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  • James Houser

December 23, 1688 - The Glorious Revolution

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

December 23, 1688. King James II has been fired. Well, kinda. When James took the thrones of England and Scotland four years ago, he was pretty popular – but he’s made two big mistakes for an English King: being a Catholic and befriending the French. Today he flees England, just ahead of his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William. This bloodless takeover is known as the Glorious Revolution – though the aftermath is not so bloodless.

The heart of the Glorious Revolution, one of the most important events in British history, wasn’t just a question of whose idiot kid would sit on the shiny throne. It was a question of British politics, of who had supremacy in the Kingdoms, of – well – whether they even were Kingdoms of Scotland and England or one Kingdom of Britain. It was also a question of English identity, since the Protestant versus Catholic distinction was one that still mattered. Finally, the Glorious Revolution concerned who Britain’s enemies were going to be. James II, as a Catholic, was tempted to tow closer to France, but the Protestant turn of his daughter Mary and her Protestant Dutch husband William took England decisively into conflict with France for the next 120 years. It DOES matter who sits on the throne.

King James II of England and Scotland was the last reigning king of the Stuart Dynasty, which had ruled Britain since the death of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth died childless, ending the Tudor Dynasty and resulting in James VI of Scotland also becoming James I of England. This unified the two thrones for the first time in, well, forever. It’s important to remember that throughout this period, England and Scotland were two very separate kingdoms with their own laws, own governments, and own legislative bodies – though they shared a monarch.

King James VI of Scotland, I of England (who we’ll call James I) was an interesting character all around. While probably the gayest king of the 1600s (and he was allegedly EXTREMELY homosexual), he was also a passionate Protestant Christian and personally translated the Holy Bible into English, producing the King James Bible. He also held certain ideas about kingship – that is, that God had given monarchs a divine right to rule a centralized state, and Parliament only existed as the King’s puppet. This went totally against the grain of long-term English tradition, and set the course for the rest of 17th Century. It would be a century full of power struggles between the Crown and Parliament, with the Stuart monarchs constantly jousting against Parliament for the ultimate power in England. Who had the right to rule, the people or the king?

Well, that’s one way to put it. Let’s not get carried away. “Parliament” was far from a representative of the people. For centuries, Parliament has been made up of two houses: Lords and Commons. While the British government of the 21st Century has effectively neutered the House of Lords, back in the 17th Century it still carried serious political weight. Even the House of Commons was full of the rich landowners and high society, not anything resembling popular rule. But Parliament still represented a broader segment of English society than, say, the King and his friends.

Tensions really boiled over under King Charles I. Charles got in the habit of just dissolving Parliament – that is, sending them home, as was the King’s right – whenever he didn’t get his way. Problem was that Parliament was the only source of taxation: no new taxes could be passed without Parliament’s consent. When Charles was forced to recall Parliament because he needed money, and Parliament refused to go along with his wishes, the result was the English Civil War, 1642-1650. After eight years of chaos, King Charles was executed and his son Charles II forced to flee. The monarchy temporarily ceased to exist, as Oliver Cromwell served as the Protector of something like a republican dictatorship of England. Only after Cromwell’s death did Parliament ask Charles II to return to England in what was called the “Restoration,” and he reassumed the throne in 1660.

That paragraph up there contains what could have been a whole series of posts this year. The English Civil War, Cromwell, the Restoration, all of this is a huge, cataclysmic series of events in English history that I basically just danced through like it was old news. But the important takeaway here is that this whole chaotic period of twenty years left many of the key problems still unresolved. Parliament, after all, had invited Charles back – but no one ever really forgot the previous blowup. Charles II and his Parliament trod on thin ice for most of his 25-year reign. No one wanted to risk another blowup, lest another Cromwell and his Puritan goons take over again, but at the same time Charles knew that pushing Parliament too far would be a bad idea. Trying to go full-on “divine right” would ruffle their feathers badly, so he played it cool.

