It’s odd that we Britons on the whole know so little about an event that has gone down in our history as The Glorious Revolution. While even the least historically aware of us is likely to know that we had a civil war once, that King Charles got his head cut off and Oliver Cromwell pretty much ruled over us for a while before the monarchy was restored, I suspect not one in ten would be able to tell you what were the effects of the subsequent Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, or even who were the outgoing and incoming kings.
James II and William III, the substitution made by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9
This is curious because it is arguable that the effects of the Glorious Revolution were more marked and more lasting than those of the Civil War that it followed, and in some ways shaped the formation of the modern British state. The fact that it has been dubbed ‘Glorious’ also, to me, says a great deal about our attitude towards political revolutions, and how easily the more conservative among us (with a small ‘c’ of course), who are in most circumstances the last to approve of revolutionary movements, are able to rationalise their support for a revolution as long as it is a socially conservative one that leaves basic economic and social relationships untouched.
It is odd to think that, dramatic as the Civil Wars of the 1640’s and their consequences were, they settled surprisingly little. The Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660 in the person of Charles II, son of the executed Charles I; the king continued, as his father had done, to regard the person of the monarch as the basis of sovereignty, and when Parliament did sit for an extended time it was the famously pliable ‘Cavalier Parliament’ which normally tried to avoid undue conflict with the King. The new king was keen to settle old scores, and the regicides of Charles I who were still alive in 1660 were mostly executed or forced to flee for their lives. Puritanism, which had been such a driving force behind the opposition to Charles I, saw its influence disappear overnight, and Puritans became ‘dissenters’, Protestants who had excluded themselves from the Church of England and as a result became subject to penal laws as stringent as those applying to Catholics.
The Restoration; Charles II lands at Dover, 1660
What made further regime change desirable for some after the Restoration was the fact that Charles II was never able to produce an heir, so after his death the throne was likely to – and in fact did – go to his younger brother James; and James was, what no English monarch had been since Mary more than a century earlier, a Catholic. For this reason there was always a relatively small but vocal group within the country who wanted James excluded from the succession on the grounds that a Catholic monarch was likely to threaten the Anglican establishment as it had been settled in the time of Elizabeth. This group, made up largely but by no means entirely of dissenters, came to be known as Whigs, whereas their opponents, who favoured the Jacobite succession even in the person of a Catholic, became known as Tories.
Not that the Tories were any more enthusiastic than their Whig opponents about Catholicism and the monarchical absolutism it was held to represent; although the famous description of the Church of England as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ belongs to a later time, we can see the inception of the pairing as early as the seventeenth century. It was just that the Tories were more sanguine about the magnitude of the threat; the Church of England and the institution of Parliament were, they thought, now so firmly entrenched by law and custom that even a Catholic monarch could pose no great threat, especially since he would have to swear a Coronation Oath agreeing to respect those institutions.
There was a further key fact also: James, like his brother, had no male heir; he had two daughters, Mary, who was married to the Calvinist Dutch stadtholder William of Orange, and Anne, both of whom had been raised as Protestants. A temporary Catholic monarchy under James, therefore, was seen as endurable, as it would immediately be followed by a return to Protestantism under whichever of his daughters succeeded him.
So, when Charles II died in 1685, his brother James II succeeded with a remarkable absence of opposition. He took the required oaths and promised to respect and support the Protestant establishment, and that was enough for most. There were declarations of support from all over the country, and the Anglican clergy preached from their pulpits that it was sinful to oppose a King ordained by God. When Charles II’s illegitimate Protestant son James, Duke of Monmouth, rebelled in the summer of 1685 there was very little support beyond the most committed Whigs, and he suffered ignominious defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor (one of the contenders for the last pitched battle on English soil) and subsequent execution for treason. King James II and his Tory ministers were quick to use the rebellion as an excuse to crack down on the Whigs and dissenters, weakening opposition to the crown still further.
The execution of the Duke of Monmouth, 1685
It was not long, however, before James’ measures began to arouse concern and opposition among his subjects. The Sedgemoor Rebellion was used as an excuse to build a large standing army that many, both Whig and Tory, feared would be used to foist Catholic absolutism on the kingdom. James very quickly began replacing office holders with Catholic favourites, and using his dispensing power to allow Catholics to command regiments in his army without taking the oaths required by the Test Act; when the previously supportive (and overwhelmingly Tory) Parliament of 1685 expressed their concerns, he dissolved it, and never called another one during his reign.
