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What Is The Glorious Revolution?

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Throughout the centuries and decades leading up to the Glorious Revolution, there was an increasingly noticeable conflict between both the Protestants and Roman Catholics within Britain. In England, it was largely believed for quite some time that the Catholic Church was corrupted beyond repair. Those in power also felt that papal authority, as the Pope had the power to excommunicate, was undermining the power of the monarch and as a result making England inferior to other nations such as France and Spain. Due to this many British citizens had a great distaste for Catholicism and matters took a turn for the worse with the enthronement of King James II. Shortly after James II took the crown he had promised to show favoritism to neither the Protestants nor the Catholics. Over the years however the King implemented policies that openly encouraged people to convert to Catholicism, and he began removing Protestants from power only to replace them with Catholics. There was then a popular revolt in which William of Orange invaded and, with the support of most of the British people, took the throne. The Glorious Revolution, which is one of the few stains on British history, was a classic story of an abusive monarch, a religious conflict, and a subtle vying for power which has rarely been seen since.

The Glorious Revolution truly was a turning point in British history. One the one hand, there was a long history of absolutist monarchy within Britain, but on the other hand Britain has been known ever since to be a limited, constitutional monarchy. The line that divides the two different forms of government is the revolution itself. Britain could only be what it is today if the events during this revolution occurred. Yet before this revolution Britain was a nation that few today would be able to recognize. England through the years of 1685-1688 was not yet industrialized, and the economy essentially rested upon its agrarianism and pastoralism. It was a nation of only five and a half million people, but they were people who wanted a reasonable government and were unwilling to allow themselves to be oppressed in any way. [1] It was because of this that the form that the Revolution took was so vastly different than what we typically associate with the downfall of a government by coup d'etat. This revolution was entirely unlike what we think of when we analyze the American Revolution, the French Revolution, or the October Revolution all of which came after and were far bloodier. The historian and scholar George Macauley Trevelyn wrote in his book The English Revolution: 1688-1689 that, "The expulsion of [King] James was a revolutionary act, but otherwise the spirit of the revolution was the opposite of revolutionary. It came to overthrow the law, but to confirm it against a law-breaking king. It came not to coerce people into one pattern of opinion in politics or religion but to give them freedom under law." [2] David Ogg also noted in his biography of William III how different this revolution was by saying that, "there was not a word about democracy, about the economic betterment of the people, or about the extension of the franchise, but there was a great deal about the elementary legal rights of the subject, rights to which we are now so accustomed that we take them for granted and, therefore, assume that they have never been threatened." The unfortunate truth of the matter is however, that those freedoms have been threatened and some of those freedoms that we take for granted today were threatened by King James II in 1687.

The period of time leading up to the dethronement of King James II was marked by the political philosophy of absolutism. It is the tendency of the monarch to assume any and all powers necessary, whether real or perceived. The kings will, in an absolutist system, is the only will - it is the will of the state. Absolutism makes the state a mere apparatus to achieve the kings own personal wishes and this is best described by the French King Louis XIV's statements, "l'etat c'est moi" (I am the state). [3] Over time however, the monarchs of Europe, and in this case of Britain, began abusing their powers and as a result absolutism came to an end.

The revolution itself began in 1688 when King James II was replaced by his protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William II of Orange. At this point the underpinnings of absolutist government, the divine right theory, no longer held. [4] The king no longer wielded his power simply because of the blood coursing through his veins but rather the will of the people as embodied by the Parliament. This revolution occurred because volatile mix of personal reputations, ego, religious conflict, and abuse of power, but it was made possible by the two parties of England whom facilitated it in Parliament. One of the parties, the Whigs, did not believe that the king should have such unlimited authority, and the other, the Tories, believed that the king was appointed by God through the process of generation and as a result could not be usurped. [5] Most of the English at this time were at least Tories in the idea that the king ought not to be undermined, but this assertion was about to be tested. King James II had put into place many mechanisms which effectively forced the Tories to choose between their church and their king, and by pushing them to far in this he led to his own demise.

