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
The Reformation, 1560-1603
The Reformation parliament of 1560 proved to be an occasion when the Protestant party, or faction, engineered an unstoppable majority within the estates, and used it to carry forward a revolution in diplomacy and in religion that looked simultaneously backwards to medieval constitutionalism and forward to the construction of a new godly community. The political and religious divisions of 1559-60 shaped the politics of the next quarter century, a period of great political instability when parliament continued to be the tool of faction and party. During the personal rule of Mary, 1561-7, there were three parliaments and two conventions of the estates, of which only the 1563 parliament pursued a substantial legislative agenda. In 1566 the first edition of the complete acts of parliament was published, although not without controversy as the first printing contained anti-Protestant legislation and had to be quickly reprinted.3248. Brown, ‘Reformation parliament’; Goodare, ‘Scottish political community’; J. Goodare, ‘The first parliament of Mary Queen of Scots’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 36 (2005), pp. 55-75; Goodare, ‘Scottish parliamentary records’, pp. 255-7.
The civil war of 1567-73 and the subsequent decades of political instability saw parliament remain a tool in the hands of rival factions determined by confessional allegiance, political ideology with regard to crown authority, and intensified family feuds. The two parliaments of 1567 demonstrate this point. That in April attempted to shore up Queen Mary’s ailing authority, while that in December was an assembly of the now imprisoned queen’s enemies that recognised her son, James VI, as king and passed the controversial religious legislation approved by the estates in 1560 and from which royal assent had been withheld. That same political instability ensured that there were many more meetings of the estates; there were fourteen parliaments and about seventeen conventions of the estates between 1567 and 1584. At the height of the civil war, in 1571-3, there were seven parliaments alone. In May 1571, the king’s party held the thinly attended ‘Creeping Parliament’ (a derogatory reference to the fact that its members had to creep around to avoid the gunfire of their enemies) in the Canongate beside Edinburgh, while in June the queen’s party assembled a parliament a few hundred yards away in Edinburgh’s tolbooth.3249. G. Donaldson, All the Queen’s Men. Power and Politics in Mary Stewart’s Scotland (London, 1983).
The regent, James Douglas, fourth earl of Morton, achieved a degree of stability and order between 1573 and the end of the regency in 1578, but was reluctant to summon parliament, holding only two parliaments in 1573 and a single convention of estates in 1575. Thereafter the kingdom was pitched back into a confusing round of factional conflicts in which parliament was used as a crude political weapon. For example, in 1582 a convention of estates approved the Ruthven Raid which saw the king abducted by a faction of Protestant nobles, while in December 1583, following the king’s escape, another convention condemned it, ordering that the previous declaration be torn out of its records. In 1585, following yet another palace coup, parliament restored to favour all the formerly forfeited Ruthven Raiders. From the parliament held in July 1578, immediately after the palace coup that ousted Morton as regent, until the parliament in December 1585, following the coup that removed the Chancellor, James Stewart, earl of Arran, from power, there were six parliaments and about eleven conventions of the estates. There appears to be little doubt that the high number of parliaments in this period, being similar to the fifteenth century, and especially the unusual number of conventions of estates, was due to the absence of strong royal government alongside deeply factional politics.3250.RPS, A1582/10/2; A1583/12/2 and 1585/12/49; Donaldson, James V to James VII, pp. 107-31, 157-83; Lee, Maitland of Thirlestane, pp. 44-76; K.M. Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625. Violence, Justice and Politics in an Early Modern Society (Edinburgh, 1986); J. Goodare, ‘Scottish politics in the reign of James VI’, in J. Goodare and M. Lynch (eds), The Reign of James VI (East Linton, 2000), pp. 36-7; for the sources, Goodare, ‘Scottish parliamentary records’, pp. 256-63.
