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Political and sociological context
As a result of the English Civil War the English Parliament’s powers gradually increased. A constitutional crisis arose during the reign of King James II, when the king’s tolerance of Roman Catholicism and his ties with France met with growing opposition from Parliament.
In 1687, James began to place Catholics in prominent positions of power and in Parliament so that he could repeal the Test Acts. These were a series of laws that prevented many Roman Catholics from taking public office. James made sweeping changes to the Church of England and imprisoned seven bishops who opposed his plans before eventually releasing them. He also kept a large standing army run mainly by Catholics.
Parliament had tolerated this to an extent because James had a daughter, Mary, who was in line to succeed him on the throne and who had been raised as a Protestant. However, in 1688 the King had a son. According to custom, James’s son, as the male heir, took precedence over Mary and became next in line to the throne. This son was to be raised Catholic. The establishment of a Roman Catholic line of kings now seemed inevitable, further alarming Parliament.
Sensitive to this, James dissolved Parliament that July. Subsequently, thirty five members of parliament from both political parties secretly invited Mary and her husband, William of Orange, to invade England so that he and Mary could rule jointly. William was the head of the Dutch provinces. He was also a Protestant.
In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William landed in England with a small army, and James fled to France. However, Parliament refused to ratify William’s invasion until he agreed to uphold a Declaration of Right designed to protect certain rights in England. William and Mary agreed and jointly ascended to the throne that year. Parliament subsequently enacted the Bill of Rights in 1689, restating the terms of the Declaration.
The Declaration of Right sought to reconcile the Crown, the Church, and Parliament. It did so by increasing the power of Parliament and reducing the power of the monarch. The Bill set out the rights of Parliament and individuals however, its main focus was on limiting the powers of the monarch and guaranteeing the rights of members of Parliament to be independent and free from outside control. The Declaration also described several abuses of power by James II as illegal. After its enactment, the monarch could no longer rely on claims of divine right to ignore the law.
Main changes to the law
The Bill of Rights 1689 established the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy, meaning that Parliament became the supreme source of law-making over the monarch and the courts. It declared illegal the practice of prosecuting anyone in the courts for causes unless it was by the authority of Parliament.
This Bill contained the following major Articles:
‘(1) That the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.’
‘(2) 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.’
‘Suspending’ laws referred to stopping laws from taking effect in general, while ‘dispending’ with laws meant not applying them to particular individuals.
(4) Levying money by royal prerogative without the grant of Parliament is illegal. This meant that the monarch could no longer levy taxes. Only Parliament could do this.
(5) It is illegal to raise or keep a standing army in peacetime without Parliament’s consent.
(8) The election of Members of Parliament ought to be free
(9) Freedom of speech in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament. This created the doctrine of Parliamentary privilege, meaning that that if something is discussed in Parliament the courts have no jurisdiction over the matter.
(10) Excessive bail ought not to be required nor excessive fines nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.
(13) In order to provide redress of all grievances and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws Parliaments ought to be held frequently.
The Bill also stated that it was the right of all subjects to petition the King and that prosecuting someone for doing so was illegal.
Finally, the Bill declared James’ flight from England following the Glorious Revolution to be an abdication of the throne. It stated that ‘it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince’. This effectively banned Roman Catholics from being monarchs and ensured that the throne would pass from William and Mary to their heirs.
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