The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Glorious Revolution

The events of 1688–1689, during which James II was deposed by Parliamentary authority and force of arms in favor of his daughter Mary II and her husband William III of Orange, are collectively known as the Glorious Revolution, although, properly speaking, it was not so much a revolution as it was a coup d’état. The Stuart restoration of 1660, which placed Charles II, son of Charles I, on the throne, brought in its wake a resurgence of distrust in the Crown. Charles II, like his father and grandfather, was dismissive of Parliamentary concerns about his policies, both political and ecclesiastical. Although it had been firmly established that the appropriation of all monies was in Parliament’s hands, control over how taxes were expended was still left to the King and his ministers. What particularly incensed Parliament was Charles’s sympathies with Roman Catholicism, which was equated by most Englishmen with the most primitive levels of superstition and political oppression. Indeed, it was felt that inasmuch as Catholics owed their primary allegiance to the Pope, they would be prepared at any point to betray their country should they be ordered to do so by the Church. Under these circumstances, any movement toward the toleration of Catholics was politically impossible, and Charles’s attempts in this direction were bitterly resented.

At the urging of a Royalist Parliament (the remnants of the Long Parliament) that had invited Charles to resume the throne, the King had agreed to enact a series of measures passed between 1661 and 1665, known as the Clarendon Code, that effectively reestablished the supremacy of Anglicanism in England and placed those who embraced Nonconformism on a par with Roman Catholicism. The first of these measures, the Corporation Act, which was aimed primarily at the large number of Presbyterians who held office in the cities and boroughs, provided that no one could be elected to municipal office unless he had in the previous 12 months received the sacraments according to the rites of the Church of England. Other statutes made the Book of Common Prayer compulsory in all religious services (the Act of Uniformity), prohibited meetings of more than five people for unauthorized religious purposes (the Conventicle Act), and forbade all Nonconformist ministers from coming within 5 miles of any incorporated town (the Five Mile Act). Although Charles appears to have had few compunctions about imposing these disabilities on Nonconformists, they conflicted with his Roman Catholic leanings, which grew in strength throughout his reign. Indeed, Charles attempted to suspend these statutes in 1672 by a Declaration of Indulgence, which would have extended toleration to both Catholics and Dissenters, but he was forced by Parliament to withdraw it in the following year.

In 1670, Charles entered into negotiations with Louis XIV of France, the outcome of which was the secret Treaty of Dover. When Charles ascended the throne in 1660, Parliament had agreed to supply the Crown with an annual payment of £1,200,000, but this amount was apparently insufficient because the Crown ran a persistent annual deficit of between £400,000 and £500,000. One of the principal aims of the Treaty was to free Charles from financial dependence on Parliament for additional revenues. The Treaty of Dover provided that Charles would receive a generous subsidy from France in return for joining an alliance against the Dutch. In addition, he promised that he would, at some convenient point, publicly declare that he had reconciled himself with the Church of Rome. Louis further agreed to loan Charles 6,000 French troops should the British rebel at the announcement of Charles’s conversion. Even without knowledge of these treasonous provisions, Parliament regarded the alliance with France as repugnant and responded by enacting the Test Act, which compelled all government officials and military officers to receive communion according to the Anglican rite.

Anti-Catholic feeling was so widespread that when, in 1678, Titus Oates, an Anglican minister, claimed that he had uncovered a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles and establish Catholicism in England, panic ensued throughout the country. Anti-Catholic feeling was especially intense in London, where it was rumored that Jesuits had been responsible for the Great London Fire of 1666. Eighty people were arrested, among them five Catholic lords who were sent to the Tower. Sixteen men were tried and executed in direct connection with this “Popish Plot,” in addition to eight Catholic priests, among them the Bishop of Armagh, whose only crime appears to have been that they were Catholic. Oates even implicated Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s queen consort, of attempting to poison the King, but she was protected from the charge by Charles. The anti-Catholic party in Parliament (the Whigs) under Anthony Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, seized the occasion to introduce an Exclusion Bill that was designed to bar Charles’s Catholic brother, James, from succeeding to the throne, but the bill failed of passage when Charles dissolved Parliament. Oates himself, a repellent liar and cheat, was for a time lauded and granted an allowance by Parliament until it was proved that he had manufactured his charges out of whole cloth.

Although Charles had several children, none was by his wife. As a result, the succession would normally pass to his brother, James, Duke of York, a zealous Catholic. Parliamentary attempts to exclude James from the throne were frequent and gained in intensity over the last years of Charles’s reign. Although Charles had apparently converted to Catholicism in 1670, the conversion was secret, and no attempts were made to overthrow him. What concerned most Englishmen, however, was that James had openly embraced Catholicism in 1669, had married a no less devout Catholic, Mary of Modena, and had no intention of denying his faith. When the Test Act was passed in 1673 barring Catholics from holding office, James chose to resign as Lord High Admiral and went abroad.

