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History of the British constitution

The constitutional laws of the United Kingdom include documents many hundreds of years old and they are still being added to in the present day. The development of a constitution arose from conflicts of authority between kings, popes, barons and common people. The first events in this development were in England.

Until 1066 England was ruled by monarchs elected by the witan, (which means wise). This ended with the Norman conquest.


The Norman Conquest

King Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king. From William I onwards the rulers of England have all descended from a variety of foreign nationalities. The Normans brought in absolutist monarchy. William ruled for 21 years and was succeeded by his son William II. There was friction and conflict between the three sons of William and the youngest, Henry, attempted a coup in 1091. He failed at that time but eventually succeeded to the throne in 1100.

Henry I

Henry I (c. 1068December 1, 1135) was king from 1100 to 1135. When he ascended to the throne he granted the Charter of Liberties. This document is not a Bill of Rights but a series of decrees and assurances. Probably the most important statement in the charter is at the beginning, where the king admits "that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom". This represents a step away from absolutism and a step toward constitutionalism. The king had recognised that the right to rule came not only from God but also from the common counsel of the barons.

From this point onward, and more especially between the reigns of King John and Charles II, the power structure in England evolved from an essentially absolutist model to an essentially constitutional one.

The Plantagenates

King John (24 December 1167October 19, 1216) was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of Richard I.

His reign was fraught with conflicts. There was conflict between England and France, between England and the Pope and between the King and the barons.

Eventually the barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, often looked upon as the first truly significant document in a long succession of documents over the centuries up to the present day which collectively constitute the legal sovereignty of the land now known as the United Kingdom. The constitution of this sovereignty is thus distributed across many historical precedents rather than written in one piece.

Henry III (1 October 120716 November 1272) succeeded his father John. Henry was only nine years of age when he became king and so the country was ruled by regents until Henry reached the age of 20. Under pressure from the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Henry had to accept the existence of the first English Parliament.

In the next century, in the reign of Richard II there was an uprising, the Peasants' Revolt (1381). The revolt came very, very close getting their demands (such as fair rents and the abolition of serfdom) granted by the king but at the end the protestors were tricked out of it all. The revolt remains as an important moment in history, but failed to contribute to the written body of the constitution.

The Tudors

The first Act of Supremacy (1534) made King Henry VIII the "supreme head" of the Church of England. Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving three children as potential heirs:

The first Act of Supremacy had made King Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England and the second Act of Supremacy (1559) restored these powers for Elizabeth I, reversing catholic legislation passed during the reign of Mary, though the title Elizabeth gained was "Supreme Governor of the Church of England" rather than "supreme head" so as not to imply that she had control over the church's doctrine. The act also required all officials and clergy to make an oath of allegiance acknowledging her as the "governor" of the Church of England.

It was an age of expanding European empires at the same time as internal religious wars. In 1562 French protestants (Huguenots) were in civil war against French catholics. In the same year England entered the slave trade. The first English slave expedition to Africa was lead by John Hawkins.

The monarchy had to get the consent of Parliament in all issues, but with the threat of war looming from Spain, Parliament showed great loyalty toward Queen Elizabeth I since she was a strong leader. When the Spanish Armada was defeated (1588), the Parliament felt safe and thus it decreased its loyalty to the monarchy.

The Parliament consisted of two levels of administration: the "House of Lords" that was made up of the influential Nobles, and the "House of Commons" that was made up of influential and representative members of the middle-class. The "House of Commons" had grown sharply, doubling in size due to the prosperity of the middle-class during that time. The Puritans made up the majority of the "House of Commons," so they began asking for more rights for the Puritans, but Elizabeth I was strong enough not to succumb (James I would have problems with them). John Aylmer, a Greek scholar, saw an immediate resemblance of the Tudor constitution with that of the classical republic of Sparta. Geoffrey Elton, who wrote The Tudor Constitution, gave hearty approval to Aylmer's conclusions. It was the Greek scholars, such as Aylmer, that popularized the Greek classical political terminology and influenced British constitutionalist thought. They brought forward the idea of "mixed" government from Classical antiquity and applied it to their form of government.

