The Revolution of 1688

Following their victory over the Whig-dominated Parliament of 1681, Charles II and his Tory allies launched a multi-pronged attack on the bases of Whig influence.  Tory writers like Roger L’Estrange and John Dryden and Anglican clergy continued to excoriate Whig positions and urge the duty of submission to legitimate kings as God’s vicegerents on earth.  The King used his right to appoint and dismiss county magistrates to purge Whigs from county government.  He and his allies also initiated a series of quo warranto proceedings challenging the legality of the chartered governments of the boroughs, which had been the Whigs’ main strongholds.  A number of prominent Whigs were indicted and tried for sedition or treason, to remove them from the scene and intimidate others into political quiescence.  Prosecutions of religious dissent were also stepped up in England, and even more vigorously in Scotland, where a number of Presbyterians were hanged or murdered by royal troops after an unsuccessful rising in the southwest. 

London was an early and prominent locale for this reaction.  The crown moved too quickly to try the Whig’s most prominent leader, the Earl of Shaftesbury, not waiting until it had remodeled the London Corporation.  As a result Shaftesbury was acquitted by a London jury and escaped into exile in the Netherlands, along with his secretary, John Locke, and a number of other prominent Whig leaders.  But Charles and his supporters learned from this mistake.  London’s charter was the first attacked by quo warranto proceedings, in part because the Crown knew that if England’s largest city succumbed to its pressures every other borough would follow.  The City did surrender and a new charter was issued, strengthening the Crown’s authority over the Corporation and clearing the way for a Tory take-over. The radical Whigs whose mains strength lay in the more democratic organs of City government were marginalized, although not without further resistance. In addition to the radical London joiner, Steven College, the victims of the Tory’s judicial vendetta included Algernon Sidney, the younger brother of the Earl of Leicester and Lord John Russell, from the same family as the Earl of Bedford.  Sidney was convicted largely on the basis of an unpublished manuscript found among his papers, construed by the court as proof of his treasonable intent.

Charles meanwhile began building an immense new palace in Winchester, probably with the intention of moving the main seat of the court away from the metropolis, just as Louis XIV moved the French court from Paris to Versailles in exactly the same period. (This project was abandoned on the King’s death).  He could afford to do this, and to rule without calling another Parliament, partly because of his new French pension, but even more because the growth of English trade had swelled his customs revenues, while retrenchment at court cut expenditures.  The monarchy was on the road to solvency without having to rely on parliamentary taxation, another trend that made a revival of Whig resistance even more unlikely.

When Charles died in 1685 the Catholic Duke of York mounted the throne as James II. He at first appeared to rule with moderation, proclaiming his intention to preserve the existing laws and the Church of England, and calling elections for a new Parliament, which returned a heavy Tory majority.  James’s main rival for the throne, the Duke of Monmouth, landed in western England with a few hundred soldiers but attracted less than 2,000 followers.  Royal troops quickly crushed this  rebellion and Monmouth himself, along with several hundred followers, were executed in its aftermath.  Most were convicted in the so-called “bloody assizes,” a series of trials held in the West to exact retribution for the rebellion.  Monmouth’s rising provided James with an excuse to enlarge his army to 20,000, including a number of Irish Catholic troops now stationed in England.  Although this remained a predominantly Protestant force a substantial minority of the officers and as many as 15% of the soldiers were Catholic, a far greater proportion than in the general population.     

It soon became clear that James was determined both to further consolidate the powers of centralized monarchy and to use them to promote the spread of the Catholic religion.  His model, as a recent account has argued, was his cousin Louis XIV.(1)  He not only worshiped as a Catholic but opened his chapels at Whitehall, St James and Somerset House to Londoners, while permitting the ambassadors of foreign Catholic princes to do the same thing. He promoted the missionary efforts of the Jesuits and other Catholics to win converts and subsidized printed Catholic tracts, while simultaneously seeking to restrain Protestant preaching against the Roman Church, on the grounds that attacks on his religion were acts of disloyalty.  He began pressuring the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge to admit Catholics to their faculties.  When the fellows of Magdalen College Oxford refused to elect a Catholic head he expelled them from their positions.  The enlarged army was billeted in towns across England, intimidating potential opposition.  All these measures were coordinated with a small and predominantly Catholic cabinet council, which replaced the larger Privy Council as the main organ for formulating and enforcing royal policies. To evade provisions of the Test Act, which would have prevented the appointment of Catholics to offices under the Crown, James claimed the right to suspend laws of which he disapproved. In London court supporters led by Sir Joshua Child took over the East India Company, a monopolistic consortium of merchants engaged in trade with Asia that generated huge profits.  Wealthy Whig merchants remained numerous but they were legally frozen out of the most lucrative branches of trade, regulated by Crown monopolies that favored the King’s friends.  In Ireland James’s unofficial deputy, Richard Talbot Earl of Tyrconnel, aggressively promoted the interests of Catholics against the Protestant elite that had previously dominated the island’s government.(2) 

