The Parliament of 1604-1610

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

The Parliament of 1604-1610


Date of writs of election: 31 Jan. 16041

Session dates:


19 Mar.-5 Apr. 1604 (adjourned for Easter)2

11 Apr.-26 May 1604 (adjourned for Whitsun)3

30 May-7 July 1604 (prorogued)4


5-6 Nov. 1605 (adjourned due to the Gunpowder Plot)5

9 Nov. 1605 (prorogued)6

21 Jan.-25 Jan. 1606 (adjourned for the trial of the Gunpowder plotters)7

28 Jan.-18 Apr. 1606 (adjourned for Easter)8

24 Apr.-27 May 1606 (prorogued)9


18 Nov.-18 Dec. 1606 (adjourned for Christmas)10

10 Feb.-24 Mar. 1607 (adjourned to celebrate the anniversary of James’s accession)11

26 Mar.-31 Mar. 1607 (adjourned for Easter)12

20 Apr.-21 Apr. 1607 (adjourned due to thin attendance)13

27 Apr.-13 May 1607 (adjourned for Ascension Day)14

15 May-20 May 1607 (adjourned for Whitsun)15

27 May-23 June 1607 (adjourned for Feast of St. John the Baptist)16

5 June-4 July 1607 (prorogued)17


9 Feb.-10 Feb. 1610 (adjourned)18

14 Feb.-3 Apr. 1610 (adjourned for Easter)19

6 Apr.-16 May 1610 (adjourned for Ascension Day)20

18 May-26 May 1610 (adjourned for Whitsun)21

30 May-23 July 1610 (prorogued)22


16 Oct.-31 Oct. 1610 (adjourned for All Hallows)23

17 Nov. 1610 (adjourned)24

1 Nov.-24 Nov. 1610 (adjourned)

29 Nov. 1610 (adjourned) 25

6 Dec. 1610 (prorogued)26

Dissolved 9 Feb. 161127

Following the accession of Scotland’s king James VI as James I of England in March 1603, it was originally envisaged that Parliament would meet in the autumn,28 but in the event widespread plague meant that Parliament did not assemble until March 1604. For James, the chief purpose of this first meeting of the new reign was to bring about the statutory union of England and Scotland, for as he explained in his opening address to the Members of both Houses, he hoped ‘no man will be so unreasonable’ as to wish him to be ‘a husband to two wives’.29 However it soon became apparent that most Members of the Commons, fearing that a formal union would necessarily extinguish the Common Law of England, did not share James’s enthusiasm for this project. Indeed, during the 1604 session they declined to pass legislation allowing James to adopt the title of king of Great Britain. When James attempted to overcome this opposition by seeking a legal opinion, he was dismayed to discover that the judges concurred unanimously with the Commons. Insult was added to injury later that same session when James was denied supply on the grounds that the subsidies voted in 1601 were still being collected.

If the 1604 session was profoundly disappointing for James, it proved no less frustrating for the Commons, many of whose Members were anxious to secure the abolition of purveyance and wardship, both of which were widely unpopular. Purveyance was the right of the Crown to take up provisions for the royal household at below the market rate, while wardship was the right of the Crown to manage the estates of minors whose lands were held of the king. Early in the session the king’s chief minister, Robert, Lord Cecil, indicated that he would be prepared to allow the Commons to buy out wardship in exchange for a regular annual payment, or composition, but he subsequently abandoned his proposal, to the intense irritation of many. The lower House also failed to make headway in respect of purveyance, for although a bill was prepared there were doubts about whether James would accept fresh legislation and also whether the Commons could ensure that any legislation enacted would not simply be ignored, previous statutes on this subject having proved largely ineffective. Further disappointment was experienced by those Members who hoped that James would allow Parliament to reform the Church by doing away with various rites and ceremonies widely considered to be popish. Although the new king initially encouraged the House to debate matters of religion, his attitude hardened after the Commons refused to vote him supply.30 Despite their best efforts, those Members in favour of reforming the Church (dubbed puritans by many of their contemporaries) proved unable to persuade James to prevent Convocation – the representative body of the Church which met at the same time as Parliament – from promulgating a fresh set of Canons requiring all parish clergy to observe the Church’s rites and ceremonies. Consequently, not long after the Parliament was prorogued for the summer, around one hundred puritan ministers were deprived for refusing to subscribe to the new articles. Perhaps the only successful note struck by the House during the session was in respect of the Buckinghamshire election dispute, the outcome of which confirmed the right of the lower House to settle controverted elections without interference from Chancery.