James I and VI

When Queen Elizabeth I died (1603) without issue, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and he became King James I of England. This was a major step towards creating a united kingdom.

James I faced a fractious religious England since it contained Anglicans (of the Anglican Church (Church of England)), Puritans, Separatists (who wanted to break from the Anglican Church), and Catholics. He began fighting with them. Puritans were English Calvinists/Presbyterians/Huguenots (though it is important to note that they differed slightly). They believed in a simplified religion based on individual conscience, the direct authority of the Holy Scriptures, and a society of belief in which preaching played a prominent role.

James I was a believer in the Divine Right of Kings Theory, which stated that Kings were chosen by God and should therefore be absolute and answerable only to God (this was corroborated by his Presbyterian belief in predestination, and such a birthright as kingship made him almost explicitly apart of the elect). Though he was Presbyterian (Calvinist, Huguenot, Puritan), he was against the Presbyterian idea of allowing the congregation (people) to elect their presbyters (church officials) since it undermined his absolutism (according to the Divine Right). Thus he fought with the Puritans, who were English Presbyterians.

He did concede to the Puritans by allowing them to create the "King James Bible" that was an "English" translation and interpretation of the Bible.

Then James I began fighting with the Catholics, but eventually gave them rights (after his secretly Catholic wife probably persuaded him to), exempting the Catholics from having to pay the tithe to the Anglican Church, but this caused a great decrease in Anglican Church revenue, so he quickly took those rights away.

A radical Catholic group planned to kill the Parliament (because it contained so many Puritans) and James I all in one attack, so that they could establish a Catholic administration. They rented a building with a basement that ran underneath the Parliament building, and in it they placed barrels of gunpowder to explode and destroy the Parliament while it was in session (November 5, 1605) with James I present. It was thus called the Gunpowder Plot. The plot was revealed when some of the conspirators wrote notes of warning to their friends in Parliament. An investigation led to the discovery of the basement filled with gunpowder and guarded by the leader, Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was executed by being hung, drawn and quartered, a method of execution which was still legal then, in the days before the English Bill of Rights (1689).

The actions of King James I were unpopular during his reign.

James ended a war with the Spanish (1604) under the condition that the English were to stop illegally trading with the Spanish colonies in the New World. This condition angered the Protestant traders.

James I tried to marry his son Charles to Maria the daughter of Philip III of Spain (who was the son of Philip II of Spain) in order to create a religious balance (his other daughter Elizabeth had married a Protestant: Frederick V, Elector Palatine), but the Protestant English (most of England) didn't like that, because Spain was very Catholic (James I's Civil Adviser , the Duke of Buckingham, tried to arrange the marriage).

James I's daughter Elizabeth married Frederick V, who was the Elector of the Palatinate. When James's son-in-law Frederick V was fighting the Catholics in the Thirty Years' War, James I wouldn't help him, so the English looked down upon James I for not fighting against the Catholics and for not helping his own son-in-law.

James had appointed the Duke of Buckingham (15921628) as his Civil Adviser, and he was much hated by the Parliament, because he exercised a great deal of power but was an inadequate, untrained statesman. He worked on getting an alliance for England with Spain by trying to arrange the marriage of James's son Charles to Maria the daughter of Philip III of Spain, but after 8 years of negotiations, the Spanish turned down the marriage. To get back at Spain, the Duke of Buckingham caused a war between the two countries. He did successfully arrange the marriage (1624) of Charles to Henrietta Maria the daughter of Louis XIII of France, but he caused a war between England and France by helping the Huguenots in the French civil war. Thus he caused English to get into a war with Spain and with France. He was an adviser to King Charles I (James I's son), until he was killed by John Felton in 1628.

Charles I and the Civil War

James was succeeded by his son who became Charles I in 1625. Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings Theory, like his father, and thus continued to fight with parliament.

