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From Magna Carta to the Suffragettes: The Making of the British Constitution

Virtually all the world’s constitutions are the products of a particular historical watershed – the end of a period of colonial rule and the early stages of independence (the USA), the end of an authoritarian regime and transition to democracy (the former Soviet bloc), the end of a particular political regime (France, several times), emergence from civil war and chaos (Afghanistan). The constitution of the United Kingdom is very different. Having grown up haphazardly over many centuries, it is not contained in a single document or series of documents, and it is at times very difficult to establish when a particular constitutional principle exists and what its terms actually are. This lack of clarity can, for example, be seen in some of the arguments over the Brexit process. Lord Hailsham went so far as to describe the British Government as ‘an elective dictatorship’, and a cynic might say that the British constitution is ultimately what any person wants it to be.

This course examines the process of evolution, looking specifically at a series of major historical events which shaped the course of constitutional development. It begins with the emergence of recognisable royal government in the ninth and tenth centuries, first in Wessex and then in England. It moves on to the context in which Magna Carta, the first great constitutional document, was extorted from King John in 1215, and its importance in its own time. That Magna Carta was itself a stage in a process of development is shown by the deposition of two kings, Edward II and Richard II, in the following century on grounds of ‘tyranny’ and ‘unworthiness’. In the same period, Parliament emerged as an assembly at first controlled by the king, but gradually developing a degree of independence from him. The question of whether the king could act independently of Parliament, and the extent of Parliament’s powers to restrain the king is central to the Civil Wars of the 1640s, which were then followed by England’s only period of republican government and written constitution.

The Restoration of 1660 in many ways represents a turning-back of the clock, and the Revolution of 1688 a resolution of issues left over from the Civil Wars and downfall of Charles I. The Revolution Settlement, and connected events, in particular the creation of the National Debt and thus a settled means of financing government, and the separate financing of the Royal Household via the Civil List, put an end to the periodic violent clashes between king and leading subjects which had hitherto shaped constitutional development. Thereafter, the process of evolution was largely peaceful, with the development of cabinet government and the office of prime minister, the disappearance of the monarch from day-to-day government, and emergence in the 20th century of the public service monarchy we see today. The 18th century also saw the emergence of the theory of Separation of Powers and its embodiment in the United States constitution, the longest-lasting and arguably the most successful written constitution so far.

So far, the course has concentrated on events in England, but relations with Scotland, Ireland and Wales form a specific topic. Finally, the development of universal suffrage and a fully representative House of Commons will be considered.

Date created:

2019-10-07 11:54
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Resources for this course

Displaying 1 - 39 of 39
Type Resource Description People Full details
Document Government 1067-1189

Handout 2

Ann Lyon
Document Government under the Anglo-Saxons

Handout 1

Ann Lyon
Document Magna Carta

Handout 3

Ann Lyon
Document Henry III

Slides 2

Document Henry III

Handout 4

Ann Lyon
Document Magna Carta

Slides 1

Ann Lyon
Document Edward I

Handout 5

Ann Lyon
Document Edward II

Handout 6

Ann Lyon
Document Edward III

Handout 7

Ann Lyon
Document Richard II

Handout 8

Ann Lyon
Document Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment

Ann Lyon
Document Edward II and Richard II

Slides 4

Ann Lyon
Document Government and Royal Justice in the Later Middle Ages

Handout 10

Ann Lyon
Document The Early Tudors

Handout 11

Ann Lyon
Document the Children of Henry VIII

Handout 12

Ann Lyon
Document The Lucky Monarch of Winchester

Peter's Play

Ann Lyon
Document Countdown to Civil War 1604-42

Handout 12

Ann Lyon
Document Assessment Questions

Revised Assessment Questions

Ann Lyon
Document The Seventeenth Century

Slides 5

Ann Lyon
Document Civil War and Commonwealth 1642-60

Handout 13

Ann Lyon
Document Restoration and Revolution 1660-89

Handout 14

Ann Lyon
Document The Revolution Entrenched 1689-1707

Handout 15

Ann Lyon
Document Constitutional Timeline AD 600-1603

Handout 16

Ann Lyon
Document The Early Eighteenth Century

The Early Eighteenth Century

Ann Lyon
Document The Later Eighteenth Century

The Later Eighteenth Century

Ann Lyon
Document 17th Century Timeline

17th Century Timeline

Ann Lyon
Document Early 18th Century Slides

Early 18th Century Slides

Ann Lyon
Document Later 18th Century Slides

Later 18th Century Slides

Ann Lyon
Document Three Kingdoms and a Principality

Three Kingdoms and a Principality

Ann Lyon
Document Three Kingdoms and a Principality - Slides

Three Kingdoms Slides

Ann Lyon
Document A Representative Parliament

A Representative Parliament

Ann Lyon
Document It Wasn't Just About the Suffragettes

It Wasn't Just About the Suffragettes

Ann Lyon
Document It Wasn't Just About the Suffragettes - Slides

It Wasn't Just About the Suffragettes - Slides

Ann Lyon
Document Extension of the Franchise 1832-84

Extension of the Franchise 1832-84

Ann Lyon
Document Extension of the Franchise - Slides

Extension of the Franchise - Sli

Ann Lyon
Document Two Constitutional Crises

Two Constitutional Crises

Ann Lyon
Document Modern Monarchy Slides

Modern Monsrchy Slides

Anna Scarna
Document Royal Marriage Slides

Royal Marriage Slides

Ann Lyon
Document The Emergence of Modern Monarchy

the Emergence of Modern Monarchy

Ann Lyon