Following a prorogation lasting sixteen months, Parliament reassembled in November 1605. On the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, however, proceedings were swiftly adjourned. On resuming the session in January 1606, the Commons called for firmer action to be taken against Catholics. Furthermore, under pressure from their constituents, Members reopened the question of purveyance. Robert Cecil, now 1st earl of Salisbury, was not unsympathetic to calls for reform, and offered to abolish purveyance in exchange for an annual composition, but many in the Commons saw no need to enter into such an agreement as they had recently discovered that purveyance was, in fact, illegal. A bill effectively outlawing purveyance subsequently passed through all its Commons’ stages only to be lost in the Lords, where support for the Crown’s position was stronger. Despite this signal failure, the session did not prove entirely unproductive, as legislation was enacted making it illegal for the king’s subjects to serve in the armed forces of Spain and her allies, so providing indirect support to the Dutch, who remained at war with Spain. Moreover, the supporters of free trade in the Commons obtained the suppression of the newly re-established Spanish Company, a London-based organization that claimed the right to a monopoly of trade with the Iberian peninsula. From the Crown’s point of view, the chief result of the meeting was that the Commons, anxious to demonstrate its support for James in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, granted the king subsidies worth almost £400,000.

During the 1605-6 session James had allowed the matter of union with Scotland to recede into the background. In part this was to allow tempers to cool, but also James had been anxious to do nothing that would jeopardize the voting of supply.31 Now that money had been voted, James reopened the question when Parliament met for its third session in November 1606. Although he had now abandoned all thought of achieving an immediate and total union of both kingdoms, James hoped to persuade Parliament that the Scots were now entitled to be regarded as English citizens, thereby removing one of the major obstacles to an eventual fusion of both nations. However the Commons refused to accept that the Scots, even those born since James ascended the throne of England (the so-called post-nati), were native-born English. Once again the judges were consulted (February 1607), and this time, on the matter of the post-nati, they found firmly for the king. It was now the turn of the Commons to be appalled, and some Members openly questioned whether this ruling was binding, since the judges had been approached as assistants to the Lords rather than as the heads of their own courts. James was naturally delighted with the judges’ finding, but his moment of triumph was all too brief. After the Easter recess one of the most prominent Members of the Commons, Sir Edwin Sandys, mischievously declared that the Commons should work to accomplish the ‘perfect’ Union that James had originally intended rather than the ‘imperfect’ or partial Union for which he had been forced to settle. Ostensibly intended to further the project, this proposal was so clearly impossible to accomplish that its endorsement by the rest of the Commons had the effect of terminating the discussions. All that James and Salisbury were able to salvage from the wreckage was an Act abolishing the medieval laws of hostility between England and Scotland.

Even before the third session ended James had begun to toy with the idea of dissolving the Parliament and summoning another in its stead in the hope that it would prove more amenable.32 However, following the prorogation James had second thoughts, as dissolution would publicly confirm that the Union’s opponents had defeated him.33 It might also demonstrate to foreign monarchs that the widely reported rumour that he and his subjects had fallen out was correct. Consequently, James not only resolved to continue with his existing Parliament, but also to revive the Union when it next met.34 In the event it was the state of the royal finances rather than the Union (which was quietly dropped) that dominated the fourth session, the opening of which was delayed until February 1610 by fresh outbreaks of plague, dearth and James’s lack of enthusiasm for another meeting.35

Shortly after the Parliament began Salisbury, now lord treasurer, explained to the Commons that the king needed £600,000 to clear his debts, repair the Navy and establish a contingency fund. In addition, he proposed that the Commons should provide the king with an annual income of £200,000, in return for which James would surrender ten feudal dues, the most significant of which was purveyance. These proposals formed the basis for what subsequently became known as the Great Contract. Negotiations between Salisbury and the Commons lasted until mid July 1610, and concentrated exclusively on the annual income, termed ‘support’, demanded by James. The Commons proved unwilling to proceed unless the abolition of wardship was also included in the bargain, but although Salisbury conceded this demand he also raised by £40,000 the annual sum required by the Crown. Eventually, on 17 July, after much haggling, the king and the Commons agreed on a figure of £200,000, the amount that Salisbury had originally proposed. However, because many in the Commons were nervous about committing their neighbours to providing the king with a fixed annual addition to his finances it was also agreed that Members should consult their constituents over the summer.

When Parliament reassembled for its fifth and final session in October 1610, the Commons’ enthusiasm for the Contract had cooled. One reason for this was that the king had hitherto done little to redress the subjects’ grievances. In particular, James had refused to abandon the duties on trade known as impositions. Unlike Tunnage and Poundage, which was granted to the monarch by Parliament, impositions were levied by prerogative action. Before 1603 they had existed only on a small-scale, but following the outbreak of a minor rebellion in Ireland in 1608 Salisbury had extended their scope so that they brought in to the royal coffers around £70,000 annually.36 During the fourth session, many in the Commons had questioned the legality of impositions, even though the Exchequer Court had upheld the Crown’s rights in 1606 (Bate’s Case). However, although the Commons had been permitted to debate these duties, their abolition formed no part of the Great Contract. This gave rise to considerable discontent, as many Members returned to Westminster unwilling to proceed with the Contract unless the £200,000 to be provided by way of support included confirmation of existing impositions.

