England's Transition into a Constitutional Monarchy
As with any country, throughout history England has had a very rocky system of government. The “Glorious Revolution” in England transformed the government and assigned power to the different pieces of it. There had been a continuous struggle for power between Parliament and the King. The overthrow of James II and the acceptance of the throne by William of Orange and Mary III marked the biggest change in the history of England’s government. It did so by finally asserting who had power and how much power they were to have. It gave supremacy of power to Parliament over the crown and got rid of arbitrary power over the English citizens.
Mary III and William III
During the 16th and 17th century England was overcome with religious differences and a serious instability of rulers. After a series of Tudors forcing a type of absolutism over the English people, the antics of Charles I, a civil war, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell (who ruled without a monarchy), the English had enough. The Restoration of 1660 put the Stewarts back into power because the English people felt that the almost militaristic state Cromwell imposed was too extreme.
The English people wanted a monarchy but they wanted one that didn’t have the capability to run wild on them. Charles II (of the Stewarts) got along fairly well with Parliament but with the ascension of his brother everything fell apart. James II was the turning point for the English government. James II was a Catholic but when he took the throne he agreed to protect the protestant religion in the Church of England. However, it was abruptly clear that promise would not be kept. James II attempted to restore Catholicism by repealing the Test Acts. When Parliament refused to do so, he attempted to fill Parliament with those he sought fit to do his will.
There had been a long history of the Stewarts attempting to assert their power over Parliament. James II was no different. Before the English civil war Sir Robert FIlmore published his book A Defence of the Natural Power of Kings Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People. His book was still a popular item of literature during James II time. This shows the ideology of the time that the King was all powerful and nothing even deserved to oppose him. It also shows that the people were completely under the king and had no importance in government. The British people, represented by Parliament, were sick of this kind of thinking. Up until the overthrow of James II and the acceptance of the throne by Mary III and William III, this kind of thinking was life for these people; It was their reality.
James II made constant claims for his “Divine Right” as a king. By packing the court with his own judges he was intent on giving himself the ultimate authority and to once more deny the English people of a balanced government. The Whigs and Tories alike, wanted a shift from the absolutist tyranny England had endured in the past.
With James II relations with Parliament worsening exponentially, William of Orange (or William III) was invited to invade in order to expel James II. In the beginning he was set to invade not to rule, but to protect England’s laws and religious freedoms from the Catholic ruling of James II. William III was born in The Hague in Holland in the Netherlands. He was the Dutch stadholder and married Mary III, the protestant daughter of Charles I.
William was also a protestant which was extremely important to Parliament and the majority of the English citizens. He held an extreme discontent for the entire Catholic religion, which probably stemmed from his hatred of Louis XIV. Searching for someone different from James II this was very promising to Parliament. William III was intent on protecting the English religion from Catholic tyranny.
On the same day William III landed at Torbay in November of 1688 anti-Catholic rioting broke out in various places in England and James II along with his son and wife fled to France. The very fact that he fled to France soured people on him even further. It also fed into peoples suspicions that he was acting on French interests by advocating Catholicism during his reign. Parliament would become intent on preventing that from every reoccurring.
With James II absent, England once more had no definite center of authority. A Convention Parliament was met and the decision for a new ruler was on debate. At that time, Parliament was fairly balanced between the Whigs and the Tories but a slight domination was held by the Whigs. The Whigs proposed that Mary III or William III rule either singly or jointly. They also believed in a contractual form of government where the crown didn’t have arbitrary power.
The Tories however, preferred to keep the throne hereditary. However, they did not want James back in power. By hereditary power James II’s newly born son would be the next king in line, however because of James II’s actions they considered him null. To a certain extent they also believed in the divine right of kings and that authority over civilians was descended from God. Clearly with a ruler like James II they began to put power into their own hands instead of God’s.
Overall, Parliament wanted to choose a “figure-head monarch who would be subject to Parliamentary laws”. Parliament agreed to crown them as joint rulers with most of the legal authority resting in William III. They were crowned in London in April of 1689. “The bestowal of the crown was a revolutionary act since the Convention Parliament, which had not been called by royal writ, now became the source of its royal power”.
Once Parliament decided to allow Mary III and William III to rule, their next act of securing their power was to write up a Declaration of Rights. This would later be called the Bill of Rights. This is an enormous change in the nature of English politics because Parliament began asserting their power and refused to take “no” for an answer. In order for Mary III and William III to accept the crown they had to sign this document. This was Parliament’s way of gaining and maintaining supremacy over the government. It was also a way for Parliament to make sure they would have a say in what would happen to the citizens of their country instead of allowing an arbitrary power to once again, engage in a tyrannical reign over people.
