Study Guide by Swansea University Historians


The story of the Glorious Revolution really begins with the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-83. This was the period of a series of attempts by Whigs—the original Whigs—to prevent James Duke of York from inheriting the throne from his brother, King Charles II, the merry monarch who had perhaps as many as 20 children with his numerous mistresses, but no legitimate children with his wife.  The Duke, who was known to be Catholic and to believe in the divine right of kings and absolute monarchy, was mistrusted by many Englishmen at this time because of these factors. During the seventeenth century (indeed since the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth century and the creation of the Church of England by Henry VIII), there had existed a national loathing of Catholicism, so much so that there had even been attempts made to exclude James from the throne. These plots had not been successful, however, and following Charles II’s death on 6 February 1685 the Catholic James became King James II. Perhaps because of the fear that England would return to tumult and bloodshed of the Civil Wars (1642-49) and the oppression of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, when James's Parliament met on 19 May, it was overwhelmingly loyalist in composition. This seeming tranquillity was not, however, to last.

Indeed, when the House was recalled after the summer, James asked the Commons for more money for the maintenance of his standing army. It was a move that would have concerned many Englishmen because professional, permanent armies were feared to be the would-be shock troops of an ambitious tyrant. Large standing armies were associated with the autocratic monarchies of France and Spain, while many Englishmen would also have remembered with trepidation the imposition of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the hated rule of the Major-Generals.

James himself would further antagonise the Commons by asking for the repeal of the Test Acts of 1673. The Test Acts required office holders to prove that they were not Catholics by making a declaration against transubstantiation—the Roman Catholic belief that the change of substance (or essence) by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Christ. Between 12 and 19 November 1685, Parliament declined to repeal the Acts and refused the King extra money, fearing its misuse. Replying to the King's speech, Parliament made it clear that the King's employment of Catholic officers was ‘of the greatest concern’ to them, and begged him to reconsider his request. Frustrated by the House’s intransigence, on 20 November, James prorogued his Parliament.

Determined to assert his authority, the King pressed on. In April 1686 James won an apparent victory in the Test Act controversy when, following the Godden v Hales case, the judges ruled that James II, in individual cases, could dispense with the Test Acts without the consent of Parliament. Worryingly for many Parliamentarians, the King then began to introduce Roman Catholics and some dissenters into the army, universities, and even posts within the Anglican Church. It seemed that those fears emergent from the earlier Exclusion Crisis concerning James’s high-handedness, authoritarian inclinations and disregard for the rights of Parliament were truly well-founded.

Further controversy came on 15 July when an Ecclesiastical Commission was set up, and to which the King's powers as Governor of the Church of England were delegated. This Commission was permitted to deprive the clergy of their roles and soon used this authority to remove Henry Compton from his position as Bishop of London. Compton had fallen afoul of the Commission because he had refused to suspend a London clergyman who had spoken out against Roman Catholicism. When a papal envoy was cordially received in Whitehall, alarm was further spread among English Protestants. It is therefore unsurprising that, throughout 1686, fears grew that James was plotting to impose his own (very much hated) Catholic religious views on the country. Anger would have been further stoked when James began a campaign to appoint sympathetic electors to create a House of Commons that would support his policies.

To further his goals, on 5 April, 1687 the King published a Declaration of Indulgence (also known as the Declaration for Liberty of Conscience), which suspended all religious penal laws. At the same time, James provided partial toleration in Scotland, using his dispensing power to grant relief to Catholics and partial relief to Presbyterians. Coined by the King as a way of curbing intolerance on the basis of religious faith, James's seeming ignorance England’s of long-standing fear of a Catholic insurrection, sponsored by hostile powers such as Catholic France and Spain, in addition to his willingness to use the Royal Prerogative without Parliamentary approval, caused great unease in a country already shaken by his previous actions.

Subsequent efforts did little to abate these concerns. As 1687 progressed, the Lord Lieutenants (the monarch's personal representative in each county) were instructed to call together prominent local people and ask them, if they were to be chosen as Members of Parliament, whether they would approve the repeal of the penal laws, and other questions designed of the same kind. The majority of the Lord Lieutenants refused to advance these questions because they objected so strongly to them. Consequently, in August James dismissed nine of them. Tellingly, surviving answers to the King's questions and documented at the time they were given attest to the unpopularity of the King’s policies. Indeed, there was almost wholesale opposition among the prominent and influential local men who had been canvassed by the Lord Lieutenants.

On April 27 1688 James reissued the Declaration of Indulgence. However, by commanding that Anglican clergy to read to their congregations from the pulpit, he had made a grave error. On 18 May the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops refused to read it and petitioned against the King’s order (history books sometimes refer to these men as the Seven Bishops). In this petition, the James was asked to withdraw his demand, citing the argument that the Declaration of Indulgence was illegal. It was claimed that it was based the king’s suspending power—something that went against the will of Parliament

On June 8 the Seven Bishops were arrested and sent to the Tower of London to await trial. Virtually at the same time--in fact, two days later--the Queen (James’s second wife, Mary of Modena) gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward, Prince of Wales. The new heir was baptised a Roman Catholic, causing consternation within much of the nation.

Certainly, before this, James’s rule could, at least to a degree, have been dismissed as a passing aberration (an albeit highly worrying one) by many of his bewildered subjects. However, the birth of a son gave the Catholic James an heir, opening the possibility of a perpetual Catholic succession and a tyrannical dynasty.  This prospect actually gave rise to ugly rumours that the baby was no true prince but a substitute smuggled into the Queen's bed in a warming pan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the so-called Seven Bishops were acquitted by a jury (June 30), huge crowds celebrated in the streets, burning effigies of the Pope, and attacking Catholic establishments. It was also on this very same day that a ‘letter of invitation’ was signed by seven prominent politicians (The Earl of Shrewsbury; The Earl of Devonshire; The Earl of Danby; The Viscount Lumley; The Bishop of London (Henry Compton); Edward Russell; Henry Sydney (who wrote the Invitation)) which invited William of Orange, Protestant son-in-law to James, to intervene to save both Church and State.

