History

Just how glorious was the Glorious Revolution?

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In 1688, the immortal seven sent their invitation to William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands and son-in-law of King James II.  Their purpose in doing this was to remove James II from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, because he was Catholic. The thought of a Catholic dynasty terrified many within the three kingdoms, especially the leading Protestant aristocracy, so they decided to invite William of Orange to take up the throne.

In doing so, not only did they commit treason, but they also changed Britain forever. The events of 1688, broadly known as the Glorious Revolution, are momentous in British history. However, one must wonder just how glorious was this revolution? Indeed, was it a revolution at all?

One of the main results of the Glorious Revolution was the issuing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. This document, alongside Magna Carta, is one of the cornerstones of Britain’s unwritten constitution. It guaranteed and enshrined certain freedoms and liberties, including the right of a subject to petition the monarch without censure, and the right to freedom of speech.

The Bill of Rights helped shape the belief in fundamental rights and liberties of people that would later be enshrined in the US Constitution, and the UK Human Rights Act of 1998. Without the Glorious Revolution, it is entirely possible that such a document would not have come into being.

However, there were countless negatives that came from the Glorious Revolution. Foremost among them was the oppression Catholics faced; following the Revolution, persecution of Catholics increased to the point where there was rigorous enforcement of the Test Act of 1672. Catholics were not allowed to vote or hold any form of formal office for nearly two centuries, until they were fully emancipated in 1829. 

Another issue that emerged from the Glorious Revolution was the gradual shifting of power from the monarch to Parliament, as Britain became a constitutional monarchy with the arrival of William of Orange. Though, parliament was hardly democratic – some boroughs delivered more MPs to the Commons than they had actual voters. Parliament would not truly change until the Reform Act of 1832, and then once again with the Representation Of The People Act in 1918.

It should also be remembered that the liberties the Revolution wanted to protect were actually suspended after the settlement. During the 18th centuryHabeas Corpus, the right of the people to be tried fairly in a  court, was suspended numerous times as Britain went to war with various countries. Arrests were made without trial, for no other reason than simple fancy, and freedom of speech was often suspended, due to government fears of unrest.

Whilst we may reflect on how the Glorious Revolution modernised Britain and saved it from tyranny, we should be wary of stretching a Whiggish view of it too far. Indeed, the often lambasted James II actually issued a Declaration of Indulgence, in 1687, which permitted religious freedom. The Glorious Revolution was far from glorious and hardly a revolution.

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