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Making history

In the 17th and 18th centuries, although issues relating to citizenship were many and varied, in Britain they were, for the most part, linked by questions concerning the location of political authority and the power of Parliament in relation to the monarch.
Death warrant of Charles I - opens new window
Death warrant of Charles I
Document (160k) | Transcript

Central to the acrimonious and sometimes bloody struggles of the period was a contest between the various monarchs and Parliament regarding the power to raise money, organise national defence and devise foreign policy, and the power of the representative body of the nation to hold the monarch to account. These issues are reflected in two of the most famous documents of the 17th century - the death warrant of Charles I and the Bill of Rights.


Death warrant of Charles I

The warrant for the execution of Charles I is perhaps the most dramatic of all the records relating to English political history. While some of Charles's predecessors had suffered early and bloody deaths, none had been subjected to formal legal proceedings in a High Court of Justice, established by legislation passed by a Parliament professing to be the supreme power in the land.

Charles was placed on trial in January 1649. Three times the king refused to plead, denying the competence of the court to try him. After four days of proceedings, his refusal to plead was judged to be a confession and on January 29th he was sentenced to death by beheading.

This evocative document, authorising the execution of the death sentence, bears the signatures and seals of 59 of the commissioners who sat in judgement upon the king and became known as the 'regicides'. The sentence was carried out on January 30th in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall.


Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights, 1689
Document (348k) | Transcript

Bill of Rights, 1689

After the short-lived constitutional experiments that followed the Civil War, the supremacy of Parliament was finally enshrined in the Bill of Rights passed in December 1689. Drafted in reaction to the 'tyranny' of James II, following the latter's 'abdication' and the acceptance of the crown by William III and Mary II, it formed part of the events that became known as the Glorious RevolutionGlossary - opens new window. The Bill of Rights firmly established the principles of frequent parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech within Parliament. It also prohibited 'standing' armies without parliamentary consent, and barred Catholics from the throne. The Bill formalised the Declaration of Rights presented to William and Mary in February 1689, when they were offered the throne. Although the Bill of Rights attacked the abuse of prerogativeGlossary - opens new window power rather than prerogative power itself, it had the virtue of enshrining in statute what many regarded as ancient rights and liberties. However, some historians maintain that a more profound change in the relationship between sovereign and Parliament emerged as a result of the financial settlement that Parliament negotiated with William and Mary.

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