These measures provoked resistance not only from former Whigs but Tories and Anglicans previously committed to doctrines of indefeasible hereditary divine right, who believed the King was threatening their Church and the rule of law.  When it became clear that the Tories would not support the repeal of the Test Act James tried to form a rival alliance with Whigs and radical Protestant dissenters.  The bait was a policy of religious toleration grounded in a  new royal Declaration of Indulgence suspending the penal laws against Catholics and Protestant Dissent alike.  While a few Whigs and dissenters, including the Quaker leader William Penn, did rally to the court, most remained suspicious. James’s agents proceeded with a new wave of quo warranto proceedings to remodel borough charters and engineer a majority for his policies in the next parliamentary by creatively adjusting the electoral procedures in the towns, where most members were elected.  He also purged the commissions of the peace, ejecting Tory landowners and replacing them, in many cases, with men of far lower social standing who seemed willing to do his bidding.

When James ordered the clergy to read his Declaration of Indulgence from the pulpit, a number of London clergy began meeting to discuss strategies of resistance.  At a meeting of leading clergy at Lambeth Palace it was decided not only that the clergy would refuse but that the Bishop of London and six of his colleagues would petition the King against his order.  When this happened James ordered the seven bishops prosecuted for seditious libel. This turned them into popular Protestant heroes.  Throngs of people lined the route as the bishops were escorted to prison in the Tower.  Their acquittal by a London jury on June 29 initiated two days of celebrations in the city’s streets, during which crowds ignited bonfires and attacked friends of the King.  But James continued to control the army and the organs of government and the birth of a son to his wife, Mary of Modena, also in June, opened the prospect of a Catholic successor to consolidate his policies.   

The only way to stop James appeared to be to appeal to the commander of the Dutch Army, William of Orange, who was married to the King’s eldest Protestant daughter Mary, to intervene with force, and this is precisely what a group of Whig and Tory leaders now did.  They promised William that if he invaded England they would use their influence to infiltrate James’s army and neutralize its resistance.  William decided to act on this invitation, less from concern for the English than because he wished to turn Britain from an enemy into an ally in his wars against Louis XIV.  William knew that France wanted to conquer the Netherlands and that James supported this policy, since both monarchs regarded the Dutch republic as a stronghold of Protestant heresy and republicanism, whose dominance of oceanic trade harmed the commercial interests of their own kingdoms. 

William’s fleet landed in western England in November, carrying an army of 35,000 Dutch soldiers and English and French Protestant volunteers.  Unlike Monmouth four years earlier, he attracted substantial support, both from the common people and the gentry.  When a few units of the English army deserted to William, James panicked and attempted to flee his kingdom, throwing the Great Seal of England into the Thames en route, in an effort to cause administrative chaos.  He was stopped by sailors on the coast who recognized one of the men with whom he was traveling.  But William, who had moved into London in the King’s absence and taken over the reins of government, arranged for James to escape again to France.  This ended overt resistance in England (but not Scotland or Ireland) to William and his numerous allies.

William’s triumph touched off large demonstrations in London, as crowds marched down the Strand carrying symbolic oranges on sticks and ransacked Whitehall Palace.  A number of Catholic chapels in the metropolis were attacked and burned or demolished.  The Lord Chancellor Geoge Jeffreys, who had presided over the “bloody assizes” and several judicial decisions favoring James’s policies, was captured by a group of sailors in the eastern suburb of Wapping and almost torn to pieces.  James did have some remaining supporters in the capital who became more active in the next few months: at one point a brawl almost erupted at the performance of Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee between Jacobite nobles in the gallery and supporters of William in the pit.  But the deposition of James II was generally popular.(3)

The Glorious Revolution, as the events of 1688 soon became known, has traditionally been seen as a conservative event made possible not only by Dutch troops but a rare moment of consensus, in which Whigs and Tories buried their differences in the interest of preserving the ancient constitution and Protestant religion.  Recent work has questioned this view.  The majority of the bishops, some 400 clergy and several prominent lay politicians refused to take an oath to the new regime, earning the name of non-jurors.  Although powerless for the moment they provided a potential core of resistance to the new regime, should the political situation alter.  William’s military supremacy also remained vulnerable, since James had the support of Louis XIV, commander of the largest army in Europe.  Louis lent James French soldiers with which to invade Ireland, where Tyrconnel remained in control and the majority of the population opposed James’s deposition.  William successfully countered this threat by winning the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690 but a French naval victory over the English fleet a short time later threatened to negate this triumph, by opening the way to an invasion of England itself.  Only the outbreak of a new European war, in which William formed an alliance not only with Catholic Spain and Austria but the small state of Savoy on France’s southeastern frontier, neutralized this threat by forcing Louis to reposition his army.

