British Political History – The decline of the British Monarchy and the rise of Parliament

The decline of the British Monarchy and the rise of Parliament

From the reign of Charles II through to the constitutional monarchy we see today, Parliament as the voice of the people asserted itself during this time in political history. Great context for Key Stage 3 History subjects.

Charles II

On 25 May 1660 Charles II landed at Dover. The Commonwealth had come to an end and the Monarchy was restored.

The Convention Parliament began the process of removing all the legislation that had been enacted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate.

This process was continued by the Cavalier Parliament which sat from 1661 until January 1679.

The Cavalier Parliament had a large majority of Royalist Members who supported Charles II and wanted to help restore the power of the Monarchy

The control of the Army was restored to the King with the Militia Act 1661. An annual subsidy was also granted to help pay for it.

The Triennial Act, which had required Parliament to meet once every three years, was repealed.

Although the Monarchy had been restored there were still religious tensions in Restoration England. Parliament passed a series of Acts in the early 1660’s designed to restore the Anglican Church.

They were known as the Clarendon Code after Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chancellor to Charles II.

Harsh penalties were enforced against those who did not wish to be members of the Anglican Church, ending any religious toleration.

Non-conformists (dissenters) were excluded from holding public office.

The Act of Uniformity (1662), made the Book of Common Prayer and therefore Anglican forms of worship compulsory in religious services. Clergy who refused to comply had to resign their positions.

Many viewed the Anglican Church with suspicion fearing it was too Catholic. Roman Catholics were a source of fear for many people.

It was widely believed that there were ‘Popish’ Plots to wipe out Protestantism from Europe.

The invasion of the Spanish Armada (1588) and the Gunpowder Plot (1605) only demonstrated that there were Catholic conspiracies to place the kingdoms under Roman Catholic rule.

At this time Roman Catholic rule was associated by many with absolute monarchy and religious persecution.

In 1670 Charles II made a secret treaty with the French King, the Treaty of Dover. Charles agreed to convert to Catholicism and support Catholic France against the Protestant Dutch, in exchange for French subsidies.

The Royal Declaration of Indulgence and the Test Act

In 1672 Charles II issued a Royal Declaration of Indulgence. He used his royal prerogative to suspend those laws that punished Non-conformists and Catholics, the penal laws.

Many Members of Parliament believed that King Charles II was leaning towards Catholicism and ruling as an absolute monarch.

The majority of Parliamentary Members were Protestants and greatly opposed the Declaration. King Charles II was forced to abandon the Declaration and pass the Test Act (1673).

All government officials had to swear an oath to the King and to the Protestant Church of England.

Under the terms of the Test Act James, Duke of York, the younger brother of Charles and some of the King’s chief ministers had to resign their offices. James had publicly announced his Catholic beliefs in 1673.

The Popish Plot, 1678

In 1678 Titus Oates alleged that there was a Popish Plot to murder Charles II and place his brother James, Duke of York on the throne.

The Plot was eventually found to have been made up by Oates, but at the time, it set off a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria and persecution.

In Parliament an Exclusion Bill was proposed that would prevent James, Duke of York or any other Catholic successors from the throne. It was eventually rejected by the House of Lords.

In 1678 Parliament passed a Test Act banning Roman Catholics from the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  James, Duke of York was granted permission to keep his seat in the House of Lords.

Tories and Whigs

During the last years of the Cavalier Parliament two distinct political factions emerged. They were originally informal groups of Members of Parliament who held similar views.

The ‘country group’ opposed the influence of the Court in Parliament. They fought against corrupt practices, such as the use of bribes to secure votes.

They were also suspicious of the King’s foreign policy and his commitment to the Protestant faith.

Later they opposed the succession of the Catholic James, Duke of York. They also fought against the persecution of Protestant dissenters.

These became known as Whigs. It was originally used as an insult. It referred to the Whigamores, Scottish Presbyterian rebels who led violent protests against the established Church.

The ‘court party’ were supporters of the Kings council and the monarchy. They were also supporters of the Church of England. Later they defended the right of James, Duke of York to succeed to the throne.

These became known as the Tories. This was an insult aimed at those who supported the Catholic Duke of York. In Ireland, Catholic highway men and robbers were known as Tories.

The Exclusion Parliaments

Between 1679 and 1681 there were three Exclusion Parliaments. They were called this because the ‘country party’ (Whigs) led by Lord Shaftesbury, was attempting to pass the Exclusion Bill.

This would exclude James, Duke of York, the Catholic brother of Charles II, from the succession to the throne.

The third Exclusion Parliament met in Oxford. It only sat for one week before Charles II dissolved it. This was the last Parliament of Charles II reign.

After this Charles II tried to remove supporters of the Whigs from positions of influence and authority in local government.

The ‘Tory Reaction’ led to the prosecution and execution of leading Whigs. Others fled into exile.

In February 1685 Charles II died. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

James II

James II called his first Parliament in May 1685.  The Tories had the Parliamentary majority and at first things ran smoothly.

In 1685 there was an attempt to overthrow King James II, known as the Monmouth Rebellion.

The King asked Parliament for a large standing army to be commanded by loyal, Roman Catholic officers.

King James also wanted to remove restrictions on Catholics. He thought they should have freedom of worship and the right to hold public office, which contravened the Test Act.