The Parliament's main power at this time was its control of the taxes. The Parliament demanded more power over the taxes. Traditionally, Parliament had voted at the beginning of a King's reign on the amount allowed for a King's Tonnage and Poundage , the customs duties (taxes on imported goods like wool and wine) that made up a large portion of a king's annual income. Now the Parliament wanted to re-evaluate these taxes annually, which would give them more control over the king. James I didn't allow this and dealt with the situation by dissolving the Parliament when he didn't want to bother with them. Charles I did the same at first and later just ignored its annual evaluations.

Charles acquired much of his money with forced loans from the nobles. He also received a lot of money through taxes. One important tax that Charles collected was the Ship Money tax that required the counties bordering the sea to fund a navy to protect the English coastline, and the coastal counties were unhappy with it since Charles was collecting the Ship Money tax during a time of peace and since he wasn't using it really to fund the navy. To get even more money, Charles placed the Ship Money tax on the interior counties as well, which angered the English people, because now Charles was creating new taxes without the consent of the Parliament, which was against the (unwritten) law. A man in London named John Hampden, who was also a member of Parliament, refused to pay this "new," interior Ship Money tax, so he was tried for a crime by Charles I and lost with a vote of 7 to 5 (Thus 5/12 of the jurors were against their king, which did not look good or bode well for Charles I).

Yet, Charles I was in war with France and Spain, and this drained a lot of money from him, so he was forced to call upon Parliament (1629) to make new taxes for him. Parliament would not grant Charles new taxes (more money) until he had signed the Petition of Rights that established conditions in which Charles had to submit to the law of the Parliament. It stipulated that:

  1. The king could not establish martial law in England during times of Peace.
  2. The king could not levy taxes without the consent of the Parliament.
  3. The king could not arbitrarily imprison people.
  4. The king could not quarter soldiers in private homes.

After Charles got the taxes from Parliament (1629), he dissolved Parliament and broke the tenets of the Petition of Rights (since he believed in the Divine Right of Kings Theory).

William Laud and Thomas Wentworth were appointed to fill the void that the Duke of Buckingham left.

Charles appointed William Laud (15731645) as the Archbishop of Canterbury (to fill the void that the Duke of Buckingham left). He was a conscientious and diligent man. He was an Anglican Christian and liked the rich Anglican robes. He also established a standard setup and location for the Eucharistic table complete with a communion (kneeling) rail, which was very Catholic. Thus, the Puritans were angry with him, because he appeared to be a secret Catholic (since he liked the rich robes and Catholic table). He further angered the Puritans with his Declaration of Sports (ca. 1634), which called for sporting events to take place on Sundays, which the Puritans didn't like because they believed that Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest (they thought he was mocking that belief).

King Charles appointed as the Civil Adviser (to fill the void left by the Duke of Buckingham since he was the Civil Adviser before him) Tomas Wentworth (15931641), Earl of Strafford. He believed that the king should be the most powerful government institution (and though he fully supported Charles I, he still disagreed with him occasionally on his choice of advisers, which shows that he wasn't a sycophant). He was hated by older associates (Parliament) as a traitor, because he was more loyal to the king now and thought that the king should be able to do things that Charles I was doing. He governed Ireland (and was well liked by the Irish). He was against the Parliament's religious intolerance (presumably of the Catholics and Puritans).

On top of the wars England had with France and with Spain (both caused by the Duke of Buckingham), Charles I and William Laud (the Archbishop of Canterbury) began a war with Scotland in an attempt to convert Scotland to the Church of England (the Anglican Church). This was called the Bishops' War (16391640) and it had two major parts: The first Bishops' War (1639) ended in a truce. The second Bishops' War, the following year, began with the a Scottish invasion of England in which the Scottish defeated the English and remained stationed in England until their issues were solved. To get the Scottish out, Charles I signed the Treaty of Rippon (1640), which required England to pay an indemnity of £850 for each day that the Scottish were stationed in England.