Essentially, the Declaration of Rights was drawn up in order to limit the crown’s power. When William III and Mary III signed the Declaration of Rights they promised to govern in accordance to the laws set by Parliament. Very few new laws were set by the Declaration of Rights. It more so vindicated and asserted the rights that the English people were already entitled to. England already had good laws set in place for the people but before the Glorious Revolution Parliament was never able to enforce them. Now, with this document, Parliament was able to enforce them.
Parliament made a large effort to combine what both the Whigs and the Tories wanted in the Declaration. Concerned about the king’s abuse of military power then enacted the Mutiny Act. The Mutiny Act gave power to Parliament by giving it the authority to exercise control over the king’s army. A standing army could in no way be raised without the consent of Parliament. The Declaration also made a “standing army in time of peace” illegal. This is huge because with the power of military on their side, much of the king’s old power is disintegrated. He can’t do much without a military. Also, with the military acting only on Parliament’s wishes it gives them, loyalty and respect for Parliament.
The Declaration also addressed laws that James II had violated. James II was condemned as being “utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statues and freedoms of this realm”. Parliament did not want the same type of chaotic, catastrophic results James II’s ruling ensued to ever take place in England again. Many of the new rules and laws put into place were inspired by James II. For example, the king was no longer allowed to make or enforce laws without the consent of Parliament. He also could not dispose of existing laws without the consent of Parliament. James had II attempted to enforce laws and repeal laws that were not in favor of Catholicism. Many Stewarts before James II had a hard time with the idea of Parliament having more, or equal, power to the throne. Parliament was sick of dealing with that.
Parliament also was inspired by James II to draft in a law stating that if Parliament grants the king money for a certain prerogative, he is not allowed to use said money on anything else. James II was also convicted of packing the Parliament during his reign so the Declaration also included a law that forced the king to accept Parliament’s free elections and he was in no way allowed to meddle with them. This really helped in separating Parliament from the crown, therefore protecting the people from the crown’s vested interests.
Adding to this, people deemed as corrupt and unjust were no longer allowed to serve on juries or in trials. It was also mandated that, “No person who has an office or place of profit under the king, or receives a pension from the crown, shall be capable of serving as a member of the House of Commons”. This protected Parliament itself, from becoming corrupt.
The Declaration also stated, “no pardon under the great seal of England be pleadable to an impeachment by the Commons of Parliament”.
Parliament also reserved the right to have free and open speech in their debates or proceedings and no one outside Parliament could prosecute or question this.
The Declaration of Rights really protected the people more than anything else in English history. It was to protect the people’s liberties, laws, and religion. Of course laws had been put in place to protect citizens but none of them had any power behind them. They were never properly enforced so they could never actually help anyone. Laws were passed regarding the quartering of soldiers in time of war. The king could no longer stick soldiers in random people’s houses against the people’s will.
The Declaration also “protected private citizens from paying excessive bail or being subjected to cruel or unusual punishment, and allowed citizens to petition the government in instances of injustice”. Before this, people who had the gall to petition the king were often prosecuted. That is huge because with an increase in Parliament and the right to petition it gives more and more power to citizens. Therefore, arbitrary power is being forever weakened.
As for the imposed financial settlement when Mary III and William III ascended the throne, Parliament would need to meet every year henceforth. “And that for the redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently”. Often in the past kings had gone out of their way to avoid calling Parliament so they could reserve all the power and have a subservient, nearly powerless Parliament. That was no longer an option.
Parliament also revised the coronation oath Mary III and William III were to take. It mandated “that the monarchs would rule according to the statutes made by Parliament” and the protestant religion was established by law. The coronation oath set standards and expectations for the king. Being descended by God was no longer good enough.
The English people were no longer willing to be put on the backburner just to have a ruler who was a “descendant of God”. The king needed to be put under the law just like everybody else. He especially needed to have rules applied to him because so many people were under his control. People had been put through enough unjust rulers and wanted law and order. Although the Magna Carta had been put in place long ago, it was never properly enforced until the Declaration of Rights was passed into law and Parliament gained to power over the crown they needed in order to enforce it.
Throughout Mary III and William III’s reign Parliament continued strengthening their power. This was mostly encouraged by William III’s outlandish behavior. Thus, he enabled the Glorious Revolution to push ever forward. Barely a month after William III took his coronation oath he declared England at war with France. William was often described as having “a passion for battle”. It was readily apparent that he was more interested in affairs going on in The Continent than his own domestic affairs. He also was making a habit of acting on his own in foreign affairs rather than “conferring with his political ministers”. This was very problematic to Parliament and they viewed many of his issues with France as nothing more than Dutch interests that didn’t benefit the people of England.
Parliament acted with their powers they enacted in the Declaration of Rights by restricting his powers in militaristic affairs and even cutting down his army. William III began to feel infuriated by the English politicians who were limiting his authority. Parliament also gained power from these affairs because of their financial aspects.
