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The English Bill of Rights

The English Bill of Rights


Stuarts and Parliament. In the 1640s and 1680s members of Parliament struggled with the ruling monarchs, the Stuarts, over the relative powers of Parliament and monarch and the kings subjection to the laws of the land. The first struggle ended with the English Civil War, won by a Puritan-dominated Parliament which executed Charles I for treason in 1649. But rule without a monarch proved awkward, and the Stuarts were restored to the throne in 1660. The Restoration left many issues unresolved, as became all too clear when in 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother James II. In 1688 Parliament forced James to abandon the throne, and they installed Prince William of Orange (the Netherlands) and his wife, Mary (Jamess daughter), as monarchs, an action afterward known as the Glorious Revolution.

Statement of Principles. Parliament enacted in 1689 a statement of principles addressing the issues that it believed lay at the root of the struggle with the Stuarts and their pretensions to extensive royal powers. The provisions of the English Bill of Rights were aimed in the first place at reducing the monarchs ability to interfere with or control Parliament. Laws or their execution could not be suspended or dispensed by the Crown; taxes could be levied and armies raised only with Parliaments consent; elections ought to be free; and parliamentary debates could not be challenged in court. Such principles eventually made their way into the United States Constitution of 1787 and became known as the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances. Other provisions affected all citizens. The Bill of Rights championed freedom of speech and the right to petition the king, and it prohibited excessive bail or fines as well as cruel and unusual punishments.

Rights of Englishmen. The idea that Englishmen had rights was hardly new. The early colonial charters required that the rights and privileges of Englishmen be protected, and several colonial legal codes of the 1600s described rights and liberties. Many, therefore, saw the English Bill of Rights as simply a statement of longstanding rights, not a declaration of new ones. Indeed, the rights of Englishmen were thought to be too many to be listed. Nonetheless, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 did influence the American states in the late 1700s to write specific lists of rights distinct from their legal codes or governing constitutions. This expectation became so strong that when the new U.S. Constitution was proposed in 1787, a Bill of Rights had to be added.


Kermit Hall, William Wiecek, and Paul Finkelman, American Legal History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

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