Religion, though, became a wedge issue that greatly concerned the English. The vast majority of England – 95% by some sources – confessed to the Anglican Church, Henry VIII’s old Church of England that in America is known as the Episcopal Church. This Protestant institution was considered part and parcel of English identity, and came with an equal anti-Catholic fear. This went all the way back to the reign of Bloody Mary, the last Catholic monarch of England, who had burned Protestant resistors at the stake. The fear of a Catholic monarch of England was real among the English upper class and Anglican clergy, and this was only highlighted by what they saw going on in France. King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, had revoked previous anti-Protestant protections in his kingdom, massacred many, and exiled even more. For Anglicans in England, and Presbyterians in Scotland, the message was clear: Protestants who gave up supremacy in their own country could face this fate.

This was a problem for two reasons. The first was that Charles II was widely known to be friendly to Catholics – indeed, some suspected him of being a secret Catholic. This was partially confirmed in 1685 when he was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Of course, he asked his brother James to provide for his many mistresses on the same deathbed, so he can’t have been THAT good of a Catholic. But Charles II’s death in 1685 brought newer, more direct problems. If Charles II was a secret Catholic, his brother James II was an open one.

At first, this didn’t seem to be a huge issue. James II of England and Scotland came to the throne with popular approval, if not acclaim. No one was super excited about having a Catholic King, but he was initially accepted for a few reasons. The first was that he was charismatic and popular, and he had led British fleets in their wars against the Dutch in the 1660s. To James II, ultimately, goes a lot of the credit for making the Royal Navy the predominant force on Europe’s high seas. The second reason was that James had promised to respect and honor the Anglican Church. He had his hands further bound by a series of laws Parliament had passed in 1677 and 1681, known as the Test Acts, which forbade the appointment of Catholics to governmental positions.

Finally, no one was too worried about James II because he was in his 50s, and both his heirs – his daughters Mary and Anne – were firm Protestants. The King and his devout Catholic second wife, Mary of Modena, had been childless the last 14 years. Mary and Anne, products of James’s first marriage, sorta hated Mary of Modena the way many kids hate their stepparents. So even if the English did have a Catholic King, it wasn’t going to last long, so everyone could relax.

Not to say there wasn’t SOME backlash against a Catholic claiming the throne. Shortly after James II became King in 1685, a rebellion broke out that challenged his legitimacy on religious grounds. Its leader was James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II and a devout Protestant. Monmouth claimed that he was the rightful heir to England, and encouraged all true Protestants to rally to his banner. Monmouth’s Rebellion, though, was notable only by its utter failure. Monmouth failed to rally any real support, and was beaten by the King’s general John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, at Sedgemoor that same year. He was captured within days and executed for treason.

What Monmouth’s Rebellion ended up demonstrating was that, even if the English weren’t super thrilled about a Catholic King, that didn’t mean they wanted to overthrow him. Almost no one had joined Monmouth’s Rebellion, despite its religious call to arms, including most of the Anglican leaders and high-ranking nobles. So James II actually kinda had it made. He could practice his faith in private as long as he respected the Church of England’s place in society. He didn’t have to bend his own morals as long as he practiced toleration.

But James II was determined to screw up a good thing. James was determined to open the way for Catholicism in England, even if he wasn’t a diehard absolutist, but to many English absolute monarchy was the same thing as Catholic monarchy. (Looking at the rest of Europe, that was an easy conclusion to reach.) In November 1685, several months after the Monmouth Rebellion had been crushed, James II suspended Parliament and began to rule by decree. This was a well-established precedent in English kingship, but it smacked awfully hard of King Charles I, especially when James II began replacing judges who disagreed with his decrees. King James also tried to build his own political party, the “King’s Party,” in opposition to the Whigs and Tories, but this barely got off the ground since the Catholics that were supposed to be its base made up, oh, 1% of England.

But that wasn’t stopping James. As his reign continued, he began to step up open opposition to the Church of England. He suspended the Bishop of London for giving an anti-Catholic sermon, dismissed the fellows of Oxford College and replaced them with Catholics, and in general made many disapproving noises towards the higher ranks of Protestant clergy. But he took this up a notch in 1687. In THAT year he began to make moves to legalize the Catholic Church in England, including the setting up of commissions that would “vet” candidates for Parliament based on whether they would repeal the Test Acts. Most troubling of all, James began to replace the regular Army’s officers with Catholic appointees, and stationed the Army’s barracks closer to the Houses of Parliament.

