement, yet the court of high commission was so little fettered by the rules of law, and was so much calculated to indulge the rancour and animosity inspired by theological disputes, that we may easily suppose the complaints, which it excited, were not without foundation. Its abolition, in a subsequent reign, was farther recommended<457> from this consideration, that, after the full establishment of the reformation, the same necessity of inculcating uniformity of religious tenets could no longer be pretended.
The great historian of England, to whom the reader is indebted for the complete union of history with philosophy, appears very strongly impressed with a notion of the despotical government in the reign of Elizabeth, and of the arbitrary and tyrannical conduct displayed by that princess.6
1. He observes, that “she suspended the laws, so far as to order a great part of the service, the litany, the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the gospels, to be read in English. And, having first published injunctions, that all the churches should conform themselves to the practice of her own chapel, she forbade the hoste to be any more elevated in her presence; an innovation, which, however frivolous it may appear, implied the most material consequences.”
But we must not forget, that, in this case, the dispensing power was exercised under great limitations, and in very singular circumstances. Upon the accession of Elizabeth, the Protes-<458>tants, who now formed the greatest part of her subjects, exasperated by the late persecution, and in full confidence of protection, began to make violent changes; to revive the service authorized by Edward the sixth, to pull down images, and to affront the priests of the Roman catholic persuasion. The queen had called a parliament to settle the national religion; but, in order to stop the progress of these disorders, an immediate interposition of the crown was necessary. It was even pretended by some, that the parliaments, in the late reign, had not been legally held, and that of consequence the laws of Edward the sixth, relating to the government of the church, were still in force.* But, whatever regard might be due to this, a temporary indulgence to the protestants, with respect to the external forms of religious worship, was highly expedient for quieting their minds, and for preventing the commission of greater enormities. This indulgence was followed by a proclamation prohibiting all innovations, until the matters in dispute should be finally determined by<459> parliament; and, considering the circumstances of the case, ought to be regarded rather as a measure calculated for the present security of the established religion and its professors, than as a violent exertion of the prerogative, in opposition to the laws of the land.
2. But this author, not contented with ascribing to the crown a power of suspending the laws, has gone so far as to assert, that it was entitled, at pleasure, to introduce new statutes.7 “In reality,” says he, “the crown possessed the full legislative power, by means of proclamations, which might affect any matter, even of the greatest importance, and which the star-chamber took care to see more rigorously executed than the laws themselves.”†
In answer to this, it will perhaps be thought sufficient to observe, that anciently the crown possessed no legislative power; that royal proclamations were first declared to have the force of laws, in the latter part of the reign of Henry the eighth; that even then, this force was given them under great restric-<460>tions, and in singular cases; and that in the beginning of the subsequent reign, it was entirely abolished by the same authority from which it had proceeded.
If the star-chamber, therefore, supported this power in the reign of Elizabeth, it must have been in direct violation of the constitution; and it is not likely, that stretches of this kind would often be attempted. But let us consider what were the proclamations issued in this reign, which the star-chamber had an opportunity to enforce. In virtue of the papal supremacy, with which she was invested, Elizabeth prohibited prophecyings or particular assemblies instituted for fanatical purposes, and not authorized by the church.* Having the regulation of trade and manufactures, she also<461> prohibited the culture of woad, a plant used for the purpose of dying. And, as a director of ceremonies, prescribing rules for the dress of those who appeared at court, or in public places, she gave orders that the length of the swords, and the height of the ruffs then in fashion, should be diminished. These are the important instances adduced in order to prove that Elizabeth superseded the authority of acts of parliament, and assumed the legislative power in her own person.
