The 1688 Glorious Revolution, sometimes known as the “Bloodless Revolution,” represented a culminating stage in Britain’s tumultuous 17th century history, a history characterized by the struggle between king and Parliament, and most notably, between Catholic and Protestant.
The crisis of 1688 came about following the succession of James II to the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685. James was a committed Catholic; he hoped to strengthen the Catholic position if not restore it and return lost powers to the monarchy. James also wanted to transform and expand the army, which was dominated by a Protestant officer corps of aristocrats and gentlemen. James desired more Catholic officers whose loyalty was to the Crown. A more Catholic army might help him pursue his political agenda. This agenda brought him into conflict with the Test Act, passed under Charles II, which required all those seeking military or civil posts to accept the Anglican Church and its teachings.
Following the earlier suppression of the Monmouth and Argyll rebellions, James was emboldened and started his campaign to reject the Test Act, and appointed Catholic loyalists to key state and university positions. He issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which ended penal laws against Catholics, and followed this with a Second Declaration of Indulgence in 1688, which furthered the pro-Catholic policy and led to unrest among his bishops, and the alienation of both the Tories and Whigs in Parliament. James increased the political divides within the country, and when his wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son on June 10, 1688, there was now the prospect of a Catholic succession.
The conspiracy to overthrow James began in earnest, and a mixed Tory and Whig parliamentary group approached the Dutch prince, William of Orange, and his wife, Mary, the Protestant daughter of James, to go to England to assume the throne. William agreed to accept the Crown in order to gain English resources for his war against Louis Xiv of France. William landed at Brixham, near Torbay in Devon, on November 5, 1688, with an army of some 14,000 composed mainly of Dutch, Brandenburger, Finnish, Swedish, and French troops. Although James’s army stationed on Salisbury Plain had double the manpower, his confidence failed, and on November 23, he withdrew toward London.
His meddling with the army now took its toll and many of his men deserted, including Lord Churchill (later duke of Marlborough), so that by December 10, his force was reduced to approximately 4,000 men. Lord Feversham, James’s leading commander, interpreted the situation as hopeless and disbanded his army without a fight. On December 17, Dutch Guards took over Whitehall, the seat of government, and James attempted to flee the country. He was captured in Kent, but eventually was allowed to leave England. The taste for further regicide had passed.
In 1689, a Convention of Parliament decided that James’s departure was an abdication. William and Mary could now accept the throne on February 13, 1689, as legitimate joint rulers. To prevent future disruptions of this sort, Parliament passed a Declaration of Rights and a Bill of Rights in 1689. These acts redefined the monarch’s position and authority in regard to his/her subjects, ending absolutism and any possibility of a Catholic monarchy. This redefinition of power created a constitutional monarchy, the form of government that continues today.
James however was not finished with his struggle to regain the throne. In 1689–90 he turned his attention to Scotland and Ireland, where he hoped to exploit nationalist and Catholic feeling. This first Jacobite rebellion in Scotland failed, and it led to the construction of Fort William to subdue the region. In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with French troops thinking it would become a base to retake England. At Enniskillen, the Jacobites were pushed back. In June 1690, William landed his forces in Ireland and encountered James’s army at the Boyne on July 1, 1690. William outflanked the Jacobite army, who were forced to retreat, while James once more fled to France. The remnants of James’s army continued to struggle on. They suffered further defeat at Aughrim on July 12, 1691, before surrendering totally that October.
The Glorious Revolution, according to some historians, was more of a coup d’etat than a revolution proper and might better be described as the Revolution of 1688. The after-effects were not bloodless. The revolution helped seal English rule over Ireland, the seed of future unrest. However, its most lasting effects were constitutional monarchy, the end of absolutism, and the ascendancy of Parliament as the nation’s paramount political force.
Theodore W. Eversole