ODWS icon

The Open Door Web Site


17th Century England Index

Introduction : Constitutional Government
James I and the Divine Right of Kings
Towards Civil War
The First English Civil War
Cromwell and the New Model Army
The Second English Civil War
The Trial and Execution of Charles I
The English Republic (1649 - 1660)
Life in Cromwell's England
Charles II : "The Merry Monarch"
James II and the Monmouth Rebellion (1685)
The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688
The Bill of Rights
John Locke and the "Treatises on Government"

England during the Reign of Charles II Index

Samuel Pepys
The Royal Society
The Great Plague
The Great Fire of London

History Chapters Main Index


The Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683)

The Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683)

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, was a Puritan landowner. He was opposed to absolute monarchy, yet, at the same time, he was afraid of the idea of democracy. During the Civil War, he kept changing sides, which earned him the nickname the "Dorsetshire Eel".

At first, Shaftesbury was one of King Charles II's ministers and became Lord Chancellor in 1672. He turned against the king when he learnt of the existence of the Treaty of Dover. This was the secret treaty which Charles II had signed with Louis XIV of France. It was an arrangement by which King Charles II was paid a "pension" to, amongst other things, restore Catholicism as the state religion in England.

Shaftesbury was one of the MPs who voted for the Exclusion Bill during the Exclusion Crisis (1678-1681). This was an attempt to keep the Catholic Duke of York, later James II, from ascending the throne. At the same time, another MP, called Titus Oates, had started a rumour that the Duke of York was secretly plotting with other Catholics to organize a Catholic take-over of both the monarchy and the government. This was to become known as the Popish Plot, and Shaftesbury made full use of the story. Many Catholics were arrested and killed because of this rumour.

Shaftesbury established the Whig Party in 1681. The Whigs backed the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son, as the heir to the throne. In 1681, he was arrested for a second time on a charge of high treason. Fortunately, he was acquitted by a Whig jury, and the charges were dropped. However, the king was busy replacing Whigs by Tories in influential positions, and Shaftesbury was forced to leave the country. He went into hiding in Amsterdam, where he died, in 1683, from the effects of a liver disease.




Custom Search

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.


he Habeas Corpus Act

Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. London: John Bill, Henry Hills, and Thomas Newcomb, 1681
© Law Library, Library of Congress


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.


The Act of Habeas Corpus was only just passed in the House of Lords in May 1679. When the votes were counted, there were not enough Lords in favour, so it was decided that one of the Lords, because he happened to be fat, was worth ten votes. It started as a joke, but in fact remained on the statutes.




The Open Door Web Site is non-profit making. Your donations help towards the cost of maintaining this free service on-line.

Donate to the Open Door Web Site using PayPal







The Open Door Team 2018
Any questions or problems regarding this site should be addressed to the webmaster

© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2018

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

Hosted By
Web Hosting by HostCentric