This led to much protest. King James prorogued Parliament in November 1685. It was continuously prorogued until it was finally dissolved in July 1687.

King James chose to rule without Parliament.

King James appointed Catholics to positions of authority and dismissed those who would not support his attempt to lift the restrictions imposed on them.

In 1687 King James issued a Declaration of Indulgence to suspend the penal laws against all Non-conformists.

This was to be read out in every Church. Seven Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused and were prosecuted by King James. They were acquitted to much public celebration.

In June 1688, the Catholic Mary of Modena, second wife of King James, gave birth to a son. The heir to the throne was now a Catholic.

Prior to this, Mary and Anne, children from his first marriage to the Protestant Anne Hyde, were in the line of succession.

The eldest daughter Mary was not only a Protestant but she was also married to William of Orange who ruled Protestant Netherlands.

The Glorious Revolution (Nov-Dec 1688)

Seven peers, known as the ‘Immortal Seven’ invited William of Orange to invade England.

They wanted to save Protestantism and have a ‘free’ Parliament called. On the 5 November 1688 (the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot) William of Orange landed at Torbay and marched on London. King James II fled to France.

William of Orange arrived in London on 18 December. This was not a military conquest of England.

William called a Convention Parliament of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Convention could not decide whether a Regent should be appointed to rule until King James II returned or whether King James had in fact abdicated and someone else should be given the throne.

William of Orange threatened to leave England if he was not made King.

On 6 February 1689 the convention decided King James II had abdicated and offered the throne jointly to William and Mary.  This was formerly accepted on 13 February.

James II went to Ireland to raise support. He was beaten by the forces of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Battle of the Boyne – July 1st 1690

Constitutional Monarchy

A constitutional monarchy is sometimes known as a limited monarchy because the power of the Crown is limited by the rules set down in a constitution.

The monarch acts as the Head of State and is meant to be politically impartial. An elected Parliament passes legislation.

A principle of the UK constitution is parliamentary sovereignty, which means that Parliament has supreme legal authority.

England does not have a formal written constitution. The constitution of England is based upon a variety of sources, including convention, Acts of Parliament and common law.

The foundations of the constitutional monarchy began with legislation enacted following the Glorious Revolution.

Coronation Oath Act 1688

At the coronation of William III and Mary II on 11 April 1689, the sovereignty of Parliament was stated in a revised oath.

The King and Queen no longer governed according to “the laws and customs … granted by the Kings of England”.

Instead they had to “…Promise and Sweare to Governe the People…according to the Statutes in Parlyament Agreed on…”

The Bill of Rights.

When Parliament formally offered the Crown to William and Mary they were also read the Declaration of Rights. This bill was given Royal Assent and passed as an Act of Parliament in December 1689.

Its actual title is An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown. It is now known as the Bill of Rights.

This Act gave a list of ‘laws and liberties’ that King James II had ‘subverted’. It then set out the limits of Royal authority and the rights and freedoms of Parliament.

Parliamentary consent was needed to suspend or create laws.

Only Parliament could grant taxes. Taxes could not be raised by royal prerogative.

It was illegal to raise a standing army in peace time without Parliamentary consent.

There was to be freedom of speech within Parliament.

The election of Members of Parliament should be free.

There should be frequent Parliaments.

The Bill of Rights also declared that anyone who followed the Catholic faith or who married a Catholic would be excluded from inheriting the Crown.

Triennial Act 1694

Parliament had to be called at least once every three years. The Monarch could not govern without Parliament for long periods of time.

The Act of Settlement

The Act of Settlement brought England closer to a constitutional monarchy.

Parliament decided on the right of succession. William III and Mary II had had no children. The only surviving child of Princess Anne (sister of Mary II) had died at the age of eleven in July 1700.

The Act restated that no Catholic or spouse of a Catholic could inherit the throne. Succession had to go to a Protestant. Parliament named Princess Sophia, Electress of Hanover as successor to Anne, if she left no heir.

Sophia was the grand-daughter of James I. Sophia’s son George succeeded to the throne of England after the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

The Act brought in further restrictions on the monarchy. It declared that the nation was ‘not obliged’ to enter into any war over territories that did not belong to the Crown of England, without the consent of Parliament.

The consent of Parliament was also required if the monarch wished to leave the country.


In May 1689, under instruction from William III, Parliament declared war on France. The Nine Years War. Queen Anne went to war with France in 1702, The War of the Spanish Succession.

This led to greater Parliamentary control over the Crowns revenue and finances.

By underfunding the war, Parliament ensured that King William III and then Queen Anne would have to continuously call Parliament. Parliament devised new methods of taxation and increased income.

A Commission of Public Accounts was created in 1690 to look at how the Crown was spending the money. Parliament began to stipulate exactly how the money raised was to be used.

In 1698 the Civil List was created. Money was granted by Parliament to run the royal household and the civil government.

Parliament had to give its consent to any sums of money that were requested above this amount.

House of Hanover

It was during the reign of the House of Hanover that Parliamentary government evolved as an institution.

The Whigs and Tories continued to develop as political parties.

George I and George II were often abroad. This left the everyday running of the country to Parliament.  Leading ministers would hold cabinet meetings.

The office of First Lord of the Treasury gained more power and responsibilities. Sir Robert Walpole held this post and is considered to be England’s first Prime Minister.

The constitutional monarchy that had been founded during the Glorious Revolution had become firmly established.

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