These sentiments were not born over night, however, this kind of shift away from monarchical power was in the works, so to speak, for quite some time. In reality, the revolution was the climax of a historical trend of nearly five decades of power struggle. This trend began in the 1640's as the English engaged in a civil war that was fought over religious tolerance and the position of parliament. In time opposition grew amongst a very Puritan middle-class, and King Charles I was dethroned and beheaded. A period of military dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell then came to power. Cromwell and his crony government was radically Puritan and, due to this extreme nature, were not favored by history to be the future leaders of Britain. Cromwell died in 1658 and his regime came to a swift end. What came next was a peaceful period of a republic, but it was short-lived and afterwards the monarchy was restored under Charles II. King Charles II ascended to the English throne in 1660, and he came to rule a nation filled with mixed religious feelings. Citizens during this time that were outside of the Church of England became known dissenters, and during the restoration they were not taxed unfairly as they had been before. Yet restrictions were put into place which prevented them from freely exercising their religion and which suppressed their political influence. The Test acts and others of the kind prohibited all dissenters from taking office unless they met certain requirements. These requirements included but were not limited to taking an oath denouncing the transubstantiation doctrine, and taking sacrament only in the Anglican Church. The result was a great tension between the Stuart kings and the dissenters. [6] 

When King Charles II died on February 16th 1685, there was a great dispute over the line of succession given that the next legitimate heir to the throne was his brother James who was a Roman Catholic. This is when the political parties began developing and English politics began diverging. Those who believed that the Parliament should be able to limit the king began using this religious tension to their advantage and tried, unsuccessfully, to change the line of succession. The Tories backed hereditary succession, and the Whigs supported an active parliamentary stance in protecting Protestantism from the Roman Catholic king. In the end, the Tories were victorious, and some Whig leaders were so afraid because of their opposition to King James II that they fled the country. [7] 

Coronated on May 3rd 1685, King James II took the throne and immediately came across as a king that everyone could tolerate regardless of his religious affiliation. His first proclamation to the English people said that he would abide by the existing laws and would not use arbitrary power over them - this turned out to be a rather bold lie. He had still maintained the remnants power that his brother held, who although not absolutist in the strictest sense, was still able to influence elections. King James' first parliament convened on May 29th of 1685, and unsurprisingly had the most pro-royalty members since 1661. [8] King James was actually so proud of this fact that he boasted that fewer than forty of the five-hundred thirteen members of the House of Commons did not approve of his policies. [9] Then when his brother's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, led an armed revolt against the monarchy landing in Lyme Regis on June 21st 1685, the parliament bolstered itself even further in favor of the king. [10] The memories of the monarchy and old abuses of power were still to recent in memory to allow the Duke to seize power. Worries had developed that if this were to happen it was quite possible for the Parliament to be completely dissolved and this was something that no one wanted. Although abuses of power came in due time, and by the King who had explicitly promised his people that this would not be the case nonetheless.

At this time, there were no real threats to King James II's power. The king's first marriage had produced two daughters both of which were Protestant, and his second marriage to Queen Mary had not produced any children. Thus the Protestants rested well and assured themselves that a Protestant king was almost a certainty in the future. Even the clergy of the Church of England supported the king, and openly preached that he should be supported so long as he kept the promise of his first proclamation. [11] 

The first sign that the king might not keep his promise was exemplified in his retaining the Earl of Sunderland as Secretary of State only after he assured the king that he sympathized with the Roman Catholics. [12] The King then began simply illegally using his dispensing power to appoint Roman Catholics to office even though they barred by law. What this did was effectively suspend the Test Acts which still held the full force of law. He appointed Catholics to positions in the army, in the courts, in the House of Lords, and many local offices. Eventually, people had had enough and a man by the name of Sir Edward Hale was brought to trial on the basis that he held office illegitimately. The court ruled, in a vote of eleven to one, that, "We [justices] think we may very well declare the opinion of the court to be that the King may dispense in this case." [13] This happened only a few months after the king had replaced six of the twelve justices with his own supporters. [14] 

