The large number of such members whom Elizabeth called into the Commons, sixty-two in all, was a proof of the increasing difficulty which the Government found in securing a working majority.
Had Elizabeth lived in quiet times her thrift would have saved her from the need of summoning Parliament at all. But the perils of her reign drove her to renewed demands of subsidies, and at each demand the tone of the Houses rose higher and higher. Constitutionally the policy of Cromwell had had this special advantage, that at the very crisis of our liberties it had acknowledged and confirmed by repeated instances, for its own purposes of arbitrary rule, the traditional right of Parliament to grant subsidies, to enact laws, and to consider and petition for the redress of grievances. These rights remained, while the power which had turned them into a mere engine of despotism was growing weaker year by year. Not only did the Parliament of Elizabeth exercise its powers as fully as the Parliament of Cromwell, but the forces, political and religious, which she sought stubbornly to hold in check pressed on irresistibly, and soon led to the claiming of new privileges. In spite of the rarity of its assembling, in spe of high words and imprisonment and dexterous management, the Parliament quietly gained a power which, at her accession, the Queen could never have dreamed of its possessing.
Step by step the Lower House won the freedom of its members from arrest save by its own permission, the right of punishing and expelling members for crimes committed within the House, and of determining all matters relating to elections. The more important claim of freedom of speech brought on a series of petty conflicts which showed Elizabeth's instincts of despotism, as well as her sense of the new power which despotism had to face. In the great crisis of the Darnley marriage Mr. Dalton defied a royal prohibition to mention the subject of the succession by denouncing the claim of the Scottish Queen. Elizabeth at once ordered him into arrest, but the Commons prayed for leave " to confer upon their liberties," and the Queen ordered his release. In the same spirit she commanded Mr. Strickland, the mover of a bill for the reform of the Common Prayer, to appear no more in Parliament; but as soon as she perceived the House was bent upon his restoration the command was withdrawn. On the other hand, the Commons still shrank from any consistent repudiation of Elizabeth's assumption of control over freedom of speech.
The bold protest of Peter Wentworth against it was met by the House itself with his committal to the Tower: and the yet bolder question which he addressed to a later Parliament, "Whether this Council is not a place for every member of the same freely and without control, by bill or speech, to utter any of the griefs of the Commonwealth," brought on him a fresh imprisonment at the hands of the Council, which lasted till the dissolution of the Parliament and with which the Commons declined to interfere. But while vacillating in its assertion of the rights of individual speakers, the House steadily asserted its claim to the wider powers which Cromwell's policy had given to Parliamentary action. In theory the Tudor statesmen regarded three cardinal subjects, matters of trade, matters of religion, and matters of State, as lying exclusively within the competence of the Crown. But in actual fact such subjects had been treated by Parliament after Parliament. The whole religious fabric of the realm, the very title of Elizabeth, rested on Parliamentary statutes.
When the Houses petitioned at the outset of her reign for the declaration of a successor and for the Queen's marriage, it was impossible to deny their right to intermeddle with these " matters of State," though she rebuked the demand and evaded an answer. But the question of the succession became too vital to English freedom and English religion to remain confined within Elizabeth's council chamber. The Parliament which met in 1566 repeated the demand in a more imperative way. Her consciousness of the real dangers of such a request united with her arbitrary temper to move Elizabeth to a burst of passionate anger. The marriage indeed she promised, but she peremptorily forbade the subject of the succession to be approached. Wentworth at once rose in the Commons to know whether such a prohibition was not "against the liberties of Parliament?" and the question was followed by a hot debate. A fresh message from the Queen commanded "that there should be no further argument," but the message was met by a request for freedom of deliberation.
Elizabeth's prudence taught her that retreat was necessary; she protested that "she did not mean to prejudice any part of the liberties heretofore granted them; " she softened the order of silence into a request; and the Commons, won by the graceful concession to a loyal assent, received her message " most joyfully and with most hearty prayers and thanks for the same." But the victory was none the less a real one. No such struggle had taken place between the Commons and the Crown since the beginning of the New Monarchy; and the struggle had ended in the virtual defeat of the Crown. It was the prelude to another claim equally galling to the Queen. Though the constitution of the Church rested in actual fact on Parliamentary enactments, Elizabeth, like the rest of the Tudor sovereigns.
Theoretically held her ecclesiastical supremacy to be a purely personal power, with her administration of which neither Parliament nor even her Council had any right to interfere. But the exclusion of the Catholic gentry through the Test Acts, and the growth of Puritanism among the landowners as a class, gave more and more a Protestant tone to the Commons and to the Council; and it was easy to remember that the Supremacy which was thus jealously guarded from Parliamentary interference had been conferred on the Crown by a Parliamentary statute. Here, however, the Queen, as the religious representative of the two parties who made up her subjects, stood on firmer ground than the Commons, who represented but one of them. And she used her advantage boldly. The bills proposed by the more advanced Protestants for the reform of the Common Prayer were at her command delivered up into her hands and suppressed. Wentworth, the most outspoken of his party, was, as we have seen, imprisoned in the Tower: and in a later Parliament the Speaker was expressly forbidden to receive bills "for reforming the Church, and transforming the Commonwealth." In spite of these obstacles, however, the effort for reform continued, and though crushed by the Crown or set aside by the Lords, ecclesiastical bills were presented in every Parliament. A better fortune awaited the Commons in their attack on the royal prerogative in matters of trade.
Complaints made of the licences and monopolies by which internal and external commerce were fettered were at first repressed by a royal reprimand as matters neither pertaining to the Commons nor within the compass of their understanding. When the subject was again stirred nearly twenty years afterwards, Sir Edward Hoby was sharply rebuked by "a great personage" for his complaint of the illegal exactions made by the Exchequer. But the bill which he promoted was sent up to the Lords in spite of this, and at the close of Elizabeth's reign the storm of popular indignation which had been roused by the growing grievance nerved the Commons to a decisive struggle. It was in vain that the ministers opposed the bill for the Abolition of Monopolies, and after four days of vehement debate the tact of Elizabeth taught her to give way. She acted with her usual ability, declared her previous ignorance of the existence of the evil, thanked the House for its interference, and quashed at a single blow every monopoly that she had granted.