The Glorious Revolution, 1688.
James II should have been one of Britain’s best kings.
His brother Charles had brought stability after the Civil Wars. Christmas was back, soldiers had gone. Puritans had shut the hell up and were allowing everyone to play football again. A trade boom had left the Crown with more money than you could shake a sceptre at (and Charles had a famously long sceptre).
For once, an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman could walk into a bar without killing each other. It was a golden age for British comedy.
Admittedly, there were some ominous signs. People were drinking coffee and reading newspapers, which made them opinionated and excitable (until they needed the loo). Quakers and other dissenters were being persecuted, and people worried – still – about where the limits of the King’s authority were and how far he could ignore Parliament like the rest of us.
But these gripes were relatively minor. Apart from one.
For James was a Catholic, and this was bad. Catholics, you see, were blamed for everything. They were suspected of disloyalty, of trying to impose their religion on England by stealth, and they were accused of sympathising with (or actively perpetrating) terrorism.
According to the press, which loved demonising minorities even before Richard Desmond was a mere glint in Satan’s ball-sack, Catholics had been implicated in the Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the execution of Charles I (er…), and the Great Fire of London (seems legit).
So when James was outed as a Catholic in 1673, and when this was followed by the hellish-but-entirely-fictional ‘Popish Plot’ in 1678, the country went politically mad.
There were newspapers, there were poems, there were riots. Things got so crazy that Parliament had to be sent to Oxford to calm down. The debate was as simple as it was rancorous: should James, the heir to the throne, be barred on account of his religion? This was the Exclusion Crisis.
England’s first political parties arose out of the chaos: the Whigs (named after Scottish religious insurgents) were for excluding James. The Tories, whose name meant ‘robbers’, stood by the Crown.
But Charles held his nerve. He used the press to demonise the Whigs, and the law to push them from power. In the midst of a trade-boom, which gave him freedom, he managed, simply, to avoid calling Parliament for four years.
So when Charles died in 1685, James came to the throne with little fuss. He had money, he had a loyal parliament, he even had a bit of an army.
Unfortunately, though, James had one fatal flaw. He was a moron.
In just over three years, he managed to throw away all these advantages. He built up his army, which offended English sensibilities. He tried to use arbitrary powers to ease the plight of Catholics, which offended English bigotries. Worse, he picked a fight with Magdalen College, Oxford – something only acceptable within the confines of University Challenge, and which even then merits a stern letter to the Times.
But this was all just about tolerable, for James was old. Already in his fifties when he took the throne, few expected these irritations to continue.
In June 1688, though, there came a bombshell. James’s wife gave birth to a son, and everyone knew that James Francis Edward Stuart would be brought up a Catholic.
Not until Prince Harry would the parentage of a royal baby be so widely discussed. According to one rumour, he’d been smuggled into the royal chamber in a bedpan. Presumably the Royal Storks were busy.
Things then came to a head when a group of nobles, known as the ‘Immortal Seven’ (like the Fantastic Four but more wiggy), decided to respond in the most English way possible. They wrote a letter (this was to be, after all, the most passive-aggressive revolution in history).
The person they wrote to was William of Orange, a Dutch prince. William, who shocked the sexual morality of the age by only having one mistress, was technically part of the dysfunctional House Stuart.
He was Charles I’s grandson (so James II was his uncle). But he’d also married James II’s daughter, Mary. The letter thus gave him the ultimate excuse to piss off the inlaws.
Yet, as much as this is a valid reason as any for overturning three constitutions, it wasn’t his only one. He also wanted to get at his great rival; the original King of the Swingers, Louis XIV of France.
For, in between dancing, banging up people he owed money to, and creating prime real estate out of bogs, Louis was also busy conquering all of Europe. He’d already pinched bits of Belgium, laid waste to the Dutch Republic, and ‘reunified’ parts of Germany that woke up to learn they’d actually always been in France. He called this ‘Gloire’. Everyone else called him a pain in the ass.
The biggest prize was the Spanish Empire.
Spain was ruled by Carlos II, a sad victim of Habsburg inbreeding who had the brains of Joey Essex, the looks of Wayne Rooney, and the marital prospects of a small haemorrhoid. Wives were found, of course, but he had no children, meaning the world’s largest empire lay up for grabs. The two candidates were the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family, and Louis XIV’s Bourbons.
Against all the odds, poor Carlos hung on until 1700. But until then, the Great Powers of Europe jockeyed for influence, knowing when Carlos died the continent would collapse into war. The Austrian Emperor tried to rally the German princes against Louis. Louis called himself the ‘Most Christian King’ while encouraging the Muslim Turkish Empire to attack central Europe.
All the while, William of Orange watched nervously. He knew that if Louis came out on top, his tiny Dutch Republic would be screwed quicker (and less gently) than an Ikea cabinet. Worse, his family in London were leaning towards Louis, whom they saw as a model for Catholic authoritarianism.
Fortunately, though, in the mid-1680s the tide turned.
In 1683, the Turks were pushed back from Vienna. Louis proceeded to bugger up his domestic policy by going a bit UKIP and kicking out his Protestant minorities. Then, in 1686, lots of Germans decided they weren’t really French after all and formed, with Leopold of Austria and William of Orange, the ‘League of Augsburg’. Suddenly, the forces staring down Louis looked stronger.
This dramatic shift allowed William to move. In the autumn of 1688, taking advantage of the ‘Protestant Wind’ (a meteorological not a medical phenomenon, one hopes), he landed near Exeter. Crowds flocked to him as he marched towards London. James got scared, and took flight into Kent, but was noticed by fishermen. After giving him, for some reason, an impromptu bollock-examination, an unimpressed James was sent back to London.
William, not overly delighted at the sudden appearance of his father-in-law, told James he couldn’t keep him safe from the London mob, and let him flee first to Ham (where, alas, he didn’t meet the Earl of Sandwich), and then to France. James left his throne; William and Mary took the Three Crowns. This was the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
* * *
The consequences of this astonishing turn of events are still debated today.
One argument goes that Britain (perhaps more properly England), was faced with two ‘rival modernities’. Rather than follow France and much of the European continent towards absolutist government (and eventually bloody revolution and political extremism in the modern age), England decided on a Dutch path, embracing representative government and the rule of law. Certainly it became that little bit tougher, no matter how hard people tried, to argue for the divine right of Kings.
It also paved the way for Union with Scotland and the further subjugation of Ireland.
But perhaps the biggest consequence was that it pulled the British monarchies into a European war. Isolationist under James, William’s Britain threw itself into the coalition against France. This forced the country to get its finger out of its fiscal bumcrack and finally get the public finances sorted. In the 1690s, then, a properly-funded national debt was created, a land tax instigated, and Parliament – at last – started to sit regularly. The British military suddenly had a bit of cash to play with.
Then something really weird happened. A decade later, in another war, British armies started doing something they’d not done for nearly three centuries.
They started winning battles.