Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Glorious Revolution

William III
by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain
There is a useful account and analysis on the History of Parliament site.

The decision to invade

When did William decide to invade England? By April 1688, that is, before the birth of the Prince of Wales, William told Admiral Edward Russell, then visiting his palace at Het Loo, that he was considering an English invasion. He had come to believe that James’s actions were threatening the monarchy. He believed that an English republic would be a disaster for Holland; another Cromwell, bent on colonial expansion and commercial enterprise, would have ruined his whole European strategy, which was to protect the United Provinces (the Netherlands) from the ambitions of Louis XIV.
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud .
William's life was devoted
to resisting his territorial
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

In June, William sent an emissary to England on the pretext of a congratulatory message on the birth of the prince. The real purpose was to procure the letter of invitation from ‘the immortal seven’. But the invitation was vaguely worded and there is no evidence that the signatories were inviting William to seize the throne.

The invasion

In July 1688 he began to assemble a huge expeditionary force that ultimately comprised 463 ships, 5,000 horses, and some 14,000 men, though neither France nor England knew of his intentions.  But the odds against a successful invasion were great.

On 28 September he told the Dutch Parliament, the States-General of his plan to invade England.  Perhaps it was already his intention to seize the throne, but he could hardly make public this intention so the pretext was that he wanted to force James to summon a parliament.

William’s fleet sailed on 20 October but was forced back by a terrible storm and had to wait for an easterly wind. On 1 November it set sail a second time. Driven by a north-east wind (‘the Protestant wind’) the fleet sailed up the Channel and landed at Torbay on 5 November. (The same wind trapped the English fleet in the Thames estuary.) At first his experience seemed to replicate Monmouth’s - he was welcomed by the common people, but the gentry stayed at home. But four days later he entered Exeter and the tide began to turn in his favour. The army defections began on 16 October. On 21 November he began a slow march towards London.

James's flight

 If James had kept his head, he might have been able to rally his supporters. But at Salisbury on 23 November he lost his nerve.  Instead of marching out to meet William, he retreated to London. At this point his friends John Churchill and the his nephew, the duke of Grafton defected, followed the next night by his son-in-law, Prince George of Denmark. James was especially angry at Churchill’s defection – he had made him lieutenant-general and peer of the realm.

On 26 November James was back in London, where he learned that Anne, in company with Sarah Churchill, had fled from London. By now the trickle of defections had became a flood. On 11 December he left London secretly, intending to flee to France, having sent his wife and son away two days earlier. James’s last actions were intended to produce an anarchical lack of order - especially his throwing the Great Seal into the Thames (between Lambeth and Horseferry). But this played into William’s hands. By deliberately creating a governmental vacuum he forced even the most loyal politicians into taking action to preserve government order. The threat of chaos made William the indispensable agent in restoring order and government.

Unfortunately for William, James failed to reach France at the first attempt. He was captured on Sheppey by fishermen who thought he was a Jesuit, taken to Faversham, and returned to London, where he was cheered by the crowd. William was still some distance away.
The plaque on the wall of
Abdication House, Rochester
where James spent his last
night in England
But on 17 December Dutch guards took over at Whitehall. On the next day William allowed James to go by boat to Rochester in the correct expectation that he would soon escape to France. After staying there a few days, he sailed to Ambleteuse on Christmas morning. Three days later he was united with the Queen and his son at St Germain en Laye.

When William reached London on 19 December he convened an assembly over Christmas to advise him. At the end of the year separate assemblies of peers and former members of the Commons invited William to take over the conduct of government for the time being and to order a general election for a ‘Convention’ to meet on 22 January 1689.

William and Mary: joint monarchs

When the Convention assembled it was clear that the Whigs commanded a majority of almost 90. They therefore held the initiative on the succession issue. The problem was how to reach that option and retain a show of legality. James, now in France still claimed to be king, but in spite of this the Commons decided that he had abdicated, leaving the throne vacant. 

But if the throne was vacant, by what authority was it to be filled? These were in the main conservative revolutionaries who did not wish to be seen to undermine monarchy or hereditary succession. Most still wished to assert that the monarch was chosen by God rather than parliament, and this meant that Mary's claim to the throne was superior to her husband's. The issue began to be resolved when on 3 February William issued a statement that he would be neither regent nor prince. This left only one realistic option: the joint rule of William and Mary (though with William predominant).

On 13 February, the day after Mary’s landing in England, William and Mary went to the Banqueting House where they were offered the Crown.
William and Mary: the only
joint monarchs in British history

© The British Library/Heritage-Images
On 11 April William and Mary were crowned at Westminster by Henry Compton, bishop of London. The absence of Archbishop Sancroft – one of the 400 clergy who refused to take the oath of allegiance - demonstrated the magnitude of the divisions that still existed. In spite of the Convention's denial, the the line of male primogeniture had been broken and the new monarch’s authority rested upon military might and upon the wishes of the majority of the political elite. No-one was fully comfortable with this position and some were implacably opposed.

The Bill of Rights

Immediately before the formal offer of the Crown on 13 February, the Commons had presented William and Mary with the Declaration of Rights. Though at that stage William ignored it, later in the year it was translated into a statute, the Bill of Rights.

The lawyers who drafted the Declaration chose ambiguous language which would affirm the political principles to which they could all adhere. Many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights were aspirations only and the British constitution contained many grey areas. The Declaration reiterated old rights rather then invented new ones and was certainly not an overt attempt to establish a contractual monarchy. There was plenty of scope for varied interpretation.

However the Bill contained one striking novelty: the statement
‘that the raising or keeping of a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of Parliament, is against the law’.

Above all, the Bill established a Protestant succession to the crown. The Test Act now applied to the monarch. In contrast to the European principle of cuius regio eius religio, from this time onwards monarchs and their spouses had to follow the religion of the people. The principle was reinforced in the Act of Settlement (1701) and the Act of Union (1707).

The growing importance of Parliament

After 1688 no monarch could rule as Charles II had ruled. Parliament was a major beneficiary:
1. In 1689 William took Britain into the Nine Years War. As a result, parliament met much more frequently and conducted a much greater volume of business
2. Much politics was party based and rested upon carefully articulated ideologies
3. Because of the Triennial Act of 1694, this was an era of remarkable electoral activity, helping to forge important links between central and local politics. Annual parliamentary sessions averaging twenty weeks became the norm. This changed the nature of MPs’ work and how they saw their jobs.

The Triennial Act was passed partly because Parliament never fully trusted William, and feared that the prospect of peace would make him less dependent on them. But frequent elections were acrimonious, time-consuming and expensive. Between the Glorious Revolution and the Septennial Act (1716) general elections took place every two years. However most seats were uncontested and turnout was often low. In England in 1701 there were c. 118,000 county electors and c. 70,000 borough electors.

The Toleration Act

 In May 1689 the Toleration Act allowed

  1. Freedom of worship to all who took the oaths of supremacy and allegiance and made declarations against transubstantiation.
  2. Protestants Dissenters’ meeting-houses to be registered with the bishop or at the Quarter Sessions. Services had to be conducted with the doors open. The Test Acts remained. 

In effect, the Act allowed freedom of worship though not rights to hold public office to Protestant Dissenters. The exclusive relationship between citizenship and Anglicanism was severed.  By 1710 over 2,500 Meeting Houses were licensed.


The Glorious Revolution is a major landmark in the history of the British constitution. 

  1. Although monarchs still retained considerable prerogative powers, they could never again rule without Parliament. 
  2. A limited degree of religious toleration was established.
  3. As will be shown, the Revolution also had major consequences for Scotland and Ireland.

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