Two events in 1688 brought matters to the boiling point in England. The first was in April 1688, when James ordered that his new pro-Catholic laws be read aloud in every English church. The Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops refused to accede, so James had them locked up in the Tower of London. This move sent a shockwave across England, which could hardly be unexpected, but it got even worse that June when an English court acquitted the “Seven Bishops” of their crimes, officially undermining James’s rule. The second thing that happened to kill James II’s rule was also in June 1688, when Mary of Modena finally gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward - a son baptized as a Catholic.

By now, the English Parliament was hitting the panic button. Not only was James taking open measures to promote the Catholic Church and infringe on the liberties of Anglican clergy, but they faced the sudden prospect of a continuing Catholic dynasty. After years of reassuring themselves that “this is ok because Mary is going to take the throne when James dies,” now that seemed to no longer be an option. With little alternative, the Protestant leaders started looking around for new blood. Having awaited the ascendancy of Mary, they looked to her – and her husband William.

William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, had been wedded to Mary in 1677. This was a political marriage, first and foremost; William wanted to secure an English alliance against his mortal enemy, the French under King Louis XIV. In 1672, the French and English had allied and launched a massive attack on the Dutch Republic that almost destroyed it; only William taking command at a critical moment had saved the Netherlands from being overrun by the Catholics. With England suddenly in the throes of what looked like a Catholic reconquest, and France looking like it was gearing up for war, William was gravely concerned about the odds of Dutch victory if England and France allied to attack again. If only there was an alternative to James II on the throne of England – at which point Mary probably elbowed her husband in the side and said “Um, hello? Daughter of the King of England, here?” Say what you will, Mary was NOT a daddy’s girl.

It was these two forces – the English terror at a Catholic revival, and the Dutch terror of a new war with the French – that created the cocktail that became the Glorious Revolution. Both the English Protestants and the Dutch nation had an interest in seeing James II overthrown. So while William began to prepare an invasion force for the southern coast of Britain, he began to seek a commitment from the British upper classes to prepare his way. He wasn’t dumb enough to go try a contest with the Royal Navy, so this would only work if the Royal Navy and Army stood by and allowed him to cross. In June, a group of high-ranking English nobles known as the Immortal Seven – including Admiral Edward Russell of the Royal Navy – sent William an official letter stating that they would support his and Mary’s ascendancy to the throne of England.

Throughout 1688, William assembled almost 260 ships and 14,000 men, half the Dutch Army. It had to be quick. With France on the cusp of declaring war, if William was going to do this he had better do it soon, unless he wanted the French breathing down his neck with half his army on the other side of the Channel. James, for his part, was confident in the ability of his Army and Navy to resist any Dutch intervention by his daughter and son-in-law – but this took for granted the loyalty of both services, many of whom had been gravely disillusioned by his pro-Catholic policies. Among them was the Earl of Marlborough, the very man who had secured victory over the Monmouth Rebellion at Sedgemoor three years ago. Despite James’s effort to fill the Army with Catholics, it was overwhelmingly Protestant and was jubilant when the Seven Bishops had been acquitted.

The autumn of 1688 was taken up by proclamation and counter-proclamation, with both William and James loudly stating their cases even as both sides prepared for war. On October 29, 1688, William set sail from Amsterdam and hoisted his standard, which displayed his house’s sigil beside his wife’s cross of England. The Dutch fleet made moves to various points on the southern English coast to fool the English defenders, but was blown away from its initial landing sites by the stormy autumn of the Channel. (Once again, the bad weather of the Channel almost changed history. Who knows what would have happened, had William been unable to land?) But land he did on November 15, 1688, in the bay of Torbay near Devon in southwest England.

William was lucky. He only had around 15,000 men, compared to an English Army of 30,000, and his army was a hodgepodge of mercenaries, for some reason even including 200 African-American soldiers brought from the Dutch colony of Surinam. Louis XIV, as soon as he learned of the Dutch invasion, understood its purpose and got ready to declare war on the Netherlands – but his fleet was far away in the Mediterranean at the moment, unable to stop the crossing of William and Mary.

When William moved inland towards London, however, he moved slowly. While he was confident that his highly skilled force could beat any equal force of Englishmen, he was waiting for the English themselves to make the main effort in overthrowing James. While most Englishmen sat on the fence, waiting to see how things would pan out, James was gathering an army to confront William. Doubtless, it was supposed to be a repeat of Hastings, but this time with the reigning King throwing back the arrogant invader.

