Glorious Revolution

The term Glorious Revolution refers to the generally popular overthrow of James II of England in 1688 by a conspiracy between some Parliamentarians and the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange). The revolution was the last successful invasion of England. It is sometimes referred to as the Bloodless Revolution but this name is a misnomer as there was much fighting with loss of life in Ireland and, to a lesser degree, in Scotland. Some modern historians prefer the more neutral alternative Revolution of 1688. The Revolution is closely tied in with the events of the Nine Years War on the continent of Europe.

Brief History

James II
James II

During his three-year reign, King James II fell victim to the political battles in the British Isles between Catholicism and Protestantism on the one hand, and on the other, between the divine right of the Crown and the political rights of Parliament. James's greatest political problem was his Catholicism, which left him alienated from both parties in Parliament.

The ultra-Protestant Whigs had failed in their attempt to exclude James from the throne between 1679 and 1681, and James's supporters were the High Church Anglican Tories. When James inherited the throne in 1685, he had much support in the 'Loyal Parliament', which was composed mostly of Tories. James's attempt to relax the penal laws alientated his natural supporters, however, because the Tories viewed this as tantamount to disestablishment of the Church of England. Abandoning the Tories, James looked to form a 'King's party' as a counterweight to the Anglican Tories, so in 1687 James supported the policy of religious toleration and issued the Declaration of Indulgence. By allying himself with the Catholics, Dissenters and nonconformists, James hoped to build a coalition that would give him Catholic emancipation.

In 1686, James coerced the Court of the King's Bench into deciding that the King could dispense with religious restrictions of the Test Acts. James ordered the removal of Henry Compton, the anti-Catholic Bishop of London, and dismissed the Protestant fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford and replaced them with Catholics.

James also created a large standing army and employed Catholics in positions of power in the army. To his opponents in Parliament this seemed like a prelude to arbitrary rule, so James prorogued Parliament without gaining Parliament's consent. At this time, the English regiments of the army were encamped at Hounslow, near the capital. The army in Ireland was purged of Protestants who were replaced with Catholics, and by 1688 James had more than 34,000 men under arms in his three kingdoms.

In April 1688, James re-issued the Declaration of Indulgence and ordered all clergymen to read it in their churches. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and six other bishops wrote to James asking him to reconsider his policies, they were arrested on charges of seditious libel, but at trial they were acquitted to the cheers of the London crowd.

Matters came to a head in 1688, when James fathered a son; until then, the throne would have passed to his daughter, Mary, a Protestant. The prospect of a Catholic dynasty in the British Isles was now likely. Some leaders of the Tory Party united with members of the opposition Whigs and set out to solve the crisis.

Conspiracy and Dutch Landing

William III Stadtholder of the Netherlands, King of England, Scotland and Ireland
William III
Stadtholder of the Netherlands, King of England, Scotland and Ireland

In 1686, a group of conspirators met at Charborough House in Dorset to plan the overthrow of "the tyrant race of Stuarts." In 1688, a further conspiracy was launched at Old Whittington, Derbyshire, to depose James and replace him with his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange — both Protestants and both grandchildren of Charles I of England. Before the birth of James's son, Mary was the heir to the throne and William was third in line. William was also stadtholder of the Netherlands, then in the early stages of the War of the Grand Alliance against France. Jumping at the chance to ally with England, William and Mary laid careful plans over a number of months for an invasion. Landing with a large Dutch army at Brixham, Devon on November 5, 1688, William was greeted with much popular support, and local men joined his army. William's army was primarily defensive; he wanted to land far away from James's army so his English allies could take the initiative in acting against James while he ensured his own protection against potential attacks. William was prepared to wait; he had paid his troops in advance for a three-month campaign. On his banners read the proclamation: "The Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion I will maintain." Meanwhile, in the North, many nobles also declared for William. James's forward forces gathered at Salisbury, and James went to join them on November 19. Amid anti-Catholic rioting in London, it rapidly became apparent that the troops were not eager to fight, and the loyalty of many of James's commanders was doubtful. The first blood was shed at about this time in a skirmish at Wincanton, Somerset, where Royalist troops retreated after defeating a small party of scouts; the total body count on both sides came to about 15. In Salisbury, a worried James was suddenly overcome by a serious nose-bleed that he took as an evil omen indicating that he should order his army to retreat. On November 23, John Baron Churchill, one of James's chief commanders, deserted to William. A few days later, James's own daughter, Princess Anne, did the same. Both were serious losses. James returned to London on November 26. By December 4, William's forces were at Salisbury; by December 7 they had reached Hungerford, where they met with the King's Commissioners to negotiate. In reality, by that point James was simply playing for time as he already had decided to flee the country. Convinced that his army was unreliable, he sent orders to disband it. December 10 saw the second engagement between the two sides with the Battle of Reading, a defeat for the King's men. In December there was anti-Catholic rioting in Bristol, Bury St. Edmunds, Hereford, York, Cambridge and Shropshire. On December 9th a Protestant mob stormed Dover Castle, where the Catholic Sir Edward Hales was Governor, and seized it.