Furthermore, parliament had become a battleground for rival interpretations of the Reformation. The legislation of 1560 was ratified in December 1567, following Mary’s abdication, but there remained the thorny question of the kirk’s relationship to the crown, and related to this issue was the church’s ambivalent relationship with parliament that remained unresolved until 1690. John Knox and his colleagues ultimately appealed to a higher divine authority, but they also sought parliament’s approval in constructing their new church. Unfortunately, the waters were further muddied by the contest between rival episcopalian and presbyterian visions for the future of the church. The May 1584 parliament passed the ‘Black Acts’ recognising a royal supremacy, only for this high-water mark of crown control to be subverted as a consequence of the political change of fortune that occurred a year later. Yet while presbyterian leaders like Andrew Melville attacked vigorously the erastian nature of the 1584 legislation, such critics were forced to accept parliament’s authority by campaigning implicitly for the repeal of those laws and the enactment of more favourable legislation.3251. A.R. MacDonald, ‘The subscription crisis and church-state relations, 1584-1586’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, xxv (1994), pp. 222-55; and more generally, A.R. MacDonald, The Jacobean Kirk 1567-1625. Sovereignty, Polity and Liturgy (Aldershot, 1998).
For the crown, the parliamentary history of this turbulent quarter of a century was unsettling, and the resistance theories of John Mair in the early sixteenth century and George Buchanan in the mid-sixteenth century, popularised ideas of limited monarchy, collective authority, and of the subject’s right to resist. To some extent this was seen in action when the Reformation Parliament of 1560 wittingly acted in defiance of the crown. Subsequently, Mary was little more than the head of a faction throughout her short personal rule, and in 1567 a parliament of her enemies gave its approval to an enforced abdication. The success of the king’s party in the subsequent civil war was a triumph for a political faction that used parliament to legitimise limitations on royal authority. Indeed, that is exactly what the Ruthven Raiders did in the 1582 convention. Unfortunately, George Buchanan’s polemical defence of Mary’s deposition (ostensibly only an abdication) was vague about the mechanism for removing a tyrant. Historians, therefore, remain unclear about whether he thought that the people, or their representatives, could remove a tyrannical king by using parliament, and whether this should be done by a full parliament, or by the lords of the articles. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid concluding that this revival of medieval constitutionalism raised awareness within the political community of the role that the estates were expected to play in legitimising any action taken against a king or queen.3252. Tanner, ‘Outside the acts’, pp. 57-70; Mason, Kingship and the Commonweal, pp. 68-9; J.H. Burns, The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland (Oxford, 1996), pp. 185-221, 288-90; Goodare, State and Society, pp. 302-3; R.A. Mason and M.A. Smith (eds), A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots. A Critical Edition and Translation of George Buchanan’s ' De Jure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus' (Aldershot, 2004), pp. lviii-lx; Goodare, ‘The estates in the Scottish parliament, 1286-1707’ pp. 17-19; J. Goodare, The Government of Scotland 1560-1625 (Oxford, 2004), passim.
The frequent meetings of the estates during this period of royal weakness, a time that might be dated from 1542, revived parliament’s awareness of its authority. In reacting to the many problems facing him - and until the later 1590s most of his kingship was reactive – James VI’s use of and relationship with parliament was important. He wrote about parliament in his book Basilikon Doron (1599), describing it as ‘the honourablest and highest judgement in the land’, but he did counsel ‘hold no Parliaments, but for necessitie of new Lawes, which would be but seldome’. This conventional and common-sense advice, that the king often ignored in practice, contrasts with a more imperious tone in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598) where parliament was downgraded to an instrument of royal power – ‘nothing but the head Court of the king and his vassals’ – a point of view consistent with the origins of parliament if not its subsequent medieval development.3253. Sommerville (ed.), Political Writings, pp. 21-2, 74. In fact, James VI attended his first parliament in 1578, and appears to have been present at all eleven parliaments and sixty-odd conventions of estates before his removal to London in 1603. The reasons for the continuing high frequency of parliament and conventions after 1585 lay in the political instability, religious controversy and political factionalism that endured at least until 1596 along with the king’s constant financial problems.3254. Wormald, Court, Kirk and Community, pp. 149-76; Goodare and Lynch (eds), Reign of James VI; Donaldson, James V to James VII, pp. 183-237; Brown, Bloodfeud.
