History of the Constitution of the United Kingdom

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The History of the Constitution of the United Kingdom is a story that begins before the creation of the United Kingdom itself and continues to the present day. The UK constitution is not in a single, written document, but is drawn from legislation, treaties, judicial precedents, convention, and numerous other sources.

Pre-Civil War England[edit]

Before the Norman Conquest[edit]

The Kingdom of England was formed in the mid 9th Century and what is now recognized as England came about in 927 AD when the last of the Heptarchy kingdoms fell under the rule of the English King. On 14 October 1066, King Harold II of England was killed while leading his men in the Battle of Hastings against Duke William of Normandy. The event completely changed the course of English history. Until 1066, England was ruled by monarchs that were elected by the witan, (which means wise). There were various elements of democracy at a local level too.

The Normans[edit]

Henry I of England (c. 1068 – 1 December 1135) was king from 1100 to 1135. When he ascended to the throne he granted the Charter of Liberties. This document is not a Bill of Rights but a series of decrees and assurances. Probably the most important statement in the charter is at the beginning, where the king admits "that by the mercy of God and the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom". This represents a step away from absolute monarchy and a step toward constitutionalism. The king had recognised that the right to rule came not only from God but also from the common counsel of the barons.

From this point onward, and more especially between the reigns of King John and Charles II, the power structure in England evolved from an essentially absolutist model to an essentially constitutional one.

The Plantagenets[edit]

King John (24 December 1167 – 19 October 1216) was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of Richard I.

His reign was fraught with conflicts. There was conflict between England and France, between England and the Pope and between the King and the barons.

Eventually the barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, often looked upon as the first truly significant document in a long succession of documents over the centuries up to the present day which collectively constitute the legal sovereignty of the land now known as the United Kingdom. The constitution of this sovereignty is thus distributed across many historical precedents rather than written in one piece.

Henry III (1 October 1207 – 16 November 1272) succeeded his father John. Henry was only nine years of age when he became king and so the country was ruled by regents until Henry reached the age of 20. Under pressure from the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Henry had to accept the existence of the first English Parliament and other constitutional limitation on the monarchy placed by Provisions of Oxford.

In the next century, in the reign of Richard II there was an uprising, the Peasants' Revolt (1381). The revolt came very, very close to getting their demands (such as fair rents and the abolition of serfdom) granted by the king but at the end the protesters were tricked out of it all. The revolt remains as an important moment in history, but failed to contribute to the written body of the constitution.

The Tudors[edit]

The first Act of Supremacy (1534) made King Henry VIII the "supreme head" of the Church of England. Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving three children as potential heirs:

The first Act of Supremacy had made King Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England and the second Act of Supremacy (1559) restored these powers for Elizabeth I, reversing normalising legislation passed during the reign of Mary I, though the title Elizabeth gained was "Supreme Governor of the Church of England" rather than "supreme head" so as not to imply that she had control over the church's doctrine, or, worse, that the Monarch was usurping Jesus. The act also required all officials and clergy to make an oath of allegiance acknowledging her as the governor of the Church of England.

The monarchy had to get the consent of Parliament in all issues, but with the threat of war looming from Spain, Parliament showed great loyalty toward Queen Elizabeth I since she was a strong leader. When the Spanish Armada was defeated (1588), the Parliament felt safe and thus it decreased its loyalty to the monarchy.

The Parliament consisted of two levels of administration: the House of Lords that was made up of the influential Nobles, and the House of Commons that was made up of influential and representative members of the middle-class.

The House of Commons had grown sharply, doubling in size due to the prosperity of the middle-class during that time. There were a number of vocal Puritans in the House of Commons (although the extent to which they influenced the Commons is disputed, Sir John Neale identified a unified bloc of 43 MPs, whereas revisionists have suggested that this is an exaggeration) who they began asking for more rights for the Puritans, but Elizabeth I was strong enough not to ignore their demands. James I would have problems with them.

John Aylmer, a Greek scholar, saw an immediate resemblance of the Tudor constitution with that of the classical republic of Sparta. Geoffrey Elton, who wrote The Tudor Constitution, gave hearty approval to Aylmer's conclusions. It was the Greek scholars, such as Aylmer, that popularized the Greek classical political terminology and influenced British constitutionalist thought. They brought forward the idea of mixed government from Classical antiquity and applied it to their form of government.

James VI and I[edit]

When Queen Elizabeth I died (1603) without issue, she was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and he became King James I of England. This was a major step towards creating a united kingdom.

