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English Revolution of 1688

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James II, having reached the climax of his power after the successful suppression of Monmouth's rebellion in 1685, then had the Tory reaction in his favour, complete control over Parliament and the town corporations, a regular army in England, a thoroughly Catholic army in process of formation in Ireland, and a large revenue granted by Parliament for life. His policy was to govern England as absolute monarch and to restore Catholics to their full civil and religious rights. Unfortunately, both prudence and statesmanship were lacking, with the result that in three years the king lost his throne. The history of the Revolution resolves itself into a catalogue of various ill-judged measures which alienated the support of the Established Church, the Tory party, and the nation as a whole. The execution of Monmouth (July, 1685) made the Revolution possible, for it led to the Whig party accepting William of Orange as the natural champion of Protestantism against the attempts of James. Thus the opposition gained a centre round which it consolidated with ever-increasing force.

What the Catholics as a body desired was freedom of worship and the repeal of the penal laws; but a small section of them, desirous of political power, aimed chiefly at the repeal of the Test Act of 1673 and the Act of 1678 which excluded Catholics from both houses of Parliament. Unfortunately James fell under the influence of this section, which was directed by the unprincipled Earl of Sunderland, and he decided on a policy of repeal of the Test Act. Circumstances had caused this question to be closely bound up with that of the army. For James, who placed his chief reliance on his soldiers, had increased the standing army to 30,000, 13,000 of whom, partly officered by Catholics, were encamped on Hounslow Heath to the great indignation of London which regarded the camp as a menace to its liberties and a centre of disorder. Parliament demanded that the army should be reduced to normal dimensions and the Catholic officers dismissed; but James, realizing that the test would not be repealed, prorogued Parliament and proceeded to exercise the "dispensing and suspending power". By this he claimed that it was the prerogative of the crown to dispense with the execution of the penal laws in individual cases and to suspend the operation of any law altogether. To obtain the sanction of the Law Courts for this doctrine a test case, known as Hales's case, was brought to decide whether the king could allow a Catholic to hold office in the army without complying with the Test Act. After James had replaced some of the judges by more complaisant lawyers, he obtained a decision that "it was of the king's prerogative to dispense with penal laws in particular instances". He acted on the decision by appointing Catholics to various positions, Lord Tyrconnel becoming Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Arundel Lord Privy Seal, and Lord Bellasyse Lord Treasurer in place of the Tory minister Lord Rochester, who was regarded as the chief mainstay of the Established Church. The Church of England, which was rendered uneasy by the dismissal of Rochester, was further alienated by the king's action in appointing a Court of High Commission, which suspended the Bishop of London for refusing to inhibit one of his clergy from preaching anti-Catholic sermons. The feeling was intensified by the liberty which Catholics enjoyed in London during 1686. Public chapels were opened, including one in the Royal Palace, the Jesuits founded a large school in the Savoy, and Catholic ecclesiastics appeared openly at Court.

At this juncture James, desiring to counterbalance the loss of Anglican support, offered toleration to the dissenters, who at the beginning of his reign had been severely persecuted. The influence of William Penn induced the king to issue on 4 April, 1687, the Declaration of Indulgence, by which liberty of worship was granted to all, Catholic and Protestant alike. He also replaced Tory churchmen by Whig dissenters on the municipal corporations and the commission of the peace, and, having dissolved Parliament, hoped to secure a new House of Commons which would repeal both the penal laws and the Test. But he underestimated two difficulties, the hatred of the dissenters for "popery" and their distrust of royal absolutism. His action in promoting Catholics to the Privy Council, the judicial bench, and the offices of Lord lieutenant, sheriff, and magistrate, wounded these susceptibilities, while he further offended the Anglicans by attempting to restore to Catholics some of their ancient foundations in the universities. Catholics obtained some footing both at Christ Church and University College, Oxford, and in March 1688, James gave the presidency of Magdalen College to Bonaventure Giffard, the Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. This restoration of Magdalen as a Catholic college created the greatest alarm, not only among the holders of benefices throughout the country, but also among the owners of ancient abbey lands. The presence of the papal nuncio, Mgr. d'Adda, at Court and the public position granted to the four Catholic bishops, who had recently been appointed as vicars Apostolic, served to increase both the dislike of the dissenters to support a king whose acts, while of doubtful legality, were also subversive of Protestant interests, and likewise the difficulty of the Anglicans in practicing passive obedience in face of such provocation. Surrounded by these complications, James issued his second Declaration of Indulgence in April, 1688, and ordered that it should be read in all the churches. This strained Anglican obedience to the breaking point. The Archbishop of Canterbury and six of his suffragans presented a petition questioning the dispensing power. The seven bishops were sent to the Tower prosecuted, tried, and acquitted. This trial proved to be the immediate occasion of the Revolution, for, as Halifax said, "it hath brought all Protestants together and bound them up into a knot that cannot easily be untied". While the bishops were in the Tower, another epoch-marking event occurred — the birth of an heir to the crown (10 June, 1688). Hitherto the hopes of the king's opponents had been fixed on the succession of his Protestant daughter Mary, wife of William of Orange, the Protestant leader. The birth of Prince James now opened up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty just at a moment when the ancient anti-Catholic bigotry had been aroused by events both in England and France. For besides the ill-advised acts of James, the persecution of the Huguenots by Louis XIV, consequent on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, revived old religious animosities. England was flooded with French Protestant refugees bearing everywhere the tale of a Catholic king's cruelty.

