A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 7 – the reign of James II

Because King Charles II died in February 1685 without a son and heir – without, in fact, any legitimate children from his marriage to Catherine of Braganza – the throne passed automatically to his brother, James Duke of York, who ascended the throne as King James II.

Catholic James was a professed Roman Catholic and a zealous reformer. He wished to lift the multiple legal restrictions which had been placed on his fellow Catholics and, as a balancing gesture, to lift legal constraints on the Puritans and non-conforming Protestant sects. However, within three short years he managed to alienate almost every party and profession in the country, and especially the powerful Whig politicians.

The seven bishops The crisis came to a head over two big issues. First James made the error of trying seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel. To be precise, in April 1688, encouraged by the Quaker leader William Penn with whom he had struck up an unlikely friendship, James re-issued the Declaration of Indulgence first promulgated by his brother, and ordered Anglican clergy to read it in their churches.

When seven Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, submitted a petition asking the king to reconsider this request, they were arrested and tried for seditious libel, the trial taking place in June 1688. This looked like a full-frontal attack on the Church of England which was, by now, central to almost everybody’s concept of the English political system.

A Catholic son Secondly, his Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, who he had married in 1673, bore him a Catholic son and heir, James Francis Edward, on 10 June 1688. Now, when James’s only possible successors had been his own two Protestant daughters – Mary and Anne – from his first marriage to Anne Hyde (who had died in in 1671) most Anglicans could put up with James’s pro-Catholic policies in the belief that they were a temporary aberration from what was essentially a Protestant succession. But the young prince’s birth at a stroke made it seem likely that Britain would become a Catholic dynasty and that the unpopular religious policies James was ramming through would become permanent. All kinds of former loyalists began to think again.

The supposititious child And so did the people. Rumours quickly spread about the baby, irrational sometimes hysterical rumours, the most lurid of which was that the baby proclaimed as the Prince of Wales hadn’t been born to Mary of Modena. The rumour went that the royal couple’s actual baby had been stillborn and so a new baby was smuggled into the Palace in a warming pan, purely to satisfy Jame’s dynastic ambitions. It doesn’t make sense, but it can be seen as a fairly simple piece of wish fulfilment: people just didn’t want it to be true that James had sired a Catholic heir.

Prince William Channels of communication between English Parliamentarians and nobles who opposed James and the solidly Protestant William, Prince of Orange (a state of the Netherlands) had been open since the 1670s. William was in fact the grandson of Charles I, being the son of Charles’s daughter, Mary and so, before the birth of the baby, had been third in line to the throne. And he had himself married his cousin, James II’s daughter by from his first marriage, another Mary who – until the baby was born – had herself been first in line to the throne. In other words William had close blood ties twice over to the English ruling family. James II was his father-in-law.

For these reasons Protestant William’s position as a possible successor to Charles II, instead of Catholic James, had been widely canvased among Whig politicians during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. In the event the crown passed peacefully in 1685 to James but, as he alienated more and more sectors of British society, William’s name began to reappear in political conversations – not as a direct replacement, but maybe as some kind of regent or protector, nobody was quite sure what.

William the defender What Kishlansky’s account brings out that William was totally aware of all these developments in England and their implications for him. And not just for himself, but for his country. Since he turned of age William had played a key role in the Netherlands’ ongoing resistance to King Louis XIV of France’s ambitions to seize its territory. From the Exclusion Crisis onwards he was alert to the possibility that England, with its great wealth, its army and its powerful navy, might, in some form, come under his control. But how? What form would it take?

Thus William had well-placed spies and ambassadors in London who not only kept him informed of events but acted as propagandists for his cause, promoting him as a defender of Protestantism and traditional English liberties against the Francophile, Catholic James.

The Immortal Seven All these tendencies crystallised in the sending of a letter to William, on 30 June 1688, jointly signed by a group of seven Protestant nobles and clerics which invited the Prince of Orange to come to England with an army. In fact William and the dissidents had been discussing what constitutional or legal forms could be used to justify his invasion since April the previous year. The letter of invitation wasn’t a spontaneous gesture but a carefully calculated contrivance agreed by both sides.

The letter The letter asked William, who was a nephew and son-in-law of James II, to use military intervention to force the king to make his eldest daughter, Mary, William’s Protestant wife, his heir. The letter alleged that the newborn prince was an impostor. The letter told William that if he landed in England with a small army, the signatories and their allies would rise up and support him. The Invitation reprised the grievances against King James and repeated the widely held claim that the king’s son was ‘supposititious’ (the technical term for fraudulently substituted). The letter then went on to give advice about the logistics of the proposed landing of troops.

The courier It was symbolic of the widespread disaffection throughout the English military and navy that the message was carried to William in The Hague not by a spy or diplomat but by Rear-Admiral Arthur Herbert (the later Lord Torrington) disguised as a common sailor, and identified by a secret code. It was also importantly symbolic that the seven signatories (who became known as ‘the Immortal Seven’) were not all dyed-in-the-wool opponents: five were Whigs, but two were Tories, traditionally the party of the Court.

Louis offers help By September it had become clear that William planned to accept the invitation and to ‘invade’ England. Louis XIV could see this, too, and he offered James French support, but James a) thought his own army would suffice b) didn’t want to become even more unpopular by inviting French Catholic troops onto English soil. He also c) couldn’t believe that his own daughter, Mary, would conspire against him.