In the space of three years James succeeded in completely eroding the huge support he had inherited upon his succession, and by a number of his acts seemed to be behaving in a wilfully provocative manner towards his Protestant subjects. The High Anglican traditions of the University of Oxford were outraged when James forced the fellows of Christ Church and University Colleges to accept Catholic colleagues; The fellows of Magdalen College were ultimately bullied into electing a Catholic as Master of the college in direct violation of their collegiate oaths and of their rights, set out in the college charter, to elect a Master of their own choosing. It was felt that the Anglican monopoly of education was now coming under threat of Popery.
He suffered a public relations disaster in the spring of 1688 after issuing the Declaration of Indulgence, in which he used his dispensing power to negate the effect of the Test Act, and then demanding that all of the Anglican clergy read out the Declaration from their pulpits. The vast majority of them refused to do so. When seven Anglican bishops (among them the Archbishop of Canterbury) submitted a petition most humbly requesting that the king reconsider, he had them arrested and tried for seditious libel. It was a huge error; despite a judiciary purged of perceived opponents, the bishops were very publicly acquitted, to massive popular acclaim. Lawyers working for the prosecution were forced to flee the court in disguise to escape the wrath of the mob, and crowds all over the country lit bonfires and burned the pope in effigy.
The Trial of the Seven Bishops
Ultimately James’ object was repeal of the Test Act that prevented Catholics from holding high political office, and when he prepared to call a Parliament in 1688 packed with pliant Tories who would do his bidding the stage was set for a confrontation. Then came the single event that made a revolution all but inevitable: at the end of 1688 the queen fell pregnant, and in June 1688 gave birth to James’ Catholic son and heir, James Francis Edward (known to history as The Old Pretender). No longer could the reign of a Catholic monarch be stoically endured in the expectation of Protestant successors; now there was the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, and horrified Anglicans began to see Bourbon France, Catholic and despotic, as a road map for where their own monarch was taking them.
Hence what we now call the Glorious Revolution. A group of English nobles invited the intervention of William of Orange to save the Protestant religion. William duly crossed the Channel (he had originally meant to sail up the Eastern coast of England and land in the North-East but a ‘Protestant wind’ instead blew his fleet south west, so that he was able to evade the English fleet and land his army successfully in the west country); James panicked and instead of giving battle with his larger, but largely disaffected, army, he fled the country to take refuge in France with Louis XIV. William’s march on London became a parade as James’ remaining support evaporated.
And yet Williams’ succession was by no means guaranteed. Many still saw James as the lawful king. The English Parliament – itself of dubious legal status since it required a King to call a Parliament – quickly came to the very convenient conclusion that James had abdicated the throne and ‘unkinged’ himself by his flight to France but even so, he had a lawful heir in the little Prince James, whose rights to the throne could not be abrogated by any action of his father. It was therefore necessary also to cast doubt upon his parentage, and the story quickly became accepted that he was an impostor, a baby who had been smuggled into the bed of the barren queen in a warming pan. The legal and moral hoops through which the defenders of the Anglican establishment were prepared to jump in order to put themselves on the side of right were impressive; thus, those who stated fairly unequivocally that James’ authority was absolute in 1685 were able to argue three years later that that absolutism transgressed natural law when certain ‘contracts’ with the subjects had been broken. Distinction began to be made between things that were malum in se, i.e. wrong or evil in themselves, as opposed to malum prohibitum, or wrong only because they were prohibited, with the crucial difference being that a monarch’s dispensing power could be said to apply to the latter but never to the former.
