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What was the Glorious Revolution?

The Glorious Revolution is the name given to a series of events that took place in the late 17th century in England. It was one of the final and decisive developments in the power struggle between the parliament and the monarchy in England.

Background

The council of barons established by the Magna Carta (see chapter 1) grew over the centuries into a parliament which represented the church, wealthy noblemen like the barons, commoners and people from the emerging middle class. Gradually the parliament's role developed so that it was able to withhold revenue (money from the kingdom such as taxes) if the monarch did not deal with certain matters. It could make the king's ministers accountable for their actions by questioning them. It had also claimed for itself the right to debate issues freely without fear of being punished by the king or the courts for what was said in parliament (this is called 'parliamentary privilege').

There were, however, still struggles between the parliament and the king over which one of them could make and suspend laws, which one could raise taxes and which one chose who would be the next king or queen. Events happened throughout the 17th century that saw these powers shift between one and the other. At one point a civil war occurred between the monarchy and the parliament. The parliament won and abolished the monarchy altogether but the monarchy was soon restored in the person of King Charles II. During his reign Charles tipped the scales the other way by dissolving parliament on several occasions.

How did the Glorious Revolution come about?

When Charles died in 1685 his brother James took the throne. Through his actions James lost all support from the parliament. He was a Catholic Christian while most members of parliament were Protestant Christians. He removed Protestant officials and people from the army and the church and replaced them with Catholics. He also suspended laws that the parliament had made because he believed they were unfair to Catholics. He tried to introduce his own laws which were more tolerant of Catholics.

James had a large army, some of which he stationed near London. The parliament thought this was an aggressive act and that it might be a sign that James was going to try to gain absolute power for himself.

Many of these actions were driven by the religious rivalry between the Catholic James and the Protestant parliament. But the parliament thought these problems would go away when James died because his daughter, Mary, who was next in line to the throne, was a Protestant. However, in 1688 James had a son. This sparked fears in the parliament that the son would now be next in line and that he might grow up to be a Catholic like his father.

The parliament decided that these problems needed to be dealt with straight away. They invited Mary's husband William of Orange, who was a prince in the Netherlands, to invade England and replace James as the king. William did this and was supported by most English people so it was an easy victory for him. The parliament offered the throne to William and Mary together but only if they agreed to certain conditions. These conditions were set out in a document called the Bill of Rights which was signed by William and Mary in 1689.

What was contained in the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights made sure that the monarchy could not do the things that James had done. Under this document, if the king or queen wanted to have a standing army, raise taxes, make laws or suspend them they had to have parliament's permission first. The choice of successor to the throne was also given to parliament rather than to the king or queen.

These new laws changed England (which became Great Britain soon afterwards) from an absolute monarchy (where the monarch has power) to a constitutional monarchy (where they have not much more than a ceremonial role). A constitutional monarchy acknowledges the monarch as the official head of state but the real power is in the hands of the parliament. The British system of government has remained a constitutional monarchy ever since this time.

What did the Glorious Revolution contribute to the development of democracy?

Since the signing of the Bill of Rights which made England a constitutional monarchy, the power balance between the monarchy and the parliament has shifted further and further in favour of the parliament. This has meant that the government of Britain (and the governments of those countries whose constitutions are modelled on the British system) has become more democratic because decisions are made by a group of people who are elected rather than by one person who inherits the throne by birthright.


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1. William and Mary signed the Bill of Rights in:

1926

1689

1853

1738

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