3. The same historian appears to conceive, that, among other branches of prerogative exercised by Elizabeth, was that of imposing taxes.8 “There was,” he remarks, “a species of ship-money imposed at the time of the Spanish invasion: the several ports were required to equip a certain number of vessels at their own charge; and such was the alacrity of the people for the public defence, that some of the ports, particularly London, sent double the number demanded of them.”† And in a subsequent period of the English history, having mentioned a requisition made by Charles<462> the first, that the maritime towns, together with the adjacent counties, should arm a certain number of vessels, he adds; “This is the first appearance, in Charles’s reign, of ship-money; a taxation which had once been imposed by Elizabeth, but which afterwards, when carried some steps farther by Charles, occasioned such violent discontents.”†
Ship-money was originally a contribution by the maritime towns, for the support of the fleet, corresponding, in some measure, to the scutages which were paid by the military people in room of personal service in the field. When it came, therefore, to be a regular assessment, exacted by public authority, it fell of course under the regulation of parliament; and, like other taxes, being gradually pushed beyond its original boundaries, was extended to the counties in the neighbourhood of the sea, and at length to the most inland parts of the kingdom. To oppose an invasion which threatened the immediate destruction of her empire, Elizabeth had recourse to the customary assistance of the sea-port towns; and, so<463> far from using compulsion to procure it, was freely supplied with a much greater force than she required. How can this measure be considered as analogous to the conduct of Charles the first, in levying that ship-money, which gave rise to such violent complaints? The contribution obtained by Elizabeth was altogether voluntary: that which was levied by Charles was keenly disputed by the people, and enforced by the whole power of the crown. The supply granted to Elizabeth was furnished by the maritime towns only; who, by their employment and situation, were connected with the equipment of vessels: that which was extorted by Charles, had been converted into a regular tax; and was imposed upon the nation at large. The ship-money of Elizabeth was procured in a single case, and one of such extraordinary necessity, as would have excused a deviation from the common rules of government. But the ship-money of Charles was not palliated by any pretence of necessity: it was introduced, and, notwithstanding the clamours of the people, continued for a considerable period, with the avowed intention of enabling the king to rule without a parliament.<464>
4. But the chief ground of this opinion, concerning the tyrannical behaviour of Elizabeth, and the despotical nature of her government, appears to be her interference in the debates of parliament; her imprisonment of members for presuming to urge the prosecution of bills, after she had put a negative upon them; and the tameness with which parliament submitted to those exertions of prerogative.
It must be confessed, that if, in the present age, a British monarch should act in the same manner, and should meet with the same acquiescence from parliament, we might reasonably conclude that our freedom was entirely destroyed. But the submission of that assembly, at a period when the order, in which the king’s negative should be interposed, was not invariably determined, does not argue the same corruption; and therefore will not warrant the same conclusion. Whatever might be the view entertained by some members of parliament in that age, the greater part of them were probably not aware of the consequences with which those exertions of the crown might be attended; and as, with reason, they placed<465> great confidence in the queen’s intentions, their jealousy was not roused by a measure which did not seem to violate any fixed rule of the government.
Neither have we any good reason to infer, that, because this point had hitherto been left undetermined, the constitution was of no value or efficacy to maintain the rights of the people. It was, no doubt, a great defect in the political system, that the king might put a stop to any bill depending in parliament, and prevent any farther debate with relation to it. But even this power of the sovereign was far from rendering the government despotical. By means of it, he might the more effectually defend his own prerogative, but it could not enable him to encroach upon the liberty of the subject. The parliament, without whose authority no innovation could be made, was the less capable of introducing any new regulation; but not the less qualified to maintain the government as it stood. The power of taxation, at the same time, threw a prodigious weight into the scale of parliamentary influence. By the increasing expence of government, a consequence of the improvement of arts, and the<466> advancement of luxury, the old revenues of the crown became daily more inadequate to the demands of the sovereign; which laid him under the necessity of making frequent applications to parliament for extraordinary supplies. This, as it reduced him to a dependence upon that assembly, enabled it to take advantage of his necessities, and to extort from him such concessions as experience had shown to be requisite for securing the rights and privileges of the people.
5. According to Mr. Hume, “the government of England, during that age, however different in other particulars, bore, in this respect, some resemblance to that of Turkey9 at present: the sovereign possessed every power, except that of imposing taxes: and in both countries this limitation, unsupported by other privileges, appears rather prejudicial to the people. In Turkey, it obliges the Sultan to permit the extortion of the bashaws and governors of provinces, from whom he afterwards squeezes presents, or takes forfeitures. In England, it engaged the queen to erect monopolies, and grant patents for exclusive trade: an inven-<467>tion so pernicious, that had she gone on, during a tract of years, at her own rate, England, the seat of riches, and arts, and commerce, would have contained, at present, as little industry as Morocco, or the coast of Barbary.”*
But surely, in England, the sovereign was not possessed of every power, except that of imposing taxes. The power of legislation was vested in the king, lords, and commons. The judicial power was not, in ordinary cases, exercised by the crown, but was distributed among various courts of justice; and though, in these, the judges, from the manner of their appointment, might be supposed to favour the prerogative, yet the modes of their procedure, and the general rules of law, were in most cases too invariably determined, to permit very gross partiality. The institution of juries, besides, which had long been completely established in England, was calculated to counterbalance this natural bias of judges, and to secure the rights of the people. Is it possible that, in such a government, the power<468> of the monarch can be seriously compared to that which prevails in Turkey?
