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17th Century England Index
Introduction : Constitutional Government
England during the Reign of Charles II Index
BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE
17th Century England
Whigs and Tories
Gradually there emerged a group of MP's and Lords who wanted Parliament to be stronger than the king. They hated and feared Catholics and sympathised with Puritan Non-conformists. They began to call themselves the Country Party (opposed to the Court Party). Their enemies nicknamed them "Whigs" after some Scottish Puritan outlaws.
The other political group, the Court Party, were for the king and believed in Divine Rights. They were also in favour of the Church of England with all its ceremonies and bishops. They hated Non conformists. The Whigs suspected that they were pro-Catholic and nicknamed them after Irish Catholic outlaws : the "Tories".
The Whigs and Tories were the world's first political parties and over the years to come they were to share government and opposition in a dual party system. The Whigs became the Liberal Party in the 19th century and the Tories became the Conservative Party. Both still exist today, although the Liberal Party is now called the Liberal Democratic Party.
The Habeas Corpus Act
This Act, passed in May 1679, allowed a prisoner to demand that he should be brought before a court and have his case examined. It was passed during the reign of Charles II and meant that even a political prisoner, an opponent of the king, as well as a common criminal, could have a fair trial and not just be thrown into prison to be forgotten about. It provided a dramatic contrast to the notorious "lettres de cachet" of Louis XIV which existed in France at the same time and allowed the French king to imprison someone indefinitely, without any legal redress.
Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. London: John Bill, Henry Hills, and Thomas Newcomb, 1681
Habeas Corpus literally means "bringing the body of an individual before a court of justice". This right had existed in England in early Norman times. (Article 36 of the Magna Carta of 1215 says that this right should "not be refused". At that time it meant that an accused person could avoid a terrible trial by ordeal.) Once before a court, an accused person has his case examined and is then allowed bail (is freed on condition that he leaves a sum of money and promises to return for further hearings), or he is imprisoned again because the evidence against him is so great.
By the time of Charles I kings were saying that a simple royal order was sufficient to overrule a writ of Habeas Corpus. It was for this reason that, in the late 17th century, Parliament wanted the law clearly and irrevocably written down.
The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 was largely the work of Lord Shaftesbury, after whom it was named. Occasionally, it is suspended, for example in time of war or when there is a terrorist threat, but suspension of Habeas Corpus has to be voted by Parliament and for a limited period only.
All modern democracies have a law equivalent to Habeas Corpus written into their constitutions.
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