On the 330th anniversary of William of Orange’s arrival in England, author Angus Donald argues that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was neither a revolution nor glorious, but a coup won by treachery.
I went to a friend’s wedding recently. I wore a suit, prayed a little, received Holy Communion and happily belted out Jerusalem at the end. It was a lovely service.
I don’t go to church often; apart from Christmas, it’s usually just christenings, weddings and funerals. I’m not sure I believe in God. That’s right, I’m C of E. But the ceremony I went to was Roman Catholic, the first I’d ever attended. I’m not sure I’d have noticed the differences, really, if I hadn’t been looking for them: some bells tinkling prettily, rather more incense and reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But as I sat there in that lovely old church, my mind kept drifting back to the 17th century, to the reign of James II and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which is the subject of my new historical novel Blood’s Revolution. I realised that three centuries ago this lovely marriage service would have been viewed with revulsion by the average Englishman.
James II and VII was a Roman Catholic – a publicly professed member of the Old Faith. And this was a major problem for the people of the Three Kingdoms over whom he ruled. Ever since Henry VIII broke with Rome, monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland had been wrangling over the souls of their subjects. Bloody Mary burnt hundreds of Protestants at the stake; James I had Guy Fawkes trying to blow him up.
In England and Scotland, Protestantism was triumphant in the third quarter of the 17th century. Charles II may secretly have been Catholic – he certainly made a deathbed conversion – but he couldn’t afford to admit his beliefs. His brother, who became James II, was more forthright. He made no secret of his faith and made great efforts during his brief reign trying to change the laws concerning his co-religionists.
At that time the Roman Catholic worship was proscribed. Ninety percent of the population of England was Protestant and Catholics were seen as odd, sinister, in fact, downright dangerous. It was the faith of their foreign enemies, of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the Catholic tyrant who took all political power in France into his own hands.
A series of anti-Catholic laws had been passed by Parliament that banned Catholic forms of worship and prevented Catholics from holding any offices of state. They could not be MPs, or Justices of the Peace, or officers in the Army, or hold any positions in government, except by special dispensation from the King. Since James was himself a Catholic, these dispensations, called indulgences, were readily granted, although Protestant civil servants would often do their best to obstruct the process.
Nevertheless, James was determined that Roman Catholics – and non-Anglican dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists – should be shown more tolerance in his realm. He surrounded himself with Catholics at court and approached hundreds of men who might stand in future as MPs – justices, wealthy merchants, minor landowners – and subjected them to a process called ‘closeting’. This meant summoning them to his presence for a private meeting in which he tried to persuade them to support his legal reforms in a future Parliament. Most refused him, even under threat of loss of their existing positions and privileges. James was furious.
Despite these manoeuvrings, the majority of the population were content to let James rule. He might have strange beliefs and behave in an autocratic manner – but he had one saving grace: he had no son and heir. Whenever he was called unto God, the next monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland would be his eldest daughter Mary, a staunch Protestant who was married to the Dutch ruler William of Orange. There was no danger of a Catholic dynasty ruling after James and a return to the bad old bishop-burning days of Bloody Mary. Whatever antics James got up to while on the throne, the next ruler would be a good Protestant woman.
Then, in June 1688, James II’s Catholic wife, the Italian princess Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son: James Francis Edward Stuart. The baby boy, the new heir to the thrones of the Three Kingdoms would certainly be raised to manhood in the Old Faith. A long-running Catholic dynasty was now definitely on the cards.
The citizens of London rioted. Rumours abounded that the child was, in the parlance of the day, ‘supposititious’; in other words, substituted with the intent to deceive. The child had been brought into the birthing chamber in a bed-warming pan. James Junior was no true heir, they said, he was a pawn in a wicked Catholic plot.
Officers of the Army and Navy began to scheme in their drinking clubs and taverns. They were furious with James for introducing more papist officers into the armed services. In the Irish Army, almost all Protestant officers were being summarily dismissed and replaced by Catholics, men often with little of no military experience.
The noblemen of England decided they must act. Seven influential men wrote to William of Orange, husband of the former heir Mary, and invited him to come to England and seize the throne. They would support him, they said, and the rest of the country would too.
Five months later, on 5 November, 1688, Guy Fawkes’ Day, William landed on the south coast of Devon with a large army of 15,000 Dutchmen and other Protestant Europeans. He quickly seized Exeter and began to march east towards London.
James, in a panic, called out his own troops and marched west to confront the invader. But all over the country local magnates were declaring for William. Even James’s younger daughter Anne left Whitehall and went to join rebels in Yorkshire. The Royal Army reached Salisbury and formed up to block the approach to London.
However, over several days and nights in mid-November, a large part of James’s officer corps slipped away from the camp and defected to the enemy. Some took their troops with them. James’s army completely disintegrated. Many of his soldiers, bereft of their officers, simply abandoned their arms and trudged off home. There were a few minor skirmishes but the war was lost in a matter of days. James was forced to flee into exile in France. Early in 1690, William and Mary were proclaimed joint monarchs of the Three Kingdoms – and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was over.
I would argue, however, that this was a coup, pure and simple, arranged by the British ruling class. It was said to be ‘glorious’ because there was so little bloodshed – and yet in the next two years in Ireland there were a series of bloody battles (as told in my next novel Blood’s Campaign), and Scotland, too, saw its far share of violence.
I would also say that the coup was won by treachery. Without the defection of the Army officers – who had all sworn a personal oath of loyalty to James – there might have been resistance to William’s invasion. It is possible (though unlikely) that the Prince of Orange might have been defeated. Either way, treachery is never glorious.
Was it then a revolution? I think not. That implies an uprising by the common people to rid themselves of a tyrant. It implies a radical change in the way a state is governed. This coup was arranged in secret by the nobility and gentry, who deftly replaced one ruler with others more to their religious taste.
And James was no tyrant. The irony is that he was not trying to become another Sun King, he did not seek absolute power like his cousin Louis, he was merely trying to introduce more fairness and tolerance – by legal means – for Roman Catholics and other dissenting groups.
Today we prize tolerance. Yet it was an attempt to foster tolerance in the Three Kingdoms that brought about James’s downfall in the so-called Glorious Revolution.
His Majesties gracious declaration to all his loving subjects for liberty of conscience: Guillaume Trottier 2009, © Ministère de la Culture et des Communications
Angus Donald’s photograph and Blood’s Revolution cover: supplied by the author
Other images (William of Orange’s arrival in England; James II and VII; William III and Mary; Mary of Modena with her son James; the Dutch fleet embarking): public domain