Bill of Rights
- Theme: Parliament and people
What was the situation in Britain before the Bill of Rights?
Under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, England was governed for the first time under a formal Constitution, the Instrument of Government, though its days were not to last. When Cromwell died in September 1658 his son Richard, despite his competence, never received the full support of the military and soon other factions weakened his position. The military took over, but others demanded the recall of the original Members of Parliament, dismissed in 1653.
This re-established a Royalist majority. Following elections, the government accepted the terms of Charles II and the monarchy was restored in May 1660. The Scots had already crowned Charles as their King in 1650, which had led to retribution by Cromwell. Charles II was treated as having succeeded upon his father's death so that all Acts passed since 1649 were null and void.
Why was a Dutchman invited to take the English throne?
Although Charles II was Anglican, he married a Catholic. His brother, the future James II, was openly Catholic. Parliament tried to pass an Exclusion Bill to stop Catholics inheriting the throne, but Charles II barred it. James II used his prerogative to issue a Declaration of Indulgence, restoring all rights to Catholics. With the birth of a Catholic heir in June 1688, a group of English statesmen and other dignitaries (the 'Immortal Seven') sent a secret invitation offering the throne to William of Orange in the Netherlands, who had married James's daughter Mary. When William landed in England, James fled to France and then Ireland, where he remained King until defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690.
Where did the Bill of Rights come in?
In England, a provisional Parliament issued a Declaration of Rights in February 1689 condemning the actions of James II as “contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm." The Declaration was read to William and Mary and their acceptance effectively sealed a contract between the English people and the King. The Declaration of Rights was ratified by a formal Parliament in December 1689 as the Bill of Rights. The Scottish Parliament approved it as the Claim of Right.
What was in the Bill of Rights?
The Bill of Rights limited royal power and established the supremacy of Parliament, which remains today. Most of the rights covered had been raised before, notably under the Petition of Rights, but not all had been enshrined in law.
- the king could not suspend or create laws without the consent of parliament
- the king could not raise taxes by royal prerogative or without the consent of parliament
- the king could not raise a standing army in peace time without the consent of parliament
- the people can petition the king without being prosecuted
- parliaments should be held frequently
The Bill dealt mostly with constitutional matters, but it did include a few civil rights, which only applied to Protestants. Two were of particular significance.
- Freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament ought not to be questioned in any court or place out of parliament. This is a crucial parliamentary privilege first raised by Thomas More and agreed by Henry VIII in 1523, and still in operation today
- Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law. This was the basis of the “right to bear arms” in the American constitution.
In 1694 the maximum life of each parliament was set at three years, changed to seven years in 1716, to five years - its current level - in 1911.
The Bill of RightsView images from this item (3)
Copyright: © Parliamentary Archives, London HL/PO/JO/10/1/1430, membrs. 2–3