Parliament made several attempts, in 1680 and again in 1681, to pass an exclusion act that would change the order of succession should Charles not bear an heir, but they failed when Charles was able to dissolve Parliament before it had finally acted. In 1683, a conspiracy to assassinate both Charles and James as they passed Rumbold’s Rye House, on the road between Newmarket and London, failed because the King had changed his travel plans. The facts of what became known as the Rye House Plot are somewhat cloudy, but it appears to have been related to several schemes discussed by the conspirators to foil the succession. Implicated in the plot were Arthur Capel, First Earl of Essex, at one point a high-ranking minister in Charles’s cabinet; William, Lord Russell, one of the leaders in the Commons to exclude James from the throne; James, Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II and Lucy Walters; and Algernon Sidney, the great republican publicist. Essex committed suicide, Russell and Sidney were executed, and Monmouth was exiled and took refuge in the Netherlands. What the conspirators sought, indeed what was sought by all those who opposed the succession of the Duke of York, was that the throne would pass either directly to Mary, an unwavering Protestant, wife of William of Orange and daughter of James by his first wife, Anne Hyde, or to Charles’s illegitimate son, Monmouth. These alternatives would have avoided the anomaly of having a Catholic as titular head of the Church of England.

On February 6, 1685, Charles II died, and the Duke of York ascended the throne. Evidence shows James to have been so totally inept a king that he managed to alienate almost all segments of the English population during this 3-year reign. Within a matter of months of his accession, the Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion to wrest the Crown from his uncle. Landing with only 82 followers at Lyme Regis in the west of England, where his popularity was strongest, he soon raised a ragtag army of almost 6,000 men, but these forces proved no match for James’s troops, and he was routed at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. Monmouth was captured and beheaded at the Tower ofLondon in July. James dispatched the Lord Chief Justice, George, First Baron Jeffreys, who had earlier sentenced Russell and Sidney to death, to the West Country to exact revenge against those who had rebelled against him. The “justice” meted out by Jeffreys was so savage that the trials over which he officiated became known as the Bloody Assizes. Between 150 and 200 rebels were executed, and several hundred others were ordered sold into slavery and shipped to the colonies. This despicable man was not above personally profiting from his position, regularly extorting money from his victims.

Time and again, James’s policies rode roughshod over Parliament’s directives. He raised Jeffreys to the position of Lord Chancellor; he appointed a number of Catholics to senior positions in the English armed forces and in the universities, contrary to English law; and he increased the size of the military and ordered elements of the army to camp on the edges of the capital, thus threatening the city. He reestablished the Court of High Commission, an ecclesiastical prerogative court that had been abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641. In 1685, he prorogued a hostile Parliament, and 2 years later, he issued a Declaration of Indulgence, lifting the disabilities under which English Catholics and Dissenters suffered. When seven bishops of the Anglican Church, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, petitioned that he reconsider, they were charged with seditious libel and sent to the Tower of London. Although they were acquitted by a sympathetic jury, the effect of James’s actions was to shift the ministry of the Anglican Church from its earlier position of neutrality to open hostility to his reign.

On June 10, 1688, Mary of Modena gave birth to a male heir, whose claim to the throne took precedence over those of his half-sisters, Mary and Anne. Both Whigs and Tories were fearful that this birth would mark the beginning of an ongoing Catholic dynasty in England. As a consequence, on June 30, 1688, five peers and two commoners, acting on behalf of Parliament, invited Mary, James’s eldest daughter, and her husband, William of Orange, to assume the throne. On November 5, the Prince of Orange landed at Brixham with an army of 15,000. Rather than take up arms in what would have clearly been a failing cause, James chose to flee the country in December, was captured, and was allowed to escape to France. On January 28, 1689, a Convention of Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons declared that James had abdicated the throne, and he was succeeded by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange.

The events of 1680–1690 were to have a profound effect on English politics. The Revolutionary Settlement of 1689 established once and for all that Parliament and not the Crown had precedence in all political matters up to and including the succession. These events produced a mass of political literature, none more powerful than Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government and John Locke’s Treatises of Government. With respect to Locke’s Treatises, although the first and second treatises were published in 1690 as two distinct works, the second of which was to be taken as an apologia for the Revolutionary Settlement that had already occurred, current research has shown them to be two parts of a unitary essay with the middle missing. Evidence appears to indicate that the work was actually written in the early 1680s, during a period when the Whigs were plotting to alter the succession to the throne and that it was in fact a call for revolution. If this theory is true, then the middle sections of the work, composed before Locke left England for Holland in 1682 and destroyed before his departure, must have been explicit in this respect. It follows that the essay should be taken as a far more radical treatise than many commentators have suggested.

Sidney’s essay, like Locke’s Treatises, maintained that all mankind was, by virtue of their humanity, free beings possessed of certain rights that governments transgressed at their peril, that kings owed their authority to the consent of those over whom they governed, that this authority must be validated by the people, and that all members of society, including the king himself, were subject to the same laws. Should the sovereign contravene the law, the people have the right to replace him. Although Sidney was executed in 1683, his Discourses were not published until 1698. They became extremely popular and were regarded by the American colonists, along with Locke’s Treatises, as providing the philosophical foundations of government and of the nature of political obligation.


Further Readings

Clark, G. N. The Later Stuarts, 1660–1714. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Grell, Ole Peter, Jonathan I. Israel, and Nicholas Tyacke, eds. From Persecution to Toleration: The Glorious Revolution in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Haley, K. H. D. Politics in the Reign of Charles II. New York: Blackwell, 1985.

Jones, J. R. The Revolution of 1688 in England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.

Ogg, David. England in the Reign of Charles II. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

———. England in the Reigns of James II and William III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Trevelyan, George M. The English Revolution, 1688–1689. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Originally published .