“The financial demands of the Nine Years’ War made annual sessions of Parliament essential and gave the political nation the unexpected leverage to put additional limits on the Crown not even contemplated” any time before. In order to continue financing the war the Bank of England was created. This shows even more distribution of power over different areas and power was no longer all in the hands of the king.
The continuous war with France was increasing England’s national debt. As a result of this, regular acts of taxation needed to be granted. This increased England’s dependence on Parliament because only Parliament could change tax rates. Therefore, Parliament even gained control over the war effort and the country’s ability to wage war.
What also came from the war against the French was the creation of the cabinet and to a certain extent, the creation of a Prime Minister. William was frequently absent from England to continue the war effort and was overall uninterested in domestic affairs, anyway. So, the English people needed a system that could supplement his absence.
Parliament’s power continued to increase even beyond issues dealing with the war. In 1694 after the Declaration of Rights had already been passed into law as the Bill of Rights the Triennial Act was put into law. It mandated that Parliament was to be called every three years and it must not last any longer than three years. The Act of Settlement was also passed (1701) which gave power to the judiciary system. The Treasons Act of 1696 was a very large change in respect to the power of the crown.
The Treasons Act “narrowed the definition of treason to an overt act witnessed by two persons”. This not only prevented the king from persecuting citizens at his will, but it also prevented him from getting rid of potential political opponents by using this accusation. This was just another step in putting the king under the law.
Parliament took even more power from the crown by assigning succession. Whereas kings were divine and assigned by God, because of the Glorious Revolution they now are put into place by legal documents and debates. The Toleration Act was passed in 1689 and “secured limited toleration for Protestant nonconformists” and “barred Catholics from the succession and prevented any future king or queen from marrying a Catholic".
The reason Catholicism is such a large issue for Parliament and the British people as a whole has to do with power. When a country (or region) has Catholicism they have different additional power centers they have to deal with other than their own. For example, the Pope and his influence over your people and economy. The goal of the British government was to centralize. In order to achieve that they could not have the Catholic church or the Pope meddling with their people.
The people of England and the members of Parliament didn’t want any more Catholics in power after all the problems they had with James II. Therefore, they decided for the betterment of the English people they would decide succession. This is another element in their overall goal of smashing down arbitrary power.
The king no longer had the absolute right to be king. Mary III was the half of this partnership that had a hereditary attachment to the throne. William had none. Once Mary III died Parliament issued a bill confirming and recognizing William III as the king. William III and Mary III never produced a male child, so there was no direct hereditary successor. In this way (although William III probably didn’t intend it), William III was also important in the Glorious Revolution because this gave Parliament the right to decide exactly who would be the successor of the throne.
The culmination of all this was the Act of Settlement in 1701. It readjusted the succession of the throne to fit into the parameters set by the Declaration of Rights. Parliament also added on that the successor has to be a native heir of the Kingdom or have the direct consent of Parliament. Parliament ended up naming Mary’s sister Princess Anne as the new Queen of England once William died. By Parliament exercising their ability to chose the individual that would become either king or queen, they are showing their evident power they have over the crown.
In conclusion, The Glorious Revolution is most certainly the most powerful, transformational period in the history of British government. This can be attributed to the overthrow of James II and the acceptance of the throne by William III and Mary III. By inviting William III to invade and by naming him King Parliament made a clear statement that they would be the ones deciding the direction in which England would go. They concluded that James II was not a fit ruler and found one that they deemed suitable.
This shows Parliament taking power away from the crown because they’re choosing who the king would be instead of focusing only on heredity and allowing them to do whatever they wanted. People no longer tolerated the King running wild just because of his “divine rights” from God. They wanted people in charge who would better the country and work for the good of the people.
In order for Mary III and William III to accept the throne they had to give a revised coronation oath written by Parliament. They also had to sign the Declaration of Rights drawn up by Parliament giving Parliament ultimate authority. This is absolutely huge. Before this time period Parliament could never have wished for this kind of power.
The Declaration of Rights is amazing for the English government because it has articles within it that protect not only the crown, but Parliament itself from becoming corrupt. A large part of the Declaration was inspired by James II abuses of power and preventing them from ever reoccurring. James II missteps were a great fuel for this governmental revolution. Perhaps the biggest thing the Declaration did was put the king under the law by enumerating old legislation that had never properly been enforced. Parliament also took over assigning the successors to the throne.
The Glorious Revolution is so important because it finally established a constitutional monarchy in England. Because of William IIIs behavior and continuous absences the cabinet system and the position of Prime Minister were also created. The Glorious Revolution was the most important period in English history because it created the system of government England uses today. It balanced out the two main centers of powers and gave liberties and rights to the people.
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