The sovereign, indeed, was entitled to erect monopolies, and to grant exclusive privileges; which, in that period, were thought necessary for the encouragement of trade and manufactures.10 That these grants were often bestowed for the purpose merely of deriving a pecuniary advantage to the crown, it is impossible to deny. But who can believe that the perquisites, arising from this branch of the prerogative, or from such of the feudal incidents as were still of an arbitrary nature, were ever likely to defray the extraordinary expences of the crown, and to supersede the necessity of soliciting taxes from parliament?
The star-chamber, and the court of high commission, were doubtless arbitrary and oppressive tribunals; and were in a great measure under the direction of the sovereign. But their interposition, though justly the subject of complaint, was limited to singular and peculiar cases; and, had it been pushed so far as to give great interruption to the known and established course of justice, it would have occasioned such odium and clamour, as no<469> prince of common understanding would be willing to incur.
To be satisfied, upon the whole, that the English constitution, at this period, contained the essential principles of liberty, we need only attend to its operation, when the question was brought to a trial, in the reigns of the two succeeding princes. At the commencement of the disputes between the house of commons and the two first princes of the Stewart family, the government stood precisely upon the same foundation as in the time of Elizabeth. Neither the powers of parliament had been encreased, nor those of the sovereign diminished. Yet, in the course of that struggle, it soon became evident, that parliament, without going beyond its undisputed privileges, was possessed of sufficient authority, not only to resist the encroachments of prerogative, but even to explain and define its extent, and to establish a more compleat and regular system of liberty. It was merely by withholding supplies, that the parliament was able to introduce these important and salutary regulations. Is the power of taxation, therefore, to be considered as prejudicial to the people?<470> Ought it not rather to be regarded as the foundation of all their privileges, and the great means of establishing that happy mixture of monarchy and democracy which we at present enjoy?
[1. ]Edward was only nine at the death of his father, Henry VIII. He was raised a Protestant, and during his reign England was pushed decisively in a Protestant direction.
[2. ]Mary I (r. 1553–58): the eldest daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. In Protestant mythology, her attempts to restore the Catholic faith earned her the epithet “Bloody Mary.”
[* ]Burnet’s History of the Reformation.
[3. ]Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603): daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The most successful of the Tudor monarchs, Elizabeth succeeded in establishing religious peace under a national church, while stirring English patriotism to resist both Spain and France.
[4. ]As elsewhere, Hume is alluded to, rather than named, in Millar’s defense of the limited and constitutional character of Elizabeth’s rule. For Hume’s contrary view, see, for instance, HE, 4:363.
[* ]In the 13th of Elizabeth, we find parliament strongly asserting its power to settle and limit the succession to the crown, by declaring it high treason for any person to call this power in question.
[* ]We find, however, that even so early as the second of Henry the fourth, the commons petitioned the king, that he would not suffer any report to be made to him of matters debated amongst them, till they should be concluded: to which the king assented.
[5. ]Ecclesiastical court instituted by the Crown in the sixteenth century as a means to enforce the laws of the Reformation settlement and exercise control over the church. In its time it became a controversial instrument of repression, used against those who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Church of England.
[* ]Burnet, Hist. Reform.
[6. ]The reference is to David Hume and his History of England. For the quoted passage, see HE, 4:8. For Millar’s relationship to Hume’s historiography, see the introduction.
[7. ]See HE, 4:363.
[† ]Hist. of Eng. vol. V. Appendix 3.
[* ]In the fifth of Elizabeth there was passed an act, conformable to a preceding one in the reign of Edward the sixth, against fond and fantastical prophecies concerning the queen and divers honourable persons, which, it seems, had a tendency to stir up sedition. From the name, it is not unlikely that the assemblies, alluded to in the proclamation above-mentioned, were supposed guilty of the like practices, and that Elizabeth was merely following out the intention of an act of parliament.
[8. ]Millar continues his critique of Hume, citing HE, 4:361, 5:176.
[† ]Vol. V. Appendix 3.
[† ]Vol. VI.
[9. ]Millar continues his debate with Hume over the nature of the English constitution in Elizabeth’s reign, responding to Hume’s flamboyant assertion that English government resembled that of Turkey or (a little earlier) that of Muscovy. See Hume, HE, 4:360.
[* ]History of England, vol. V. Appendix 3.
[10. ]Like other rulers of the time, Elizabeth favored some of her subjects by granting exclusive rights for the manufacture or sale of particular classes of goods.