William III and Mary II being offered the crown by the Lords and Commons at Whitehall. They reigned 1689-1702.  (Credit: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
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Introduction

The English Bill of Rights was an act signed into law in 1689 by William III and Mary II, who became co-rulers in England after the overthrow of King James II. The bill outlined specific constitutional and civil rights and ultimately gave Parliament power over the monarchy. Many experts regard the English Bill of Rights as the primary law that set the stage for a constitutional monarchy in England. It’s also credited as being an inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The Glorious Revolution, which took place in England from 1688-1689, involved the ousting of King James II.

Both political and religious motives sparked the revolution. Many English citizens were distrustful of the Catholic king and disapproved of the monarchy’s outright power.

Tensions were high between the British Parliament and the king, and Catholics and Protestants were also at odds.

James II was eventually replaced by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. The two leaders formed a joint monarchy and agreed to give Parliament more rights and power.

Part of this settlement included signing the English Bill of Rights, which was formally known as “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown.”

Among its many provisions, the Bill of Rights condemned King James II for abusing his power and declared that the monarchy could not rule without consent of the Parliament.

 The English Bill of Rights includes the following items:

  • A list of King James’s misdeeds
  • 13 articles that outlined specific freedoms
  • Confirmation that William and Mary were rightful successors to the throne of England

In general, the Bill of Rights limited the power of the monarchy, elevated the status of Parliament and outlined specific rights of individuals.

Some of the key liberties and concepts laid out in the articles include:

  • Freedom to elect members of Parliament, without the king or queen’s interference
  • Freedom of speech in Parliament
  • Freedom from royal interference with the law
  • Freedom to petition the king
  • Freedom to bear arms for self-defense
  • Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail
  • Freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without the agreement of Parliament
  • Freedom of fines and forfeitures without a trial
  • Freedom from armies being raised during peacetimes

Other important provisions were that Roman Catholics couldn’t be king or queen, Parliament should be summoned frequently and the succession of the throne would be passed to Mary’s sister, Princess Anne of Denmark, and her heirs (than to any heirs of William by a later marriage).

The English Bill of Rights created a constitutional monarchy in England, meaning the king or queen acts as head of state but his or her powers are limited by law.

Under this system, the monarchy couldn’t rule without the consent of Parliament, and the people were given individual rights. In the modern-day British constitutional monarchy, the king or queen plays a largely ceremonial role.

An earlier historical document, the 1215 Magna Carta of England, is also credited with limiting the powers of the monarchy and is sometimes cited as a precursor to the English Bill of Rights.

Many historians also believe that the ideas of English philosopher John Locke greatly influenced the content of the Bill of Rights. Locke proposed that the role of the government is to protect its citizens’ natural rights.

The Bill of Rights was quickly followed by the 1689 Mutiny Act, which limited the maintenance of a standing army during peacetime to one year.

In 1701, the English Bill of Rights was supplemented by England’s Act of Settlement, which was essentially designed to further ensure Protestant succession to the throne.

The English Bill of Rights encouraged a form of government where the rights and liberties of individuals were protected. These ideas and philosophies penetrated into the colonies of North America. 

Many of the themes and philosophies found in the English Bill of Rights served as inspirations for principles that were eventually included in the American Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution and, of course, the U.S. Bill of Rights.

For example, the 1791 U.S. Bill of Rights, guarantees freedom of speech, trial by jury, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The English Bill of Rights has had a long-lasting impact on the role of government in England. It’s also influenced laws, documents and ideologies in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and other countries.

The act limited the power of the monarchy, but it also bolstered the rights and liberties of individual citizens. Without the English Bill of Rights, the role of the monarchy might be much different than it is today.

There’s no question that this one act greatly affected how the English government operates and served as a stepping stone for modern-day democracies.

The Convention and Bill of Rights, Parliament.uk.
American Bill of Rights, Losal.org.
The Bill of Rights, British Library.
English Bill of Rights 1689, Yale.
The Bill of Rights, Fordham University.
Britain’s Unwritten Constitution, British Library.