Aftershocks - The Glorious Revolution

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001
Fear that generousity to Catholics might lead to a full switch back to Rome sparked the Glorious Revolution

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Battle scene

The prospect of a Catholic monarch filled Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh Protestants with dread. The bloody persecutions of Mary, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the attempted invasion of the Armada were kept fresh in people's minds by an active Protestant press, and Catholicism was popularly associated with tyranny and terror.

Moreover, the actions of Louis XIV of France (who revoked his Protestant subjects' freedom of worship in 1685) associated Catholicism with a system of absolutism in which all authority was vested in the person of the King, and Parliament was relegated to the sidelines. James VII/II could not have picked a worse time to come to the throne. To many Protestants, there was no such things as a moderate Catholic monarch - all were inclined towards tyranny and despotism.

James II may only have wanted to promote the religious freedom of his Catholic subjects, but his actions during his short reign filled his Protestant subjects with fear; at the end of 1685 he formed a permanent standing army and promoted Catholic officers to senior posts in both the army and navy. Many of his closest advisers and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland were Catholic.

Two Declarations of Indulgence granted freedom of worship to Catholics (and dissenting Protestants) and the Anglican bishops who opposed this were sent to the Tower. Local government and the judiciary were packed with Royalist sympathisers.

The turning point was the birth of a male heir in June 1688. While James and his second wife were childless, his unambiguously Protestant daughter Mary was next in line to the throne, and she was married to the continent's foremost Protestant soldier, William of Orange. William and Mary could be expected to reverse James' support for Catholicism, but the birth of a son changed all this and opened up the pathway to a permanent Catholic succession. Decisive action was needed.

In July 1688, a group of leading Protestant nobles and clergy invited William to invade England and save the country from popery. After a short hesitation, William accepted and landed at Torbay on November 5th with 15,000 men.

Almost immediately, James's support disintegrated. Several counties and towns declared for William, his daughter Anne defected as did his leading general, Churchill. At a decisive moment, when he should have marched south to confront William shortly after his landing, James's nerve cracked and he retreated to London at the head of a much larger army.

James fled and was captured by some Kentish fishermen who returned him to London. Allowed to escape again, James went into exile in France and set about raising an army to support his restoration.

James landed in Ireland in 1689 and started gathering Irish support for an invasion of Britain. However, he was decisively defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne and went into permanent exile. His descendants, notably Prince Charles Edward Stuart, tried to engineer a return to the throne but all was in vain - Jacobitism was a lost cause. Mainland Britain was secured for Protestantism- but what sort of political solution would follow?

The Revolution Settlement

The Revolution Settlement of 1689 - 1701 was a more thoroughgoing, permanent and committed attempt at a constitutional settlement than those of previous years. By this time, Catholicism was a dwindling presence on the mainland and Catholic monarchs were, rightly or wrongly, associated with oppression.

Most people supported the idea of a limited monarchy working hand in hand with the people's representatives in Parliament. The legislation which was passed between 1689 - 1701 and which clarified the respective rights of Crown and Parliament still forms the bedrock of British politics to the present day.

The 1689 Bill of Rights withdrew the monarch's right to:

  • suspend or implement laws without Parliamentary consent
  • raise money without Parliamentary approval
  • maintain a standing army without Parliamentary approval
  • interfere with the election of MPs
  • create courts to investigate ecclesiastical issues.

In the same year, the Mutiny Act prohibited formation of a standing army without Parliamentary consent, while the Toleration Act guaranteed limited freedom of worship to dissenting Protestants while retaining the penalties of the 1661 Corporation Act and the 1673 Test Act (which excluded non-Anglicans from public office). Under the 1694 Triennial Act, a Parliament had to sit at least once every three years. No longer would British monarchs be able to govern without Parliament for extended time periods.

William and Mary reigned jointly between 1688 and 1694 and William reigned alone until 1702. William and Mary failed to produce heirs and so succession passed to Mary's younger sister, Anne. Anne was also unable to produce healthy adult children and so, in 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement to clarify who would ascend the throne on Anne's death.

This Act settled the succession on the German house of Hanover (descendants of James VI/I's daughter Elizabeth) following Anne's death. It also stipulated that future monarchs had to be communicating members of the Anglican Church and dissenting Protestants and Catholics were barred. The Act also placed restrictions on the monarch's right to leave the country without Parliamentary consent, annulled the crown's rights to remove members of the judiciary, pardon ministers impeached by the Commons or to distribute patronage to MPs. In the early 17th century, Parliament was forced to listen to James VI/I's tedious lectures on the divine right of kings; now it was writing the 'job spec' for future Kings of Britain and deciding who was eligible.

The efficacy of this legislation and the overwhelming support of most people for mixed government and a Protestant succession was demonstrated by the peaceful and uncontested accession of George I (Elector of Hanover) in 1714. George I spoke no English and knew little of his new kingdoms but he was an unequivocal Protestant who was prepared to engage constructively with both Houses of Parliament. His descendants still sit on the throne today.

William III and his British family

This image of William III and his British family illustrates the continuity which co-existed with the 'Glorious Revolution's' irregularity. William claimed the throne through his Stuart wife Mary (depicted in the backround) and was succeeded by Mary's sister, Queen Anne (1702-1714). The Stuart line died out because none of Mary or Anne's children survived to adulthood.

Civil War: The Aftershocks


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