Declaration of Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Declaration of Rights installed William III and Mary II as joint rulers of Britain and settled the question of the royal succession. It established both a constitutional monarchy for Britain and a list of the rights of British subjects, and it formed the basis for the later English Bill of Rights.

Summary of Event

In the mid-1680’, England under James II James II (king of England) was rendered unstable by the monarch’s suspension both of Parliament and of anti-Catholic legislation, as well as by widespread fears that his marriage to Mary of Modena Mary of Modena would produce a Catholic heir. On June 10, 1688, the feared heir was born and named James Edward. On June 30, a group of prominent Englishmen invited William III William III (king of England) of Orange, husband of James’s daughter Mary, to bring an army to defend English liberties against tyranny. After William’s army arrived on November 5, James soon felt forced to flee to France. By January 22, 1689, a Parliament convened to settle the question of James II’s deposition and the royal succession. [kw]Declaration of Rights (Feb. 13, 1689) [kw]Rights, Declaration of (Feb. 13, 1689) Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 13, 1689: Declaration of Rights[2920] Government and politics;Feb. 13, 1689: Declaration of Rights[2920] Social issues and reform;Feb. 13, 1689: Declaration of Rights[2920] England;Feb. 13, 1689: Declaration of Rights[2920] Rights, Declaration of (1689) William III Mary II James II Somers, John Powle, Henry Halifax, First Marquess of

The Parliament that generated the Declaration of Rights was presided over by Henry Powle, Powle, Henry speaker of the House of Commons, and George Savile, first marquess of Halifax Halifax, first marquess of , speaker of the House of Lords. Powle, Halifax, and the Whig attorney John Somers Somers, John were the lead negotiators with William and Mary Mary II (queen of England) Mary II (queen of England);Whigs and in the process of offering them the English crown. Somers played a crucial role in convincing Parliament to determine, on January 28, 1689, that the throne had been abdicated by James II. The Declaration of Rights, which resulted from months of negotiations in Westminster, was approved by Parliament on February 12, 1689, and was formally accepted by William and Mary the following day, at Whitehall Palace. In exchange for agreeing to the Declaration of Rights issued by what became known as the Convention Parliament Convention Parliament (1689) of 1689, William and Mary would become the jointly ruling monarchs of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The declaration not only created the monarchs William III and Mary II but also settled the question of succession: If William and Mary failed to produce children together, the line would pass to Anne Anne, Queen , daughter of James II and his first wife Anne Hyde, and her direct descendants. Failing an heir in Anne’s line, the crown could pass to a child of William III by a wife other than Mary.

Besides settling the royal succession, the Declaration of Rights asserted the “rights and liberties of the subject.” It opened with a list of criminal deeds committed by James II that were claimed to be contrary both to English law and to “freedom.” Citing such actions as James’s suspension of Parliament, his abuse of the legal system, and his maintenance of a standing army, the declaration concluded that James sought to root out both Protestantism and traditional “laws and liberties” from the realm of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

After citing James’s tyrannical behavior, the declaration described the Convention Parliament’s establishment by William III of Orange and its principal task of “vindicating and asserting” the “ancient rights and liberties” of the realm of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The declaration then included a list of assertions accepted by William and Mary, a number of which delineated basic rights of British subjects. Somers presided over the drafting of what would later become known as the English Bill of Rights.

The declaration outlawed the levying of excessive bail and fines, as well as “cruel and unusual punishments,” and took steps to reform the jury system. The right of citizens to petition the king was declared to be inviolable. Reflecting the religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants during the period, the declaration also asserted that Protestant citizens could legally bear arms for self-defense.

The majority of the declaration’s assertions of British rights, however, focused on protecting Parliamentary power, effectively creating a constitutional system of monarchy. The declaration outlawed royal suspension of legislation, disallowing any attempt at absolute rule by the monarchy. The declaration also required that elections to the legislature be free and that freedom of speech in Parliament be protected, ensuring that its proceedings would not be compromised by royal intervention. Standing armies were held to be dependent upon Parliamentary consent. Parliament was declared the sole authorizing body for royal revenue generation and spending. Finally, the declaration stipulated that Parliaments were to be held “frequently.”

