A not so bloodless revolution

History describes the overthrow of James II and VII by William of Orange as peaceful, and therefore Glorious. But Edward Vallance, whose book on it has just been published, explains that bloodshed, both real and threatened, was integral to the events of 1688

William of Orange landing with his army at Torbay, Devon, 5 November 1688. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On 5 November 1688 the Dutch Stadtholder (governor), the Protestant William, Prince of Orange, landed in Brixham, Devon, with an invasion fleet four times the size of the Spanish Armada a hundred years earlier.

With his sizeable army, William began to march upon London. James II and VII, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, went to meet him but in spite of having a larger force, lost his nerve for battle. Debilitated by incessant nosebleeds that laid him up for days and shaken by defections from his officer ranks, he avoided confrontation. Fearing for his own and his family’s safety, the King made an attempt to flee the country on 11 December but was captured in Kent. A few days later he managed to escape to France. In just a few weeks a foreign power had, in effect, succeeded in invading England for the first time in 600 years.

However William was here by invitation. He owed his swift progress to a request he had received six months before. In June 1688 seven English peers, opposed to the policies of King James, had written to the Stadtholder asking for his assistance – to help them overturn their monarch’s pro-Catholic policies. And as William’s forces advanced upon London, many of James’s officers quickly defected to the Protestant prince.

As King James fled, he apparently threw the Great Seal of the Realm into the Thames. With the throne vacant and unrest in the city, the government was temporarily placed in the hands of the Prince of Orange and a convention of peers and MPs was summoned to decide how to settle the kingdom. On 13 February 1689 William and his English wife Mary, the Protestant daughter of James II and VII, were crowned William III and Mary II, joint monarchs of England. As well, they were tendered a document called the Declaration of Rights which listed the country’s grievances against its former king. They accepted the Scottish throne a few weeks later (where he was styled William II).

Defenders of the constitution

By the 18th century these events had come to be known as the Glorious, or Bloodless, Revolution. The events of 1688–9 became the cornerstone of the Whig interpretation of English history. According to this historical tradition, the members of the Convention Parliament who voted the crown to William and Mary were not constitutional innovators, but defenders of England’s “ancient constitution” (the body of fundamental laws which were held to guarantee the rights and liberties of the English) from the absolutist designs of King James.

In the words of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the revolutionaries “regenerated the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not impaired”. In contrast to the violence and terror engulfing revolutionary France at the time that Burke was writing, this earlier English revolution was “glorious” because it was carried out by Parliament, not by the mob. Above all, 1688–9 was to be celebrated because it was, according to the Whig interpretation, a bloodless revolution. The emphasis on the peaceful nature of the revolution was not only a result of a wish to contrast it with violent revolutions in continental Europe, but also out of need to present 1688–9 as a pivotal point in a story of national political self-determination. As GM Trevelyan rather sheepishly admitted in his History of England (1926), there was “a certain ignominy in the fact that a foreign fleet and army… had been required to enable Englishmen to recover the liberties they had muddled away in their frantic faction feuds”.

Recent historians have questioned the optimistic outlook of the Whig account, with its description of a steady movement towards parliamentary democracy. Instead, they have presented the revolution as little more than a dynastic usurpation, in the words of Blair Worden, “a swift aristocratic coup”. According to these historians, the revolution changed very little in constitutional terms as the Declaration of Rights was a largely toothless legal instrument. They have pointed to the outbreak of post-revolutionary wars in Scotland and Ireland between 1690 and 1692 as evidence that the consequences of 1688–9 were also less than “glorious” (see box, below). Historian Jonathan Israel has stressed the importance of the military dimension to the revolution, arguing that events were not only shaped by William III and the Convention Parliament, but also by the presence of a large occupying army of Dutch soldiers in London.

However, the claim that the revolution was essentially bloodless has remained unchallenged. It is time this last piece of “Whig smuggery” (as one historian has aptly described it) is put to rest. As recent historians have correctly argued, the revolution was one important stage in a protracted and messy struggle over the succession to the throne, which continued, with the Jacobite revolts of 1715 and 1745, into the 18th century. The issue was whether hereditary succession should be followed, allowing James’s Catholic heirs to inherit the crown or whether lineal descent should be ignored in favour of a Protestant monarch.

The roots of the Bloodless Revolution

Accounts of the Revolution of 1688–9 should begin in the 1670s, when James’s conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. Anxieties about the rise of arbitrary government and the destruction of the Protestant religion under a “popish” monarch led to the turmoil of the Exclusion Crisis of 1678–81, when Whig politicians, scared by rumours of a “popish plot” to kill Charles II and place his brother James on the throne, attempted by legislative means to bar James from becoming king.