It would be unfair to say that the events of 1688-9 were not revolutionary; as stated above, in many ways they created the British polity in which we now live, to a much greater extent than the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth of the 1640’s and 1650’s. Tim Harris, in his engaging book ‘Revolution; the Great Crisis of the British Monarchy 1688-1720’ poses a fascinating thought experiment: suppose we imagine a man, perhaps of mild Whiggish tendencies, who died in the 1630’s and was somehow resurrected in 1686-7. The situation at his death and at his resurrection would be little different; still a Stuart monarch whose sovereignty was regarded as essentially personal, still a monarch determined to rule without Parliament as far as possible. Any differences in fact serve to emphasize the increased power of the crown. Provocatively using its dispensing power with a confidence unthinkable in the 1630’s, and with the active backing both of a large standing army and a friendly Catholic neighbour across the Channel. It would have been hard for our resurrected man to believe that Parliament had fought a victorious and regicidal war against the king in the interim.
Now imagine a man dying in 1686 and re-awakening in the 1720’s. Gone is the personal sovereignty of the monarch; now the sovereignty is that of the king-in-parliament, and Parliament, by means of the Bill Of Rights of 1689 and the Act Of Settlement of 1701, had both enshrined the limits to monarchical power in law and had also established its power to determine where the succession lay. Gone is the standing army; gone is the prolonged absence of Parliament. By the 1720’s the balance of political power had shifted decisively in favour of Parliament, and the United Kingdom was a constitutional monarchy in a way that would have been unrecognisable to James II. Here, not the military triumph of the New Model Army, was the real victory of parliament over the monarchy.
And of course, it was now the United Kingdom, and this is another hugely important development that was largely a result of the Glorious Revolution. The Scottish Parliament fell into line with its English counterpart in 1689, passing acts deposing James II and recognising William of Orange and Mary II as monarchs, but the union of the two kingdoms was still a personal and not a political one. When William and Mary died without issue and Mary’s sister Anne seemed set to do the same, bringing about the end of the Stuart dynasty, this posed questions about the future relationship between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In 1701 the English Parliament passed the Act of Settlement which stated that if the main Stuart line came to an end the English crown should go to a granddaughter of James I, the Electress Sophia of Hanover, and her issue. This was not a popular measure with the Scots, who responded with the Act of Security of 1704 claiming their right to dispose of the Scottish crown as they saw fit. In the meantime, on the death of King William in 1702, the new Queen Anne had been prevailed upon to deliberately delay calling a Scottish Parliament so that war could be declared upon France as quickly as possible without possible objection from the Scots.
A union of the two crowns was deemed by an increasing number of influential people to be the best way to stabilise relations between England and Scotland. As early as the 1690’s there had been suggestions of union from both sides of the border; the likelihood of Queen Anne’s death without issue made a settlement imperative, and the Act of Union was duly passed in 1707. The United Kingdom was born in what was arguably an act of immense self-denial by the Scots. With just 45 seats in the new Parliament, which would still sit at Westminster, at a time when their population should have given them more than twice as many, it seemed unlikely that the Scots would find it easy to have their national issues discussed with much urgency; at a stroke the followers of the Old Pretender – the Jacobites as they had come to be called – became the guardians of Scottish National identity, in a way that they remained for generations to come.
So, the events of 1688-9 were definitely revolutionary by any meaningful definition of the term. And yet, glorious. The British on the whole don’t much care for revolutions. Abrupt regime change has always been seen as something rather vulgar and unpleasant that dodgy foreigners in less blessed lands are more likely to indulge in. The French Revolution, even in its initial stages when characterised by a National Assembly seeking to establish a constitutional monarchy very like that of the UK, was looked upon askance by the British establishment. Revolution meant riot and mob rule, the lower orders taking it upon themselves to question an existing order that was ordained by God and entirely satisfactory to the small but powerful and articulate elite at the top. And yet in 1688 we persuaded ourselves that a revolution was glorious. And this was entirely down to the fact that, though dramatic in its political changes, the fundamental economic and social relationships between the classes of England were untouched. Popery and absolute monarchy had been defeated, and there was nothing to rock the boat under the nobility and squirearchy of England. In Ireland, indeed, the effect of the Glorious Revolution was largely to underline and extend the dominance of the Protestant minority over the much larger but now all but disenfranchised and dispossessed Catholics. It was easy to formulate reasons to approve of a revolution that benefitted all the right people. The moral and legal slipperiness of the lawyers and theorists of 1688-9 is no more than the rhetoric that is used by vested interests in any era when seeking a way to justify the status quo.