James VI faced a fractious religious England since it contained Anglicans (of the Anglican Church (Church of England)), Puritans, Separatists (who wanted to break from the Anglican Church), and Catholics.

James VI was a believer in the Divine Right of Kings Theory, which stated that Kings were chosen by God and should therefore be absolute and answerable only to God. This was corroborated by his Presbyterian belief in predestination, and such a birthright as kingship made him almost explicitly a part of the elect. Though he was Presbyterian (Calvinist, Huguenot, Puritan), he was against the Presbyterian idea of allowing the congregation (people) to elect their presbyters (church officials) since it undermined his absolutism (according to the Divine Right). Thus he was often at odds with the Puritans, who were English Presbyterians.

He did concede to the Puritans by allowing them to create the "King James Bible" that was an "English" translation and interpretation of the Bible.

Then James VI began fighting with the Catholics, but eventually gave them rights (after his secretly Catholic wife probably persuaded him to), exempting the Catholics from having to pay the tithe to the Anglican Church, but this caused a great decrease in Anglican Church revenue, so he quickly took those rights away. The actions of King James VI were unpopular during his reign.

The Civil War[edit]

Charles I and the Civil War[edit]

James was succeeded by his son who became Charles I in 1625. Charles I believed in the Divine Right of Kings Theory, like his father, and thus continued to fight with parliament.

The Parliament's main power at this time was its control of the taxes. The Parliament demanded more power over the taxes. Traditionally, Parliament had voted at the beginning of a King's reign on the amount allowed for a King's Tonnage and Poundage, the customs duties (taxes on imported goods like wool and wine) that made up a large portion of a king's annual income. Now the Parliament wanted to re-evaluate these taxes annually, which would give them more control over the king. James I resisted this abrogation of his 'Divine Right' and dealt with the situation by dissolving the Parliament. Charles I did the same at first and later just ignored its annual evaluations.

Charles acquired much of his money with forced loans from the nobles. He also received a lot of money through taxes. One important tax that Charles collected was the Ship Money tax that required the counties bordering the sea to fund a navy to protect the English coastline. The coastal counties were unhappy with it since Charles was collecting the Ship Money tax during a time of peace and since he wasn't using it really to fund the navy. To get even more money, Charles placed the Ship Money tax on the interior counties as well, which angered the English people, because now Charles was creating new taxes without the consent of the Parliament, which was against the (unwritten) law. A man in London named John Hampden, who was also a member of Parliament, refused to pay this "new," interior Ship Money tax, so he was tried for a crime by Charles I and lost with a vote of 7 to 5. This meant that 5 of 12 jurors were against their king, which did not look good or bode well for Charles I.

But, Charles I was at war with France and Spain, and this drained a lot of money from him, so he was forced to call upon Parliament (1629) to make new taxes for him. Parliament would not grant Charles new taxes (more money) until he had signed the Petition of Rights that established conditions in which Charles had to submit to the law of the Parliament. It stipulated that:

  1. The king could not establish martial law in England during times of Peace.
  2. The king could not levy taxes without the consent of the Parliament.
  3. The king could not arbitrarily imprison people.
  4. The king could not quarter soldiers in private homes.

After Charles got the taxes from Parliament (1629), he dissolved Parliament and broke the tenets of the Petition of Rights (since he believed in the Divine Right of Kings Theory).

William Laud and Thomas Wentworth were appointed to fill the void that the Duke of Buckingham left.

On top of the wars England had with France and with Spain (both caused by the Duke of Buckingham), Charles I and William Laud (the Archbishop of Canterbury) began a war with Scotland in an attempt to convert Scotland to the Church of England (the Anglican Church). This was called the Bishops' War (1639–1640) and it had two major parts: The first Bishops' War (1639) ended in a truce. The second Bishops' War, the following year, began with the a Scottish invasion of England in which the Scottish defeated the English and remained stationed in England until their issues were solved. To get the Scottish out, Charles I signed the Treaty of Ripon (1640), which required England to pay an indemnity of £850 for each day that the Scottish were stationed in England.

During the second part of the Bishops' War, Charles I had run very low on money (since he was also fighting France and Spain), so he was forced to call a Parliament to make new taxes. He and the Parliament could not agree on anything, so after three weeks, Charles I dissolved the Parliament. Then he desperately needed new taxes, so Charles I called a Parliament again and it would only help him if he agreed to some terms, which ultimately made Charles I a constitutional monarch. It was called the Long Parliament (1640–1660), because it was not officially dissolved by its own vote until 1660.