Unfortunately for James his whole foreign policy had been one of subservience to France, and at this moment of crisis the power of France was a menace to all Europe. Even Catholic Austria and Spain supported the threatened Protestant states, and the pope himself, outraged by Louis XIV in a succession of wrongs, joined the universal resistance to France and was allied with William of Orange and other Protestant sovereigns against Louis and his single supporter, James. William had long watched the situation in England, and during 1687 had received communications from the opposition in which it was agreed that, whenever revolutionary action should become advisable, it should be carried out under William's guidance. As early as the autumn of 1687 the papal secretary of state was aware of the plot to dethrone James and make Mary queen, and a French agent dispatched the news to England through France. The Duke of Norfolk then in Rome also learned it, and sent intelligence to the king before 18 Dec., 1687 (letter of d'Estrées to Louvois, cited by Ranke, II, 424). But James, though early informed, was reluctant to believe that his son-in-law would head an insurrection against him. On the day the seven bishops were acquitted seven English statesmen sent a letter to William inviting him to rescue the religion and liberties of England. But William was threatened by a French army on the Belgian frontier, and could not take action. Louis XIV made a last effort to save James, and warned the Dutch States General that he would regard any attack on England as a declaration of war against France. This was keenly resented by James who regarded it as a slight upon English independence, and he repudiated the charge that he had made a secret treaty with France. Thereupon Louis left him to his fate, removed the French troops from Flanders to begin a campaign against the empire, and thus William was free to move. When it was too late James realized his danger. By hasty concessions granted one after another he tried to undo his work and win back the Tory churchmen to his cause. But he did not remove the Catholic officers or suggest the restriction of the dispensing power. In October Sunderland was dismissed from office, but William was already on the seas, and, though driven back by a storm, he re-embarked and landed at Torbay on 5 Nov., 1688. James at first prepared to resist. The army was sent to intercept William, but by the characteristic treachery of Churchill, disaffection was spread, and the king, not knowing in whom he could place confidence, attempted to escape. At Sheerness he was stopped and sent back to London, where he might have proved an embarrassing prisoner had not his escape been connived at. On 23 Dec., 1688, he left England to take refuge with Louis XIV; the latter received him generously and granted him both palace and pension. On his first departure the mob had risen in London against the Catholics, and attacked chapels and houses, plundering and carrying off the contents. Even the ambassadors' houses were not spared, and the Spanish and Sardinian embassy chapels were destroyed. Bishops Giffard and Leyburn were arrested and committed to the Tower. Father Petre had escaped, and the Nuncio disguised himself as a servant at the house of the envoy from Savoy, till he was enabled to obtain from William a passport. So far as the English Catholics were concerned, the result of the Revolution was that their restoration to freedom of worship and liberation from the penal laws was delayed for a century and more.

So completely had James lost the confidence of the nation that William experienced no opposition and the Revolution ran its course in an almost regular way. A Convention Parliament met on 22 January, 1689, declared that James "having withdrawn himself out of the kingdom, had abdicated the government, and that the throne was thereby vacant", and "that experience had shown it to be inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a Popish Prince". The crown was offered to William and Mary, who accepted the Declaration of Right, which laid down the principles of the constitution with regard to the dispensing power, the liberties of Parliament, and other matters. After their proclamation as king and queen, the Declaration was ratified by the Bill of Rights, and the work of the Revolution was complete. English Catholics have indeed had good cause to lament the failure of the king's well-meant, if unwise, attempts to restore their liberty, and to regret that he did not act on the wise advice of Pope Innocent XI and Cardinal Howard to proceed by slow degrees and obtain first the repeal of the penal laws before going on to restore their full civil rights. But on the other hand we can now realize that the Revolution had the advantage of finally closing the long struggle between king and Parliament that had lasted for nearly a century, and of establishing general principles of religious toleration in which Catholics were bound sooner or later to be included.


Sources

LINGARD, Hist. of England, X (London, 1849), the standard Catholic account; LODGE in HUNT and POOLE, Political Hist. of England, VIII (London, 1910); TEMPERLEY in Cambridge Modern Hist., V (London, 1908); TREVELYAN, England under the Stuarts (London, 1904); WYATT-DAVIES, Hist. of England for Catholic Schools (London, 1903); GREEN, Hist. of the English People (London, 1877-80); MACAULAY, Hist. of England (London, 1849); TASWELL-LANGMEAD, English Constitutional Hist. (London, 1875); BRIGHT, Hist. of England, 2nd period (London, 1880); GUIZOT Pourquoi la Révolution a-t-elle réussi? (1640-1688) (Paris, 1850); MAZURE, Hist. de la révol. de 1688 (3 vols., Paris, 1825). For earlier accounts consult DEFOE, Revol. of 1688 reprinted in ARBER, English Garner, XII (London, 1903); EACHARD, Hist. of the Revol. in 1688 (London, 1725); BURNET, Hist. of my Own Times (last edition, Oxford 1897-1900); DODD, Church Hist. (Wolverhampton vere Brussels, 1737 -42); SPEKE, Secret Hist. of the happy Revol., 1688 (London, 1715).

About this page

APA citation. Burton, E. (1912). English Revolution of 1688. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13007b.htm

MLA citation. Burton, Edwin. "English Revolution of 1688." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13007b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Terrence J. Boyle.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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