An Elizabethan family, from a brass of 1584
An Elizabethan family, from a brass of 1584

The Tudors, then, did not tyrannise over their parliaments, but on the other hand the parliaments did not assert new claims to control. They asserted successfully the right to discuss with entire freedom questions of policy, questions of administration, questions of religion, personal questions such as royal marriages) the right to petition the Crown, to exhibit grievances, to recommend measures, to refuse measures submitted to them, to control supply absolutely.

But they did not claim the right to dictate policy. They claimed only the veto in the last resort through the refusal of supply; but this was an extreme measure, to be called into play only when there was a point-blank collision between the will of the Crown and the wish of parliament. Such a collision the Tudors were always wise enough to avoid; being happily endowed with a singular skill in retiring gracefully from an untenable position, arid with an unfailing capacity for recognising the moment when a position had become untenable.

Elizabeth frequently resented the freedom claimed by her parliaments, and rated them furiously for discussing matters which were no concern of theirs; but they went or with their discussions; and if, as seldom happened until the very end of her life, she found herself arousing a real resentment, she was a consumĀ­mate mistress of the art of beating a retreat. As a rule, however, the Commons were content to express their opinion and leave her to go her own way, which she was always careful in the long run to keep sufficiently in harmony with their wishes.

So long as harmony prevailed this was a sound working system. The brief triumph of legalised absolutism, when an Act of parliament practically bestowed on Henry VIII unlimited powers, would at once have become intolerable if the Crown had employed those powers so as to arouse popular resentment.

The Royal Proclamations Act was cancelled in the next reign. The system under Elizabeth was essentially one of partnership, in which the queen was the senior partner and manager, and parliament was the junior partner and critic. But a partnership must mean a divided authority, a possible clashing of authorities.

So long as both partners are of one mind, or so long as one cheerfully accepts the subordinate position, all may go well. English institutions have existed and flourished very largely because rival authorities prefer compromise over points of difference to battles for supremacy.

When differences become too acute for compromise and one side or the other must give way, the situation may be saved by the timely surrender of one or the other; but, if it is not so saved, no alternative remains but a fight. And this is precisely what happened m the time of the Stuarts. The differences between Crown and parliament became too acute for compromise, neither would give way, and the stakes of the fight ceased to be the particular questions at issue and became the larger question of the permanent supremacy of the one or the other of the partners.

Even in Elizabeth's last years there were indications of very acute friction, though a direct contest was averted partly by Elizabeth's diplomatic withdrawal and partly by the inclination of parliament to defer a serious struggle till after the old queen's death. The Crown and the people had been loyal to each other so long, and through a crisis so tremendous, that neither could willingly contemplate an open rupture.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age