William, who had himself been watching developments in England with increasing alarm, had actually already made his decision to intervene. The Dutch Republic, of which William was Stadtholder, had an intense rivalry with Louis XIV’s France (the two rulers themselves were bitter enemies) and a possible Anglo-French alliance would have jeopardised the sovereignty and independence of the Dutch Republic—itself a Protestant power. Therefore, on October 1 William issued his manifesto from The Hague, listing at length the allegedly illegal actions of the last three years. He proclaimed that, ‘we have thought fit to go over to England, and to carry with us a force sufficient, by the blessing of God, to defend us from the violence of those evil councillors; and we, being desirous that our intention in this way may be rightly understood, have prepared this Declaration...’

William landed at Torbay in Devon with about 15,000 (largely Dutch) troops on November 5. The timing of this would not have been lost on the contemporary English populous who revered November 5 as the date on which another so-called Catholic insurgent, Guy Fawkes, had been caught in the act of blowing up the House of Lords, along with then-monarch James I. William’s landing was, furthermore, the only successful large-scale landing in England since 1485. That said, James still, in theory at least, had his large standing army and thus remained a threat to William and his mainly Dutch army. However, the enthusiasm with which William was welcomed and the defections from James's army that ensued strengthened William's hand. On December 19 William entered London. Previously, on 11 December, James tried to flee to France, first throwing the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames. He was captured in Kent but later was released and placed under a Dutch protective guard. Having no desire to create a martyr out of James, William allowed the soon-to-be former king to make his escape to France on 23 December. Some have also suggested that James was allowed to flee to legitimatise his overthrow—his flight would appear more like an ‘abdication’ rather than the legally complex seizure of a crown by a foreign monarch.

Aftermath and Legacy:

What made in the eyes of many contemporary (and indeed, subsequent) Englishmen the Glorious Revolution just that—a ‘glorious’ or ‘bloodless’ revolution—was the manner in which the situation unfolded after William’s landing and the ‘abdication’ of James II. William did not take the crown on his own authority, like his namesake William the Conqueror had done in 1066.  Instead, Parliament dissolved itself and then reformed itself as a Convention—ostensibly a convention of the people.  It was that convention that offered the crown to William in February 1689, and set the terms on which William would rule.  The Convention also published a Declaration of Rights, later passed by Parliament as the Bill of Rights, that listed the unacceptable misdeeds of James II, and asserted the necessity of free elections, frequent Parliaments, and various other liberties. 

It should be added here that there are limitations on the degree to which we (today) should view the Glorious Revolution as ‘revolutionary’.  Despite the fact that the Convention was supposedly a meeting of the people, it was still the case that very few English people at this time—the late seventeenth century—would have explicitly supported the notion of the sovereignty of the people.  William III certainly did not believe that he owned his authority to the Convention, or to Parliament, and certainly not to the people.  Furthermore, High Tories would continue to believe in the idea of the Divine Right of Kings for another generation. 

For this reason, many feared that too strong an assertion of the idea of popular sovereignty, the sovereignty of the people, might result in a reversion to the civil wars that occurred between 1642 and 1651, in which some 10% of the English population lost their lives.  So it was that moderate Whigs subsequently advanced a rather less revolutionary theory of what happened in 1688-89, one that rested on Parliamentary sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty. According to this view, the Convention and Declaration of Rights did not promote natural rights or a right to revolution, but argued that James’s abuses of the people’s liberties, property, and religion absolved them of a duty of loyalty to him, so that when he ‘abdicated’ and moderately Whigs stressed that he abdicated and was not overthrown - Parliament, not the people, but Parliament, was entitled to restore ancient customs and laws by offering the crown to William. 

In practical terms, what this meant was the creation of the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’; or, as it was more commonly called, the ‘King in Parliament’.  That idea was based upon what was called the ‘Principle of Co-ordination’: the idea and the practice that the king, or at least his Prime Minister, exercised control of Parliament by virtue of controlling a majority of MPs.  And that is how the British constitution still works.  The Prime Minister holds their position by virtue of controlling a majority of MPs.

There were critics of this idea.  One of them was the philosopher John Locke, whose Two Treatises on Government was published in 1691, though written earlier, made the case for popular sovereignty.  Later on, ‘Real’ Whigs or ‘True’ or ‘Country’ Whigs, as they variously called themselves, in opposition to the ‘Court’ Whigs aligned with Prime Minister Robert Walpole from 1721, condemned the use of patronage as a means of achieving ‘co-ordination’ as conspiratorial and corrupt.  Among the most strident critics were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, in their pseudonymous Cato’s Letters (1724). 

Nevertheless, most people accepted that some means of achieving governmental stability was essential, or at least acknowledged that the accommodation of crown and Parliament was vastly preferable to the struggles and bloody strife that had afflicted the country throughout most of the seventeenth century, during the reigns of James I and Charles I and of course during the civil wars of 1642 to 1651;  and then, in turn, the Interregnum of 1649-1660, the Restoration of 1660, the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, and finally yet another revolution in 1688.   Also, in many people’s minds, the post-1688 constitution not only created stable and effective government, but simultaneously guaranteed the rights and liberties of freeborn Englishmen (from 1707, Britons).