The Inglorious Revolution And The End Of Absolutism In England

If you had stood near the Thames on December 11, 1688, you might have seen a most unusual sight. A smallish man in fine clothes exits a carriage and hurries down to the river bank. A servant boy scurries alongside him with a sack tucked under his arm. At the water’s edge, the servant opens the sack for the well-dressed man to reach inside and pull out a large, metallic plate. You might observe that this is not just any plate as the man pauses a moment to run his hand sorrowfully along the plate’s edge. And then, as quickly as he had pulled the plate from the sack, he flings it into the river, and waits quietly for several seconds after the splash before returning to his carriage. This is James II, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and he has just tossed the Great Seal of the Realm into the Thames.

We have no way to know, of course, exactly how James dispensed with the Great Seal, or whether he dispensed with it at all. The tale could be entirely apocryphal. But as is often true with apocryphal tales, there is an idea expressed, a detailed lesson boiled down to an essential point that not even a ten-pound book of history could express half so well. The point is simple enough. James and Parliament had radically different views on what constituted legitimate rule.

James was naïve enough to believe that without the Great Seal the government would not be able to function. It was a spiteful act. It was a means to punish those who had betrayed him in favor of his Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange. There was only one legitimate seal and it was at the bottom of the Thames. It could not be recast legitimately without James’s approval. The king had not considered that the same Parliament which had betrayed him for his son-in-law could just as easily betray him again by casting a new seal. And that is precisely what it did. In fact, Parliament did not even consider this to be an act of betrayal because by this point it had come to regard itself as the sole source of the king’s legitimacy. According to the Parliamentarians, James was the traitor because he had so flagrantly acted against the will of the English people; or rather, the will of the people who were supposed to represent the will of the English people.

Parliament had decided that the king now existed to serve Parliament and conveniently forgot that it had existed originally to serve the king. And despite all precedents to the contrary, the English people were starting to agree with Parliament. The people were not yet outright democrats, but they were no longer believers in absolute monarchy.

James was unfortunately not quite clever enough to have figured out this change of opinion; he was one rusty tool in a shed of many sharp shovels and knives. James was so dull that, after throwing away the Great Seal, he could not even think of a proper disguise that would help to smuggle him out of England. The disguise he used is not known, but whatever he had chosen, it could not have been too clever because he was apprehended that same day by some Kentish fishermen. Later, when William of Orange was feeling rather generous, James was permitted to “escape” to France. Perhaps William allowed this because he could not bear to watch his father-in-law suffer imprisonment. Perhaps England’s political situation was much trickier with an imprisoned king as opposed to an escaped one. Whatever the case might be, James “escaped” due to no merit of his own.

So how had England reached this point? Why had the rightful king of England fled in the night like a fugitive and why was a Dutch invader being hailed by Englishmen as the savior of their nation? Why was the whole sordid affair dubbed the “Glorious Revolution” by contemporaries?

I shall attempt to answer these questions with a simple thesis: the Glorious Revolution marks a recognizable starting point for legislative domination in the West. I do not use the word domination lightly. A legislative body like Britain’s Parliament, or any of its many imitators in the world, is generally a much more domineering force than a king. When it comes to sheer domination, nothing can beat a bunch of beady-eyed lawyers with the ability to sign bills into laws. Even the cruelest king will die someday while a legislature is like a slow tumor that will never leave the body politic. If given enough time, the legislators end up controlling the press, the colleges, the soldiers, the treasury, the oversight committee and the oversight committee for the oversight committee.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the British Parliament has received a lot of good press throughout history. The Glorious Revolution has been hailed by both seventeenth-century observers and modern historians as a siren call for freedom. Many smug scholars will assure you that this revolution led to the first signs of liberty in Britain. But I shall claim something quite different: it was a shrewd power-grab by Parliament.

To begin with, let’s examine the causes that led England to betray the sorry King James. If the truth has any value at all, I must admit that James II had been an incapable king. He had no nose for politics, he hated court life, and he had about as much tact as a barrel of gunpowder. Unlike his brother Charles II, the previous king who had been a not-so-devout Catholic, James was unwilling to look the other way and allow the English state machinery to operate without him. He wanted to fiddle with the gears. He wanted to bring back legal toleration for Catholics. In the 1680s, this was a cause that not one soul in England wanted to fight for, except James.

Catholicism had long been associated with tyranny in Britain; many Protestants feared the blood-spotted racks and burning pikes of Queen Mary’s reign would be brought out again. The Protestants proved to be skillful propagandists and sowed this fear in people because they controlled most of the press. All it took were a few grisly quotes from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to get people’s stomachs churning. A wiser man would have realized this, and would have worked subtly to sneak in Catholicism through the back door. James, unfortunately, was not a very wise man.

In 1687, James issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which extended freedom of worship to all religions in England and removed religious constraints for government service. Parliament, which was mostly Protestant, was livid. It was not the religious toleration that made them petulantly want to kick over the whole political pot, these are the precursors to universalists, after all; it was the second part of the proclamation that angered them, the part that gave the king the ability to fill his government with Catholics again. Perhaps this is because Catholicism represented the one thing that could reverse the powers that Parliament had so generously granted itself over the past century: in the minds of most Englishmen, Catholicism was tied to absolutism.

