Written by E. J. Yasir
It was June 1688, and after years of miscarriages, Mary of Modena had finally provided James II with a male heir. Though, given Mary’s gynecological history, it was not long before the child’s legitimacy became impugned. This skein of chatter was the last straw for the Protestant Dutch Prince, William of Orange––thrusting him into action, and unraveling the seamless chain-reaction which would come to be known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
William, who wedded Mary in 1677—King James’ eldest daughter—had been vigilantly watching as unsettling political events unfolded in England, especially for the Protestants. At present, not only did William have the monetary, military, and ambitious means to safeguard England from his father-in-law––he had also secured a signed letter of invitation to ‘liberate.’ William of Orange’s coup d’état was paradoxically supported by those closest to James II—those who over the few years as king, James had managed to lose trust and popularity with, due to his unyielding endeavours to legitimize Catholicism in England.
Proceeding the untimely death of Charles II in 1685, his younger brother James succeeded the throne as James II, with an ideal transition of power––despite Parliament efforts to exclude him. James had come out previously as a Roman Catholic. Foreseeably, in succeeding the throne as a Catholic monarch, James alienated the majority of his populace. Considering the reformation, over a century ago, English men were taught to view Catholicism as unconstitutional, unholy and above all, un-English. James, increasingly influenced by the efficacy and prestige of his Catholic cousin, Louis XIV of France, grew overzealous in his endeavours. The King’s eagerness to convert his kingdoms to Catholicism would result in him overlooking key factors such as the will of Parliament, the bishops, and the will of the English people.
Albeit James was loyal to the Roman Catholic Church––in becoming king, he was henceforth head of the Church of England. With calculated words addressed at his accession, James stated: “I know the principles of the Church of England are for the monarchy, and the members of it have shown themselves good and loyal subjects; therefore I shall always take care to defend and support it.” As Miller points out, the keyword James used was, ‘therefore.’ The word poses James’ support to be conditional––so long as he judges the members of the Church remain ‘good and loyal subjects’, he will extend his support. A subsequent promise James made, was to ‘preserve the government as by law established’. Consequently, having a different understanding of the law––James was adamant in extending his powers in ways he deemed logical. What he failed to realize, was that by extending those powers, he also transformed them.
The righteousness of Catholicism seemed so blatant to James that he was unequivocally certain England could be persuaded. To do so, however, James believed he needed to revisit the legalities which prevented Catholics from competing on the same level as others and implement immediate changes. For starters, The Penal Laws, which forbade Catholic worship, plus all other distinct aspects of Catholic life. Furthermore, the Test Acts, which prevented Catholics from obtaining office or Parliament positions. The solitary way in which James could eliminate these laws was through Parliament’s accommodation to repeal them. Notwithstanding James’ high hopes for the Tory House of Commons elected in 1685––and then later for Protestant Dissenters––he was ultimately unsuccessful.
Hellbent as ever, in 1687 James issued a pair of proclamations called the Declaration of Indulgence. This would ensure freedom of religion, suspend any restrictions to Roman Catholics as well as others, and put an end to affirming religious oaths before gaining government office. James had declared his intention to have all this confirmed by Parliament. While some Baptists and Quakers were willing to comply with James’ wishes––the majority of Presbyterians were hostile. Perplexed by lack of progress, James and his agents fell back on force and fraud. When new magistrates would seem uncooperative, they would be browbeaten and threatened by military commanders.
James was met with opposition from left and right––Tories and Whigs, Anglicans and Dissenters. High Tory squires, Oxford dons, and the Anglican clergy refused to read the Declaration of Indulgence in their churches. William Sancroft, along with six other bishops wrote to the King, accusing the Declaration of being unconstitutional because it overruled laws placed by Parliament. James regarded this as rebellion, and the seven bishops were tried for seditious libel. Although the bishops were later acquitted, the act alienated James further from his Anglican subjects.
James had managed to segregate himself from the majority of his Parliament and many of his Bishops. In spite of all this, James was not at high risk of rebellion. The Whig gentry had been disarmed and banished in 1685, after a minor rebellion led by Monmouth. Furthermore, James had no son and heir, and with Mary of Modena’s history of still infancy and miscarriages, it was unlikely he would. James’ heir presumptive were his two daughters, Mary and Anne, both profusely Anglican. So whatever pro-Catholic operations James had put into effect––would surely be undone at the accession of his Protestant daughter Mary. Suddenly, this ubiquitous understanding seemed not to be, after all. In June of 1688, Mary of Modena, James’ second wife, had given birth to a son. Normally, the birth of a Prince of Wales would have strengthened James’ attempt to reassert his royal authority. Ironically, however, dread was felt by many, as it would seem James’ Catholic threat would remain for another generation.