Equally important in the long run, the Whig and Tory groups that had united behind William in 1688 remained bitterly divided over a number of issues, including their interpretation of what had actually happened in that year.  Whigs tried to interpret the Revolution as a vindication of the right of the people, through Parliament, to depose a tyrannical king and choose a successor, while most Tories vehemently resisted this conclusion.  In the Convention Parliament that assembled in the wake of William’s victory they attempted to declare a regency under William during the King’s absence in France, as a way to avoid recognizing him as King.  This effort failed, partly because William refused to go along with it, but many Tories continued to have uneasy consciences about the legitimacy of their new monarchs.  The resettlement of the Church provided another bone of contention.  Most moderate dissenters had supported Anglican resistance to James and they now expected to be rewarded not only with greater toleration for Protestant dissent but a policy of “comprehension” that would relax the rules of the official Church sufficiently to allow at least most Presbyterians to enter its ranks.  Some Anglicans, along with the Whigs and both William and Mary, supported these measures but others resented having to make concessions, and the policy of comprehension ultimately failed.  This left an ambiguous situation in which non-Anglican Protestants were now entitled to worship legally in licensed meeting houses but could not hold office, either under the Crown or in the boroughs or receive university degrees without taking communion in the Anglican Church.  Some evaded this restriction through “occasional conformity,” taking communion in an Anglican Church once or twice a year but otherwise worshipping in their own meeting houses.  This infuriated many Tories and Anglican clergy. The appointment by William and Mary of moderate bishops further antagonized “hich church” Anglicans, as did the appearance of tracts that sought to modify elements of Biblical fundamentalism through appeals to reason.  All this contributed to a perception that the Church had been placed in danger, which tempted some Anglicans to flirt with schemes for a Jacobite restoration.

The enormously expensive war against France on which William had embarked—and the still more expensive War of the Spanish Succession fought under his successor, Queen Anne—raised additional divisive issues.  England had long been divided between those who saw the Dutch as the principle national enemy because of trade rivalries and the heretical and commercial nature of Dutch society, and opponents of France, the continent’s great Catholic absolutist monarchy.  The Stuart monarchs and some Tories belonged to the first camp while after 1670 the majority of the political nation, including virtually all Whigs, adhered to the second.  But prejudice against the Netherlands remained strong enough to fuel resentment of a Dutch King and the burdens of a land war fought mainly in the Spanish Netherlands, to secure Dutch frontiers.  The war was financed through a series of new taxes, loans and other schemes that drained money from nearly all segments of society.  But from the late 1690s Whig ministries decided to support it primarily through a new tax on landed income, theoretically set at 20%, and loans advanced by the newly chartered Bank of England and a New East India Company created to compete with the old Tory company.  Both the Bank and the New East India Company were Whig institutions, dominated by relatively small groups of great investors, many with close ties to the Whig ministry.  Interest on the loans advanced by these financial consortiums was guaranteed by act of Parliament and paid through taxation.  Landed gentry, many of them convinced Tories, were therefore being heavily taxed to support not only William’s armies but the dividends of Whig merchants and investors (including, it should be noted, landed aristocrats who diversified into stocks).  The predictable resentments generated by this situation fed into an ideological debate over whether land or manufacturing provided the true basis of national wealth, and by extension whether the growth of trade and wealth corrupted the virtues of a simpler agricultural society or, to the contrary fostered the spread of inudstry and politeness.(4)

Controversies over these issues were further inflamed by an unprecedented number of hotly contested elections, averaging one every two years between the Revolution and the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the collapse of prior censorship of the press and the further expansion of England’s vibrant print culture of political controversy, involving the creation of daily newspapers and a flourishing “Grub Street” industry of pamphleteering.  Rather than resolving the Whig-Tory contest the Glorious Revolution therefore perpetuated it, while injecting a set of new issues into the mix inherited from the Exclusion Crisis.  The Whigs evolved from the party opposed to the Stuart court into the party identified with the Williamite regime, the Bank and the new financial apparatus of the 1690s and war against France, while the Tories became the party of Anglican and landed resistance to the perceived corruption and expense of the new order.  In some places, including London, this led to a serious erosion of the Whig’s popular base of support at the same time that the party consolidated its hold on oligarchic strutures of power.  By the late 1690s Whigs usually dominated the Mayoralty and the Court of Aldermen, whereas the more open institutions of the Corporation, Common Council and Common Hall, often had Tory majorities.  Both parties had their own internal divisions, however, making sweeping generalizations hazardous. 


1.  Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, 2009)

2.  Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 (2006), ch. 3

3.  Pincus, pp. 261-4

4.  The most recent treatment is Pincus, chapter 12. 

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