December 11 saw James attempt to escape, dropping The Great Seal in the Thames along the way. However, he was captured by fishermen near Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. On the night of the 11th there were riots and lootings of the houses of Catholics and several foreign embassies of Catholic countries in London. The night of the 12th witnessed mass panic in London in what was later termed Irish night. False rumours of an impending Irish army attack on London gripped the capital, and a mob of over 100,000 assembled ready to defend the city.

Upon returning to London on the 16th, James was welcomed by cheering crowds. He took heart at this, and attempted to recommence government, even presiding over a meeting of the Privy Council. Then he received a request from William to remove himself from London. James went under Dutch guard to Rochester in Kent on December 18, just as William entered London. James then escaped to France on December 23. The lax guard on James and the decision to allow him so near the coast indicates that William might have hoped that a successful escape would avoid the difficulty of deciding what to do with him, especially with the memory of the execution of Charles I still strong. By fleeing, James helped ensure that William's grip was secure. On the 26th William, on the advice of his Whig allies, summoned an assembly of all the surviving MPs of Charles II's reign, thus bypassing the Tories of the Loyal Parliament of 1685. This assembly called for a Convention and on the 28th William accepted the responsibilities of government. Although James had fled the country, on the 30th William (in a conversation with the Marquess of Halifax) was threatening not to stay in England 'if King James came again' and determined to go back to Holland 'if they went about to make him [William] Regent'.[1]

William made King

In 1689, the Convention Parliament convened and declared that James's flight amounted to abdication. William and Mary were offered the throne as joint rulers, an arrangement which they accepted (William demanded the title of king and disdained the office of regent). On February 13, 1689, Mary II and William III jointly acceded to the throne of England. Although their succession to the English throne was relatively peaceful, much blood would be shed before William's authority was accepted in Ireland and Scotland.

Jacobite Uprisings

Main articles: Williamite war in Ireland and Jacobite Risings

James had cultivated support on the fringes of his Three Kingdoms - in Catholic Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. Supporters of James, known as Jacobites there were prepared to resist what they saw as an illegal coup by force of arms. An uprising occurred in support of James in Scotland in 1689, the first Jacobite rebellion, led by John Graham of Claverhouse known as "Bonnie Dundee", who raised an army from Highlands clans. In Ireland, local Catholics led by Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, who had been discriminated against by previous English monarchs, took all the fortified places in the kingdom except Derry to hold the Kingdom for James. James himself landed in Ireland with 6000 French troops to try to regain the throne in the Williamite war in Ireland. The war raged from 16891691. James fled Ireland following a humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Boyne, but Jacobite resistance was not ended until after the battle of Aughrim in 1691, when over half of their army was killed or taken prisoner. The Irish Jacobites surrendered at the Treaty of Limerick on October 3rd 1691. England stayed relatively calm throughout, although some English Jacobites fought on his side in Ireland. The Jacobite uprising in the Scottish Highlands was quelled despite the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie, due to death of their leader, Claverhouse.

The events of 1688 and their aftermath can thus be seen as much more of a coup d'état, achieved by force of arms than an authentic revolution. Many, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, continued to see the Stuarts as the legitimate monarchs of the Three Kingdoms and there were further Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 in Scotland.


The Glorious Revolution is considered by some as being one of the most important events in the long evolution of powers possessed by Parliament and by the Crown in England. With the passage of the Bill of Rights, it stamped out any final possibility of a Catholic monarchy, and ended moves towards monarchical absolutism in the British Isles by circumscribing the monarch's powers. The King's powers were greatly restricted; he could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament's permission. Since 1689, England, and later the United Kingdom, has been governed under a system of constitutional monarchy, which has been uninterrupted. Since then, Parliament has gained more and more power, and the Crown has progressively lost it.

The Williamite victory in Ireland is still commemorated by the Orange Order for preserving British and Protestant dominance in the country.


  • 1 H. C. Foxcroft, The Life and Letters of Sir George Savile, Marquis of Halifax: Volume II (London, 1898), pp. 203-4. Quoted in Beddard, p. 65.


  • Robert Beddard, A Kingdom without a King: The Journal of the Provisional Government in the Revolution of 1688 (Phaidon, 1988).

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA)

Return to Main Index