The foundations for Britain’s constitutional monarchy were laid when James II was forced to abdicate in favour of William III and Mary II.

Detail of William III and Mary II enthroned, 1707-14 by Sir James Thornhill
Detail of William III and Mary II enthroned, 1707-14 by Sir James Thornhill

The origins of the Glorious Revolution, also known as the War of the English Succession or the Bloodless Revolution, began with the conflicts during Charles I’s reign which led to the Civil War, the King’s execution and the Interregnum.

These issues remained unresolved when the monarchy was restored in 1660. The Restoration failed to address the tensions which led to the Civil Wars.

James II of England

James II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1684, by Sir Godfrey Kneller
James II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1684, by Sir Godfrey Kneller

James, as Duke of York, conversion to Catholicism became a political issue in 1673 so he was forced to declare his faith in 1673. He married Italian princess Mary of Modena later that year.

The Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis stirred up further anti-Catholic hysteria. Charles II died in 1685, leaving the throne to James.

The Duke of Monmouth led a rebellion in the West Country and proclaimed himself king. James II’s army defeated Monmouth’s motley army at Sedgemoor.

James faced strong opposition after trying to secure religious freedom for Catholics and bring them back into political life.

The Declaration of Indulgence was issued in 1687 to protect the Church of England and allow Catholics to worship publicly. However, the Establishment were offended by these reforms, especially when James ordered the clergy to read it from their pulpits.

William Sancroft Archbishop of Canterbury and six bishops objected and signed a petition against the Declaration so James II prosecuted them for seditious libel. The seven bishops won public support when they were arrested and sent to the Tower of London.

Their trial turned into a public debate about the legality of the dispensing power itself. The jurors returned the verdict of “Not guilty” and the dissident bishops were acquitted on 30 June.

Queen Mary II by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)
Queen Mary II by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)

James’ zealous desire to legitimise Catholicism brought him into open conflict with Parliament, the bishops and now the courts.

Mary of Modena gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward (the Old Pretender), on 10 June 1688 and replaced James’s eldest daughter Mary as the heir. The birth of a Catholic prince was a disaster for English Protestants, despite malicious rumours circulating about Mary of Modena’s pregnancy and the baby’s birth. One claimed the child wasn’t James’s at all, but a changeling smuggled into the Queen’s bedroom inside a warming pan!

The prince’s birth reinforced fears of a Catholic tyranny so a group of nobles—known as the “Immortal Seven”—wrote to the Protestant William of Orange, James’s son-in-law, inviting him to invade England and free the country from Catholic rule.

William had married James’s daughter (and his cousin) Mary whose claim to the throne was better than his.

He was the Stadtholder (hereditary governor) of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. William was also an experienced general who needed England’s support in his own war against Louis XIV of France’s territorial aggression

William III and Mary II

Portrait of King William III, c 1680s by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Portrait of King William III, c 1680s by Sir Godfrey Kneller

William accepted the invitation, so he landed with 15,000 troops at Torbay in Devon on 5 November where he was greeted by cheering crowds.

James marched from London to Salisbury on 19 November, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and several heavy nosebleeds. Some of his men had deserted him and James was forced to retreat back to London on 23 November.

The Queen fled, taking the Prince of Wales with her, as she disguised herself as a laundry woman, taking the Prince of Wales with her on 10 December.

James fled the following day, but he was captured by overzealous fishermen who mistook him for a Jesuit spy. He was brought back to London.

William sent a task force to occupy London, seize Whitehall and order James’s withdrawal from the capital. James was sent to Rochester where, on 23 December, he made a second attempt to escape and succeeded.

Constitutional Monarchy

A Declaration of Rights (later the Bill of Rights) which limited royal power was accepted by William and Mary. These provisions included regular meetings of Parliament; free elections; laws cannot be suspended without Parliament’s consent. Parliamentary consent was needed before levying taxes. The royal dispensing power was declared illegal.

The Act of Settlement declared no Catholic could become king or queen. Nor could a reigning monarch marry a Catholic.

The monarch was now beholden to Parliament—the advent of the constitutional monarchy. It also turned England into the most powerful and most aggressively modernising state in Europe.

William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen of England and Ireland on 13 February 1689, and two months later in Scotland. They crowned together in a double ceremony.

However, William subdued uprisings in Scotland and James’s army was overwhelmed at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 where James’s men were brutally slaughtered. James was again forced to flee to France where he lived until his death in 1701.

The Irish parliament, now dominated by Protestants, treated Catholics as second-class citizens.

Prince of Orange Landing at Torbay by engraving by William Miller after J M W Turner
Prince of Orange Landing at Torbay by engraving by William Miller after J M W Turner


Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England, Quercus, London, 2006

Harris, Tim, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms 1660-1685, Allen Lane (Imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2005

Kirk, Neil, Parliament and the Glorious Revolution 1688-1988, HMSO, London, 1988

Oliver, Neil, A History of Scotland, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2009

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001

Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 30 April 2010.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.