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The Petition of Right

Updated on December 10, 2010

The Petition of Right is a celebrated document drawn up by the English House of Commons in 1628, setting forth grievances against King Charles I. The king had levied taxes ("customs-dues") without approval by Parliament; he had illegally imposed "loans" upon individuals; and he had illegally imprisoned persons who refused the loans- all in order to pursue external policies as vacillating as they were unsuccessful. He lent the English fleet to France to help the Catholic King Louis XIII and his first minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in the siege of the Huguenot fortress at La Rochelle. Then he switched sides and sent ill-equipped English troops in a vain effort to support La Rochelle. Upon their return to England, the troops were billeted in private households, especially if their owners had refused to make "loans" to the king. Undisciplined and often unpaid, these soldiers took to plundering, whereupon Charles I decreed martial law. This measure further antagonized people against the king.

The Petition of Right declared that (1) no tax or loan may be demanded "without the common consent by act of Parliament"; (2) no freeman may be imprisoned or detained without due formality of legal cause; (3) soldiers should not be billeted in private households without payment; and (4) martial law should not be proclaimed in time of peace.

The king at first rejected the petition. But urgently needing funds, he yielded after a week and signed it. Parliament's victory proved to be temporary. Following a bloody civil war, Charles died on the scaffold in 1649. The Petition of Right, however, is a landmark in English history and constitutional development, echoed in the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.


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