But there would be no Hastings, no great battle to determine the fate of England. Soon James’s supporters began to drift away. Anti-Catholic rioting in London undermined the King’s rule, and he soon suffered the major defections of Marlborough and his own daughter Anne, who fled to join her sister Mary on November 26. William and Mary were gathering supporters and cities were opening their gates to them, and the Dutch soldiers were soon closing in on London. After a few brief skirmishes, James recognized that he was done for, as his supposedly loyal Army units began to disintegrate. On December 10, James sent the Queen and her infant son to safety in France while he attempted to escape London. He ended up being captured and brought back by a bunch of fishermen, then confronted by the English nobility, who wanted him to strike a deal with William.

William was trying to navigate this situation carefully. He could not rule England in his own right; it would be his wife that ruled, and despite her displeasure with her father, it would make the marriage bed a dismal place if he captured and executed his father-in-law. William, then, had no desire to take James prisoner, since that would open the can of worms – what to do with him? Instead, William quietly allowed James to slip out of the country. On December 23, 1688, James II left England on a boat for exile in France. William had deliberately paved his way, hoping not to have to deal with the thorny question of a pretender to the throne within England. Six days beforehand, William and Mary had entered London to cheering crowds wearing orange ribbons for William’s dynastic house, the House of Orange.

The “Glorious Revolution” ended up with William and Mary being made the joint monarchs of England and Scotland. It was termed “Glorious” because it had required so little fighting and so little bloodshed; the Protestant ascendancy had returned to England, and all the heartache of earlier times was over. William got his own wish, too, since England would now align with the Dutch against France in the coming war of the 1690s. The English, for obvious reasons, would call it King William’s War.

The fighting was not over. The exiled Stuarts would continue to try and reclaim their throne for another half century. Known as the “Jacobite cause,” the agenda of Stuart restoration was a favorite French tool to try and annoy the English whenever they looked too powerful. The first time this happened was in 1690, when the French landed James and an army in Ireland to try and rouse that country up against England. William had to cross over to Ireland with a combined force of Dutch and English troops and defeat James at the Battle of the Boyne, thus ending the first – but not last – Jacobite Uprising. The final gasp of the Stuarts would come when James II’s grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland in 1745 and allied with the Highlanders to try and retake the throne. He would be legendarily beaten at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, thus ending the Stuart Dynasty’s chances at the throne forever.

What was most important, though, was the long-term effect William and Mary’s ascension had on the British government. Having been invited to assume the throne on the part of much of the English Parliament, William had implicitly given them the final authority on the age-old question of who ruled in Britain. In 1689, William and Parliament agreed on the English Bill of Rights, which permanently curtailed the power of the English Crown. It was made illegal for the King to raise money without Parliament, suspend Acts of Parliament, maintain a standing army without Parliament’s consent, interfere in Parliamentary elections, abridge the debates of Parliament, or dismiss Parliament for an extended period. It also included some other phrases which might sound familiar: the right to bear arms, the banning of excessive bail and fines, the forbidding of cruel and unusual punishments, the right to a trial by jury. All these things came from the ascendancy of William, and as you may have guessed, they would later show up in the Constitution of the United States.

The integration of Scotland into the greater British crown was another important move. Although this would not occur until the deaths of both William and Mary, and the reign of Mary’s sister Anne, the English and Scottish Parliaments had come to see their interests united in defiance of the Stuarts and the preservation of Protestantism against the hated French. The wars with France caused Scotland to cleave closer to England for protection and financial benefit, and in 1707 the two Parliaments passed the Acts of Union. This would permanently merge the two kingdoms of England and Scotland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain, a Protestant constitutional monarchy.

And really, the identity of Britain truly dates back to the Glorious Revolution. A unified British identity emerged from this event, built around a Protestant faith, a combined Parliament, and the “English Constitution” of a limited monarchy and the supremacy of Parliament. Forever after, it would be Parliament that held the reins of power in Great Britain. They had established this right to rule by getting rid of one king and picking another during the Glorious Revolution – with the implicit threat, of course, that they could do it again if they wanted, so you’d better behave yourself.

And that’s why, to this day, Elizabeth II does state visits and rubber-stamps Acts of Parliament, and basically does nothing else. It’s just nice to keep the old family around, for tourism and tabloid purposes.

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