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English Bill of Rights Day

Of all the talk of a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act (should the present government scrap it once the UK leaves the EU), you may be surprised to learn that England already has a Bill of Rights which has applied to the entire United Kingdom since the Acts of Union. You might be equally surprised to learn that the country has had one for over 350 years. Who started it, why and is it still relevant today?

Why and How it Came About

The English Bill of Rights or to give it its full title, The Bill of Rights 1689, was compiled and written at a tumultuous time in England’s history. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was dead and monarchy fully restored. Yet some people were not happy with how King James II conducted his court. He was pro France and strongly pro-Catholic. By this time, England was firmly a Protestant nation and he attempted to loosen laws on right of worship for Catholics. This may have been a noble act in itself, but many suspected that James would try to subvert the Protestant faith of the masses further. His reign lasted just four years, after which time he cast the Great Seal into the River Thames.

Parliament saw this as abdication and invited William of Orange (to become William III) over in a peaceful “invasion”. James’ daughter Mary said she would take the throne but only as joint monarch with her husband. She had no desire to be a Queen Consort. The pair ruled until the death of William in 1702 when she ruled alone as Mary II.

Just one year after the end of what was to be called “The Glorious Revolution” the act passed through Parliament.

The Rights Set Down in the Bill

The English Bill of Rights changed the English / British monarchy forever. It was no longer subject only to God (as the concept of Divine Right of Kings had done for centuries). The Bill set out legal obligations of the Crown and rights of subjects. Here is a small selection of its provisions:

  • It is illegal for The Crown (the monarch and his or her advisors) to suspend any law without Parliamentary consent
  • Any subject may petition the monarch without prosecution
  • The Crown may not levy any tax without the consent and approval of Parliament
  • The Crown may not keep a standing army in peacetime without the consent of Parliament. Although the monarch is Commander in Chief, it is Parliament that makes decisions on how, when and where to deploy troops
  • Free elections of MPs to Parliament. This is still essential to our Parliamentary Democracy
  • Decisions made in and by Parliament may not be questioned, impeached or challenged by any organisation outside of Parliament (including the Crown and the law courts)

Is It Still Relevant Today?

Today, the English Bill of Rights is part of the UK’s codified constitution. Our constitution does not exist as a single document, but it seen as a series of Acts over the course of many centuries. The constitutional documents include Magna Carta (1215), The Petition of Right (1628), The Habeas Corpus Act (1679), The English Bill of Rights (1689) and the two Parliament Acts (1911; 1949). An extra document applies in Scotland: Claim of Right Act (1689).

These Acts are still legally binding where the provisions and laws are still relevant. As countries evolve, naturally some laws become obsolete over time. Another provision not listed hints at the anti-Catholic sentiment. It grants Protestants the right to weapons for “his own defence” within reasonable boundaries and in line with the law. Nobody would suggest that only Protestants should be allowed firearms today, and all laws apply equally.