During the second part of the Bishops' War, Charles I had run very low on money (since he was also fighting France and Spain), so he was forced to call a Parliament to make new taxes. He and the Parliament could not agree on anything, so after three weeks, Charles I dissolved the Parliament. Then he desparately needed new taxes, so Charles I called a Parliament again and it would only help him if he agreed to some terms, which ultimately made Charles I a constitutional monarch. It was called the Long Parliament (16401660), because it was not officially dissolved by its own vote until 1660.

These terms were:

  • that Charles I had to impeach Thomas Wentworth and William Laud. He reluctantly placed them under arrest and put them in The Tower, executing Wentworth in 1641 (for which Charles I never forgave himself since he was close to Thomas Wentworth) and William Laud in 1645.
  • Charles I had to agree to the Triennial Act (1641), which required the Parliament to meet every three years with or without the king's consent.
  • Charles I had to abolish the Court of the Star Chamber, a royal court controlled completely by Charles I in which the prosecutor was also the judge (which pretty much guaranteed a guilty verdict for the defendant) and it was intended to be used to implement the will of the king legally with a "judicial" façade. It was considered an "extralegal " court. It dealt with odd cases and punishments.
  • Charles I had to abolish the High Court, which was the same as the Court of the Star Chamber, though it dealt with religious heresy. It was considered an "extralegal" court.
  • Charles I had to accept the Grand Remonstrance and allow the circulation of its copies, and it was a document that outlined (hyperbolically) the crimes that officials had accused Charles of committing since the beginning of his reign. Charles I was also never to do any of those crimes again.
  • Charles I, most importantly, had to agree never to dissolve a Parliament without the consent of the Parliament.

Most of England believed that Parliament had done enough to curb the power of King Charles I, but the radicals in Parliament (the extremist Puritans) and the radicals around the country (again, extremist Puritans) wanted to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops (and all other things with the semblance of Catholicism) and by establishing the Puritans' method of worship as the standard. This caused a political division in Parliament, so Charles I took advantage of it. He then sent 500 soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest five of the Puritans' ringleaders (John Hampden included). The five ringleaders had been tipped off, so they had left Parliament and Charles I was left with only shame for storming Parliament.

King Charles I left London and went to Oxford, and the English Civil War began (1642). The North and West of England were on Charles I's side (along with most of the Nobles and country gentry, who were the aristocrats and rich businessmen). They were known as the Cavaliers. Charles I created an army illegally (since he needed the Parliament's consent).

The South and East of England were on Parliament's side and were known as Roundheads, for their haircuts. In response to Charles I raising an army, they did so as well. Yet, they didn't have the military might that King Charles I (and his nobles) had, so they solicited the help of the Scottish with the Solemn League and Covenant that promised to impose the Presbyterian religion on the Church of England. They called their army the New Model Army and they made its commander Oliver Cromwell, who was also a member of Parliament. The New Model Army was comprised mostly of Presbyterians.

Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth

Though Parliament won, it was clear to the Scots that it was not going to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant by imposing Presbyterianism on England (Puritanism wasn't quite Presbyterian), so the New Model Army, Parliament and the Scots began falling apart. The Scots were paid for their help and sent back to Scotland.

The Presbyterian Roundheads were interested in freedom to practice their religion and not in making the Presbyterian religion the state religion.

Cromwell proposed that Parliament reinstate the bishops of the Church of England and King Charles I as a constitutional monarch, but allow for the toleration of other religions. Though at the end of the war, the people of England could accept Charles I back in office but not religious toleration. They also wanted the New Model Army dissolved since it was a provocative factor. Thus Parliament disallowed religious toleration and voted to disband the New Model Army, but the New Model Army refused the order.

Charles I then made the same deal that the Roundheads had made with the Scottish and Parliamentary Presbyterians. He solicited the help of Scotland (and the Presbyterians) and in return he promised to impose Presbyterianism on England. The New Model Army would not allow this deal to be made (because it would give Charles I military power once more). Thus a "new" civil war broke out in 1648.

