Bookshot #171: The Glorious Revolution

I had this impression of The Glorious Revolution that was apparently all wrong. Before I read this
book, I had this story in my head that Parliament, faced with James II's Catholicism and authoritarian tendencies had looked around and found an acceptable replacement in the form of William and Mary and invited them to invade the country and take the throne to replace him-- ensuring a Protestant monarchy and that the Monarchy was tied to the authority of Parliament. 

Having read Edward Vallance's excellent and highly readable book, I am forced to revise that conclusion somewhat.

Books about history can be hit or miss, I've found. You can either can academic ones that veer way too far into Academia and lose the reader or, alternatively, are the size of large doorstops or you can go to the other end of the spectrum and you can get a flimsy, not very informative, but highly readable version of events. Vallance manages to thread the needle between these two possibilities quite nicely-- his volume is dense and informative and if you're looking for a basic one-volume download on The Glorious Revolution, then this would not be a bad starting point for getting your knowledge on. The writing is paced nicely as well, so it's a quick, taut read, and you will learn.

My apparently hazy impression of 1688 was that it more or less established the primacy of Parliament which in turn laid the foundation for the American Revolution a few decades down the line. I think that still holds true-- and there are lines referencing a Protestant right to bear arms that directly influenced the development of our own 2nd Amendment, but really, this was a narrow elite securing their power, and then, when colonists assumed that the powers Parliament won also applied to them, they were met with a firm, "No, not that way."

James II gets a bit of a bad rap, I think. Had he been a better politician and held his nerve a bit, I think he might have kept his throne-- really and truly, despite some authoritarian tendencies that, at the time, probably worried Parliament and a lot of Protestants a great deal, he was after religious toleration and the right of Catholics to worship as they pleased. He made some interesting alliances with Dissenters (Puritans, Quakers, etc.) but ultimately, I think he confused tolerance of his personal Catholicism with tolerance of Catholicism in general and when his second wife, Mary of Modena bore a son James Francis Edward, the prospect of a Catholic Stuart dynasty was too much for leading political figures, who invited William of Orange to assume the Throne.

Both Anne and Mary, his daughters from his first marriage abandoned him and that was that. He fled. He tried to go back home to Scotland to try his luck there, but Protestantism in Scotland was made of sterner stuff if that's possible than in England and they weren't about religious toleration either so both England and Scotland declared the throne vacant- Scotland going further than England in the harshness of their remonstrance and saying he 'forfeited' the throne. Striking out in Scotland, he tried his luck in Ireland and that went a little better, but after the Battle of the Boyne, he was done and went into exile in France.

So, enter William and Mary-- really the latter was more important from an English point of view, as she was English and William, despite ruling alone for a period after Mary's death was always viewed as a foreigner and as Vallance notes in his conclusion, citing the excellent '1066 and All That' William is generally viewed as a 'good thing, but a bad king' and much of their reign was spent assisting the Dutch in their war against the French and while Mary won the affection of the populace and more or less ruled by default during the many absences of her husband, William's modus operandi seemed to be favoring whichever political alliance got him more money for his wars. 

He died, Anne followed, but she wasn't exactly in great shape either, and soon, the Stuarts were done and the Hanoverians arrived-- with 1745 marking the most serious threat to their authority where, once again, a Stuart lost their nerve- though in the case of Bonnie Prince Charlie, it doesn't appear to be his fault as his forces had no way of knowing how lightly defended London was at the time. 

So, just how Glorious was this Revolution? I think in the sense that Americans don't like to think in terms of class consciousness, it was more influential than we'd like to think-- but then again, many of the Revolutions- leading all the way up to the Liberation of South America (Bolivar, San Martin, O'Higgins, etc) were little more than one group of elites moving to protect their own power from threats--both real and perceived. The primacy of Parliament was Established here and the English Bill of Rights was promulgated in 1689 and I suppose, the next logical leap was 'if Parliament holds power over the Monarch, then do we need a Monarch at all?' so in that sense, you can see how it influenced what came down the line a few decades after in North America.

Monarchs in the UK still, to this day, cannot be Catholic. But as of 2015, they can marry one. Restrictions placed on Catholics in the Test Acts of England and Scotland persisted until 1828. Plus, there's the whole matter of what happened in Ireland and how long that persisted. Truly revolutionary? Perhaps not-- that, I think will bear further investigation and looking at things like the Levellers and other radical groups that emerged during the Civil War period- but important? Yes. I'd say so. It's a bit more complex than my original view of it, but I think in terms of importance, I'd put it up there with the Magna Carta.

I think what strikes me overall is just how much religion has been an animating force in British politics in one form or another and for how long. From Henry VIII's break with Rome, securing a Protestant monarchy was the preoccupation of various elites, and then protecting that was a controversy that flared up now and again into the 19th Century (debates about home rule and a lot of really dense shit about disestablishmentarianism I read about in Roy Jenkins' biography of Gladstone) and then the 20th Century with the rise of the Troubles in Northern Ireland-- (if you want to guess why this Revolution is treated somewhat ambiguously in the UK, then the fact that the Battle of the Boyne- the more or less founding event from the Orange Movement in Ulster- happened here should tell you all you need to know.) What does that mean in today's context? If people are much less religious than they were, it's no wonder you saw so much cynical reaction to the ceremonies at the Coronation. What will be the animating force of the British state when Protestantism isn't... really... a thing anymore? Will that ever happen? I don't know.

(Just as a personal aside: our trip down to Somerset took us past many areas described in the book's description of the Monmouth Rebellion-- including Lyme Regis where he landed and, as it turned out, he stayed in the cottage we rented in Shepton Mallet, so that was a really cool coincidence that made reading this book far more enjoyable.)

Overall: An excellent single-volume account of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, if you're reading books like this to learn something, then Edward Vallance will definitely teach you things on the topic. It's readable and dense, but a quick, well-paced read, and I learned a lot. Can't complain about that at the end of the day. My Grade: **** out of ****


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