As if things could not seem to get any worse for the Tories, and better for the Whigs, the King issued his Second Declaration of Indulgence just as rumors were circulating about his wife's pregnancy. This declaration granted tolerance to the Roman Catholics and Dissenters, and in it he said, "We cannot but heartily wish, as it will easily be believed, that all the peoples of our dominions were members of the Catholic Church. Yet we humbly thank Almighty God it is, and hath of long time been our constant sense and opinion…that conscience ought not to be constrained, no people forced in matters of mere religion." [15] He ordered that it be read in every Anglican Church within the week, but seven bishops refused, including the Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft, and they petitioned him on the matter. The bishops were arrested, imprisoned, and brought to trial - all to be later acquitted as even the courts had had enough. One of the only surviving diaries that directly commented on this trial was written by a man named John Evelyn and he wrote, "The trial lasted nine in the morn to past six in the evening…they were acquitted…there was great rejoicing. …Bonfires were made that night, and bells rung, which was taken very ill at the court." Sir John Reresby also corroborates this story saying that, "Bonfires were made, not only in the city of London, but in most of the towns of England…the next day I waited on the king…where everyone observed him to labor under a very great disturbance of the mind." [16] It is even claimed that the king said, "So much the worse for them" after he learned of their acquittal. [17] If anything is certain it is that the king was greatly displeased by not having his will carried out without any argument or dispute. To make matters worse, his son was born only a month before the acquittal, and so religious tensions built up as many believed the Roman Catholic dynasty was there to stay. [18] 

The abuses of power that King James II carried out were truly disappointing given his first proclamation as king, but were not something that the English should have been completely ignorant of given the absolutist tendencies of the kings before him. Bishop Gilbert Burnett described the king in his History of my Own Times, "there was the greatest prince, and like to be the best general of his time. …Yet he quickly ran into amours and vice…and in the end of his life he came to lose his reputation of a brave man and good captain so entirely. …He had no vivacity of thought…but he had good judgement where his religion or his education gave him not a bias, which it did often." [19] Likewise, the kings actions are eloquently explained in Francis Turner's 1948 biography of King James II, "[James] desired not only that the power of the king be real, but that it should be manifestly real…[he] valued power as a means to the accomplishment of the passionately desired object of his life: the conversion of England to the Roman Church. …his political and religious obsessions blinded him to the dangers he had to avoid." [20] Those dangers ended up spelling his demise as well as the revolutionary changes came about because of them.

The relationship between France and England also played a key role in bringing about the overthrow of King James II, for his brother, Charles II, frequently turned to the Roman Catholic French King Louis XIV for help. Many years before the reign of James, France had concluded an engagement against Germany with the Truce of Ratisbon. This peace continued as the Germans were preoccupied with fighting the Turks. [21] During this time, William III of Orange began to see an opportunity arising to take the English throne which he had planned to do for some time. William sent Everard von Weede the Lord of Dykveld to report on the state of the English political climate and he brought back news that James' power was crumbling beneath him. William had also had von Weede make it known to the politicians in England, who at that time were quietly planning a revolt, that if enough major politicians backed him he would invade. On the same day that the seven bishops were acquitted, William received a letter signed by seven politicians, both Whig and Tory, inviting him to invade England and he made the decision to do just that. By 1688, just as James' power was beginning to be undermined, and it appeared as though the French wanted to exploit the Germans and conquer the Rhineland. [22] Germany realized this threat and became furious at the France. France and Germany engaged in war, and this kept the French monarchy from giving support to James. The time was finally ripening for William's invasion of the British Isles.

