16 December 1689: Parliament passes the Bill of Rights

A written part of the country's “unwritten constitution”, the Bill of Rights, was passed on this day in 1689, asserting Parliamentary superiority over the monarch.

Britain – or indeed England – may not have a written constitution, but there are a couple of documents which, oddly perhaps, form part of the unwritten one. The first was Magna Carta, sealed in 1215 when King John got a bit too uppity for his barons' liking. The second was the Bill of Rights.

In the 17th century, the country was in the grip of religious turmoil – “popery”, of course, was the number one threat. So after the death of the protestant Charles II in 1685, the ascension of his Catholic brother James to the throne was not well received. His appointment of Catholics to high places in the law and academia, along with officers in the army, led to a big falling out with Parliament. Eventually, he was forced to abdicate and fled the country in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange – good protestants both – were invited to take the throne but only once they had accepted the demands of Parliament.

On offering them the crown on 13 February 1689, the Declaration of Rights was read out, which set out the rights of the monarch's subjects, and the monarch's relationship with Parliament. It established Parliament's supremacy in matters of taxation and legislation, and the principle of parliamentary privilege. It forbade the monarch from maintaining a standing army without Parliament's consent, and outlawed the use of "cruel and unusual punishments".

The declaration was formalised on this day in 1689, when Parliament passed the Bill of Rights. Scotland published a similar Act in the Claim of Right Act 1689. It directly influenced the United States Bill of Rights, which received approval in 1791; the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; and the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified in 1953.

 

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