The plot was the fabrication of the former Catholic convert Titus Oates. But the paranoia aroused by the threat of Catholic insurrection, inflamed by the supposed murder of the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey by popish assassins, led to the deaths of over 40 individuals, either executed, dying in prison or as fatalities resulting from violent assaults. This number included high profiles figures such as Edward Coleman, the Duke of York’s secretary, and Oliver Plunkett the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh. Outside of the capital, the plot initiated what was virtually a pogrom against Roman Catholic priests. The nonconformist minister Philip Henry reported that two priests were hung, drawn and quartered, one at Denbigh and one at Chester “as were several others in other counties”.

Parliamentary schemes to prevent James from inheriting the throne were defeated by Charles II’s snap dissolution of the Oxford Parliament in 1681. The failure of “Exclusion” led some to take more desperate measures. In June 1685, shortly after the succession to the throne of his uncle James, Charles II’s eldest illegitimate son, the exiled Duke of Monmouth returned to England to lead an armed rebellion to seize the crown from the Catholic king. The Duke’s army, mainly made up of poor labourers, cloth workers and farmhands, was routed on the night of 5–6 July by the King’s professional forces at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Perhaps as much as a third of Monmouth’s 3,500 strong army may have been slaughtered in the battle. A further 50 or so rebels were executed without trial in its immediate aftermath. During the toasts following a raucous dinner party one of the King’s officers, Colonel Percy Kirke, “ordered several prisoners at Taunton to be hanged up; as every new health was drunk he had a fresh man turned off; and observing how they shaked their legs in the agonies of death, he called it dancing, and ordered music to play to them”.

Monmouth himself was condemned to death without trial, via the device of a bill of attainder. It took five blows from the executioner’s axe to severe the Duke’s head from his body. Approximately 250 rebels were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in the so-called Bloody Assizes. The salted, boiled and tarred quarters of executed rebels were hung up in towns across the south-west as grisly reminders of the penalties for treason, turning the region, in the words of one historian into a “vast anatomical museum”. A further 850 men were sentenced at the assizes to transportation, mainly to the West Indies. One of those transported to the Caribbean was the physician Henry Pitman. He escaped back to England after a Crusoe-esque adventure in which he had been marooned on a desert island with his own Man Friday, a Carib Indian, before he was rescued and eventually taken home by a privateer ship in need of his medical skills.

The birth of King James’s son, James Francis, on 10 June 1688, raised the prospect of England being ruled by a long line of Catholic monarchs. With domestic rebellion being so easily crushed, this catastrophe could only be averted by the intervention of a foreign Protestant power, the Netherlands. James had exploited public fears concerning national security in the aftermath of the Monmouth rebellion to strengthen his permanent army. The King’s increased military power meant it would take a big force to challenge him. Although estimates vary, the number of troops the Prince brought over may have been as many as 21,000. With William’s landing at Brixham on 5 November, England was effectively in a state of war.

Violence and anarchy

Although King James’s loss of nerve at Salisbury on 23 November 1688, when he decided not to engage the Prince’s army, meant that there were no major battles in England, there were violent clashes in the winter of 1688. Lord Lovelace, a radical Whig peer, leading a force of cavalry to join up with the Prince at Exeter, was captured and two of his men killed in a bloody skirmish at Cirencester with the Duke of Beaufort’s militia. On 7 December at Reading, as William’s forces moved towards London, an advance guard of the Prince’s army some 250 men strong ran into a troop of 600 Irish dragoon, leading to over 50 fatalities.

The disbanding of James’s army in the winter of 1688 paradoxically heightened rather than soothed public anxiety. The first abortive flight of the King from England on 11 December 1688 saw the city descend into near anarchy. On the morning of 13 December, London was gripped by the rumour that James’s disbanded Irish soldiers would cast off law and discipline and begin a general slaughter of the Protestant population. Newswriters reported that an alarm was spread through city and suburbs of “Rise, arm, arm! The Irish are cutting throats”. The Irish Fright as it came to be known, spread rapidly across the country. Rumours of Irish risings broke out in Norfolk on the 13th and 14th of the month, and in Surrey on the 14th and 15th. By 15 December the news had reached Yorkshire. The antiquary Ralph Thoresby reported that in Leeds there were reports that nearby Beeston was burning, leading to a flight from the city. However, Thoresby’s pregnant wife coolly climbed to the attic window to report that Beeston was untouched.

Violence, both real and imagined, was then an integral part of the Revolution of 1688–9. Only if the immediate causes of those events are falsely restricted to the last two years of King James’s reign can it be presented as largely bloodless. Between 1678 and the Glorious Revolution the casualties of the dynastic struggle in England alone numbered in the thousands. In Scotland and Ireland the human costs were even higher. Moreover, the exclusively Protestant nature of the revolution settlement in Ireland would ensure that the bloody shockwaves of 1688–9 would be felt right up to the present day.


