English Bill of Rights

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English Bill of Rights of 1689.jpg

The Bill of Rights 1689 is an English Act of Parliament with the full title An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown and also known by its short title, the Bill of Rights. It is one of the basic documents of English constitutional law, alongside Magna Carta, the 1701 Act of Settlement and the Parliament Acts. It also forms part of the law of some other Commonwealth nations, such as New Zealand. A separate but similar document applies in Scotland: the Claim of Right.

The Bill of Rights 1689 is largely a statement of certain positive rights that its authors considered that citizens and/or residents of a free and democratic society ought to have. It asserts the Subject's right to petition the Monarch and the Subject's right to bear arms for defense. It also sets out (or in the view of its writers, restates) certain constitutional requirements where the actions of the Crown require the consent of the governed as represented in Parliament. In this respect, it differs from other "bills of rights," including the United States Bill of Rights, though many elements of the first eight amendments to the United States Constitution echo its contents. This is in part due to the uncodified constitutional traditions of the United Kingdom, whereby the English Bill of Rights forms a list of rights in respect of the people as represented in Parliament, in addition to those rights already provided for individuals as set out in Magna Carta.

The Bill incorporated into law the growing conviction that although some people may inherit privileges, all women and men enjoy the same basic rights which can not be violated even by a Head of State, who is also subject to, not above, the law. The Bill also took the view that the Heads of State, and others in authority, have responsibilities towards the governed, and that they are answerable to the people, not to themselves. The Bill of Rights still privileged the Protestant religion, however. It was a significant legal advance in recognizing individual rights and in giving them protection in law but it was also a child of its own time. Nonetheless, the whole notion of inalienable human rights, championed by the Universal Declaration and other documents, may have its origin in this legislation.


In the Glorious Revolution, William III of Orange landed with his army in England on November 5, 1688. James II attempted to resist the invasion. He then sent representatives to negotiate, and he finally fled on December 23, 1688.

Before William and Mary were affirmed as co-rulers of England and Ireland, they accepted a Declaration of Right drawn up by the Convention Parliament which was delivered to them at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, on February 13, 1689. Having accepted the Declaration of Right, William and Mary were offered the throne, and were crowned as joint monarchs in April 1689. The Declaration of Right was later embodied in an Act of Parliament, now known as the Bill of Rights, on December 16, 1689.

In the then separate Kingdom of Scotland, the 1689 Claim of Right of the Scottish Estates was expressed in different terms, but to a largely similar effect, declaring William and Mary to be King and Queen of Scotland on April 11, 1689.

Basic tenets

The basic tenets of the Bill of Rights 1689 are:

  • Englishmen, as embodied by Parliament, possessed certain immutable civil and political rights. These included:
    • freedom from royal interference with the law (the Sovereign was forbidden to establish his own courts or to act as a judge himself)
    • freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without agreement by Parliament
    • freedom to petition the king
    • freedom from a peace-time standing army, without agreement by Parliament
    • freedom [for Protestants] to have arms for defense, as allowed by law
    • freedom to elect members of Parliament without interference from the Sovereign
    • the freedom of speech in Parliament, in that proceedings in Parliament were not to be questioned in the courts or in any body outside Parliament itself (the basis of modern parliamentary privilege)
    • freedom from cruel and unusual punishments, and excessive bail
    • freedom from fines and forfeitures without trial
  • Certain acts of James II were specifically named and declared illegal on this basis
  • The flight of James from England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution amounted to abdication of the throne
  • Roman Catholics could not be king or queen of England since "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." The Sovereign was required to swear a coronation oath to maintain the Protestant religion
  • William and Mary were the successors of James
  • Succession should pass to the heirs of Mary, then to Mary's sister Princess Anne of Denmark]] and her heirs, then to any heirs of William by a later marriage
  • The Sovereign was required to summon Parliament frequently, later reinforced by the Triennial Act 1694


The Bill of Rights 1689 was later supplemented in England by the Act of Settlement 1701, and in Scotland the Claim of Right was supplemented by the Act of Union 1707. The Bill of Rights and Claim of Right contributed a great deal to the establishment of British parliamentary supremacy, and the curtailment of the rights of the monarchy. They largely settled the political and religious turmoil that had convulsed Scotland, England and Ireland in the seventeenth century. The Bill of Rights and Claim of Right were two main causes of the transmutation of Britain into a constitutional monarchy.

The Bill of Rights 1689 is a predecessor of the United States Constitution, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, like the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution requires jury trials and prohibits excessive bail and "cruel and unusual punishments." Similarly, "cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments" are banned under Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Bill of Rights and Claim of Right are still law in the United Kingdom and are occasionally cited in legal proceedings. On July 21, 1995, a libel case brought by Neil Hamilton, then a Member of Parliament, against The Guardian newspaper was stopped after Mr. Justice May ruled that the prohibition on the courts questioning parliamentary proceedings contained in the Bill of Rights would prevent The Guardian from obtaining a fair trial. Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 was enacted subsequently to permit an MP to waive his parliamentary privilege.

The Bill of Rights was invoked in New Zealand in the 1976 case of Fitzgerald v Muldoon and Others. Shortly after being elected in 1975 Prime Minister Muldoon issued a press release purporting to abolish a superannuation scheme established by the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974. Although no law had been passed to abolish the scheme the prime minister declared that its abolition had immediate effect because Parliament would shortly introduce a retroactive law abolishing the scheme. The prime minister's action was challenged in court and the chief justice of New Zealand declared that he had acted illegally, because he had violated Article 1 of the Bill of Rights, which provides:

That the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal [sic].

Two special designs of the British commemorative two-pound coins were issued in 1989 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution, one referring to the Bill of Rights and the other to the Claim of Right. Both depict the cipher of William and Mary and mace of the British House of Commons; one also shows a representation of the St. Edward's Crown and the other, the Crown of Scotland

External links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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