The Bill of Rights (1689) – What did it do?

The end of the seventeenth-century saw a period of dramatic change in British Politics that laid the foundations for the liberal democratic government that is still in place today.
In 1660 Britain’s short experiment with republicanism came to an end. After the death of Oliver Cromwell his son, Richard, became Lord Protector. However, Richard Cromwell was an inept protector and was removed after less than a year. In April 1660, the English Parliament announced that Charles II was the lawful monarch of England. Constitutionally, it was as if the years since the execution of Charles I had simply not happened.

Charles II

Charles II became Monarch in 1660, 11 years after the execution of his father.

Charles II bore no children and was replaced as monarch by James II. Unlike Charles, James was an unpopular monarch. Much of his unpopularity stemmed from the fact that he was a Roman Catholic and sought to reassert the rights of other Roman Catholics in England. The reign of James was characterised by a constant struggle with Parliament, reminiscent of that of his grandfather, Charles I. In 1688, at the invitation of a number of Protestant nobles, the Dutch Prince William of Orange invaded England. Rather than fight, James II fled to the continent.
William and Mary

William and Mary ascended to the throne with far less power than their predecessors.

In place of James, William of Orange and his wife, Mary (James’ daughter), were jointly offered the throne. This guaranteed a Protestant monarchy again in England. However, William III and Mary were not to be given the same powers as previous monarchs. This event, known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, saw the advent of ‘constitutional monarchy’ in the UK, with explicit restrictions placed on the monarch.
One of the most important pieces of legislation to limit the monarchies power was the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights outlined a number of rights granted to citizens of England. However, most were provisions that protected the rights of Parliament and Parliamentarians. These included:
  •  The Monarchy could not suspend laws without the consent of Parliament
  •   The Monarchy could not levy taxes without the consent of Parliament
  •   The Monarchy could not keep a standing army at a time of peace without the consent of Parliament
  •  Cruel and Unusual Punishments were not to be inflicted in England.
  •  Parliament should be a permement instituion and not merely gathered at the Monarchy’s request.
One particularly important right that was outlined in the Bill of Rights was Parliamentary Privilege. The wordking of the clause was:
” That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”
This right protects Parliamentarians from being sued or prosecuted for actions taken that are clearly done as part of their parliamentary duties.
A previous post explores Parliamentary Privilege in more detail:
Importantly, the Bill of Rights (1689) can be held in stark contrast to the US Bill of Rights of 1791. The US Bill of Rights made up the first ten amendments of the US Constitution and guaranteed the rights of all citizens and did not predominantly protect the rights of the political class.
Overall, however, it can be summarised that the Bill of Rights (1689) had three important features:
  1. It solidified the notion of constitutional monarchy in England.
  2. It re-asserted may ancient rights, such as Habeas Corpus, which dated all the way back to the Magna Carta.
  3. It formed the basis of later statements of rights that were continue to grow in England and the United Kingdom.

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