Revolutionary violence in Scotland and Ireland

In Ireland and Scotland, the Revolution was militarily contested and its settlements politically and religiously divisive. This was a reflection of the low priority given to Scottish and Irish affairs by both James and William: rich, populous England was the main prize in the struggle. For James II and VII, Catholic Ireland and highland Scotland were essentially “launching pads” for an invasion of England. For William, Jacobite rebellion, a dangerous distraction from the continental war with Louis XIV, had to be rapidly suppressed. James’s personal involvement in the conflict ended with William’s victory at the battle of the Boyne on I July 1690, but war in Ireland continued until capitulation of the besieged Jacobites at Limerick on 3 October 1691. Irish Protestants disregarded the generous peace terms of the Treaty of Limerick and established a monopoly over land ownership and political power. In Scotland, Jacobite victory at Killiecrankie on 27 July 1689 was followed by a succession of military defeats, until peace was agreed at Achallader in June 1691. Yet bloodshed continued with the Campbells’ slaughter of MacDonalds at Glencoe on 13 February 1692, on the pretext that they had not taken the required oath to William.


Key players: who’s who in the glorious revolution

James II and VII

Parliament felt threatened by his beliefs

James was a devout Catholic, but he did not wish to see Catholicism restored by force, seeking instead to gain for his co-religionists the same rights enjoyed by members of the Church of England. However, the questionable legality of his actions and his authoritarian style convinced many he wished to destroy Protestantism.

William III

Got more than he bargained for

William, the Dutch Stadtholder since 1672, was an astute politician and experienced general. His greatest preoccupation was the military struggle with Louis XIV. In 1688, William saw an opportunity to gain English support in this conflict, although initially he only wanted to engineer an anti-French Parliament, not take the throne.

An engraving of the coronation of William III and Mary II, 1689. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
An engraving of the coronation of William III and Mary II, 1689. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Mary II

Supported husband against her father

Mary, King James’s daughter by his first wife, Anne Hyde, (and heir to the throne before the birth of James’s son in 1688) sided with her husband rather than her father in the Revolution. She made her choice not only on the basis of her deep devotion to William and her Protestant faith, but also upon her conviction that King James’s son, James Francis, was not really his own child.

Duke of Monmouth

Failed in challenge to King James’s reign

Monmouth, a natural son of Charles II, was touted as a successor to the crown by those in favour of excluding James, Duke of York, (later James II and VII) from the throne. His dissolute personal life made him a poor Protestant champion but his youth, conviviality and courage helped win him a popular following. His hopes of taking the throne were finally crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor.

John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough

High profile defection to William

Churchill rose through the ranks in the army of James and had been one of the commanders at the Battle of Sedgemoor. His loyalty to the King was compromised by a commitment to Protestantism and the influence of his Whiggish wife Sarah. His defection to William on 24 November 1688 was a bitter blow to James. Churchill would later make his name during the War of the Spanish Succession, which included his victory at Blenheim in 1704.


A stronger parliament

The lasting impact of the revolution

The Declaration of Rights, tendered to William and Mary on their coronation (and which would have an important influence on the US Constitution’s second and eighth amendments), was a symbolically important statement of principle that lacked legal machinery to back it up. For example, the demand for regular Parliaments was not secured until the passage of the Triennial Act in 1694. But if the Revolution did not represent the advent of parliamentary “democracy”, it certainly ushered in parliamentary government.

Needing regular Parliamentary subsidies to fund his war against France, William conceded greater and greater control to the two houses over government expenditure. Parliamentary commissions of accounts were created which routed out corruption and waste. The need to pay for the war led to the creation of new financial institutions such as the Bank of England, founded in 1694.

The Revolution also clipped the monarch’s wings; the 1701 Act of Settlement limiting royal powers of appointment and the royal power to wage war independently. Ironically, this was less to guard against the threat of Catholic absolutism, than to protect the English taxpayer from the prospect of another Protestant warrior-prince like William succeeding to the throne. However, what the Revolution did not prevent was the possibility of legislative tyranny. The threat of an over-mighty Parliament became a reality as the 1715 Septennial Act effectively destroyed the Revolution’s commitment to regular elections.


Dr Edward Vallance is lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Liverpool. His latest book The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty has just been published by Little, Brown.

BOOKS: The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty by Edward Vallance (Little, Brown, 2006); The Anglo-Dutch Moment: Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its World Impact by Jonathan Israel ed (Cambridge, 2003); The Revolutions of 1688 by Robert Beddard ed (Clarendon, 1991)

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The Battlefields Trust website has details of the Battle of Sedgemoor. www.battlefieldstrust.com