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English Bill of Rights

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English Bill of Rights

The English Bill of Rights directly influenced the American Revolution and the United States Constitution. But what was the English Bill of Rights? Created in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights set down limits on a monarch's power and strengthened Parliament, the elected representatives of England's people.

King William III and Mary II were named rulers of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1689. Source: Robert White, between 1689-1703, National Portrait Gallery, UK NPG D10674

English Bill of Rights

A constitutional settlement that removed the Catholic King James II and established the new joint rulers, King William III and Queen Mary II, as part of a constitutional monarchy, which limited royal power and strengthened Parliament.

Constitutional Monarchy vs. Absolute Monarchy

Before the Glorious Revolution, English kings and queens practiced Absolute Monarchy, where they wielded the greatest control over the people, the church, and the government. These kings, who stretched back to William the Conqueror and his Norman Conquest of 1066, believed that their complete control over their lands and people stemmed from a concept known as the Divine Right of Kings.

Kings believed that their powerful positions came directly from God because they were His appointees on Earth. As such, anyone who acted against the King or disagreed with him was going against God's will. This mentality allowed many cases of abuse of power such as arresting dissenters without cause.

Alternatively, Constitutional Monarchy gave the most governmental control to the people's representatives in a Parliament or other elected government structure. A constitution, or in this case the Bill of Rights, outlined the limitations on the king's power. Therefore, while an Absolute Monarchy established absolute power for the king, a Constitutional Monarchy limits that power through a constitution and elected governing body.

English Bill of Rights Summary, Simplified

The English Bill of Rights was written by Parliament and adopted as law in December 1689. It was a combination of established English common laws, the Petition of Right from 1628, and new statutes. It established the following:

StatuteBackground
The King cannot suspend or eliminate laws without Parliament's approvalAbsolutist kings Charles I and his sons Charles II and James II disagreed with Parliament over who had the right to make or remove laws. The new constitutionalist government added this statute to make it clear who had the lawmaking power.
The King cannot police religious mattersQuestions over whether the monarch could control issues of religion were circulating since Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. Since then the threat of a king dictating matters of faith brought England into civil war. By removing the king's ability to control the church, the threat was eliminated.
No taxation without Parliament's approvalThis was part of the Petition of Right. King Charles I levied extraordinary taxes without Parliament's approval for war expenses, which they saw as an abuse of power. That was one reason for the English Civil War. In a constitutional monarchy, the people's representatives decide whether and what taxes are necessary.
The King cannot keep a standing army in peacetime without Parliament's approvalThis was part of the Petition of Right. This statute also derives from the English Civil War, when Charles I raised an army against Parliament. When his son, Charles II, became king, he insisted on having a standing army in both peace and war. Parliament was always wary of a standing army controlled by the king. In the Bill of Rights, Parliament gained control over the army, allowing a standing army only if the king agreed to have annual Parliaments.
Free Parliamentary electionsKing James II tried to fix Parliament elections so that he could stack the governing body with those who would agree with his policies.
Frequent meetings of ParliamentBoth Charles I and II closed Parliament when they could not reach an agreement. Putting required meetings of Parliament into the Bill of Rights eliminated the King's ability to call and close Parliament at will.
No imprisonment without cause or excessive bail and fines. No cruel and unusual punishmentThis was considered common law, reiterated in the Petition of Right. Charles I violated this law when he attempted to imprison five Parliament members in 1642. In the Bill of Rights, common law became established law. This statute was later included in the US Constitution.
Search and seizure of property without formal declaration is illegalKings often used this tactic to both catch criminals and silence critics in Parliament and the press, even though its illegality was considered common law. The Bill of Rights restated and solidified the statute under the new constitutional monarchy.
People have the right to a trial by juryThe Bill of Rights reiterated this statute from English common law, dating back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The 1215 Magna Carta was the first time that this right was put into writing.

Many of the rights included in the Bill of Rights were influenced by the writings of John Locke.

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher and one of the strongest supporters of the Bill of Rights. Many historians argue that his Two Treatises on Government (1689) greatly influenced the Bill's content. Locke argued against the idea that a king was God's appointed representative on earth (Divine Right of Kings), refuting King James II's absolutist policies. His thoughts on governmental checks and balances were later incorporated into the American Constitution.

John Locke by Godfrey Kneller, 1697. Source: The Hermitage Museum, Russia, Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD-Mark

English Bill of Rights Analysis

The Bill of Rights was a triumph for Parliament. It incorporated a mix of old (no new taxes without Parliament) and new (free elections) statutes. It was not entirely traditional or conservative, nor was it entirely radical. Historian Lois Schwoerer argues that the Bill was not a condition that William and Mary needed to agree to before they were accepted as king and queen.

Schwoerer also explains that William did not passively accept the terms outlined in the Bill to get the throne, a point previously argued by Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1849 which was widely accepted as truth. The final document was the result of a compromise between William and Mary and the Houses of Parliament.

English Bill of Rights - Key takeaways

  • The English Bill of Rights set down the guidelines for the new constitutional monarchy in England, which shared governmental power between new rulers King William III and Queen Mary II, and Parliament.
  • The Bill mixed longstanding statutes such as no taxation without Parliament's approval with new ones such as free elections.
  • Individual rights and liberties were also included, such as the right to bear arms and making cruel and unusual punishments illegal.
  • The English Bill of Rights heavily influenced the content of the later American Constitution and Bill of Rights. Many of the statutes are the same in both documents.

References

  1. Lois Schwoerer, The Declaration of Rights, 1689, 1989.

Frequently Asked Questions about English Bill of Rights

The English Parliament, comprised of the House of Lords and the House of Commons

A legal document that outlined the new constitutional monarchy under King William III and Queen Mary II and established rights and liberties for the English people.

Established individual rights and liberties for the English people, limited the king's power, and strengthened Parliament's power.

1. Free Parliamentary elections, 2. Freedom of Speech, 3. Petition the king without fear of punishment, 4. No taxation without representation, 5. Protection from excess bail, 6. Protection from cruel and unusual punishment, 7. No standing army in peacetime without Parliament's approval, 8. Right to bear arms 9. No suspending laws without Parliament's approval, 10. Creating courts to regulate religious matters is illegal.

1689

Final English Bill of Rights Quiz

Question

What type of government did the Bill of Rights establish?

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Answer

Constitutional Monarchy

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What did the Bill of Rights NOT grant?

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Religious freedom

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What did the Bill of Rights abolish?

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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

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Question

Who was John Locke?

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Answer

A British philosopher whose ideas on separation of powers and checks and balances in government influenced both the English and American Bills of RIghts

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Question

Who wrote the English Bill of Rights?

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Answer

Parliament

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Question

What conflict set the stage for the English Bill of Rights?

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Answer

The Glorious Revolution

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Who became King because as part of the Bill of Rights?

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William III

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What Queen was named joint ruler with her husband?

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Mary II

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What other government document did the English Bill of Rights influence?

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Answer

The US Constitution

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Question

Why was the English Bill of Rights created?

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Answer

To establish a constitutional monarchy and strengthen Parliament

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