Crown and Parliaments under the Tudors and Stuarts

Course Material 2023/24

This paper gets to the heart of the fundamental subject in early modern British political history: the changing relationship between the crown and its subjects. At its heart was parliament, the pre-eminent representational assembly in the polity. Parliaments were central to the ambitions of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, be that legitimising a new dynasty, funding a military campaign, or imposing religious doctrine. Parliament was powerful because, despite the potential implausibility of its claim to true representativeness, it nevertheless was widely seen to embody the consent of the realm. Less helpfully for monarchs, parliaments thus also might become the primary means through which criticism of royal policies, royal ministers, and even the royal person could be expressed. In the exceptional circumstances of 1642, the people’s representatives assumed the right to override the king himself. The Civil Wars that ensued raised the new question of where sovereignty was to be located. The constitutional innovations of the mid-seventeenth century – the abolition of the monarchy and of the House of Lords – did not last. Yet the restored parliament could no more be identical with its predecessor than might the restored monarchy. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688–9, parliaments increasingly exercised co-ordinate authority with the crown. They also started to become assemblies where substantive disagreements could receive formal expression, as the first political parties (the Whigs and Tories) took shape. In some ways, the parliament of 1714 had changed little from the parliament of 1485; but in others, it had changed beyond recognition. 

The early modern parliament has long been one of the great objects of study in English and British history. This paper draws on an exceptionally rich body of scholarship whose hallmark is rigorous, at times downright polemical, argumentation. Encountering these intense debates – over the unintended consequences of the ‘Tudor revolution in government’, the possible causes of the Civil Wars, the radical nature of the Revolution, and the limits of the Restoration – remains intellectually exciting. Here can be observed the formative debates between ‘Whig’, ‘revisionist’, and ‘post-revisionist’ scholars that have influenced the wider discipline of history. The paper addresses these major controversies, tracing the ways in which interpretations have been refined in the light of new evidence and perspectives. Continuing study of the early modern parliament has expanded this historiography so as to incorporate more recent interests as well. Themes such as manuscript circulation, print culture, theatricality, literary depictions, institutional memory, and record-keeping have attracted historians of parliament. This paper also offers the opportunity to encounter the entertaining and eclectic, often opinionated, evidence produced in, by, and about parliaments: the overblown rhetoric of speeches, the catty insights of diarists, self-interested complaints about electoral fraud, financial accounts of corporate lobbying, the first newspapers, popular petitioning, biting satire, and great drama. Many momentous things happened under the Tudors and Stuarts: at their centre, both shaping and reflecting events, was parliament.