This time, Scotland, the Parliamentary Presbyterians and the royalists were on the side of Charles I. The New Model Army and the rest of Parliament were against him.

In the Battle of Preston (1648) Cromwell and his New Model Army defeated Charles I.

Then one of Cromwell's officers, Colonel Pride , destroyed the Presbyterian majority in Parliament by driving out of Parliament 143 Presbyterians of the 203 (leaving behind 60). The new Parliament constituted a Rump Parliament, which was a Parliament in which the minority (Presbyterians) carried on in the name of the majority that was kicked out. The Rump Parliament:

  • Abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords in Parliament (it then executed Charles I after publicly trying him for crimes).
  • Created a republic called the "Commonwealth" that was really just a dictatorship run by Cromwell.

Scotland was against Cromwell's "Commonwealth" (Republic) and declared Charles I's son king at Edinburgh as King Charles II, but Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated him (1650) and he fled to France where he stayed until 1660.

Cromwell then went to Ireland to govern it, but was "disgusted" with the Catholics, so he massacred many of them and so the Irish rebelled against him as well.

Cromwell then dissolved the Rump Parliament and declared himself to be the Lord Protector (dictator).

Richard Cromwell and Charles II

Cromwell died (1658) and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, who tried to keep power militarily and absolutely, but he was also incapable of unifying all of the diverse groups (religious and ethnic). General George Monk came down from Scotland and overthrew Richard. He then invited the remnants of the Long Parliament (the Rump Parliament) to reconvene. The Long Parliament met and officially ended (in 1660, after being open since 1640) when it voted to dissolve itself and create a new Parliament. The new Parliament began the Restoration (of the monarchy) by choosing Charles I's son Charles II to be the King of England.

Peoples' political movements

In 1649 True Levellers, also known as The Diggers, a people's political reform movement, published The True Levellers Standard Advanced : or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men. [1] This is also an important document in the history of British constitutionalism, though different to the others listed here because the True Levellers declaration comes from the people instead of from the state. They were called the "True Levellers" to distinguish themseleves from a larger political group called The Levellers which had supported the republicans during the civil war. The "True Levellers" were not satisfied with what had been gained by the war against the king and wanted instead a dismantling of the state. They should be thought of in relation to such philosophies as libertarianism, anarchism and religious communism.

Another event, at this period, relating to England's changing political attitudes was the arrival of Polish Brethren in England and Holland. The sect of Polish Brethren had been driven out of Poland after The Deluge because they were commonly considered to be collaborators with the Swedish.

Their radical ideas have had influence in Poland, Holland and England, particularly upon the philosophy of John Locke who, in turn, had a profound influence upon the development of political ideas of liberty. They have also influenced the founders of the United States of America.

Formation of the United Kingdom

The expansion of the electoral franchise

Main article: The expansion of the electoral franchise

Between 1832 and 1989, numerous Acts of Parliament increased the number of people from 5% of the adult population to the system of universal suffrage for all people 18 or over that exists today. See also: Reform Acts.

New Labour's reforms

First Term

In Labour's first term (19972001), it introduced a large package of constitutional reforms, which it promised in its 1997 manifesto. The most major were:

Second Term

The House of Commons voted on seven options in February 2003 on what proportion of elected and appointed members (from 100% elected to 100% appointed) the House of Lords should have. None of the options received a majority.

In 2004, the Joint Committee (of both the House of Commons and House of Lords) tasked with overseeing the drafting of the proposed Civil Contingencies Bill, published its first report, in which, amongst other things, it suggested amending the bill's clauses that grant Cabinet Ministers the power "to disapply or modify any Act of Parliament" as overly wide, and that the bill should be modified to preclude changes to the following Acts, which, it suggested, formed "the fundamental parts of constitutional law" of the United Kingdom (names are shown as they appear in Hansard: [2]):

However, this amendment was defeated by the government.

The Key Documents of the United Kingdom's Constitution

See also

External Links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 12:21:45
Last updated: 08-16-2005 20:45:13