Glorious Revolution

2012-06-28 00:33:21

In what is sometimes called the Revolution of 1688 (or 1689), a specially convened ‘‘Convention Parliament’’ recognized William of Orange, Dutch Prince of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and champion of Europe’s Protestants, and Mary, Protestant daughter of James II by Anne Hyde, as king and queen of England. The Convention Parliament established its own legitimacy and proceedings (as did the two preceding convention parliaments of 1399 and 1660); it also barred all Catholics from future succession to the throne. Though the Glorious Revolution is typically described as the resolution of more than one hundred years of religious and political strife, historians continue to debate the extent to which the events of 1688 and 1689 were glorious or revolutionary.


From the time in 1685 when James II became the last Catholic king of England, all of Britain seemed mired in the simultaneous tensions between Catholics and Protestants and the rising political struggles over divine right vs. parliamentary power. Neither of the two parties in Parliament, Whigs and Tories, was willing to accept James’s Catholicism, particularly when his Catholic second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son (subsequently the Old Pretender) in June 1688. The newborn son was whisked to France, and the Convention Parliament convened, while James struggled to retain the crown.

Shortly thereafter, six noblemen and the bishop of London (remembered as the Immortal Seven) conspired against James by inviting William of Orange to take the throne and, in so doing, protect the liberties and religion of England. The small army James raised saw only a few minor skirmishes that ended in defeat and the defection of a lead commander to William. All seemed lost when James’s other daughter Anne, a Protestant, also deserted (for which she was later rewarded with a senior position in the line of royal succession). In December James attempted to escape from England but was captured and returned, after which he escaped yet again with greater (perhaps allowed) success.

The question of how to transfer power to William of Orange divided members of the convention between Whigs, who were willing to depose James and treat the throne as vacant, and Tories (previously Stuart loyalists), who refused to acknowledge that any subordinate power could in any way tamper with the historically determined succession. A compromise was reached stating that when James took flight from England he had essentially ‘‘abdicated,’’ thereby leaving the throne vacant. In February 1689, William and Mary were granted the crown jointly, but William became sole ruler so long as he lived, limited only by the liberties of England as articulated by the Declaration of Right (stipulating the rights of Parliament as against the Crown). On December 16, 1689, an act of Parliament formalized the declaration as the Bill of Rights and a permanent buttress to England’s newfound constitutional monarchy.

How Revolutionary Was the Glorious Revolution?

It is often suggested that the Glorious Revolution was too orderly, too deliberate, too prescriptive, and too bloodless to have been revolutionary. Lord Macaulay insisted, ‘‘We cannot but be struck by its peculiar character,’’ the reason for which ‘‘is sufficiently obvious, and yet seems not to have been understood either by eulogists or censors.’’ Indeed, historians have long debated who won, and the magnitude of change brought about by, the revolution. Old Whig historians characterize William of Orange as the ‘‘deliverer,’’ a ‘‘savior,’’ and the ‘‘soul of Protestantism’’; they see the Revolution as the climax of a century-long battle for parliamentary rule.

Subsequent scholars represented the revolution as a rather conservative affair, with Tories facilitating the change in monarchs without any significant redefinition or diminution of royal authority. The revolution is perhaps best understood as something of a compromise, offering victory for both Whig and Tory. It is certainly too simplistic to cast the revolution as a showdown between conservative Tories and liberal Whigs since either side proved capable of challenging the Crown or supporting royal prerogative. Likewise, it would be too narrow to suggest that no significant results were achieved—witness the validation of exclusion (a virulent decade-old attempt to prevent ‘‘popish’’ successors to the throne) as well as the establishment of a sovereign Parliament and a constitutional monarchy.

In the end, ‘‘the settlement’’ (including the Declaration of Rights, the Mutiny Act, the Toleration Act—all in 1689; the 1690 Land Tax Act; the Triennial Act of 1694; and the 1701 Act of Settlement) was a compromise intended to appeal to as many people as possible; it remained to be seen just how it would get worked out in practice. The next twenty-five years saw a refashioning of the state that, by 1714, developed into a structure different from what anyone anticipated in 1689.


References and Further Reading

  • Harris, Tim. Politics Under the Later Stuarts. London: Longman Group, 1993.
  • Hoppit, Julian. A Land of Liberty? England 1689–1727. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Macaulay, Thomas B. The History of England (first published 1848–1861). London: Penguin Books, 1968.
  • Pincus, Steven. The First Modern Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Trevelyan, G. M. England Under the Stuarts. London: Folio Society, 1996.
  • Underdown, David. A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in 17th Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.