Absolute Rights of Englishmen in United Kingdom
British Political and Social Thought: Common Law and the Absolute Rights of Englishmen
Introduction to Absolute Rights of Englishmen
In the 17th and 18th centuries some thinkers looked to England’s legal history to justify a greater role for Parliament and rule by law rather than by royal authority. Jurists such as Sir Edward Coke and Sir William Blackstone played a key role. They developed the theory that English common law, an intricate set of legal precedents and customs that had evolved over centuries, in combination with statutory law created by acts of Parliament, formed the foundations of the absolute rights of Englishmen. At the time rights for women were not even considered. These moderates argued that the rule of law took precedence over arbitrary decree by a monarch. Both statutory and common law guaranteed the sanctity of an Englishman’s life, liberty, and property, including the rights of trial by jury, representative government, and habeas corpus (protection against illegal imprisonment).
In the hands of 17th-century jurists such as Coke, common law emerged as a major constraint on the power of the Stuart kings. Coke claimed that common law was the surviving legacy of an ancient constitution that had appeared in Saxon England but was subsequently lost. Coke believed that the ancient constitution had both established royal authority and placed limitations on it. Despite the loss of the ancient constitution, its tenets were reaffirmed through common law and charters, including the Magna Carta.
By the 18th century, jurist and legal scholar Sir William Blackstone emerged as the central spokesman for rule by law. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England (1765-1769) became the definitive statement on the British constitution. In his writings, Blackstone produced the first clear and relatively concise summary of constitutional law. In doing so, he supported the ideals of the ancient constitution as the source of parliamentary government and common law as a constitutional alternative to arbitrary rule.” (1)