February 13,1689 – the English Bill of Rights, a precursor to the American Bill of Rights, was adopted by England’s Parliament.
If you were looking for significant political upheaval, the place to be was England between 1642 and 1689. As England moved out of the Middle Ages, interest in reducing the absolute authority of the monarchy and increasing individual political and civil rights grew. When King Charles I assumed the throne in 1625, this tension increased as Charles believed in ruling as a king of old, with absolute power, including raising taxes without Parliament’s approval, a long-established precedent under English law.
This growing conflict came to a head in 1642 when Charles attempted to arrest several members of Parliament; when Parliament resisted and that effort failed, Charles left London to raise forces to retake complete control over the government. By that summer the two sides had raised armies and a civil war broke out. After six years of fighting, Charles was eventually captured, tried and convicted of treason, and eventually beheaded. From 1648 and 1660, England was governed exclusively by Parliament as a Commonwealth, with its “Lord Protector,” Oliver Cromwell, as the de facto ruler.
With Cromwell’s death in 1658, England again teetered towards civil war. In 1660 Parliament formally restored the monarchy, placing Charles I’s son, Charles II, on the throne. Despite the restoration of the monarchy, however, Parliament retained its position as a check on the king; no longer would the king’s rule be absolute.
In 1685 Charles II died and his younger brother, James II, became king. Almost immediately conflict with Parliament arose. One problem was that James wished to act like a medieval king, with unlimited and unquestioned power, able to ignore Parliament. Worse, perhaps, was the fact that he was a Catholic in a Protestant country. James aggressively sought to advance Catholics into positions of power and remove all legal impediments to practicing Catholicism in the country, to the dismay of the Protestants in Parliament. He also established his own private army made up exclusively of Catholics. A religious civil war seemed to be brewing.
Matters came to a head in the summer of 1688 when James had a son, James, who was baptized a Catholic. Before this, James II’s daughter Mary – a Protestant – was in line for the English throne, and Mary’s husband was William, Prince of Orange (the Netherlands), a strong ruler and Protestant as well.
Rather than risk James II’s Catholic son becoming their next king, Parliament acted. A group of influential English noblemen sent a letter to William literally asking him to assemble an army and invade England to take over the throne, promising that the vast majority of Englishmen would rally to his side against James. William was able to raise an invading army and sail for England in October of 1688.
In November his army began marching towards London. There were few battles, as slowly but surely James’ officers deserted the royal army and went over to William’s side. By early December James and his family fled for France, and in February 1689 Parliament agreed to make William and Mary King and Queen of England.
Parliament, however, was well aware that replacing one king with another could lead to the same problems repeating themselves, and so resolved to bind William to recognize and protect civil rights that Englishmen had come to expect before putting him on the throne. In February a Parliamentary committee convened to prepare a “Declaration of Right,” establishing the “certain ancient rights and liberties” that William (and future kings) would swear to protect. This Declaration of Right was unanimously approved on February 8, 1689.
These rights included: the right to have taxes levied only by Parliament (by elected representatives); the right to petition the king; no standing army in peacetime; the right (of Protestants) to keep arms for their defense; free elections; freedom of speech; no excessive bail or cruel or unusual punishments; and trial by a jury of peers. If these sound familiar, they should: they formed the basis of many of the rights contained in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
On February 13, 1689, the Declaration of Rights (Bill of Rights) was read by Parliament, and William and Mary were then formally asked to accept the throne. William, replying for both himself and his wife, accepted, after which they were formally proclaimed King and Queen of England. They were crowned on April 11, 1689, swearing an oath to govern “according to the statutes in Parliament agreed upon.” By so doing, England moved further out of the Middle Ages and into the modern political world.