Through patently anti-Catholic propositions, the Declaration of Rights revealed the anxiety that had been created by James II’s Catholicism and the resulting ascendancy of Protestant forces in the English government. The declaration included new forms for the oaths of allegiance required by officers and legislators. The belief that a British ruler might be deposed because of excommunication by papal authority was specifically outlawed, and office holders were required to affirm that no foreign ruler had any jurisdiction within the realm of England.

Though the Declaration of Rights settled the issue of William and Mary’s joint rule immediately after its formal acceptance, it soon was revised and expanded as the Bill of Rights Bill of Rights, English (1689) Act. Significant additions to the Declaration of Rights included a formal declaration that England was a Protestant nation and that no Catholic could succeed to the English throne; however, much of the text of the Bill of Rights follows that of the earlier declaration. Somers, for his work in negotiating with Parliament and in drafting the declaration’s list of rights, was rewarded by William and Mary with the position of solicitor general; he would go on to be a key player in William and Mary’s administration, becoming lord chancellor and Baron Somers of Evesham in 1697.

The Bill of Rights was read to William III and Mary II at their coronation, which took place in Westminster Abbey on April 11, 1689. Immediately afterward, the Bill of Rights passed through Parliament. It was not until December 16, 1689, when William and Mary gave the bill royal assent, that the liberties and reforms originally asserted by the Declaration of Rights became law.

Significance

The Declaration of Rights led to the transformation of British government, destroying the notion of the divine right of kings. The declaration set in motion the formation of a system of constitutional monarchy Monarchy, constitutional , in which royal power was contingent upon Parliamentary consent. The Declaration of Rights was thus the first and most critical strike in the Parliamentary moves against absolute monarchy that have come to be known as the Glorious Revolution.

The Declaration not only set up William III and Mary II as joint rulers of England, Scotland, and Ireland but also settled the question of succession, ensuring that Anne would rule after William. The declaration, especially in its revised form as the Bill of Rights, decisively defined Britain as a Protestant state, excluding Catholics from the throne. It also profoundly affected constitutional development elsewhere, particularly in the United States. The Declaration of Independence (1776) follows the model of the Declaration of Rights, opening with a list of tyrannical acts by the government of King George III (r. 1760-1820), while also including a set of assertions of the basic rights of citizens. The U.S. Bill of Rights (1791) is clearly indebted to the list of fundamental rights embedded with the 1689 declaration.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashley, Maurice. The Glorious Revolution of 1688. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1966. Exhaustive analysis of the circumstances surrounding the parliamentary removal of James II, with an emphasis on political and legal traditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cruickshanks, Eveline. The Glorious Revolution. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2000. Historical analysis of the years of political and religious crisis immediately preceding the declaration. Offers a revised view of James II as a revolutionary leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rakove, Jack N. Declaring Rights: A Brief History with Documents. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Presents seventeenth century English legal history, placing the American Bill of Rights in the context of English common law. Provides the texts of numerous primary sources, including the 1689 Declaration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwoerer, Lois G. The Declaration of Rights, 1689. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Detailed analysis of the declaration and the historical circumstances in which it was composed, with special emphasis on legal precedents and legislative tradition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, David L. The Stuart Parliaments, 1603-1689. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Presents an exhaustive description of the structure and functions of Parliament, with separate essays on the key assemblies that shaped seventeenth century legislation in England. Includes appendices with detailed information on parliamentary representatives and acts.

The Great Protestation

Petition of Right

“Personal Rule” of Charles I

Beginning of England’s Long Parliament

English Civil Wars

Restoration of Charles II

Clarendon Code

England’s Act of Uniformity

Test Acts

Habeas Corpus Act

Declaration of Liberty of Conscience

Reign of William and Mary

The Glorious Revolution

Toleration Act

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

James II; Mary of Modena; Mary II; William III. Rights, Declaration of (1689)

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