Gun Rights and Armed Retainers

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Highlighting Historical Romance with Jude Knight on gun rights and constitutional law in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

I was researching English gun rights before the recent massacre in my peaceful little country. I wanted to know what English law said about armed retainers in the early nineteenth century, because I want my characters to have some.

In my Mountain King stories I have a duke’s heir who was the king of a small Central Asian country, and whose arrival back in England with six of his children is the sensation of 1812. When he leaves Para Daisa, the mountain valley that was his kingdom, at least twenty of his people come with him, many of them trained warriors. Would he have problems with the law if they continued to act as his guard?

So down the research rabbit hole I went.

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In case you want to know, he’d be fine. He isn’t breaching the laws about having a standing army, as long as they don’t drill in a public place (which was punished as unlawful assembly). And he doesn’t have enough of them, either, for the Crown to get nervous.

(The Hon. John Spencer and nephew John, later 1st Earl Spencer, with their servant, Caesar Shaw by George Knapton, 1745)

But what really fascinated me, particularly in the context of the gun law debate following the Christchurch killings, is that he and at least some of his men had the right to arms, and so do many people throughout the British Commonwealth today

It goes back to the time of James II. As you may remember, the English had had more than two centuries of turmoil — including a civil war and a brief period as a republic — over the rights of the king vs the rights of the people. Much of it centred around the religious question. From the time of Elizabeth I, most of the people were Protestant. James II, the last Stuart king, converted to Catholicism and removed many of the legal sanctions against Catholics.

Then, in the 1680s, he tried to force through a declaration that demanded tolerance for everyone, including Catholics and dissenters. He ignored Parliament; he imprisoned bishops; he upset the entire Anglican establishment, particularly since the declaration could be taken to apply even to Jews and Muslims!

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That’s the background to the Bill of Rights 1689 (or 1688 in the old calendar). When the English Parliament invited James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William to take the throne, they made a agreement with a set of rights a condition of the invitation.

The Bill of Rights lists twelve of James’s policies by which, so they say, James tried to “subvert and extirpate the protestant religion, and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”. One of them was ‘causing Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when papists were both armed and employed contrary to the law’. (The law in question was the one that barred people from any public office, including serving in the armed forces, unless they passed some tests that effectively kept Catholics out of the army, navy, and Parliament.)

(A militia portrait by Bartholomeus van der Helst, dated 1639)

The Bill of Rights is still on the statute books in the United Kingdom and throughout the Commonwealth, and is part of our New Zealand constitution. Unlike the United States, we don’t have a single document that describes our institutions of government and states their powers and the limitations on those powers. But we still have a constitution – a set of formal legal documents, decisions of the courts and practices that make up how we do government.

The Bill of Rights says:

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

The Bill of Rights was a source document for the drafters of the US constitution, so US scholars say. Me, I like the ‘as allowed by law’ bit that we got to keep.

Which brings me back to my hero’s armed retainers. They’d better keep quiet about the fact that most of them are Muslims, and the rest are Assyrian Catholics.

About the Mountain King Books

My Mountain King appears in Paradise Regained, in which the exiled James Winderfield is invited back to England — if he abandons his wife and family. Paradise Regained is in the Bluestocking Belles collection Never Too Late.

His return to England is the background to The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, in which his eldest son (also James) courts an English lady of impeccable breeding, because he fell in love with her at first sight. The Bluestocking and the Barbarian is a novella in Holly and Hopeful Hearts, and I’m currently rewriting it as the novel, To Wed a Proper Lady.

See links to both collections on the Bluestocking Belles project page.

Never Too Late

Holly and Hopeful Hearts

About the Author

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Jude Knight lives in fabulous New Zealand. She tells us:

I have always loved telling stories, mostly for the benefit of children in need of entertainment, or to amuse myself while waiting (six children mean a lot of waiting), or to continue to live in a book world after I had closed the covers.

In 2014, the first of my strong determined historical heroines, heroes who appreciate them, and villains you’ll love to loathe made their way into the covers of Candle’s Christmas Chair.

A dozen books later, the wind fills my sails and many more plots jostle for daylight. My great desire is to sell enough of my books to leave the day job and write full-time. If you like what I do, I’d love you to spread the word.

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