That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.

This is from the Bill of Rights https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Bill_of_Rights_1689

Was this defence just against robbers and the like, or was it political? What conditions were relevant, and what law governed the possession of arms?

Was this on an individual basis, in a government-controlled militia, or somewhere in between?

  • 4
    200 years is a fairly wide span for discussion of which laws were in place and how they were applied, covering the period from the last of the Tudors to the start of the Napoleonic wars and the industrial revolution, with corresponding changes in society.
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 13, 2017 at 10:28
  • 2
    I appreciate that, but I dislike arbitrarily narrowing questions. If someone can demonstrate that the laws and mores surrounding this changed a lot in that period, I'll narrow it down.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 13, 2017 at 10:53
  • 3
    I wonder whether there is a continuous precedent from the Anglo Saxon definition of a free man bearing arms forward
    – MCW
    Mar 13, 2017 at 11:22
  • 1
    Did that exist? I'm unaware it did. If it did, it would be relevant.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 13, 2017 at 13:09
  • 1
    @Steve Bird, I appreciate the effort, but yes, I'd like if possible to steer away from modern political sources who seem to see Britain's past as raw material for their own twisted version of American history.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 13, 2017 at 19:04

2 Answers 2


Hat tip to @BrianZ who summarized it well; this is a research opportunity. There are a couple of sources that might serve as seeds for research, but there does not seem to be a common agreement about the right to bear arms in English law.

The best citation I've found is the following:

There was no ancient political or legal precedent for the right to arms. The Ancient Constitution did not include it; it was neither in Magna Charta 1215 nor in the Petition of Right 1628. No early English government would have considered giving the individual such a right. Through the old militia laws —Henry II’s Assize of Arms (1181) and Edward I’s Statute of Winchester (1285)— early governments had imposed a responsibility on subjects, according to their income, to be prepared. Schwoerer, Lois G. (2000). "Tö Hold And Bear Arm: The English Perspective" (PDF). Chicago-Kent Law Review.

I found that source after consulting Kevin Stroud, a lawyer, historian, and creator of the (excellent) History of English podcast who admitted that this was not his particular area of expertise, but suggested that:

. . . many people trace the origin of that right to a proclamation issued by Henry II in 1181 called the “Assize of Arms of 1181.” It wasn’t so much a “right” to keep and bear arms as it was an “obligation” to maintain such weapons.
(Kevin Stroud)

The assize reads in part,

Moreover, every free layman who possesses chattels or rents to the value of 16m. shall have a shirt of mail, a helmet, a shield, and a lance; and every free layman possessing chattels or rents to the value of 10m. shall have a hauberk, an iron cap, and a lance. Assize

The Assize establishes arms as an obligation of a full citizen and prohibits the right to Jews and others. The requirement extends down to the lowest born freeman.

Notes on historiography

My first temptation when I read the question was to begin analysis from a modern, American point of view; I could begin there and look backwards for sources supporting a connection between the English "right to bear arms" and the corresponding right expressed in the US Bill of Rights.

There are some obvious problems with that, and I'd just heard a podcast that referenced the definition of churl including the right to bear arms. It might be more successful to begin with an early source and work forward to OP's quote from the English Bill of Rights.

  • 2
    Hmmm. That link says that status was essentially eliminated by the end of the 12th century at the latest (and the next-highest level status was effectively lower nobility), which leaves us an annoying 500ish year hole to fill.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 13, 2017 at 21:47
  • 1
    It's worth remembering that consitutional historians often posited some humbug connection between the Saxons, parliament, free speech and other political totems. For example, people tried to pretend that parliamentary democracy prevailed under the Witan and needed to be restored, when the Witan was really just a gathering of Saxon aristocrats
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 14, 2017 at 10:26
  • Related, about the laws regarding weapons inside towns: youtube.com/watch?v=9rp3nve9CJk. The video itself does not quote references, but there is one in the description.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 14, 2017 at 19:15
  • 1
    This is very interesting and I appreciate the effort you have gone to. But written in several stages, it's a bit hard to follow. You're saying the 'arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law' was just the right (or obligation?) to be part of a state-controlled militia?
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 15, 2017 at 11:47
  • I hope the rewrite helps. I don't think my (limited) research fully supports the notion of a militia. I think that the evidence supports an obligation for every free man to keep and bear arms. I didn't (in my cursory research) discover evidence of the kind of organization or drill that I would associate with a militia. I think that you've identified a very useful seed for further research.
    – MCW
    Mar 15, 2017 at 20:18

In an article 1983, a legal scholar named Joyce Lee Malcolm mentions how little is known about this:

Experts in English constitutional and legal history have neglected this subject... with the result that no full-scale study of the evolution of the right to keep and bear arms has yet been published. Consequently, there is doubt about such elementary facts as the legality and availability of arms in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and uncertainty about whether the English right to have arms extended to the entire Protestant population or only to the aristocracy.

My cursory impression is that there hasn't been a whole lot of progress since then. The following year Stephen Halbrook did publish a book with a highly relevant chapter. Although Halbrook is a professional historian, he has strong ideological commitments on the topic and no particular expertise in early modern English law.

In sum, this question is pretty much wide open for historical research, but if you want a little more detail on the debate as it stood in the early 1980s, Malcolm's article may be worth a read.

  • 2
    Very interesting thank you. I ask because whatever form it took, the right to bear arms simply doesn't exist any more in Britain, legally or politically. Whether Labour or Conservative, British politicians regard it as a matter of public safety, and seem to see the gun culture in America as barmy.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 14, 2017 at 7:18
  • Indeed. Here's an interesting historical take on why: "America's gun culture is an invented tradition. It was not present at the nation's creation, whenever we fix that point. Rather, it developed in a single generation, among those who experienced the onset of the Civil War and that disaster itself." (nytimes.com/books/first/b/bellesiles-arming.html)
    – Brian Z
    Mar 14, 2017 at 17:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.