The Bill of Rights


A determined attempt by King James II (r. 1685–88) to reinstate Catholic worship in England, coupled with his increasingly authoritarian responses to resistance, resulted in a wave of unrest in 1688. In November, a Dutch force led by Prince William of Orange (the future King William III, r. 1689–1702) invaded England in support of the king’s opponents. After James’s army had crumbled and he had fled to France, William (husband of James’s elder daughter, Mary) summoned a new Parliament, the ‘Convention’.

The Convention assembled on 22 January 1689, and within two weeks had voted that King James II had ‘abdicated the government’ by ‘breaking the original contract between King and people’. Having ‘withdrawn himself out of the government’, James had left the throne vacant. In parallel with debates on whether James should be formally removed from the throne, both Houses of Parliament agreed a statement to assert and confirm what were seen as ancient laws and liberties, and to underline the arbitrary and illegal nature of many of the actions of James and his predecessor, Charles II (r. 1660–85).

On 13 February, both Houses went together ‘in a body’ to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where they offered William and Mary the Crown, together with their Declaration of Rights, in a way that was intended to suggest that the offer was conditional on William and Mary’s assent to the Declaration. The text of the Declaration was subsequently incorporated, with some amendments, into an Act of Parliament, unusually known as the Bill of Rights. The Declaration and Bill stated that it was illegal for the Crown to suspend or dispense with the law, to levy money without parliamentary assent, or to raise an army in peacetime, and insisted on due process in criminal trials. This vigorous assertion of the rights of the subject meant that the Bill of Rights is often seen as parallel in importance with Magna Carta itself.

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The Bill of Rights
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