On 8 February 1601 Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, processed into London declaring that he was taking urgent action to prevent a ‘popish plot’ by his enemies to sell the Crown of England to Spain. Historians have dismissed these claims as fictitious or deluded – the chapter reassesses Essex’s claims. The intellectual and political contexts that framed Essex’s vision of politics provided strong foundations for the Earl’s belief that the Protestant succession was endangered by a cabal of evil counsellors, headed by Sir Robert Cecil, in the pay of Spain. The failure of the earl’s rising obscures the fact that this Elizabethan succession scare was no more ‘irrational’ than the ‘popish plots’ in the seventeenth century.
Modern historians have long recognised that conceptions of the ‘ancient’ history of both parliament and the Protestant Church were vital to the political, legal and religious argument of the period, but the relationship between these two types of historical thinking has rarely been established. This article contends that the need to establish a pre-Reformation history of the Royal Supremacy, so as to counter Catholic challenges of religious innovation, required Elizabethans to create related myths of kings-in-parliament through the ages, exercising jurisdiction over the national Church. It was therefore under Elizabeth that the antiquity of parliament, its centrality to an ‘ancient constitution’, was first asserted by Elizabethan divines to validate the parliamentary framework of the English Protestant Church. It is argued that historical argument about parliament’s origins and evolution derived from the polemical battles fought by various religious interest groups on both sides of the confessional divide who defended, criticised or denounced the type of Church established in 1559. The history of parliament, then, first emerged in the war of ideas waged around the Royal Supremacy.
This chapter considers the broader construction of competing narratives of Essex's behaviour that defined the earl as a hero or a traitor, according to particular historical typologies. It argues that the political divisions of late Elizabethan England were intensely sharpened by the historical frameworks used by contemporaries to describe and understand the world around them. A string of texts associated with Essex emphasised the didactic utility of history. The deep impact of Jesuit Robert Parsons' devilish dedication, was to sensitise Essex's tender antennae to the synchronisation of the deceitful strategies. The synchronization of his political enemies would be to undermine him with conspiracies focused on Spain and the Infanta. Essex's circle has been strongly associated with the English manifestation of broader intellectual trends. The broader trends include the political thought associated with Roman history, especially Tacitus, which electrified European literati in the later sixteenth century.
The enduring controversy about the nature of parliament informs nearly all debates about the momentous religious, political and governmental changes in early modern England – most significantly, the character of the Reformation and the causes of the Revolution. Meanwhile, scholars of ideas have emphasised the historicist turn that shaped the period’s political culture. Religious and intellectual imperatives from the sixteenth century onwards evoked a new interest in the evolution of parliament, shaping the ways that contemporaries interpreted, legitimised and contested Church, state and political hierarchies. For much of the last century, scholarship on parliament focused on its role in high politics, or adopted an administrative perspective. The major exception was J. G. A. Pocock’s brilliant The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), which argued that competing conceptions about the antiquity of England’s parliamentary constitution – particularly its common law – were a defining element of early Stuart political mentalities and set in motion a continuing debate about the role of historical thought in early seventeenth-century England. The purpose of this volume is to explore contemporary views of parliament’s history/histories over a broader canvas. Historical culture is defined widely to encompass the study of chronicles, more overtly ‘literary’ texts, antiquarian scholarship, religious polemic, political pamphlets, and of the intricate processes that forge memory and tradition. Over half of the essays explore Tudor historical thought, showing that Stuart debates about parliament cannot be divorced from their sixteenth-century prelude. The volume restates the crucial role of institutions for the study of political culture and thought.
This introduction explores the relationship between intellectual, political and religious history, and how they should fruitfully be integrated with classic parliamentary history. It argues that the early modern parliament must be understood through broader developments in historical thought and practice. The first part of the introduction examines the changing and unchanging character of history in this period, which provides the context for the essays in the volume. Thereafter the introduction relates approaches to the past to the growing historical consciousness within and about parliament and the historicised modes through which early modern authors chose to think and write about it. These new perspectives are analysed in the context of the historiography of parliament of the past century. It is argued that the constitutionalist mode of thinking so dominant at the end of our period grew out of the interaction of history, law and politics in, around and about parliament. The collection thus restates the crucial role of institutions for the study of political culture and thought.