How Did the English Bill of Rights Affect English Government?

Passed by Parliament in 1689, the English Bill of Rights introduced the concept of constitutional monarchy, the supreme right of parliament to govern England and that everyone had the same, inviolable rights under law.

Historical Context The English Bill of Rights was written following the Glorious Revolution when William of Orange invaded England at the request of several parliamentary leaders. This was to counter King James II’s ongoing misuse of power. Following the invasion, King James II fled to France. To prevent future abuse, and to make it legally possible for William and the daughter of King James II, Mary, to be declared king and queen, parliament approved the English Bill of Rights. This bill clarified and restricted the monarchs’ powers, declared that King James II had abdicated and invited William and Mary to be King and Queen of England and Ireland.

Principles Incorporated in the English Bill of Rights Although the first English parliament sat in 1258, its real power had been limited by the royal prerogative. Although monarchs were supposed to consult parliament, many didn’t, and this came to a head with the Catholic King James II, who believed in the divine right of kings to rule and who suspended parliament.

In seeking to avoid this situation in future, the Bill of Rights forbade sovereigns from making their own laws, imposing taxes, raising an army and imposing cruel punishments or fines. It also provided for the election of members of parliament without interference, full freedom of speech in parliament and that parliament must sit on a regular basis. Because of ongoing tension between the Catholics and Anglicans, the Bill of Rights forbade a Catholic from being made monarch.

England’s Unwritten Constitution The English Bill of Rights has become part of what is known as the English constitution. This unwritten constitution is made up of various bills passed by parliament over the centuries and includes important documents like the Magna Carta and the Acts of Union linking Scotland and England into the United Kingdom. The English constitution continually evolves as new laws are passed, such as the European Communities Act and Human Rights Act.

Because England has no written constitution, changing it requires no special act of parliament; rather, it evolves as each law is passed. England is one of only a handful of countries that don’t have formal constitutions. Apart from the United Kingdom, the list includes Canada, New Zealand, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Supremacy of Parliament The most important consequence of the Bill of Rights is the supremacy of parliament. This results in an unusual feature in that parliament cannot act illegally or against the constitution because parliament itself determines the law of the land. Although laws passed by the British parliament, known as the House of Commons, have to be agreed by the House of Lords before being passed onto the sovereign for assent, if the House of Lords refuses to pass a bill, mechanisms exist to bypass the House of Lords.

Monarch’s Powers The king or queen is the Head of State of the United Kingdom. He or she has a number of constitutional duties, such as the opening and closing of parliament and declaring the date of general elections. All bills passed by parliament must be signed by the sovereign. The sovereign retains what is called the royal prerogative, although this duty has, over time, devolved to government ministers. The sovereign is advised by the Prime Minister and Privy Council to carry out the wishes of the government.