This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
What’s your opinion of William III? Born in Holland in 1650, he took the throne in 1688 after deposing the Catholic James II. At Hampton Court, where I work as chief curator, we present William as a ‘Good King’: a patron of art (he built half of our palace), a monarch who respected parliament, and a loving husband to his English wife, Mary, with whom he shared the throne. Our collection contains a pair of the king’s stockings, even a little red silk vest that he wore pinned around his somewhat skinny, asthmatic chest. We often tell the story of how the smog of central London forced England’s new king to abandon the damp palace of Whitehall when he took power in 1688, and to rebuild Hampton Court as a pleasant riverside retreat for himself and his beautiful Stuart wife.
To many of the visitors coming in search of a lost Baroque world at Hampton Court Palace, William III (William II in Scotland) is a sympathetic figure, a man of taste, less absolutist than those before him, who set the tone for a sensible, constitutional monarchy that would survive until the present day. But mention the name of King Billy – as they call him in Belfast – in one of the traditionally Catholic parts of the Northern Irish city, and you’ll get a very different response. To them, William III is the oppressor of the Irish and the brutal tyrant who crushed his enemies mercilessly at the battle of the Boyne (1690).
How can one man arouse such very different views? It’s all to do with the interpretation you prefer to make of the events that brought William III to power, a concatenation of circumstances often known as ‘The Glorious Revolution’. These opposing perspectives were sharply expressed in a debate held in the House of Commons in 1988, about how parliament should celebrate the tercentenary of the so-called Glorious Revolution. Margaret Thatcher thought that this was an anniversary well worth marking. She described “the invitation to William of Orange and Mary to defend our ancient rights and liberties”, William’s arrival with his fleet at Torbay in Devon in 1688, and the “peaceful transfer of power which gave rise to the title of the bloodless revolution in England”. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the opposition, roughly agreed, though for slightly different reasons. He thought the event important because “it requires us all to consider the character of our democracy and the ways in which, arduously and slowly, it has been brought thus far to our time”. But then, a dissenting voice spoke out.
In no way, claimed MP Tony Benn, did the Glorious Revolution herald “the birth of our democratic rights”. Only two per cent of the nation was actually represented in the parliament that brought about this so-called revolution, he pointed out, and all of them were rich, white, Protestant men. The events of 1688 benefited “no working people, no middle-class voters, no women”, he said. So the Glorious Revolution wasn’t so ‘glorious’ for the people who had no voice in the democratic process. And to take an even more extreme line, you could describe it as the successful invasion of Britain by a foreign power, motivated by the economic interests of the merchants of Amsterdam.
So what’s the truth of the matter?
Was the Glorious Revolution ‘glorious’ or not, and was it even a revolution? In a new series for BBC Four, I have sought to untangle the competing truths behind some of our most powerful national myths. I think that the Glorious Revolution, if anything, is a carefully crafted story, authored by those who most benefited from it – and the more closely you examine it, the more quickly it falls apart. Even the facts of 1688 are tricky to get straight. Victorian historians like Thomas Babington Macaulay believed that the Glorious Revolution was the foundation stone of Britain’s greatness. They liked to claim that William III – then Prince of Orange – was ‘invited’ to come to England (and also, though this often gets forgotten, to Ireland and Scotland) by the will of the people, who were fed up with being oppressed by the Catholic king James II (James VII in Scotland). And indeed, a ‘letter of invitation’ was written in June 1688 by seven grandees opposed to James II’s rule, which extended a warm welcome to William as a potential new ruler of Britain. With an eye to maximising the drama of the situation, the story goes that these conspirators met in secret in the cellars of a house named Ladye Place in the Berkshire village of Hurley.
Like all the best adventure stories, this one too contains a ‘secret passage’, which is supposed to have linked the cellars to the river Thames so that the rebels could arrive there unobserved. This letter written in that secret cellar – it survives in the National Archives – claims that “the people are so generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government in relation to their religion, liberty and properties” that “19 parts of 20 of the people throughout the kingdom are desirous of a change”. The seven conspirators signed the letter with codenames, rather than their real identities, so as to reduce the potential penalties for treason if caught. Once the dust had settled, and once it was clear that the ‘revolutionary’ settlement was going to stick, 18th-century historians dubbed the letter-writers, bishops or aristocrats all, ‘The Immortal Seven’. And indeed, even in the 17th century, once William III had arrived in England and was secure on the throne, he visited this cellar – a plaque marks the event – to see where “it had all started”. But of course historians know now that it didn’t all start there at all.
