The constitutional laws of the United Kingdom include documents of many hundreds years old and they are still being added to in the present day. The development of a constitution arose from conflicts of authority between kings, popes, barons and common people. The first events in this development were in England.’
Before the Norman Conquest
The Kingdom of England was formed in the mid 9th Century and what is now recognized as being England came about in 927 when the last of the Heptarchy kingdoms fell under the rule of the English King. Until 1066 England was ruled by monarchs that were elected by the witan. There were various elements of democracy at a local level too. This ended with the Norman Conquest.
The Norman Conquest
King Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king. From William I onwards the rulers of England have all descended from a variety of foreign nationalities. The Normans brought in absolutist monarchy. William ruled for 21 years and was succeeded by his son William II. There was friction and conflict between the three sons of William and the youngest, Henry, attempted a coup in 1091. He failed at that time but eventually succeeded to the throne in 1100.
Henry I (c. 1068 – December 1, 1135) was king from 1100 to 1135. When he ascended to the throne he granted the Charter of Liberties This document is not a Bill of Rights but a series of decrees and assurances. Probably the most important statement in the charter is at the beginning, where the king admits “that by the mercy of God and
the common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England I have been crowned king of said kingdom”. This represents a step away from absolutism and a step toward constitutionalism. The king had recognized that the right to rule came not only from God but also from the common counsel of the barons.
From this point onward, and more especially between the reigns of King John and Charles II, the power structure in England evolved from an essentially absolutist model to an essentially constitutional one.
King John was King of England from 1199 to 1216. He was the youngest brother of Richard I. His reign was fraught with conflicts. There was conflict between England and France, between England and the Pope and between the King and the barons.
Eventually the barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta, often looked upon as the first truly significant document in a long succession of documents over the centuries up to the present day which collectively constitute the legal sovereignty of the land now known as the United Kingdom. The constitution of this sovereignty is thus distributed across many historical precedents rather than written in one piece.
Henry III succeeded his father John. Henry was only nine years of age when he became king and so the country was ruled by regents until Henry reached the age of 20. Under pressure from the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, Henry had to accept the existence of the first English Parliament. In the next century, in the reign of Richard II there was an uprising, the Peasants’ Revolt (1381). The revolt came very, very close getting their demands granted by the king but at the end the protestors were tricked out of it all. The revolt remains as an important moment in history, but failed to contribute to the written body of the constitution.