Reviewed by: Edward Vallence
Author: Steven Pincus
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £28
Sir Richard Cocks, the Gloucestershire JP & MP, thought that William III’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1696 demonstrated “the hand of god in our revolution as was in the bringing the Children of Israell out of Aegyptian Thraldom”. Cocks was admittedly a bit of a crank, a man whose pathological hatred of ‘popery’ was seen as excessive even by late 17th-century English standards. But his reading of the foiling of the 1696 plot was echoed in scores of sermons and loyal addresses giving thanks for the providential deliverance of the king. Professor Steven Pincus argues, on the other hand, that rather than demonstrating the persistence of belief in divine providence, the aftermath of the assassination plot represents the zenith of the radical revolution that England had undergone since the landing of the Dutch stadholder William in Torbay in November 1688.
For Pincus, James II’s flight from the kingdom and William and Mary’s subsequent crowning as joint monarchs represent neither a palace putsch nor a political ‘fix’ by the English elite but the first truly modern revolution.
According to Pincus, the revolution of 1688–9 was a clash between two contrasting modernisation programmes, one developed by the Catholic James II and heavily modelled on Louis XIV’s France; the other promoted by members of the Whig party and strongly influenced by the Dutch Republic. While James and his Catholic advisers, despite strategic sops to Protestant dissent, ultimately opposed religious pluralism, William and the Whigs were committed to toleration. While James sought to increase Britain’s international clout through empire and the exploitation of landed wealth, Whigs wanted to create a trading nation that would follow the Dutch in using commerce as the route to national greatness. Both sides wanted a powerful, interventionist state, but while James saw this as being directed largely by the king and his courtiers, Whigs favoured a contractual, participatory model of government.
This is an ambitious thesis, not least because Pincus suggests that 1688 provided the template for all subsequent modern revolutions, from the French to the Cuban. It’s certainly forcefully argued and based on an impressive amount of archival research, but it is not quite as original as the author makes out. This is not the first book to point out that the revolution in England was far from bloodless (though few historians would stretch the point as far as Pincus does and claim it was more violent than the French Revolution). Neither is Pincus alone in arguing that James’s support for toleration was more politique than principled (on this see WA Speck’s recent biography of the king).
Nonetheless, leaving aside the book’s somewhat overstated novelty, this is an engaging read. Though not necessarily the first port of call for those uninitiated in the events of 1688 – it is more an extended essay than a traditional narrative history – this book will unquestionably become a major talking-point among all those interested in Britain’s last revolution.
Ted Vallance’s The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty is published by Abacus