All the efforts, the progress, the confidence built up and settled over many years was in sudden danger. The establishment was reasserting an ugly face and turning for its model towards European despotism. On a small push of the balance one way or the other the fate and freedoms of the nation would turn. The year was 1688.
King Charles II, from his restoration in 1660, with great skill healed the wounds that were yet open from the Civil War and the Cromwellian dictatorship, not by favouring a side but encouraging both, such that both sides thought they were in the winning place. The Puritans were so strong still that it was assumed that the Church of England would be refashioned as a Presbyterian church as under the Protector, but that was defeated by public opinion.
The King kept the peace until his strength began to fade and it was revealed that his heir, his brother James, had embraced the Popish religion and all the despotic tendencies that implied. For three years from 1679, the Exclusion Crisis raged, in which Parliament sought to exclude James or any Papist from the succession, and King Charles responded by dissolving Parliament, only to find new parliaments elected which were even more vehement against James. The crisis ended only after the exposure of the Rye House plot and the collapse of the opposition.
Then in 1685 the King, the peacemaker, died, and all the issues of the Civil War were open again, twenty-three years after the muskets had ceased.
James II was not a popular king and he was at once at odds with Parliament both in England and Scotland. His one advantage was that the Civil War was too raw a memory for anyone to want another. He also saw time on his side: he was a modernist, and the most modern of states in Europe were those operating what they called ‘enlightened despotism’. First amongst these was France, under Louis XIV, James’s cousin. Louis also operated a revivified, militant Roman Catholicism, which again was portrayed as the modern way and had been advancing in Europe. Had James known our modern idioms, he might have said that his opponents were “on the wrong side of history”, and he just had to wait for the older generation to pass away.
This was not 1642 though: under James I and Charles I Parliament had met infrequently and the coming men were used to rule by the King alone, but under Charles II Parliament had been a permanent feature. When James II interfered with elections to Parliament and then dissolved it to assume personal rule, he crossed the Rubicon. Then in 1688, James dismissed justices of the peace throughout England and issued new commissions packing the benches with his supporters, and in this way alienated those who expected as of right to hold rule locally. In Scotland too James predated upon the ruling class – Parliament was dismissed, leading men were prosecuted under ancient, forgotten statutes and new royal decrees introduced, clan chiefs were deprived of authority, and noblemen even had their sons sent abroad to be educated in France.
Unless something happened, the freedoms of England and of Scotland would be lost. The nation would become a European state, remodelled according to a European standard. It might even become a dependency of Louis XIV.
In the autumn the displaced establishment struck. William III of Orange, already a Protestant hero and enemy to Louis XIV, was invited to sail for England. His fleet swept down the Channel, allowed to pass unmolested by the King’s Navy. He landed at Brixham in Devon on 5 November 1688 and by Christmas he was on the throne beside his wife, James’s daughter Mary. James had fled.
Nothing was yet safe though, with a new, unknown quantity on the throne and those who would not forswear the old king still in influence. A new settlement was made, in the Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right, and what we would now call a new “narrative” of history: the king had abdicated voluntarily and as a Papist was now incapable of holding the Crown. This created “the Whig interpretation” of history, which dominated constitutional theory.
This was an almost bloodless change, known as “the Glorious Revolution”, without upsetting the Old Constitution but reasserting it with new, stated provisions, which are still the basis of our constitution.
There were then rebellions, in the Highlands and most dangerously in Ireland, and Louis XIV attempted an invasion which would have landed his cousin James back in England. The settlement was in danger, but with the French driven back both in the Channel and in Ireland, the settlement restored peace. The necessary change had been made and the moment of danger had passed, and seemed settled at last.
- Modern Parallels:
- The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko
- The church in the revolutions:
- Symon Patrick (1626-1707) and His Contribution to the Post-1660 Restored Church of England by the Rev Dr Nicholas Fisher
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- By John Milton:
- By Thomas Hobbes in the Civil War and Restoration era:
- Samuel Pepys: