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Bill of Rights 1689

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The Bill of Rights 1689 is an English Act of Parliament with the long title An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown and known colloquially in the UK as the "Bill of Rights." It is one of the basic documents of English constitutional law, alongside Magna Carta, the Act of Settlement and the Parliament Acts. A separate but similar document applies in Scotland, the Claim of Right.

The Bill of Rights 1689 is not a bill of rights, in the sense of a statement of certain rights that citizens and/or residents of a free and democratic society have (or ought to have), but rather addresses only the rights of Parliamentarians sitting in Parliament as against the Crown. In this respect, it differs substantially in form and intent from other "bills of rights," including the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which are also known as the "Bill of Rights."



In the Glorious Revolution, William of Orange landed with his army in England on 5 November 1688. James II attempted to resist the invasion. He then sent representatives to negotiate, and he finally fled on 23 December 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 13 February 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 16 December 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 11 April 1689.

Basic tenets

The basic tenets of the Bill of Rights 1689 are:

  • Englishmen, as embodied by Parliament, possessed certain civil and political rights that could not be taken away. 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 bear arms for self-defence, 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.

In addition, the Sovereign was required to summon Parliament frequently (reinforced by the Triennial Act 1694 which requiring the regular summoning of Parliaments).


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 were a major step in the evolution of the governments in Britain towards parliamentary supremacy, and the curtailment of the rights of the monarchy. In doing so they largely settled the political and religious turmoil that had convulsed Scotland, England and Ireland in the 17th century. After the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and Claim of Right form an important step in the British progress towards 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, contains a right to bear arms, and prohibits excessive bail and of "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 England and Scotland respectively, and are occasionally cited in legal proceedings. On 21 July 1995, a libel case brought by Neil Hamilton, then an MP, against The Guardian 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.

Two special designs of the British two pound coin 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 cypher of William and Mary and mace of the House of Commons; one also shows a representation of the St. Edward's Crown and the other, the Crown of Scotland .

See also

External links

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