History Review (2006)
‘During the time of the Tudors, especially in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, the power of parliament had been much lessened.’ So wrote H. E. Marshall in Our Island Story, a child’s history of Britain which first appeared in 1905. Her comments reflected an historical orthodoxy that purported to identify a Tudor despotism. By the time her book was reprinted in 1953, however, this interpretation had been overthrown. The chief exponent of the new orthodoxy was Sir John Neale. For Neale, the reign of Elizabeth was one in which the House of Commons contested with the crown for political supremacy. The vanguard of this unprecedented parliamentary opposition was provided by a group of some 43 puritan MPs whom he named the ‘choir’. Elizabeth’s acumen averted catastrophe, he argued, but within two generations of her death the crown-parliament battles became a full blown civil war.
Yet by the late 1980s Neale’s views were as discredited as those of the Tudor despot school he had demolished. The main catalyst was provided by scholars who challenged the idea of parliament’s centrality in causing the civil war. A re-examination of Elizabeth’s parliaments was a natural corollary. The lead in this ‘revisionism’ was taken by a former Neale pupil, Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton. I can well remember sitting amongst an audience of sixth-formers and undergraduates whilst he lambasted what he saw as the inappropriateness of the evolutionary metaphor as applied to an institution such as parliament. In his written works he insisted that parliaments should be seen as they were, not interpreted to fit into some larger unfolding story of constitutional advance. Neale’s ‘choir’ was exposed as a fiction. Far from being an independent, organised opposition, at least 12 of its number were actually closely connected to members of the Queen’s privy council and were attempting to carry out its bidding. Parliament, Elton concluded, was a mostly tame and cooperative junior partner in the Tudor governmental process.