These terms were:

  • That Charles I had to impeach Thomas Wentworth and William Laud. He reluctantly placed them under arrest and put them in The Tower, executing Wentworth in 1641 (for which Charles I never forgave himself since he was close to Thomas Wentworth) and William Laud in 1645.
  • Charles I had to agree to the Triennial Act (1641), which required the Parliament to meet every three years with or without the king's consent.
  • Charles I had to abolish the Court of the Star Chamber, a royal court controlled completely by Charles I in which the prosecutor was also the judge (which pretty much guaranteed a guilty verdict for the defendant) and it was intended to be used to implement the will of the king legally with a "judicial" façade. It was considered an "extralegal" court. It dealt with odd cases and punishments.
  • Charles I had to abolish the High Court, which was the same as the Court of the Star Chamber, though it dealt with religious heresy. It was considered an "extralegal" court.
  • Charles I had to accept the Grand Remonstrance and allow the circulation of its copies, and it was a document that outlined (hyperbolically) the crimes that officials had accused Charles of committing since the beginning of his reign. Charles I was also never to do any of those crimes again.
  • Charles I, most importantly, had to agree never to dissolve a Parliament without the consent of the Parliament.

Most of England believed that Parliament had done enough to curb the power of King Charles I, but the radicals in Parliament (the extremist Puritans) and the radicals around the country (again, extremist Puritans) wanted to reform the Church of England by getting rid of the bishops (and all other things with the semblance of Catholicism) and by establishing the Puritans' method of worship as the standard. This caused a political division in Parliament, so Charles I took advantage of it. He then sent 500 soldiers into the House of Commons to arrest five of the Puritans' ringleaders (John Hampden included). The five ringleaders had been tipped off, so they had left Parliament and Charles I was left with only shame for storming Parliament.

King Charles I left London and went to Oxford, and the English Civil War began (1642). The North and West of England were on Charles I's side (along with most of the Nobles and country gentry). They were known as the Cavaliers. Charles I created an army illegally (since he needed the Parliament's consent).

The South and East of England were on Parliament's side and were known as Roundheads, for their haircuts. In response to Charles I raising an army, they did so as well. Yet, they didn't have the military might that King Charles I (and his nobles) had, so they solicited the help of the Scottish with the Solemn League and Covenant that promised to impose the Presbyterian religion on the Church of England. They called their army the New Model Army and they made its commander Oliver Cromwell, who was also a member of Parliament. The New Model Army was composed mostly of Presbyterians.

Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth[edit]

Though Parliament won, it was clear to the Scots that it was not going to uphold the Solemn League and Covenant by imposing Presbyterianism on England (Puritanism wasn't quite Presbyterian), so the New Model Army, Parliament and the Scots began falling apart. The Scots were paid for their help and sent back to Scotland.

The Presbyterian Roundheads were interested in freedom to practice their religion and not in making the Presbyterian religion the state religion.

Cromwell proposed that Parliament reinstate the bishops of the Church of England and King Charles I as a constitutional monarch, but allow for the toleration of other religions. Though at the end of the war, the people of England could accept Charles I back in office but not religious toleration. They also wanted the New Model Army dissolved since it was a provocative factor. Thus Parliament disallowed religious toleration and voted to disband the New Model Army, but the New Model Army refused the order.

Charles I then made the same deal that the Roundheads had made with the Scottish and Parliamentary Presbyterians. He solicited the help of Scotland (and the Presbyterians) and in return he promised to impose Presbyterianism on England. The New Model Army would not allow this deal to be made (because it would give Charles I military power once more). Thus a "new" civil war broke out in 1648.

This time, Scotland, the Parliamentary Presbyterians and the royalists were on the side of Charles I. The New Model Army and the rest of Parliament were against him.

In the Battle of Preston (1648) Cromwell and his New Model Army defeated Charles I.

Then one of Cromwell's officers, Colonel Pride, destroyed the Presbyterian majority in Parliament by driving out of Parliament 143 Presbyterians of the 203 (leaving behind 60). The new Parliament constituted a Rump Parliament, which was a Parliament in which the minority (Presbyterians) carried on in the name of the majority that was kicked out. The Rump Parliament:

  • Abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords in Parliament (it then executed Charles I after publicly trying him for crimes).
  • Created a republic called the "Commonwealth" that was really just a dictatorship run by Cromwell.