A further stumbling block to the successful conclusion of the Contract was Salisbury’s original demand for supply. In July 1610, before the recess, the Commons had voted the king a single subsidy and one fifteenth, but taken together these were worth only about £100,000 rather than the £600,000 Salisbury had demanded. Now, on 6 November, James reminded the Commons that he had never intended to proceed in the Contract unless he received supply as well as support, and that he therefore required £500,000 over and above the money already granted. He also added that if the Commons wished to bring impositions within the scope of the Contract a revenue source of equivalent value would have to be provided instead. Not surprisingly the Commons was aghast, and three days later its Members resolved not to proceed any further with the Contract. Over the next few weeks, Salisbury tried to persuade the Commons to accept a scaled-down version of the Contract instead, and when this failed James sought an additional grant of subsidies. However, by now many in the Commons were convinced that any money granted to the king would simply find its way into the pockets of the king’s Scottish favourites. On 6 December James, having finally run out of patience, brought the session to an end. Though he initially intended that Parliament should reconvene on 9 February 1611, his anger was so great that on 31 December he issued a Proclamation dissolving the assembly, which (among Londoners at least) had earned for itself the sobriquet ‘the Blessed Parliament’.37

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush

End Notes

  • 1. CJ, i. 140a.
  • 2. Ibid. 139-167a. Committees were ordered to meet during the recess.
  • 3. Ibid. 167a-228a. The House briefly adjourned on 22 Mar. until 8am the following day to enable additional seating to be installed.
  • 4. On 22 June Members were granted permission to attend the funeral of Sir Jonathan Trelawny the following afternoon. On 7 July Parliament was prorogued to 7 Feb. 1605, but on 24 Dec. 1604 the new session was postponed until 3 October. On 28 July 1605 a further postponement, to 5 Nov. 1605, was announced. CJ, i. 228a-256b.
  • 5. Ibid. 256-257a.
  • 6. Ibid. 257a, 257b. Unusually, the prorogation did not end the session, probably because no bills had been enacted.
  • 7. Ibid. 257a – 260b. The trial of the Gunpowder Plotters was held on 27 Jan. 1606.
  • 8. Ibid. 260b-300b.
  • 9. Ibid. 300b, 313-14. Prorogued to 18 Nov. 1606: LJ, ii. 445b. The Commons Journal incorrectly records the intended date of reassembly as 25 Nov.: CJ, i. 314b.
  • 10. Ibid. 314a-331b, 1002-1057.
  • 11. Ibid. 332a-354b. The decision not to sit on the 25th was taken after the Lords announced that they would rise ‘in regard of the solemnities prepared at this time’.
  • 12. Ibid. 354b-363b.
  • 13. Ibid. 364a.
  • 14. Ibid. 364a-373b.
  • 15. Ibid. 373b-375b.
  • 16. Ibid. 375b-387b. 24 June was the Feast of St. John the Baptist.
  • 17. Ibid. 387b-392b. There were five further prorogations, announced by proclamation, before the Parliament reassembled.
  • 18. Ibid. 392a, 392b. The purpose of the adjournment is unknown.
  • 19. Ibid. 392b-418a.
  • 20. Ibid. 418a-429a.
  • 21. Ibid. 429a-34a; Procs. 1610, ii. 124-5. On 26 May the House decided not to adjourn so that the Members appointed to attend the king on Monday 28 May ‘may the better attend’. However, no other business seems to have been transacted on the 28th, nor is there any evidence that the House sat on the 29th.
  • 22. CJ, i. 418-54.
  • 23. Procs. 1610, ii. 308.
  • 24. Ibid. 340. The adjournment was to allow James to consider what supply to ask of the Commons following the collapse of the Great Contract.
  • 25. Ibid. 345.
  • 26. Ibid. 295-349. The session was prorogued to 9 Feb. 1611, but on 31 Dec. 1610 the king issued a Proclamation dissolving Parliament with immediate effect: Stuart Royal Proclamations I, 257-8; Procs. 1610, ii. 349-50.
  • 27. CJ, i. 139; Procs. 1610, ii. 349-50. For the commission of dissolution, see LJ, ii. 684.
  • 28. CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 67. See also HMC Buccleuch, iii. 74-5.
  • 29. CJ, i. 143b.
  • 30. For a discussion of this point, see Chapter 1.
  • 31. CSP Ven. 1603-7, p. 280.
  • 32. Ibid. 488, 501.
  • 33. CSP Ven. 1607-10, pp. 52-3.
  • 34. Ibid. 137.
  • 35. On the repeated delays, see ‘A Collection of Several Speeches and Treatises of the Late Lord Treasurer Cecil’ ed. P. Croft in Cam. Misc. XXIX (Cam. Soc. 4th ser. xxxiv), 266.
  • 36. P. Croft, ‘Fresh Light on Bate’s Case’, HJ, xxx. 523; Procs. 1610, i. 130.
  • 37. HMC Downshire, ii. 407.