In the 20th century, scholars with a more European viewpoint realised that far from the ‘letter of invitation’ being a surprise to William, Prince of Orange, he was already expecting it. The ‘letter of invitation’ was written in June 1688, but by late 1687, William was already raring to go. The chance to gain the British throne was attractive to him because of a wider European game of chess in which William, as Stadtholder (rather like a constitutional king) of Holland, was engaged. His deadliest enemy wasn’t King James II of Britain, but the even more absolutist Catholic king Louis XIV of France. To William, gaining the British crown would help strengthen his hand against Louis, and make his homeland more secure. And so, using the pretext of the letter of invitation, William’s huge invasion force landed in Devon on 5 November 1688. Consisting of 54 warships, more than 400 supply vessels, 21,000 soldiers, and several printing presses, its members were instructed not to describe themselves as invaders. After all, they were coming at the ‘invitation’ of the British people.
Famously, William’s fleet was blown westwards along the Channel towards Devon by a friendly ‘Protestant wind’, a lucky change in his fortunes after a ‘Catholic wind’ blowing east had aided James II by trapping William in port for several days. Throughout the 1700s, the landing at Brixham on 5 November 1688 was celebrated by an annual lighting of bonfires. That, rather than the Guy Fawkes plot, was what 5 November was all about for the 18th‑century Protestant establishment in Britain. For them it represented freedom from the tyrannical James II. And it is true that, on arrival, William’s enormous army received little opposition. Well organised, and a master of propaganda, William widely broadcast his intentions in his printed “Declaration” to the English people, stating that he had come simply to defend the ancient liberties that were being threatened by the blood king, James II.
When James was actually forced to confront William on the battlefield, he with-drew because of a nosebleed, a rather ludicrous, minor injury from which William III, of course, inflicted maximum humiliation. James II’s subsequent flight to the continent and to the protection of Louis XIV allowed William to proclaim his victory as bloodless. But it certainly wasn’t, for he had to follow up with force to impose his new regime in Ireland and Scotland, spilling countless lives. Simply securing the throne of England did not achieve the goal of William’s broader European game plan. When Louis XIV and James II sponsored rebellion in Ireland, William brought an army of 36,000 to the largest clash of arms ever held on Irish soil. And when members of the Scottish clan of MacDonald were apparently dilatory in pledging allegiance to William and Mary, William’s men did not fail to use extreme violence (in an act now known as the Glencoe Massacre) as a tool to bring them round.
The political price William paid for his new throne was the limiting of his freedom of manoeuvre as king. Before he was crowned, representatives of parliament read out to him a statement about what, in future, a sovereign could and could not do. And also, he had to share his crown in a joint monarchy. His wife, Mary, was a very important part of his acceptability: as James II’s Protestant daughter, she could be presented as her deposed father’s heir, keeping it all neatly within the family.
So did the Glorious Revolution really see parliamentary democracy and a limited monarchy firmly established in Britain? Had the mild, steady, very British progress towards High Victorian perfection begun? It’s a powerful story, but one that hardly anyone believes any more. Marxist historians argue that the real revolution of the 17th century took place when Oliver Cromwell killed the king, and that the ‘Glorious’ one changed hardly anything. Social historians argue that, far from creating a democratic nirvana, the settlement of 1688 excluded women, Catholics, those without land – indeed, almost anyone other than a powerful handful of Protestant males whose composition scarcely changed. And historians of Scottish and Irish nationalism would be astonished to think that ‘King Billy’ was forgotten by some and regarded as historically unimportant, such a figure of hate is he in the story of the oppression of the Celtic fringes.
Yet perhaps the most surprising thing about the story of the Glorious Revolution, despite all the impact that it has had on the last 300 years of British history, is that it hardly registers in most English people’s consciousness today. The cellar of Ladye Place in the village of Hurley is now a damp ruin in somebody’s back garden. No longer is it a place of pilgrimage, and no longer can schoolkids tell you what the Glorious Revolution was all about. Perhaps, if that means an end to the sectarian violence it kicked off, that’s a good thing. Yet what the events of 1688 did undoubtedly give us is one of the country’s most beautiful buildings, Hampton Court Palace. Can I invite you to settle on celebrating that, at least, as a truly glorious legacy?
Lucy Worsley is a historian, author and broadcaster and chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces.
The revolution and its legacy
Late 1687 William of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland, probably decides around now that the English throne would help him in his struggle against Louis XIV of France
10 June 1688 James II’s son, also James, is born. As the Catholic king now has a male heir, Protestant fears for the future grow
30 June 1688 William of Orange receives a ‘letter of invitation’ from a group of Protestant grandees. In reality, he’s probably already primed to come to England
5 November 1688 William III and his fleet land at Brixham in Devon 23 December 1688 Without putting up much of a fight, James II (right) goes into French exile
11 April 1689 William and his wife, Mary, are crowned as joint monarchs
1 July 1690 William III personally crushes resistance to his rule in Ireland, beating James II in the battle of the Boyne
1773 Historian John Dalrymple names the Protestant plotters against James II as ‘The Immortal Seven’
1848 The year of revolutions in Europe. Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay claims Britain remained peaceful because of the strength of the Glorious Revolution settlement
1988 Tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution. Margaret Thatcher admits its bitter legacy in Scotland and Ireland