A year later, James ordered that the Church of England read his Declaration from their pulpits, to remind church-goers that they no longer had to partake in the Anglican communion. The foul effect of this proclamation cannot be underestimated. James had not only ordered the Anglican Church to sever its hand from its wrist, he then ordered that the Church itself must do the cutting. The Anglicans were done dancing to James’s tune. Seven senior bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke out against James and penned a furious petition calling for him to rescind his Declaration on the grounds that it was illegal. James in turn sued them for seditious libel. The seven bishops were acquitted in court and James looked to all the nation like a hot-headed fool.

The second cause for the coming revolution was much simpler. James had had two daughters with his first wife, Mary and Anne, both of whom were Protestants. This kept Parliament docile and content because it figured that no matter how much it despised James, once Mary became queen and brought her Protestant husband along from the Netherlands (the previously mentioned William of Orange), any damage that James had done could be easily reversed by his daughter.

The one kink in this plan was that James’s second wife, a Catholic, had become pregnant. The royal couple intended to raise the new child in the Catholic Church and they very foolishly told everyone of this intention. Parliament was tense. If James’s wife gave birth to a girl, Parliament could rest easy because according to royal inheritance laws, the crown would still pass to the eldest daughter, Mary. But fate, providence, chance, or whatever else you might call it, intervened on behalf of the Catholic cause when a baby boy was born in June, 1688. The child was christened ‘James Francis Edward’ by his father.

Parliament could stand it no more. Not only would it have to endure another Catholic king of England, it would have endure yet another Catholic king named James. Several noble families and prominent members of Parliament wrote letters to Mary and William of Orange, “inviting” them to come to England and very cordially reminded them to bring their Dutch army along with them. This was treason, of course.

William and Mary’s army came ashore in early November 1688 and seized Exeter. William, who proved to be a much cleverer man than James, was in no great haste. He suspected that if he advanced slowly on London that it would allow time for the cracks in James’s government to split wide open. He guessed correctly that time was on his side.

As it turns out, most of England was also on his side. By December, nearly all of James’s top army officers had defected and his own younger daughter, Anne, had betrayed him. Unable to mount a competent defense, James resorted to throwing the Great Seal into the Thames, as mentioned earlier, and then attempted to flee before being outfoxed by those previously mentioned fishermen.

So far this has been rip-roaring entertainment, but now you might ask, where are the lessons for the modern reactionary? The lesson is simple but it requires plenty of emphasis in a democratic era like ours: legislative bodies, without proper checks and balances, are always seeking to enhance their power. To prove this point, let us examine in some detail the actions of Parliament just after James was captured and William of Orange marched into London.

Parliament convened without James’s consent. It had no authority to do this. Parliament declared that James had abdicated. There was no statement from James to this effect, Parliament had just decided to lie because the blatant lie suited its own ends. Parliament then declared that, since there was a royal vacancy, it would hand the throne to Princess Mary and her husband, William of Orange. Parliament then tacked on numerous conditions to the throne that William and Mary would have to accept before being declared rightful sovereigns: this became the 1689 ‘Bill of Rights’.

Predictably, the foremost point of this Bill of Rights was that it was illegal for the sovereign to “dispense with or suspend” acts of Parliament. This statement alone was enough to remove the most significant check on Parliamentary power. The kings and queens had become stagehands in the English political theater: Parliament was now the leading player. But the members of Parliament, ever so generous with themselves, had not stopped there. The Bill of Rights also added that the sovereign could not maintain a standing army during peacetime (without Parliamentary consent, of course) and that the sovereign could not levy money (again without Parliamentary consent). The pattern here is quite obvious. William and Mary took the throne by bartering away the bulk of their monarchical rights.

Some might ask, why did James have no champions in Parliament? Why was there not one or two lonely voices crying out on behalf of the king? James himself had been responsible for the icy abandon of his cause.

The Tory party, which traditionally supported the monarch through any crisis, ended up having its loyalty split between the weak King James and the Anglican church it cherished. This had all begun when James forced the Church of England to read his Declaration of Indulgence from the pulpit. As it turns out, by November 1688, most Tories had decided to support their faith over their king. This led to the Whigs dominating Parliament and the Whigs were a party that had for a very long time wanted to see the powers of the king diminished. James had committed a cardinal error: he had tried to split the altar from the throne and lost both in the process.

If perhaps James had tried to refashion the Anglican Church to more closely resemble the Roman Catholic, he might have succeeded. After all, not much separates the two churches that some tact and diplomacy could not bring about a reconsideration or, at the very least, a reinterpretation. But it was not to be.

In 1689, Parliament declared James’s Declaration of Indulgence void and replaced it with an ‘Act of Toleration’. In this new law all of the same groups that had their worship protected in the Declaration were also protected in the Act of Toleration, except for one group in particular: Catholics. Parliament was making sure that an absolutist would never again sit on the English throne. The law had been subverted by the lawmakers. And so it was by Protestant hook and Parliamentary crook, England embraced a bizarre contradiction in terms and forever became a “Parliamentary Monarchy”. The era of kings had finished. The era of bankers and lawyers had begun.

