The National Archives
Search our website
  • Search our website
  • Search our records

Human Rights

glossary document index

A complete list of all the supporting documents for the time periods between 1215 and 1945.

1500 - 1760

Conflict, union and rebellion

This period witnessed a number of important political, social, economic and religious developments. Many started from, or ended in, bitter conflict but from these arose the beginnings of many of our present 'civil rights' and liberties.

A revolution in government under the Tudors resulted in more efficient government administration, both at Westminster and in the regions. The same period also witnessed the union of England and Wales, the union of the crowns of Scotland and England, and the so-called 'plantation' of many Protestants onto lands in Catholic Ireland. The first settlements abroad to what was to become the British Empire also took place.

Social and economic influences

The population, particularly in the 16th century, rose dramatically. In the countryside the enclosure of open fields, commons and wastelands especially for sheep pasture led to considerable discontent and even riot and rebellion. Royal commissions inquired into cases where enclosure by unscrupulous landholders had, for example, expelled villagers from their homes "for the sake of their private gain and profit - and our subjects - are now brought to idleness".

Kett rebellion

Many men sought redress in the courts. Grievances over land featured largely in the demands of the rebellion led by the well-to-do tradesmen Robert and William Kett in 1549. These also demanded "that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood-shedding [the crucifixion of Christ]". Enclosures and a rising population also led to a rise in inflation and a decline in living standards that forced the government to pass a series of poor laws providing practical 'relief' for the poor.

The Poor Law Act Ref: C 65/180

The churches

During the 1530s King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in Rome and by the Act of Supremacy was made supreme head on earth of a new Church of England. Puritans believed that the reform of the church had not gone far enough whilst the Reformation in continental Europe spawned a number of radical groups, such as the Anabaptists (or Baptists) that later became the nonconformists of the 17th century. Many of these, plus Catholic recusants (who refused to attend obligatory Church of England services), suffered persecution for their faith. For example, Quakers were imprisoned in Reading gaol in 1664 for not taking the Oath of Allegiance to the king since they believed that to take any oath was against the word of God.

King and Parliament

A number of political collisions and debates took place in the 17th century. These centred round the relationship of the king and parliament and especially the extent of the royal prerogative, or 'right of privilege'. In the reign of James I, Sir Edward Coke (the English jurist) re-interpreted the meaning of Magna Carta. He insisted that it was a fundamental law and concerned with the liberty of the subject. Coke believed that English liberty had existed since the earliest times, before Magna Carta, and in his own time he used the Charter to justify some of the arguments he was putting forward.

An early indication of the troubles between king and parliament that lay ahead can be seen in the 1628 Petition of Right which called for no taxation without parliamentary consent and, quoted Magna Carta. The king, Charles I, reluctantly conceded. Parliament's stand against his authoritarian rule was again set out in a published document, The Grand Remonstrance of December 1641. This was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the king leading to a hardening of the divisions between the two sides.

Radical groups: 'Levellers' and 'Diggers'

A number of radical political groups emerged during the civil war that followed. One group was known as the Levellers who, as their name suggests, proclaimed that men were born equal; they wanted to abolish the monarchy and aristocracy. They called for a new parliamentary franchise and stood for religious toleration and equality before the law. Their various manifestoes were published in a document entitled the Agreement of the People. These were debated before Oliver Cromwell, and members of the New Model Army at the Putney Debates at St Mary's church, Putney, in 1647.

"...for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under;..."

Colonel Rainsborough, supporter of the Levellers, at the Putney Debates in 1647.

The Levellers were finally suppressed by Cromwell in 1649 but only after the execution of the king.

Also in 1649, Gerrard Winstanley (English Protestant religious reformer), published the New Law of Righteousness. In this he wrote that at the time God had made the earth "Not one word was spoken" in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another'. Taking these ideas forward he established a group called the 'Diggers'. In April 1649 around thirty Diggers occupied some common land on St George's Hill in Surrey where they sowed the ground with foodstuffs. Other 'Digger' occupations took place in Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. In July 1649 the Government gave instructions to arrest Winstanley and for the other diggers to be ejected by force; their houses, crops and tools were to be destroyed.


The interregnum saw some relaxation of religious persecution. In 1655 the Jews were re-admitted to Britain, having been banished in 1290.

The monarchy was restored in 1660. This was followed by a series of measures known as the Clarendon Code to penalise nonconformists and exclude them from national and local politics. In December 1689 Parliament passed the Bill of Rights, placing further restrictions on the monarchy.

It condemned the reign of the Catholic king, James II, for attempting to subvert the Protestant religion and for levying money (raising taxes) without the approval of Parliament. It laid down the principles of parliamentary supremacy calling for free elections, the abolition of levying money without Parliament's consent, frequent Parliaments and parliamentary freedom of speech. In the field of political theory writers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke began to write about natural law and natural rights, and Magna Carta came to have less direct relevance to contemporary political discourse.

18th century

The 18th century witnessed the end of the Stuart monarchy and the comparative quiet of the early Hanoverian period. Those seeking a return to a Stuart monarchy were ruthlessly crushed. The rise of the two political parties (Tory and Whig), the development of the empire and overseas trade, particularly in America, and the agricultural and industrial revolutions were looming large on the horizon. All would have far reaching implications for human rights as men and women gathered together in the pursuit of greater political power, more financial gain, and better living standards.

The National Archives Newsletter Icon

Send me The National Archives’ newsletter

A monthly round-up of news, blogs, offers and events.