The Scottish Parliament: An Historical Introduction
Keith M. Brown, Alastair J. Mann and Roland J. Tanner
- Parliament and the Medieval Constitution
- War with England and the Bruce Dynasty, 1306-1371
- The Late Medieval Stewart Monarchy, 1371-1496
- Decline and Revival, 1496-1560
- The Early Modern Parliament
- The Reformation, 1560-1603
- Regal Union, Multiple Monarchy and the War of the Three Kingdoms, 1603-1660
- Restoration, Revolution and Union, 1660-1707
Decline and Revival, 1496-1560
In spite of the significant role parliament had established for itself over the course of the fifteenth century, 1496 marks a shift in parliamentary history after which it ceased to be called regularly until after the death of James IV. The latter achieved the trick of reducing parliamentary meetings from what had become almost an annual occurrence to a mere three between 1496 and his death in 1513 (in 1504, 1506 and 1509). After a minority that saw parliaments play a by now familiar role in the factional infighting precipitated by the absence of an adult king, James IV immediately turned to new methods of government that mitigated the need to call full parliaments. He did this by shifting parliamentary functions to other institutions: general councils and meetings of the lords of council whose attendance could equal or exceed the small parliamentary sederunts seen in the reign. These more quickly summoned and informal gatherings, perhaps without the presence of the third estate and more firmly under the control of the crown, performed most of the functions of full parliaments without risking the ‘political morass’ that could arise when all the magnates and prelates gathered at more formal meetings. By avoiding, as far as possible, turning to parliament with requests for taxation, the single issue which most often caused bitter disagreement in parliament before 1488, James IV made his wisest decision of all. Parliament abruptly ceased to be an important institution in the politics of the reign, but there is little evidence of complaint. By 1496 Scots must have craved stable and effective government more than anything else. They received it from James IV, and cared little for any constitutional principles that were impugned as a result.32Macdougall, ‘The estates in eclipse?’, in Brown and Tanner (eds), Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1235-1560, pp. 145-59; N. A. T. Macdougall, James IV (Edinburgh, 1989), pp. 170-195.
The adult reigns of James IV and James V show that successful monarchs could marginalise parliament and control the important committee of the lords of the articles which managed much of parliament’s business; at no point were there repeats of the vocal and dangerous criticism seen before 1496. This was largely a function of the ability, wealth and popularity of these two kings rather than a reflection of a radical change in the way kings and subjects perceived parliament. However, this apparent decline in parliament’s importance was always likely to be temporary in nature, dependent on the economy and the effectiveness of the king, not the emergence of a new more ‘absolute’ monarchy. After James V’s death in 1542 royal government did not enjoy this luxury and faced a choice between poverty and awkward parliaments.32Macdougall, James IV, passim; J. Cameron, James V (East Linton, 1998), passim; R.J. Tanner, ‘The lords of the articles before 1542: a reassessment’, SHR, lxxix (2000), pp. 210-11.
Besides, even in the midst of the Stewart monarchy’s high-point, the minority of James V (1513-28) demonstrated that there had been no wholesale diminution of the potential for parliament to play a key role in the great events of the day. Parliament still fulfilled a crucial function in acting as a point of contact for those men who collectively governed the kingdom, and thus the February 1525 parliament saw the government of Queen Margaret Tudor replaced by that of Archibald Douglas, sixth earl of Angus. The increasing amount of surviving source material available makes possible a detailed analysis of the personnel chosen as lords of the articles and of the disputes which arose over the selections, demonstrating that control of the parliament was finely balanced between the two factions, and was hinged on the wavering loyalty of just one or two men on the committee.32K. Emond, ‘The parliament of 1525’, in Brown and Tanner (eds), Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1235-1560, pp. 160-78. It appears that the demise of parliament seen in James IV’s reign was dependent on the presence of a capable and adult king, and this was illustrated again in James V’s reign. James V did not imitate James IV and abandon parliament, but the estates met less often than had been the norm before 1496. When parliament did meet, its sessions were invariably low in political controversy, while the crown was able, or was permitted, to place its key office holders and councillors on the committee of the articles.32Cameron, James V, pp. 38-42, 213-4, 271-2; Tanner, ‘Lords of the articles’, pp. 210-11.
But with the death of James V in 1542 the usual parliamentary situation familiar from the previous two centuries resumed. There had been no wholesale decline in the importance of parliament in the first part of the sixteenth century, despite the ability of James IV and James V to marginalise the institution. The holding of five parliaments in four years by the regent, Mary of Guise, suggests a return to fifteenth-century practice. Indeed, the three estates were broadly supportive of the crown’s policies in parliament, and it was not the implementation of new French policies that provoked resistance. Instead discontent was aroused by Guise’s desire to reassert traditional Stewart policies familiar under every monarch since 1424, and to raise taxes for the justifiable purpose of the defence of the realm. While opposition manifested itself in the parliaments of 1555 and 1556 over the traditional subjects of justice and taxation, Guise enjoyed considerable support in 1557 over the potentially controversial subject of dynastic union with France by the marriage of Queen Mary to the dauphin of France. In spite of the apparent decline in parliamentary importance under James IV, and the ability of James V to control the lords of the articles, the relationship between the crown and parliament in 1558 was not dramatically different from the situation in 1366, 1431 or 1473. Issues of great importance needed the genuine consent of the estates, without it royal policies would fail.32P.E. Ritchie, ‘Marie de Guise and the three estates, 1554-1558’, in Brown and Tanner (eds), Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1235-1560, pp. 179-202; P. E. Ritchie, Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560: A Political Career (East Linton, 2002), passim.
29. P.E. Ritchie, ‘Marie de Guise and the three estates, 1554-1558’, in Brown and Tanner (eds), Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1235-1560, pp. 179-202; P. E. Ritchie, Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560: A Political Career (East Linton, 2002), passim.