Scotland was against Cromwell's "Commonwealth" (Republic) and declared Charles I's son king at Edinburgh as King Charles II, but Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated him (1650) and he fled to France where he stayed until 1660.

Cromwell then went to Ireland to govern it, but was "disgusted" with the Catholics, so he massacred many of them (in battle) and so the Irish rebelled against him as well.

Cromwell then dissolved the Rump Parliament and declared himself to be the Lord Protector (dictator).

Richard Cromwell and Charles II[edit]

Cromwell died (1658) and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, who tried to keep power militarily and absolutely, but he was also incapable of unifying all of the diverse groups (religious and ethnic). General George Monk came down from Scotland and overthrew Richard. He then invited the remnants of the Long Parliament (the Rump Parliament) to reconvene. The Long Parliament met and officially ended (in 1660, after being open since 1640) when it voted to dissolve itself and create a new Parliament. The new Parliament began the Restoration (of the monarchy) by choosing Charles I's son Charles II to be the King of England.

Post-Civil War[edit]

Popular political movements[edit]

In 1649 Diggers, a small people's political reform movement, published The True Levellers Standard Advanced: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men. [1] This is another important document in the history of British constitutionalism[citation needed], though different from the others listed here because the Diggers' declaration comes from the people instead of from the state. They are some times called "True Levellers" to distinguish themselves from a larger political group called the Levellers which had supported the republicans during the civil war. The Diggers were not satisfied with what had been gained by the war against the king and wanted instead a dismantling of the state. They can be best understood through such philosophies as libertarianism, anarchism, and religious communism.

Also at this time, the Polish Brethren arrived in England and Holland. The sect of Polish Brethren had been driven out of Poland after The Deluge because they were commonly considered to be collaborators with the Swedish.

The Diggers' radical ideas influenced thinkers in Poland, Holland, and England, playing an especially important role in the philosophy of John Locke. He, in turn, profoundly impacted the development of political ideas regarding liberty, which would later influence the founders of the United States of America.

The Kingdom of Great Britain[edit]

On 1 May 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain was created by the political union of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland.[1][2] This event was the result of the Treaty of Union that was agreed on 22 July 1706,[3] and then ratified by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland each passing an Act of Union in 1707.

The United Kingdom[edit]

The United Kingdom was created by the Union in January 1801 of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had been ruled by English and British monarchs since the Middle Ages, with the passing of the Act of Union 1800.[4]

Expansion of the electoral franchise[edit]

Between 1832 and 1989, numerous Acts of Parliament repealed voting restrictions and expanded the franchise from just 5% of the adult population to all adults 18 and over, leading to the universal suffrage enjoyed by its citizens today. See also: Reform Acts.

New Labour's reforms[edit]

First term[edit]

In Labour's first term (1997–2001), it introduced a large package of constitutional reforms, which it promised in its 1997 manifesto. The most major were:

Second term[edit]

The House of Commons voted on seven options in February 2003 on what proportion of elected and appointed members (from 100% elected to 100% appointed) the House of Lords should have. None of the options received a majority.

In 2004, the Joint Committee (of both the House of Commons and House of Lords) tasked with overseeing the drafting of the proposed Civil Contingencies Bill, published its first report, in which, amongst other things, it suggested amending the bill's clauses that grant Cabinet Ministers the power "to disapply or modify any Act of Parliament" as overly wide, and that the bill should be modified to preclude changes to the following Acts, which, it suggested, formed "the fundamental parts of constitutional law" of the United Kingdom (names are shown as they appear in Hansard: [2]):

Britain is a signatory of The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, clearly states “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government.”

The Declaration spells out the rights that are essential for effective political participation.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) lays the legal basis for the principles of democracy under international law, particularly: • freedom of expression (Article 19); the right of peaceful assembly (Article 21); • the right to freedom of association with others (Article 22); • the right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives (Article 25); • the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot,

Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors (Article 25) These are denied to the British People by a Parliamentary Sovereignty.

However, this amendment was defeated by the government.

Key documents of the United Kingdom's Constitution[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Welcome parliament.uk, accessed 7 October, 2008
  2. ^ THE TREATY or Act of the Union www.scotshistoryonline.co.uk, accessed 27 August 2008
  3. ^ Articles of Union with Scotland 1707 www.parliament.uk
  4. ^ "The Act of Union". Act of Union Virtual Library. Retrieved 2006-05-15. 

External links[edit]