Peter Wilkinson (pwilkinson) wrote,
Peter Wilkinson

The Dutch Conquest of Britain and How it was Spun

Some historical topics never seem to die, and nwhyte and Ken Macleod are currently politely but profoundly disagreeing here and here about the events of 1688. I happen to disagree at least as profoundly with both of them - so, behind the cut, here's my own take on the issue.

I will devote this post mainly to my interpretation of the actual events - and do another similar one (or two) later on my views on longer-term historical trends and on counterfactual speculation.

The Glorious Revolution was not, except on the fringes, an internal uprising in Britain: it was a full-scale invasion by one of the most professional armies in Europe at the time, albeit one that met very little resistance (at least in England). The reasons for the invasion lie very largely in continental European, not British, politics: William of Orange and the Dutch were expecting a French invasion of the Netherlands the next year and needed at least to neutralise Britain (and the Navy that James II had been building up) before it happened.

William landed at Torquay with plenty of British promises of goodwill but not expecting anything positive from any of them. His expectations were precisely right: the people who had been making the promises sat on their hands for several weeks, until it became clear that James was not going to counter the invasion decisively. Then desertions started and James panicked: in southern England, at least, William had won.

In fact, William had largely won in Great Britain as a whole. There had been minor uprisings in northern England - though nothing that James could not have suppressed in normal circumstances - and much of Scotland had been in a state of suppressed rebellion ever since the Restoration. The news from England rapidly led to a change of power in these areas. (Ireland was a different case, but I'll come back to it in a moment.)

This left an odd situation. William had won but his 15,000-strong army, while big enough to confront James, was far from big enough to occupy a hostile Britain - and he needed troops back on the continent by next spring to defend against the French. (The answer to this last, for the next three or four years, turned out to be to move much of the British army across to Flanders, while leaving the Dutch army in Britain.) Most of the British political classes had willingly if warily accepted the change of regime - but on condition not only that the new regime should be English or Scottish (as appropriate) but also, for many (particularly English), a legitimate continuation of the old regime.

William had already prepared for some of this in pre-invasion propaganda. He had explicitly invaded as a defender of Protestantism and constitutional government, against a Catholic ruler intent on absolutism. And a number of James's actions over the previous three years, including not just the Declaration of Indulgence but the way he had issued it, had certainly fuelled this propaganda. Even some of his closest advisers seem to have thought he was moving to fast, but James seems to have been an old man in a hurry (he came to the throne at 52: no British king for nearly three centuries had lived to 60). James may not have been attempting to reimpose Catholicism on England, but he certainly acted in ways that genuinely looked that way to his opponents.

But I think these would have remained causes for disquiet rather than reasons for deposing James but for the invasion. The English needed more and provided more. Of course, provided James's new son was discounted (thus tales about warming pans), William's wife Mary was the next heir to the throne and William himself not far behind (after Anne and her children) - which made the transition easier for non-republicans. But this was supplemented by items such as the Convention Parliament and its invitation to William and Mary to take the throne, and so on - which, together with ideas from the pre-invasion propaganda, would become the image of the Glorious Revolution in later Whig (and British) historiography.

But more practical incentives were also required. In the United Provinces, William had shown strong absolutist tendencies, but also a pragmatic preparedness to compromise on these if that made it easier to get what he wanted on other matters. So he was willing to accept a marked decrease in royal prerogative powers in favour of Parliament, in return for English acceptance of his rule. In the United Provinces, William had also encouraged religious toleration, including for Catholics - but the English political classes wanted penal laws against Catholics and they got them. The English political classes also wanted effectively total freedom to exploit Ireland - they got it.

For Scotland, the situation was both simpler and more difficult. Since the Restoration, Scotland had effectively been ruled as an absolute monarchy with an imposed effectively Anglican Church: the new ruling class and established church from 1688 were both Presbyterian. The new ruling class had every reason to support a settlement that not only restored their religion but gave the Scottish Parliament far more power than it had ever previously had. On the other hand, particularly in the Highlands and around Aberdeen, there were large groups that felt they had lost from the Revolution, whether on religious grounds or through clan rivalries, and were prepared to fight against the new order. While William had conquered England virtually without violence, there was low-level fighting in parts of Scotland for several years.

And for Ireland, the Revolution was certainly a disaster. Since Tudor times, political and economic power had standardly been totally confined to Protestants and even Protestant Irish interests usually almost completely subordinated to English ones. But monarchs, particularly ones with Catholic sympathies, were somewhat more open Irish interests than the English Parliament. Not surprisingly, Ireland lined up behind James. Equally unsurprisingly, the English were completely in support of William going to Ireland and crushing the Irish. The next century would in many ways be the darkest in Ireland's history.

So, allowing that many of its traditional details have been at least distorted by mythology, was the Glorious Revolution a Good Thing? For England, certainly (though not quite so straightforwardly as Ken Macleod seems to envisage); for most of Scotland, certainly; for Ireland, certainly not. And for the United Provinces? As a short term necessity, it probably did. But the next few years would see naval and economic dominance in north-west Europe irrevocably switch from the United Provinces to Britain.


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