A Beginner’s Guide To The Glorious Revolution

How a secret conspiracy led to our nation being successfully invaded and re-shaped in 1688…

Glorious Revolution

William III (then the Prince of Orange) leading the siege on shores of Torbay.

The "Glorious Revolution" may well be the most seismic event in British history which most people have never heard of. It took place in 1688, the same century as the notorious English Civil War. While it didn't cause as much carnage, it was every bit as important. In fact, you might say it was even more shocking, because it essentially amounted to a foreign leader brazenly displacing our rightful monarch from his throne. How did it happen? And why has it since been almost forgotten?

Portrait of King James II.

Portrait of King James II.

THE CATHOLIC KING

The king in question was James II, son of Charles I - the monarch who had been so infamously deposed and executed after the English Civil War. Having lived through such turbulent times, James II would have been forgiven for playing it safe during his reign, and conforming to the wishes of the ruling classes. Instead, he agitated them with his religious decrees and advocacy of Catholicism. As an unashamed Roman Catholic, James II was regarded by the powerful Protestant establishment as a potential threat to his own country. Remember, this was a time of widespread religious fear-mongering - many believed there was a conspiracy to turn the nation Catholic again. And this was something they could not tolerate.

THE DUTCH ALTERNATIVE

As discontent grew about James II's leadership and religious allegiance, a very real conspiracy began to form around a possible alternative monarch. He was the Dutchman William III, also known as William of Orange. As well as being James's nephew, he also happened to be married to James's own daughter Mary. Both had a direct connection to the throne, and both were Protestants. A perfect solution to James II, then, if they were daring enough to mount an invasion. Would William and Mary have the courage to do it?

THE SON WHO SEALED JAMES'S FATE

After much whispering and planning - which included messages being posted to William of Orange in invisible ink - the decisive moment came when James II announced the birth of a son, James Francis Edward Stuart. This was an earthquake for the Protestants, as they knew young James would be raised a Catholic and would displace William's Protestant wife Mary as the heir to the throne. In other words, a Catholic dynasty was set to rule the kingdom. By having this child, James II had sealed his own fate: he HAD to be deposed.

THE NEW ARMADA

William was spurred on by a letter from a group of English nobles known as the "Immortal Seven", who promised him military and political support if he and Mary mounted an invasion. And that's exactly what they did, amassing a fleet of ships which was over twice the size of the Spanish Armada. The ships cross the channel, propelled by what they dubbed the "Protestant wind", before landing at Devon in November 1688. Aside from some fleeting skirmishes, the invasion was welcomed by English Protestants, and James II quickly realised he had no choice but to flee to Catholic France. Like his father Charles I before him, he had been toppled from power. William and Mary became joint rulers of the kingdom.

A NOT-SO-BLOODLESS REVOLUTION

The revolution was dubbed "glorious" because it established a permanent Protestant monarchy once and for all, and emphasised the authority of Parliament over the royal family without the sort of widespread violence seen just a few decades before in the Civil War.

And yet... the real story is less rosy than that makes it sound. If James II had been better prepared to resist the invasion, the nation might well have descended into all-out war, with casualties to match. And the popular idea of this being "bloodless" revolution doesn't take into account the many, many people who would die later on, during the Catholic uprisings in Scotland and Ireland. Ultimately, no matter how "glorious" the revolution may have seemed, and no matter whose side you might have been on, it was a military invasion of a sovereign nation. It surely deserves to be remembered as such...