James’ opponents, his daughters and son-in-law, William of Orange––now among them, would not tolerate a Catholic succession. The youngest of the two daughters, Anne, who disliked her stepmother, Mary of Modena, took pleasure in suggesting that the child was in-fact a changeling and unquestionably not the rightful heir. Rumours began to speculate, and when rumours that the ‘suppositious’ baby had been smuggled in Mary’s bed chamber in a warming pan reached William and Mary––they put an end to prayers for the new Prince in their chapel.
William’s aim was not necessarily to enhance his own power but to protect his wife’s claim to the throne and prevent Louis XIV’s attempt to dominate Europe. This became an urgent affair, and William knew the time to act was now. Due to misleading statements by Louis, William thought he had good reason to believe that James and Louis were forming secret alliances against the Dutch. Furthermore, William had been corresponding back and forth with a group of English nobles. He assured them sometime before Mary’s birth that he would be willing and ready to invade in the autumn, should he be invited to do so. Near the very end of June 1688, William received a letter of invitation signed by seven men––a mix of Whigs and Tories. While the letter William received was the permission he needed to ‘invade’, it was really seen as an invitation to liberate.
William proceeded with his coup d’état without counter-attacks as the assistance Louis provided to James proved to be counter-productive. Despite having somewhat fewer men than James, William’s men proved to be far more adroit and ambitious. It was apparent that William could defeat James. However, William preferred to not go to battle on account of not wanting to harm his father-in-law. As William advanced closer to the city of London, some nobles and gentlemen joined by––others preferred not to commit to one side just yet. Out of desperation, James appealed to the Torie’s House of Commons, whom he had previously snubbed and dismissed from office. The majority of James’ subjects seldom believed in his cause and did not see him triumphant. Despite being in poor psychological shape, James wholeheartedly believed that God was by him. After all he had survived, from exile to succeeding the throne, James faithfully trusted that his resilience was being put to the test.
James’ reality was about to be shaken. The Tories made their commitment clear and began undoing all James had achieved since 1685. There were rebellions in the North and Midlands, of which among them was James’ youngest daughter Anne––a rebel. James’ nephew, Lord Cornbury and his protégé John Churchill, future Duke of Marlborough defected to William. Despite the majority of James’ army remaining loyal. Abandoned by his Parliament, his Bishops and the closest members of his own family––James saw his only alternative was to retreat. William continued to advance and from what happened that November to December, it was both apparent and astounding that the Revolution was far from “bloodless”––as is what the Glorious Revolution is so commonly mistaken for. James II, his wife Mary of Modena and their son, were in due course granted pardon to flee. As co-monarchs, William and Mary were crowned April of 1689––forever to be known as William III and Mary II.
Despite promising outlooks for James in the beginning, he was quickly plunged into a crisis, almost entirely of his own doing. Leading with divine right, and steadfast in his mission to convert England to Catholicism, James overlooked key factors such as the will of Parliament, the bishops, and the will of the English people. As unsettling political events continued to unfold in England, William of Orange watched with hostility. Eager to defend his wife Mary’s legitimate claim to the throne and defend English Protestants, William began to gather the means to invade. Unsatisfied with the monarchy and the state of England, aid was given to William, leading him to a victory. With key players such as Princess Anne, Lord Cornbury, John Churchill, James’ Parliament and Bishops––William of Orange’s coup d’état was paradoxically supported by those closest to James II—those who over the few years as king, James had managed to lose trust and popularity with, due to his unyielding endeavours to legitimize Catholicism in England.
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Miller, John. “Chapter 3-5.” Essay. In Early Modern Britain: 1450-1750. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Schwoerer, Lois G. “Women and the Glorious Revolution.” JASTOR. Accessed December 02, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4050314.
Warren Johnston. “Revelation and the Revolution of 1688-1689.” The Historical Journal 48, no. 2 (2005): 351-89. Accessed December 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/.