On November 5th, which is ironically the anniversary of the Gunpowder Treason against King James I, William III landed in Devonshire. Public opinion of the king had become so negative that William had bipartisan support in his invasion. This is exemplified by the revolt in Yorkshire that occurred. Lord Danby, a Tory who strongly believed that the king could not be limited, raised up an English army that openly supported William. In fact, many army officers who were not put into power by James chose to support William. Seeing his eminent removal from the throne, King James tried to avoid the fate of his father and he attempted to flee the country. James was caught in Kent and sent back to London where William allowed him to go into exile in France. [23] James later died in exile in the year 1701 never being able to restore either his power or his name. [24] 

Unsure of how to go about dealing with the self-imposed exile of their monarch, the Parliament chose to announce his abdication of the throne. What this did was allow the Whigs to further boast that they were able to remove their monarch and assert the Parliament's authority over the king's. It also allowed the Tories to maintain their argument that the king never had power taken away from him, but rather that he gave it up willingly - a dubious claim to say the least. [25] It was at this point that the Parliament really began asserting its own power and truly bringing the era of absolutism to an end in Britain. The oath with which William III was sworn in by during his coronation even stipulated that he had to observe the laws that Parliament passed. They then made it such that laws could no longer be "suspended" by the king and passed a series of Mutiny Laws which gave them more stringent control over the military to ensure that another king could not put his own men into positions of military power disregarded laws like the Test Acts. [26] This was not the end of their assertion of power either, they passed a Bill of Rights in 1689 which brought the people closer to their side, they passed the Toleration Act of 1689 which gave religious freedom from dissenters to gain yet more support, they passed the Triennial Act of 1694 which guaranteed free elections every three years to prevent the king from avoiding calling a session of parliament. In 1701 they also passed the Act of Settlement which guaranteed that there was Protestant succession to the throne. [27] 

William III may come across as a man that wished to liberate the English from an "oppressive" monarch. This certainly appeared true to Bishop Burnett who also wrote, "I asked [William's] sense of the Church of England. He said he liked our worship well, and our government in the church…he said that [toleration] was all he would ever desire to bring us to." [28] William III even carried out his promise of delivering religious freedom to the dissenters and stabilizing the religious tensions that were present, but that is not to say he did not take the throne for selfish reasons. William III certainly had a personal agenda, and he brought it to fruition rather flawlessly. William needed as much power as possible to suppress his enemy, Louis XIV, and Britain afforded him precisely that. The taking of Britain provoked France who then entered into a war with Britain that lasted nearly twenty-five years. [29] A coalition of Germans, Dutch, and British against France would surely put the damper on French grandeur which was William's goal from the onset - and it did.

Seeing how William III was using his control of England to put the pressure on France, one must also see that any threat to his power would also subvert his agenda. For this reason, William III needed as much influence over British politics as possible, a seeming contradiction for a man who claimed to be freeing the English from a tyrant. This provoked the Parliament into placing even tighter constitutional controls on the monarchy and which inevitably produced the constitutional monarchy that we see today. [30] No longer did the King have unlimited dispensing power, no longer could he utilize his "pretended power of suspending the laws" without explicit approval by the Parliament, and no longer was Britain plagued by absolutist rule. [31] 

The Glorious Revolution is a revolution of great historical significance because it came about as result of a monarch's neglect of the implied social contract and because it was carried out with no bloodshed, not in spite of these facts. The religious tensions and political necessities that had been growing in England since the civil war of 1660 had finally been relieved and the Parliament finally had the power it desired. In this sense, the Glorious Revolution may be seen as the climactic end of the English civil war. It also has great historical significance because of the highly secularized political philosophies that it spawned. Throughout the revolution, John Locke was writing his Two Treatises on Government, and the ideas that the social compact existed and that the sovereign was ceded power by the consent of the governed were spurred by the great political tumult of this period. [32] Without the Glorious Revolution it is not a difficult stretch to say that Locke may never have written that work and that the Enlightenment Era may never have happened as a result. This short period of time between 1685 and 1689 did have a massive impact not only British history but also the history of the world. Without James II's obsession over conversion, William III's need to retaliate against Louis XIV, Parliament's hunger for more power, and the English people's demands for an end to the madness our world would be vastly different. Those are the reasons why this classic story of an abusive monarch, a religious conflict, and the vying for power are so incalculably important.


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