The Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights (Brit Style!)

The Glorious Revolution came about as a result of King James II making even more mistakes than King James I. The British fear of a Catholic king removing England back to its Catholic roots had long been simmering, but it boiled over when James II violated the Test Act by appointing Catholics to important positions. James II embarked upon a series of polices that looked to many like an attempt to bring back the call for absolute monarchy that James I and Charles I had hoped for. These events culminated in the illegal imprisonment of seven Anglican bishops in the Tower of London.

Even this might still not have resulted in a revolution had something that was viewed as far more sinister not occurred. When James’ queen gave birth to a son the fear of a Catholic dynasty exploded all over the country. The fear was not just that the country was destined to a series of Catholic monarchs, but also that that monarchy would receive the full support of France. England had succeeded in establishing itself as the dominant power in northern Europe and the idea of French intervention in the policies of its rulers were viewed with far more than suspicion.

It wasn’t just the fear of a Catholic dynasty ruling with input from France, of course, that led to the Glorious Revolution. James II reminded people all too much of the desire to instill all the power of the realm within the monarch. Too much had been accomplished at too great a price to revert backward. The gentry had established their power and were hardly willing to give it up. It wouldn’t be enough merely to battle against James II; whoever replaced him would have to understand that the movement was forward toward less power in the hands of the king and more in the hands of Parliament. The decision to offer the monarchy to James’ daughter Mary and her husband Prince William of Orange was no doubt made with the implicit knowledge afforded them that a bloodless revolt against James II by no means meant that a subsequent revolution would necessarily be quite so clean.

The Glorious Revolution brought to the throne of England William and Mary and with it the acceptance that the power of the country over which they ruled would rest in the legislative body and not within some idea of an ordained-by-God ruler. Whoever sat on that throne was there not by the ordinance of God, it was to be understood, but by the consent of the people.

The Bill of Rights was central to this concept and was drafted in direct response to the idea of absolutism that seemed to flow within the blood of the Stuart kings. The law that governed England would be drafted in Parliament and not even the king himself would be allowed to suspend these laws. In addition, Parliament was now by law called into being at least every three years so there would be nothing like the self-rule of Charles I.

What the Bill of Rights was really meant to accomplish, then, was not so much a specific system of laws designed to give certain rights to the people, but to act as a foundation of written law that would once and for all put an end to the overextension of power such as had been attempted and exercised by the Stuart kings.

The Bill of Rights was formulated in response to specific violations of power by those kings, but established a codified set of laws by which future rulers must be govern. It was an attempt for the first time to restructure the very basic role of the monarch. For too long the kings throughout Europe had attempted to ascribe semi-divine rights and powers to themselves. The Bill of Rights of England took the first step toward applying a certain democratic principle to monarchic rule. It wasn’t so much an attempt to undo or remove the idea of a king, as it was an attempt to exert pressure upon them to realize that they in place by the grace of their subjects, not by the grace of God.

The Bill of Rights was developed specifically as a defense against absolute rule by Britain’s monarchs, but it also clearly extended the rights of the subjects as well. One of the standing principles of the Bill of Rights was that it allowed free elections and debate within Parliament that could not be interfered with by the King. The right to free speech, of course, is a fundamental one to the development of democracy and the emancipation of the subject from the will of the king.

Another aspect that benefited the people was the judiciary were granted the right to hold their office; no longer were they subject to any threat of removal as blackmail to ensure that they ruled in favor the monarch. The Bill of Rights guaranteed that no standing army would be marshaled during periods of peace. This was an obvious debt incurred by the Stuart and Cromwell move to enforce their own power by drawing upon military strength even when war was not at hand.

On the other hand, the Bill of Rights served in some ways to protect only certain subjects: Protestants. The right to bear arms was extended to the Protestant population of England but Catholics were forbidden to possess firearms. The fear of a Catholic revolution still held sway over even this newly nearly-democratic government overseen by William and Mary.

On the other hand, Parliament passed legislation in league with the Bill of Rights granting Protestant dissenters and nonconformists the right to worship freely, while at the same time drafting a provision that requiring that all future English monarchs be Protestant. The Bill of Rights paved the way for more input by British subjects and more freedoms. At the same time it also paved the way for a philosophy for government that would find its ultimate expression in another revolution across the Atlantic Ocean.