The destination for history

Happy and Glorious, the Revolution of 1688


Changing the constitution – so what’s new? We’ve been here before! In 1688/89 King James II was pushed off the throne by William of Orange and his wife Mary. As a result of this ‘Glorious Revolution’ the powers of our monarchs were restricted and Parliament was given a much greater say in the way that we are governed. Many of the democratic freedoms which we enjoy today go back to those days of heady excitement and change. Perhaps history is about to repeat itself!

When Charles II died in 1685 he was succeeded by his brother James. Everybody hoped that James would turn out to be a good ruler, although there were a few hints that all might not go smoothly. What worried people most was that he showed signs of wanting to impose his own Catholic beliefs onto the whole country, so stirring up the kind of religious strife and possible bloodshed that everyone dreaded.

Despite a promising start it was not long before James began to show himself in his true colours. He used a rebellion by his nephew the Duke of Monmouth as an excuse to set up a standing army – something which was especially obnoxious to a people who still had painful memories of the Civil War. He claimed special powers (‘dispensation’) which enabled him to ride roughshod over the law of the land when it suited him. Judges who opposed him in court were summarily dismissed, and in a famous case seven bishops who stood up to his bullying tactics were put on trial (they were acquitted).Meanwhile James worked ceaselessly to insinuate Catholics and their sympathisers into positions of influence and authority, intending that they should eventually become the dominant presence in both Church and State.

Such goings-on could no longer be tolerated. Powerful politicians contacted James’s Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange (whose wife Mary was James’s eldest surviving daughter), and invited him to cross the sea with an army and ‘liberate’ England. This suited William very well, as he hoped to make use of British resources and manpower in his ongoing resistance in Europe to the attacks of the power-hungry Louis XIV. Backed by a formidable force, he landed at Torbay in November 1688 and at once began to march towards London. Although James tried to make a stand with his army at Salisbury Plain, large-scale desertions took place and his support rapidly melted away. Eventually William, who had finally arrived in London, allowed him to escape to France.

A problem now arose. Had James gone for good, or was he merely an absentee monarch? What was the position of William and his wife Mary, James’s daughter and heir? (In fact James had a son, born just before William’s arrival, but his claim to the throne was ignored.) Could Mary reign as Queen with William as her Consort? William soon made it clear that he was having none of this; either he would rule or he would go, leaving the door open for James to stage a come-back. Presented with this ultimatum, Parliament had little choice. The crown of England was offered to William and Mary as joint rulers, and they accepted. They also accepted the Scottish crown which was offered soon afterwards.

James made one more attempt to regain his power, by returning not to England but to Ireland where he could rely on the support of the Catholic community. But William pursued him and finally defeated him at the Battle of the Boyne, after which James returned to permanent exile in France.

Before inviting William and Mary to rule, Parliament made sure that in future it controlled the monarch, not the other way round, and also that it had the final word on taxation and defence spending. These and other momentous changes which were made then still affect our lives today. It seems the time may now have come to make further changes to the political and social landscape which first began to take shape in 1688/89.

By Michael I. Wilson

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