He revelled in the opportunity for a display of his theological reading; but he viewed the Puritan demands in a purely political light. The bishops declared that the insults he showered on their opponents were dictated by the Holy Ghost. The Puritans still ventured to dispute his infallibility. James broke up the conference with a threat which revealed the policy of the Crown. "I will make them conform," he said of the remonstrants, "or I will harry them out of the land".
It is only by thoroughly realizing the temper of the nation on religious and civil subjects, and the temper of the King, that we can understand the long Parliamentary conflict which occupied the whole of James's reign. But to make its details intelligible we must briefly review the relations between the two Houses and the Crown. The wary prescience of Wolsey had seen in Parliament, even in its degradation under the Tudors, the memorial of an older freedom, and a centre of national resistance to the new despotism which Henry was establishing, should the nation ever rouse itself to resist. Never perhaps was English liberty in such deadly peril as when Wolsey resolved on the practical suppression of the two Houses. But the bolder genius of Cromwell set aside the traditions of the New Monarchy. His confidence in the power of the Crown revived the Parliament as an easy and manageable instrument of tyranny. The old forms of constitutional freedom were turned to the profit of the royal despotism, and a revolution which for the moment left England absolutely at Henry's feet was wrought out by a series of parliamentary statutes.
Throughout Henry's reign Cromwell's confidence was justified by the spirit of slavish submission which pervaded the Houses But the effect of the religious change for which his measures made room began to be felt during the minority of Edward the Sixth; and the debates and divisions on the religious reaction which Mary pressed on the Parliament were many and violent. A great step forward was marked by the effort of the Crown to neutralize by "management" an opposition which it could no longer overawe. The Parliaments were packed with nominees of the Crown. Twenty-two new boroughs were created under Edward, fourteen under Mary; some, indeed, places entitled to representation by their wealth and population, but the bulk of them small towns or hamlets which lay wholly at the disposal of the royal Council. Elizabeth adopted the system of her two predecessors, both in the creation of boroughs and the recommendation of candidates; but her keen political instinct soon perceived the use-lessness of both expedients. She fell back as far as she could on Wolsey's policy of practical abolition, and summoned Parliaments at longer and longer intervals.
By rigid economy, by a policy of balance and peace, she strove, and for a long time successfully strove, to avoid the necessity of assembling them at all. But Mary of Scotland and Philip of Spain proved friends to English liberty in its sorest need. The struggle with Catholicism forced Elizabeth to have more frequent recourse to her Parliament, and as she was driven to appeal for increasing supplies the tone of the Houses rose higher and higher. On the question of taxation or monopolies her fierce spirit was forced to give way to their demands. On the question of religion she refused all concession, and England was driven to await a change of system from her successor. But it is clear, from the earlier acts of his reign, that James was preparing for a struggle with the Houses rather than for a policy of concession. During the Queen's reign, the power of Parliament had sprung mainly from the continuance of the war, and from the necessity under which the Crown lay of appealing to it for supplies. It is fair to the war party in Elizabeth's Council to remember that they were fighting, not merely for Protestantism abroad, but for constitutional liberty at home.
When Essex overrode Burleigh's counsels of peace, the old minister pointed to the words of the Bible, "a bloodthirsty man shall not live out half his days." But Essex and his friends had nobler motives for their policy of war than a thirst for blood; as James had other motives for his policy of peace than a hatred of bloodshedding. The peace which he hastened to conclude with Spain was necessary to establish the security of his throne by depriving the Catholics, who alone questioned his title, of foreign aid. With the same object of averting a Catholic rising, he relaxed the penal laws against Catholics, and released recusants from payment of fines. But however justifiable such steps might be, the sterner Protestants heard angrily of negotiations with Spain and with the Papacy which seemed to show a withdrawal from the struggle with Catholicism at home and abroad.
The Parliament of 1604 met in another mood from that of any Parliament which had met for a hundred years. Short as had been the time since his accession, the temper of the King had already disclosed itself; and men were dwelling ominously on the claims of absolutism in Church and State which were constantly on his lips. Above all, the hopes of religious concessions to which the Puritans had clung had been dashed to the ground in the Hampton Court Conference; and of the squires and merchants who thronged the benches at Westminster three-fourths were in sympathy Puritan. They listened with coldness and suspicion to the proposals of the King for the union of England and Scotland under the name of Great Britain. What the House was really set on was religious reform. The first step of the Commons was to name a committee to frame bills for the redress of the more crying ecclesiastical grievances; and the rejection of the measures they proposed was at once followed by an outspoken address to the King. The Parliament, it said, had come together in a spirit of peace: "Our desires were of peace only, and our device of unity." Their aim had been to put an end to the long-standing dissension among the ministers, and to preserve uniformity by the abandonment of "a few ceremonies of small importance," by the redress of some ecclesiastical abuses, and by the establishment of an efficient training for a preaching clergy.