Lessons from England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688

Seventeenth century England was marked by political chaos. It executed one king, experienced a bloody civil war, experimented with military dictatorship, restored the son of executed king and after a bloodless Glorious Revolution, established a strong and enduring constitutional monarchy and democracy.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the culmination of conflicts between Parliament and the Monarchy. The Revolution was bloodless because it deposed one king and installed another without bloodshed.

By Glorious Revolution, the English people meant a revolution in the sense of a wheel coming full cycle and satisfied that after centuries of struggle, they had finally regained their liberties.

The Revolution ended the rule of King James II of England who was increasingly becoming an absolute ruler – breaking the contract between the king and the people. Absolutism or absolute rule is a form of government in which the ruler – king or president – exercises control over most areas of government and eliminates or controls any institutions that might compete with his or her power. The best example of absolutism is France under Louis XIV. Therefore, the Glorious Revolution marked the death of absolute rule and the idea of divine right of kings in England.

William III and Mary II were installed to the English throne by accepting terms and conditions contained in a Declaration of Rights – including acknowledging the supremacy of parliament and essentially the English people over the crown – later enacted into law as a Bill of Rights. The monarchs from this point forward ruled only with the consent of the governed.

The causes of the revolution were many. However, the Tories who were royalists and the Whigs who were supporters of parliamentary power came together to depose the king and to limit the power of the crown. The Revolution fixed the nail in the coffin of absolutism in England and paved the way for a constitutional monarchy.

In 1689, Parliament passed the Bill of Rights – the cornerstone of the modern British Constitution – making it illegal for the monarch to suspend or undo laws made by Parliament, levy taxes without Parliament’s consent or interfere in free parliamentary elections. Monarchs could not meddle or threaten judges in order to get favorable rulings – the independence of the judiciary was assured. There could be no standing army in peace time for fear that it could be used against the English people.

The Bill of Rights guaranteed members of Parliament freedom of speech and immunity from prosecution for statements made in Parliamentary debate and it required frequent meetings of Parliament.  The Bill also stated that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.

From then on, Parliament established its ascendancy over the crown.  A system of government based on the rule of law and a freely elected Parliament entered into force. Thus by the end of the 17th century, the law reigned supreme over the monarchy rather than the latter ruling above the law.

By deposing one king and installing another, the grace of Parliament had superseded that of God. 

John Locke, the English political thinker, supported the Glorious Revolution because it ended absolute rule of one man. His experience of the Revolution was written in a book titled “Second Treatise of Civil Government”.

Before organized society came into existence, Locke believed humans lived in a state of equality and freedom. They had certain inalienable natural rights – to life, liberty, and property. But not all was well in a state of nature since there were no impartial judges. Accordingly, people agreed to establish a government to ensure protection of their rights and establishing obligations that – government would protect the rights of the people while the people would act reasonably toward government. A government that broke the agreement became tyranny. It could be replaced by the people. Locke claimed that “The community perpetually retains a supreme power”.

His ideas proved relevant for political democracy for all people in time and space. They are used to support demands for constitutional government, rule of law and protection of rights. The cabinet system of government evolved, formulated policy and conducted the country’s business under the supervision of Parliament.