THOUGH the ultimate causes of the events of 1688 in England may be traced back to the Protestant Reformation or even earlier —whenever the secular and religious movement against the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church gathered momentum—the origins of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ are to be connected most clearly with the period 1678-81. The majority of the members of the House of Commons then believed that since the heir presumptive to the throne, James, Duke of York, was a Roman Catholic convert, and married to a Roman Catholic princess, he should be excluded by statute from all right of succession. This move was supported by a number of influential statesmen and peers, some of whom pressed Prince William of Orange, a Protestant hero in Europe, married to the Princess Mary, who was next in the line of succession to the English Crown, to come over to England and exert his influence in favour of James’s exclusion.
As a compromise, in order to avert the threat of civil war, King Charles II actually suggested that William and Mary should after his own death act as Regents for James who would be allowed to reign but not to rule. William himself preferred any political solution that would not reduce the authority of the English Crown, which his wife might one day wear, and would enable him to bring the English Government over into the anti-French camp; but he hesitated about exerting his own influence in England or going there while Parliament was still sitting; and by the time he did go over the exclusionist movement had been defeated and the King of England was committed to an alliance with France. Thus William learned a profound lesson that was to guide his actions and decisions in 1688. He realized that his hesitation had been fatal and had played into the hands of the French King.
During the last years of Charles H’s reign suspicion and antagonism between James and William increased. William met with opposition also in the United Netherlands to his policy of resisting French aggression all the time and by all the means at his disposal. But when James peacefully succeeded his brother on the thrones of England and Scotland there was a temporary improvement in Anglo-Dutch relations. William, who had no wish to see his father-in-law overthrown by his illegitimate nephew, the Duke of Monmouth, sent over six British regiments in Dutch service to the help of King James II and offered to come over himself with Dutch troops to help suppress Monmouth’s rebellion. After Monmouth’s defeat and death, Anglo-Dutch treaties were renewed and James refused to become a client of the French King, as his brother had been.
Encouraged by his defeat of Monmouth, James II tried to push through a policy of genuine civic equality for all his Christian subjects, but he openly favoured his Roman Catholic co-religionists. He insisted that his leading ministers must by sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, even if they were not Roman Catholics themselves, and he introduced Roman Catholic officers into his army and navy, using his royal authority, sustained by the law courts, to override the Test Act, passed in his brother’s reign, forbidding Roman Catholics to hold public offices. This created fear and resentment among his leading Protestant subjects and even provoked anti-papal riots and demonstrations. Unfortunately for James, the cruel and ruthless methods employed at this very time by the French monarchy to destroy Protestantism in France caused Englishmen to wonder whether it was their King’s ultimate intention to follow in the footsteps of Louis XIV. There is no reason at all to suppose that James intended any such thing; he always asserted that he did not wish to interfere with any man’s liberty of conscience—though he was not above trying hard to convert everyone around him to his own religious beliefs.
James’s defiance of the Church of England and of Parliament by his policies and methods of enforcing them caused William to be concerned lest the King of England might be driven into dependence upon France in order to secure protection against his own subjects. In fact James was relying upon his own resources —his army and navy—to maintain his position. But James’s naval rearmament, on which he now began, was again a source of suspicion and concern to William and the Dutch. William at this time was perturbed over the likelihood of a renewal of French aggression in northern Europe and therefore he did not want his father-in-law to be forced into a French affiance by his own necessities and the English fleet placed at the service of France.
Early in 1687 England and the United Netherlands exchanged ambassadors and an attempt was made to resolve differences and misunderstandings. James wanted William’s support for his policy of liberty of conscience for all. William wished to discover if James’s naval preparations were aimed at the United Netherlands in affiance with France. Dij kvelt, the special Dutch ambassador, reported to William that James’s naval preparations were not directed against them nor was there any likelihood of an Anglo-French alliance. But at the same time he reported rising discontent among many influential Englishmen over James II’s methods of rule and his favouritism for Roman Catholics. William was secretly asked both in England and Scotland to use his influence to restrain his father-in-law, but he was given reason to fear either that a Parliament would be packed to fulfil James’s wishes or a civil war provoked. Remembering the lessons of i68 i, the idea grew in William’s mind that he might be obliged to intervene in England to prevent James from being forced into becoming a dependent of France or, alternatively, to stop the English again being driven into a civil war that might destroy the Stuart monarchy and re-establish a Commonwealth, of which the Dutch had unpleasant memories. Possibly by the turn of the year and certainly by the spring of 1688 Wifflain had resolved to intervene forcibly in England, at any rate if he received positive promises of moral support from leading Englishmen.
The birth of the Prince of Wales on June xa, holding out the possibility of a permanent Roman Catholic dynasty in England, and the trial at the same time of seven Anglican bishops for protesting against the King’s use of his royal prerogative powers to impose his policy of religious liberty and equality on his kingdom stimulated a group of English Protestant leaders to write to William, asking him to intervene against James II and promising a rising on his behalf as soon as he landed. On receipt of the letter of invitation William intensified his preparations for a military expedition. Three months later he was ready, and published a declaration condemning arbitrary rule and the conspiracy of James II’s ‘evil counsellors’ against Protestantism in England and Scotland. It was not until just after this declaration was published that James finally realized the fate that was going to befall him.
