The English Bill of Rights (1689)
I. A little background and history
Way back when, when my family was still in Europe, James Stuart, newly named Duke of York, sent a fleet of warships to New Amsterdam in 1644. This fleet managed to capture the city without firing a shot, because no one was willing to fight to defend it.
The city was renamed New York, in his honor.
In 1673, James resigned all of his offices rather than take an anti-Catholic oath, known as the Test Act. Created in 1567, the Act required that anyone who held any sort of office in the government be of the Anglican faith. From this, we can see where the religious test prohibition clause in Article VI of the Constitution comes from.
When his older brother, King Charles II died in 1685, James ascended the throne and was known as James II. James II, because of his religious views, already had a contentious relationship with Parliament. They had tried, but failed, to prevent his succession to the throne. However, through hard work, he eventually had great influence on Parliament by the time he took the throne, and it seemed that everything was set to make him one of the most powerful Kings Britain ever had.
Then came the rebellion. The Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, rebelled almost immediately. He landed in Dorset (having spent time in exile in the Netherlands), and raised an army of about 4000 peasants. He believed James II had poisoned his father, and he wanted not only revenge, but the throne itself.
While the rebellion was quelled quickly and ruthlessly, James II became suspicious of his subjects. James Scott was captured and beheaded, but many more were tried. About 320 persons were hanged and more than 800 transported to Barbados; hundreds more were fined, flogged, or imprisoned.
James greatly increased the size of the army, giving new regiments to loyal Roman Catholic officers. This action angered Parliament, so James prorogued them, with orders to never meet again (prorogued means that he disbanded their session). This action cause divisions between the King and his Anglican Tory allies. Many, who had positions of authority, were quickly replaced by Roman Catholics. Anyone who angered him, he dismissed and replaced with a Roman Catholic. He suspended laws against Roman Catholics and Protestants in general. However, the Protestants, the Anglicans in particular, were growing alarmed at the rise of the Roman Catholic Church under the king.
Finally, in July of 1787, he dissolved Parliament altogether.Later in September, he launched a campaign to win his Protestant detractors over, and create a new Parliament that was more amenable to his desires.
Protestant leaders had been in touch with William of Orange, the husband of James daughter, Mary. In November, 1788, William’s fleet evaded the Royal Navy and landed at Brixham. James Protestant officers defected in such large numbers, that he dared not fight William. The final blow was when his other daughter, Anne, fled and joined William. Anne would later become Queen of Great Britain.
James fled to France, and a Convention Parliament, in February, 1689) declared that James II had abdicated the throne. Although he did make an attempt to take it back, King William soundly trounced him and forced him out of Ireland, reconquering it in 1690.
James II had taken Britain back to the days where the king ruled by decree. Laws were written or changed on his desires. The Convention Parliament was called by the Earl of Rochester, and consisted of about 26 bishops of the Anglican faith (known as the Lords Spiritual) who served in the House of Lords, and the secular leaders (known as the Lords Temporal). They were joined by members of the Privy Council to determine what to do. Some still supported James II, while some supported William of Orange to be the next king.
The Whigs wanted William as the next king.
Radical Whigs wanted to be done with royalty and institute a republic. They were ignored.
The Tories wanted James II, or Mary, William’s wife, as queen alone.
After negotiations between the House of Commons and the House of lords, William the III was installed as the new king of Great Britain. However, one of the conditions for him to be king was that he accept the English Bill of Rights, in response to James II rule by royal decree.
II. The English Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights created by Parliament began by listing James II crimes:
- By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without consent of Parliament; (High Crimes & Misdemeanors)
- By committing and prosecuting divers worthy prelates for humbly petitioning to be excused from concurring to the said assumed power; (First Amendment)
- By issuing and causing to be executed a commission under the great seal for erecting a court called the Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes;
- By levying money for and to the use of the Crown by pretence (sic) of prerogative for other time and in other manner than the same was granted by Parliament;
- By raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law; (Article I and the Third Amendment)
- By causing several good subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when papists were both armed and employed contrary to law; (Second Amendment)
- By violating the freedom of election of members to serve in Parliament;
- By prosecutions in the Court of King’s Bench for matters and causes cognizable only in Parliament, and by divers other arbitrary and illegal courses;
- And whereas of late years partial corrupt and unqualified persons have been returned and served on juries in trials, and particularly divers jurors in trials for high treason which were not freeholders; (Article III)
- And excessive bail hath been required of persons committed in criminal cases to elude the benefit of the laws made for the liberty of the subjects; (Eighth Amendment)
- And excessive fines have been imposed; (Eighth Amendment)
- And illegal and cruel punishments inflicted; (Eighth Amendment)
- And several grants and promises made of fines and forfeitures before any conviction or judgment against the persons upon whom the same were to be levied; (Fifth Amendment)
- All which are utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm;
The Declaration of Independence uses this same style when enumerating the crimes of king George III. I have annotated those parts that can be seen within our own Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Parliament then declares the throne abdicated, and thank God and William of Orange to coming to their rescue from popery (the Roman Catholic Church). Parliament then assert their ancient rights and liberties:
- That the pretended power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal;
- That the pretended power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal;
- That the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious;
- That levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence (sic) of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal;
- That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;
- That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;
- That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence (sic) suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;
- That election of members of Parliament ought to be free;
- 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;
- That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;
- That jurors ought to be duly impanelled (sic) and returned, and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders;
- That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void;
- And that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.
I am not going to annotate here, because this list is a direct response to the list of crimes earlier.
The rest reaffirms that William and Mary are king and queen, and invalidates some of the laws created by James II during his reign.
As we can see, much of what is contained in this Bill of Rights greatly influenced our Founding Fathers, at lest George Mason, and he greatly expanded upon what Parliament started here. Of course, much of what they wrote was for landholders and lords, not the common people.