The History of Rights

We have to go way back in history to find the roots of the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.   Nearly a thousand years back.

After William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy ( France ) in 1066, he and the rulers who came after him imposed new rules and practices on their English subjects. Over the centuries these became known as English Common Law

Before the Norman invasion, criminal matters and other disputes were settled by a "trial by ordeal."  For instance, an accused person would have to undergo a harsh physical test, such as being burned on his hand.  He would be found innocent if the burned hand was healed after a certain number of days.  Barons or knights – noblemen with land and armies of followers – would also engage in fights or "trial by battle" to see if they were innocent or guilty.

By the early 12th century, juries were being assembled to hear evidence during trials. But still people could be treated very unfairly by the king, who was at that time an "absolute" ruler.   He could seize property, imprison his enemies, or execute them, without any reason. 

That would change in 1215, when English barons (feudal landowners) staged an uprising against King John at Runnymede , and forced him to give them certain rights that were written down in a document called the Magna Carta (Great Charter).  This was the first time a written document had limited the power of a king.  According to the Magna Carta, the king could no longer just imprison or exile anyone when he felt like it.  He had to abide by certain procedures – what we today call the "due process of law."  In short, the king was no longer "absolute" in his power.

The barons, who formed a council (an early kind of Parliament) to enforce the Magna Carta were only interested in their own rights, not the rights of all the people.  But the Magna Carta started a process that went on through the centuries, as more and more rights were written down and enshrined as law.  

Among the most important of these rights was the writ of habeas corpus, which dates back to the sixteenth century.  This Latin term meaning "you have the body" gave people who thought they were unjustly jailed by the king a way of challenging their imprisonment in court.   It paved the way to "judicial review" – the ability of courts to judge the actions of the king. 

But the struggle to limit the power of the king was not decisively won in England until the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  In 1689, King William and Queen Mary signed the English Bill of Rights, which limited the power of the monarchy and made Parliament "supreme."   It also listed the civil and political rights possessed by Englishmen.  This notion of fundamental rights possessed by the people was carried by English colonists to the " New World ."


Read the English Bill of Rights at

Do you see any similarities with the American Declaration of Independence?