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  1. One other thing – without the revolution of 1688-89, the pan-global British Empire, the midwife of the worldwide liberal order, would not have emerged through the overwhelming victories over the French during the Seven Years War or the struggles of 1793-1815. Throughout the 17th Century, the English crown had considerable difficulty with paying for war, even against a feeble enemy such as the the Scots. Much of its fiscal weakness was its inability to borrow at an affordable rate of interest because its tax raising powers, although real enough, were too limited to pay for it all and lenders doubted that they would ever see their money back. The events of 1688-89 changed this, as it made the landed elite, through permanent parliaments, the co-partners with the crown in the exercise of executive power. So when William dragged England into the war against France in 1689, the nobility and the gentry in parliament would ensure that the taxes would be collected to pay the crown’s debts and interest rates came down accordingly. Even though the Tories were never that enthusiastic about William, they were now inveigled in a fiscal system that they could not challenge without breaking the ship of state, and there was no incentive to do that as Britain gradually bested the French in the struggle for global dominance during the 18th Century.

  2. “James had committed a cardinal error: he had tried to split the altar from the throne and lost both in the process.” Of course, he had no intention of doing such a thing. James wanted to return Altar to the Throne; the Catholic Altar that is. It is true that he could’ve acted a lot more tactfully but his intentions were never to snatch Tories from their faith, but to return them to it, and the whole of England – Mary’s Dowry – with it.

  3. Peter, I mostly agree with your train of thought, which is why I feel the need to offer a clarification on what was slightly ambiguous wording on my part. I stand by my statement that James was trying to separate the throne from the altar because by that point the altar was Anglican. The Tories were nearly all Anglican and, furthermore, they believed Anglicanism to be superior to the Catholic tradition. They had been exposed to too much indoctrination all of their lives to believe otherwise. But here is where I agree with you: James was trying to reinstate Catholicism, thus his plan was not to split the throne from the altar permanently. He had intended to split it just long enough so that he could he kick Anglicanism to the curb and have a Catholic altar put in its place.

    1. There’s a lot of hidden depth here to chew on for reactionaries of all stripes. We pride ourselves on going back beyond the simple ‘conservative’ traditions of the modern-day Conservatives, whether they’re called Republicans or Tories or Conservatives or whatever else in our respective countries.

      And rightly so. As we’ve seen, they conserve nothing.

      But too radical (or rather, too obvious) a departure from these traditions has its own risks, in that legitimacy is harder to secure.

  4. Marcus Montisursinensis April 9, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Just to mention, William of Orange was not the James’s son-in-law. He was also his nephew, the only child of his eldest sister.
    When Henry of Gloucester, the youngest brother of Charles II and James II died childless in 1660, and when William’s own mother died the same year, the 10-year-old William become second in the line to succeed Charles II, immediately after James. With the subsequent birth of Mary and Anne, who were raised as Protestant, it was a natural move for the Protestants in the Parliament to have Mary marry William: a Protestant and next male person in line after her, provided that no legitimate sons were born to James.
    (likewise, Louis XI had her daughter, St Joan, marry her distant cousin, Louis of Orleans, next in the line after his own son, Charles (VIII); Charles VIII would eventually die childless and Louis would become Louis XII;
    the same Louis XII, who had only daughters, had his eldest daughter, the heiress of Brittany through her mother, marry his nephew and successor, Francis I, so that Brittany merged with the Crown through Henry II)

  5. I think you’re underestimating both James’ plans for a precipitous romanization of England and how seriously the English hated and feared these plans. You realize he didn’t just promote some narrow sense of “religious toleration”, right? His plan was to extend full toleration to papists while simultaneously reinstating the death penalty for any Protestant who held religious meetings outside the established Churches. You describe the “Protestant majority” in Parliament as though this were some kind of demographic fluke, but England was 98% Protestant at the time! Meanwhile his purge of Protestants from Court was so thorough that he purged his own brothers-in-law… not the kind of leadership that inspires confidence. (Remember: 98%!)

    Meanwhile the Anglicans had been through a war, in living memory, instigated by a spiral of suspicion between a king who seemed (to his enemies) determined to keep his freedom to romanize a Protestant country and a Parliament determined to deny it to him. The result was that they were accustomed to war breaking out on far lighter pretexts than what James II actually offered. And indeed, a good part of restoring political equilibrium during the Restoration was establishing mutually agreement that no one, neither the sainted Charles I nor any other, could possibly want to do something as heinous as bring Jesuits and papism into England.

    Political turmoil under James II was so inevitable I think much of the blame has to fall on Charles II. He was certainly right to demand the prerogative to determine the royal succession, but he used his power poorly. He was sufficiently committed to the Protestant Succession to demand that Mary and Anne be raised Protestant, but too weak to control his actual heir (James). If he planned to allow a papist with a multi-decade history of rash foolishness (starting with his marriage to a commoner…) to succeed to the throne, he needed to commit to that path whole-heartedly.

  6. No coincidence:

    I note the resultant increase in financial activity, more borrowings, bigger and better wars. Nothing new in this world, Satan is very predictable.

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