Edited by Sonya Jay Porter, extracted from a booklet by Albert Burgess
“A Constitution is the property of a nation, and not those who exercise government.” Thomas Paine.
Know your Constitution or lose your ancient freedoms.
I believe there is a need for a layman’s guide to the English Constitution because the Government’s guide to our Constitution: ‘Inside Britain – A Guide to the UK Constitution’, is a work designed to mislead the ordinary man, woman and child in this country. It allows them to enslave the subjects of Her Majesty, to undermine our culture and way of life and to destroy a thousand years of history.
You must remember one thing: England is ruled, not by the Queen nor by Parliament and not by the Queen in Parliament. England is ruled by the law of the very good Constitution left to us by our forefathers.
Our Constitution (simply meaning ‘higher law’) is determined by the overriding will of the people and they can make a difference to mattes seemingly beyond their control. It also shows that all good monarchs (and politicians) recognise the importance of respecting the collective wishes of laymen to maintaining power. In other words, power truly is with the people – IF ONLY THEY WOULD IMPLEMENT IT.
THE ORIGINS OF OUR CONSTITUTION
Every work on the Constitution needs a starting point and I have chosen the reign of King Alfred (871 – 899). Although he was an excellent war leader, it is in the field of law that we owe most to Alfred. He visited all the old kingdoms and took the best laws and customs from each of them. Custom is a practice that has been in use from times of greatest antiquity, with the approval of the people, and by its very nature custom cannot be repealed, as it is the rule of the land and its people. Alfred recorded these laws and customs in a book he called ‘The Dome’ (meaning ‘punishment’) and it was issued throughout Alfred’s England as The King’s Law. But I shall in future refer to them ‘Alfred’s Law’.
WILLIAM I (Conqueror)
After Duke William of Normandy had conquered England in 1066, following the defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings, he chose to maintain the Laws of Edward the Confessor (which were Alfred’s Laws) rather than to introduce laws from his native Country of Normandy.
However, his successor, William II (Rufus) believed he could rule by divine right and do as he wished. He died in a hunting ‘accident’. (Other kings who did not listen to their subjects – Edward II and James II – were removed from office, while Charles I was executed at the end of the English Civil War.)
William II was succeeded by Henry I who also believed he could rule by divine right but in this he was quickly disillusioned by the Barons and forced to issue –
The Charter of Liberties, a restatement of Alfred’s Law.
The next King was John who was so unpopular both with the Barons and the people that at one stage he handed England over to Archbishop Pandolph, the Papal Legate, receiving it back again to rule as a vassal King to the Pope for payment of 1,000 marks a year. Eventually, John was forced to meet the Barons and thousands of the freemen of England at Runnymede on the Thames in 1215. Here, he was then made to sign the –
Magna Carta (also known as The Great charter), yet another restatement of Alfred’s Law.
The Magna Carta was made by all the Estates of England – the King, the Barons and the freemen of England – and therefore it can only be undone by all the Estates of England meeting again. Consequently, it is beyond the reach of Parliament.
When John’s son, Henry III, became of age to rule his country, he rejected the Pope’s claim that he was a vassal king to Rome and stopped the annual payment of 1,000 marks.
Edward III came to the throne in 1327. In 1351 he passed –
The Treason Act
Which codified and curtailed the common offence of treason.
Later, In 1366 King Edward III received a letter from the Pope demanding the 1,000 marks a year for every year that it had not been paid and threatening ‘action’ if the monies were not received. Edward spoke to the bishops and the lords who spoke to the Commons.
First the bishops, then the lords, and finally the Commons came to Edward and told him that England had not been King John’s to give away. Under English law, John had only held England in trust for his successors and therefore the agreement between the Pope and King John was not valid. John had broken the law.
This major constitutional ruling ensures that England’s sovereigns were not and can never be, vassal Kings to anyone. This is a most important constitutional ruling which applies as much today as it did then.
King Edward III also claimed the Kingdom of France. Parliament made him sign an undertaing that, as King of France, Edward could have no say in how England was governed.
Before being deposed in 1399 King Richard II issued his –
Statute of Praemunir, breaches of which amounted to High Treason
Under King Henry VIII England and the Roman Church finally separately and in 1534 King Henry passed the –
Act of Supremacy
which granted Henry III and all subsequent monarchs Royal Supremacy, which means that he was declared supreme head of the Church of England.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Pope attempted to have Elizabeth murdered; Elizabeth was understandably far from amused at this and in 1559 reissued her father’s Act of Supremacy. This Act contained an oath, part of which states –
“No Foreign Prince, Person, State or Potentate hath or ought to have any Power, Jurisdiction, Superiority, Supremacy or Authority Ecclesiastical or Spiritual in this Realm.”
The Tudors on the whole ruled according to the prerogatives given to them by law. However, Elizabeth I was followed by her cousins, the Stuarts, who believed they ruled by ‘Divine Right’ and were answerable only to God.
Charles I was, because of this, presented in 1628 with –
The Petition of Rights
a restatement of Alfred’s Law.
Again, in 1641, the –
was a request by Parliament for Charles to rule according to the law (yet another restatement of Alfred’s Law) but he refused. This started the Civil War in England, in which the king was defeated. Charles was put then on trial for treason against the people, found guilty and executed.
James II was told by Parliament that in attempting to Catholicise the country he was acting illegally. James retaliated, dissolved Parliament and carried on as before until he was forced to flee to France.
The next Protestant in the line of succession was James’ daughter Mary, who was married to a cousin, William, Prince of Orange and they were conditionally offered the throne of England, with William being asked to take on the administration of the country.
At first William made errors in this administration and the politicians went and spoke to the aldermen and fifty of the Common council of the City of London about this. William, hearing of this, issued instructions for writs to be sent to every borough in England. The boroughs were to send representatives to Westminster to tell the politicians and William how we, the English, wished to be ruled.
The representatives came to Westminster and met the lords, the politicians, the Aldermen and Common Council of the City of London at a convention. It was not a parliament because only a king or queen may call a parliament. King James was in France and had no desire to call a parliament. After much discussion they produced –
The Declaration of Rights
which was another restatement of Alfred’s Laws. The declaration was shown to William and Mary, who were told that if they wanted the crown, they had to accept the terms of the Declaration of Rights (these being the minimum rights and freedoms the people would tolerate). They accepted the Throne of England but ruled jointly as King William III and Queen Mary II.
Now he was King, William called a parliament. William did not have an election but, instead, said the people’s representatives would be his Parliament. The first thing Parliament did was to pass –
The Declaration of Rights into the law as the Bill of Rights in 1689
It is a convention that no parliament can bind another, but how could this Parliament bind every successive Parliament for ever? The answer is simple. This Parliament was made up of the people’s representatives. The will of the people is supreme over both Parliament and the Sovereign.
Until such time as the representatives of the people meet and change the 1689 Bill of Rights, this Bill remains the law.