One of the difficulties created by older parliamentary histories is a tendency to situate parliament within an institutional understanding of royal government rather than the more revisionist view of parliament as an extension of personal monarchy in which court faction, conciliar negotiation, personal contacts and connections to localities all played a part. Thus a compromise between the crown and other interest groups operated amidst the heated, adversarial political atmosphere of the violent Moray-Huntly feud and the destabilising Bothwell crisis that formed the backdrop to the 1592 parliament. What the 1592 parliament demonstrates is the considerable effort required by the crown to manage the estates, both before it sat down and during its proceedings, and how much it had to concede – including the so-called ‘Golden Act’ ratifying a Presbyterian polity - to other interested parties in order to achieve its relatively limited objectives.3255. A.R. MacDonald, ‘The parliament of 1592: a crisis averted?’, in Brown and Mann (eds), Parliament and Politics in Scotland, 1567-1707, pp. 57-81.
In addition, unlike James IV and even James V, who were wealthy enough to ignore the estates, James VI was always short of money, making it impossible to avoid the question of taxation. The crown’s ordinary revenue had fallen in real terms such that it could not afford an army, it employed a tiny number of officials, and the court was threadbare. The importance of regular taxation in the 1580s and 1590s has probably been overstated, since all the large grants were earmarked for extraordinary occasions such as the king’s marriage in 1588, Prince Henry’s baptism in 1594, and embassies in 1597 and 1601. However, in spite of the injustices and irrationality of the centuries-old customary system of valuation, and the inefficiencies in collection, tax receipts did rise. From 1606 regular taxation was the norm with the estates making grants for three or four years at a time, a practice that determined the timing of parliaments. Naturally there was resistance to tax demands, and to the manner of asking, both in parliament, where all estates were subject to taxation, and elsewhere. The crown often attempted to use conventions of the estates to get approval for taxes, but it was repeatedly disappointed. Conventions of the estates in 1578, 1583 and 1586 all proved uncooperative, resentment rose during the 1590s, and the crown’s financial plans in 1599-1600 were thrown into chaos by the refusal of five successive conventions of estates to grant the desired taxes. The most vocal opposition came from the barons and the burghs who benefited least from the recycling of taxes as royal patronage.3256. J. Goodare, ‘Parliamentary taxation in Scotland, 1560-1603’, SHR, lxviii (1989), pp. 23-52.
48. Brown, ‘Reformation parliament’; Goodare, ‘Scottish political community’; J. Goodare, ‘The first parliament of Mary Queen of Scots’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 36 (2005), pp. 55-75; Goodare, ‘Scottish parliamentary records’, pp. 255-7.
50. RPS, A1582/10/2; A1583/12/2 and 1585/12/49; Donaldson, James V to James VII, pp. 107-31, 157-83; Lee, Maitland of Thirlestane, pp. 44-76; K.M. Brown, Bloodfeud in Scotland 1573-1625. Violence, Justice and Politics in an Early Modern Society (Edinburgh, 1986); J. Goodare, ‘Scottish politics in the reign of James VI’, in J. Goodare and M. Lynch (eds), The Reign of James VI (East Linton, 2000), pp. 36-7; for the sources, Goodare, ‘Scottish parliamentary records’, pp. 256-63.
51. A.R. MacDonald, ‘The subscription crisis and church-state relations, 1584-1586’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, xxv (1994), pp. 222-55; and more generally, A.R. MacDonald, The Jacobean Kirk 1567-1625. Sovereignty, Polity and Liturgy (Aldershot, 1998).
52. Tanner, ‘Outside the acts’, pp. 57-70; Mason, Kingship and the Commonweal, pp. 68-9; J.H. Burns, The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland (Oxford, 1996), pp. 185-221, 288-90; Goodare, State and Society, pp. 302-3; R.A. Mason and M.A. Smith (eds), A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship among the Scots. A Critical Edition and Translation of George Buchanan’s ' De Jure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus' (Aldershot, 2004), pp. lviii-lx; Goodare, ‘The estates in the Scottish parliament, 1286-1707’ pp. 17-19; J. Goodare, The Government of Scotland 1560-1625 (Oxford, 2004), passim.