Artwork of the month: 13 February 2015 marks the 326th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
The Declaration of Rights became law in 1689, following a half century in which the balance of power between Parliament and the monarchy had been a constant source of contention. The division between Protestants and Catholics underlay the conflict, and the ascension of the Catholic James II to the throne in 1685 undermined the delicate equilibrium maintained by his brother, Charles II, during his reign.
The predominantly Tory Parliament that met in 1685 was initially willing to cooperate with the new King, but James II’s attempts to lift various restrictions on Catholics and non-conformists met with opposition. In response, James II prorogued and eventually dissolved Parliament in 1687 – hoping to replace it with a new Parliament, ‘packed’ with his supporters.
So long as James II’s Protestant daughters were expected to inherit the throne, an uneasy peace was maintained, but the birth of his son in 1688 exacerbated the problems. Unwilling to accept the possibility of a further Catholic monarch, a number of parliamentarians invited James’ daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange to invade England and preserve Protestantism, in what became known as the Glorious Revolution.
Parliament formally offered the throne to William and Mary on 13 February 1689. In addition to offering them the Crown, Parliament had the Declaration of Rights read aloud, which affirmed both the rights of the subject and the liberties of Parliament. William and Mary were henceforth bound to rule according to the statutes of Parliament, rather than their own prerogative – a new definition of the limits of royal power.
By the 19th century many saw the Glorious Revolution as the key to Britain’s subsequent success. For this reason in 1847 it was chosen as one of the subjects to decorate Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. Painted by the successful Victorian artist Edward Matthew Ward (1816-79) in 1867, the completed picture is February’s Artwork of the Month.
Today, the adoption of the Bill of Rights is considered one of the central events in the development of our democracy. As part of a year-long series of events commemorating Parliament in the Making, it is one of 18 subjects interpreted by contemporary artists for a large-scale banner exhibition currently on display in Westminster Hall.
Image: Edward Matthew Ward, ‘The Lords and Commons presenting the Crown to William and Mary in the Banqueting House, 1688’ (detail), waterglass painting, 1867 (WOA 2606).