Nevertheless James hoped and believed that the invasion would fail. Even if William succeeded in landing so late in the year, James expected that his subjects would remain loyal to him and that his superior army would destroy his son-in-law. He therefore refused French offers of help until Louis XIV was so completely committed in Germany that it was too late for him to give it.
When on November x, 1688, William of Orange set out for England his announced intention was to oblige James II to call a free and lawful Parliament. For William wanted to prevent and not to provoke a civil war. He feared that a Parliament facing the King unaided by outside support would either capitulate or revolt. But a ‘free parliament’ might compel the King to abandon his unpopular policies and commit him to joining a coalition against France. Possibly William also thought that such a Parliament would invite him and his wife to become Regents, as Charles II had suggested they should do in 1681; then they could ensure that James did what was best for England and for Europe. But after William’s unopposed landing and his completely abortive negotiations with James about the holding of such a free Parliament, it became obvious to the Prince that if he was to make sure that a republic were not established in England again, he himself must become the effective ruler of the kingdom.
The free Parliament (which was known first as the Convention) that now met, after King James had fled the country, drew up a Declaration of Rights aimed at defining and in reality restricting the future authority of the monarchy and then offered the throne to William and Mary, with William as the executive authority, on those terms. Soon after their acceptance, war was declared on France.
Such is a summary of the political events set out in this book. The question remains why this should be called a Glorious Revolution. Was not what happened merely a coup d’etat or an enforced change of succession to the throne comparable with Henry IV’s overthrow of Richard II or Henry Vil’s defeat of Richard III? Would not William have been able to impose his authority on his father-in-law by force of arms without any active help at all from the English people in general, help which, it has even been suggested, he spurned? Secondly, when William came to the throne did he not in fact succeed to virtually all the royal power possessed by earlier Stuart monarchs—the right to make war and peace, to choose his own Ministers, to call and dissolve and fashion his own Parliaments, to preside over his cabinets and enforce his own wishes and policies? Finally, may it not be argued that looking at the story from a long view of history it was James II with his ideas of liberty of conscience for all Christians—ideas that had been foreshadowed by Oliver Cromwell and Charles 11—whose mind was attuned to the future, rather than William whose declaration before his invasion was coloured by distortion and prejudice?
In answer to the first question, can it be doubted that William would never have won his almost bloodless victory if James II’s army and navy had not been riddled by disaffection? William would never have ventured to undertake this highly dangerous military operation in the first place if he had not been encouraged by Dijkvelt’s and Zuylestein’s reports of active discontent in England, by his belief that James’s army and navy would not fight, by his knowledge of divisions even among James’s own advisers and inside the Church of England and by the letter of invitation from the Immortal Seven which he believed (rightly or wrongly) to represent influential members of the spiritual and lay nobility who had not signed it. All revolutions are initiated by relatively small groups who count upon an underlying sense of unrest within a nation. The French, Russian and Chinese peasants were not revolutionaries by nature. Understandably the ordinary English people in the late seventeenth century hesitated to take part in another civil war. But they looked for leadership and accepted it when it was offered.
As to the question whether a revolution was in fact achieved, it is perfectly true that there was no such complete destruction of a form of government or of society in 1688 as there was to be during the French, Russian, Chinese or Cuban revolutions of later times: for that matter no seventeenth-century revolution could compare with these. The outward form of government remained unchanged: it could still be called a ‘mixed monarchy’. But one must distinguish between rights and powers. The Whig interpreters of history from Locke to Macaulay argued that the rights of the monarchy remained what they had always been: that James II or his predecessors had infringed them. The power of the monarch was, however, in fact reduced. The restrictions and conditions that William III was compelled to accept, such as the regular meeting of Parliaments (which he did not like) and the independence of the judiciary, which he accepted, meant that the ‘mixed monarchy’, which up till his time had been largely a form of words bandied about by political theorists, was in the process of becoming a constitutional and political reality. The power of Parliament, asserted by the trial and execution of King Charles I, was thus confirmed for another three centuries, and became a real check on the executive, when James II fled rather than face a ‘free parliament’.
As to the question whether James rather than William spoke for the future, we come here to the difficult problem of the relationship between character and policy. James was a stupid, prejudiced and cowardly ruler; William was courageous and realistic. He reluctantly appreciated that the time was not ripe for any revolutionary change in the attitude to liberty of conscience in England. Cromwell had discovered that too, to his cost. In that sense, howevcr, it was certainly James II, like Cromwell, who was the true revolutionary. But what determines the immediate course of events is not theories or good intentions, but the character of the men in authority. James was incapable of pushing through his policies; William did so. Thus we return to the chapter with which this book opened, describing the differences in character between William and James.
Do mass movements really alter the shape of history? Cannot it be manipulated? It is the exceptional men who are not afraid of taking risks, of fighting for what they believe to be right or desirable, of sacrificing their own personal interests for a cause, that bring about revolutions. It may well be that James’s ideals were as noble as those of William; perhaps they were nobler. William took over the government from James not because he was the more dedicated man but because he was the stronger character. The price that he paid for his victory was in effect to accept restrictions on the authority of the executive and to acknowledge the power of Parliament. Whether that was to make this historic episode into a Glorious Revolution is a question of opinion or of definition. It undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of parliamentary democracy in England and of a balanced constitution in the United States of America.