Defections What he hadn’t anticipated was that when William did finally arrive with his Dutch army, landing at Brixham in Devon on 5 November 1688, many Protestant officers would defect from his army and join William, as did James’s younger, unmarried daughter, Anne.

James runs away James had joined his army in Salisbury preparatory to marching south-west to engage William who had made his base at Exeter but, as key commanders and their troops defected, he lost his nerve and took horse back to London. On 11 December James tried to flee to France, first throwing the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames. He was captured by local fishermen in Kent hunting for just such fleeing Catholic priests and officials, but released and placed under Dutch protective guard. But William didn’t want to try or officially dethrone James, that would cause all kinds of complications and remind everyone of the execution of Charles I – it was much more convenient to occupy a throne which had been vacated – in other words to create the convenient fiction that James had abdicated of his own free will.

And so William let James escape on 23 December and take ship to France, where he was received by his cousin and ally, Louis XIV, who offered him a palace and a pension.

James’s Catholic crusade

What Kishlansky’s relatively brief chapter on James’s reign brings out, that I’d forgotten, is the astonishing speed and thoroughness with which James tried to recatholicise England.

The Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion In 1685, soon after Charles’s death, James’s opponents in exile conceived a large-scale invasion of Britain, with a landing in Scotland to raise Protestants who had suffered under the Stuarts, and one in the West Country. The Scottish rising under the Earl of Argyll failed to materialise but Charles II’s oldest and most charismatic son, James Duke of Monmouth, landed in the West Country and raised a large army which gathered support as it marched towards Bristol. James dispatched an army to the West of England which massacred the rebel army at the Battle of Sedgmoor on 6 July 1685. But what Kishlansky emphasises is that James ensured that as many officers as possible in the winning army were Catholics.

It’s a stock A-level history question to ask why the English establishment and army gave James their full support when he crushed the Monmouth rebellion in the summer of 1685 and yet just three years later, abandoned him in droves and let him be overthrown?

Recatholicising policies The answer is simple. In the summer of 1685 the nation as a whole didn’t yet know what to expect from James, but three short years later, they had learned the scale and thoroughness of his Catholicising ambitions. Just some among James’s many recatholicising policies include that he:

  • allowed the creation of Catholic seminaries in London, sent a message to the pope and supported newly-established Catholic presses in London and Oxford
  • set priests to convert his leading ministers and daughter Anne and sent one to convert Mary in the Netherlands
  • replaced half the royal judges with Catholics
  • appointed four Catholics to the Privy Council and composed an inner council including his Jesuit confessor
  • this council set about trying to retire JPs across the land and replace them with Catholics
  • Catholic officers were drafted into the militia and into the standing army
  • the two universities had Catholic officials imposed on them and when the fellows of Magdelen College Oxford refused to accept a Catholic warden, he had them all sacked and replaced with Catholics
  • he sent the Catholic Tyrconnell to be lieutenant-general of the Irish army and he immediately set about purging the army of Protestants; hundreds of Protestant gentry fled
  • insisted the bishops restrain anti-Catholic preaching by vicars under their charge, and set up a commission to charge Anglican officials who didn’t carry this out

All this by the end of 1686. In 1687:

  • London was stripped of Anglican aldermen, militia captains and members of livery companies
  • all Lords Lieutenant were issued three questions to ask potential JPs which required the latter to support repeal of the Test Acts

The Dissenters do not rally Throughout his aggressive recatholicisation, James had hoped that the many Dissenters and Non-conformists who had been persecuted under Charles’s long reign would welcome change and religious toleration. But they didn’t. The Dissenters James was counting on to help him remained largely silent. He underestimated the strength of their enmity to Catholicism, with its devotion to a foreign pope and its overtones of political absolutism.

The Anglicans weary James also took it for granted that his Anglican subjects would passively obey him, and so they did, to begin with… but ultimately he miscalculated the extent of their tolerance, building up reservoirs of opposition at every level of the political system.

James tries to engineer a supportive Parliament Then, in November 1687, the public learned that Mary of Modena was pregnant. James redoubled efforts to set up a compliant parliament by sending commissioners to check the loyalist character of its electors around the country. More Tories were put out of their seats and replaced with Catholics or dissenters. He used whatever expedients he and his ministers could devise to ensure the selection of a parliament compliant to the recatholicising project.

The Declaration of Indulgence So it was against this background that James reissued the Declaration of Indulgence and ordered it to be read in every Anglican pulpit, that the seven bishops petitioned for this order to reconsidered and James, a man in a tearing hurry, had them tried for seditious libel, an extraordinary proceeding. They were acquitted by a London jury.

Considered in this much detail, it’s hard to see James’s policy as anything other than a thorough and concerted attack on the Church of England and Anglican belief at every single level of society.

William of Orange’s plans

William the defender Meanwhile, Kishlansky goes into just as much detail about William of Orange’s position and aims. William, born in 1650, was a Protestant prodigy whose sole aim in life was to protect the Netherlands from the France of Louis XIV. Ever since he had married James II’s daughter, Mary, in 1677, England had played a part in his diplomatic calculations, and Dutch ambassadors and propagandists had been at work for some time presenting himself as a friend, and possibly saviour, of Protestant England.

William’s awareness He had watched the political crises at the end of Charles II’s reign, the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, with a canny eye, looking for his best advantage. Thus, as he saw James’s government set about alienating everyone in England and important factions in Ireland and Scotland, William was constantly aware of its impact on him and his wife, and on her and his succession to the throne.

The geopolitical threat The birth of the Prince of Wales not only pushed him and his wife further down the order of succession, it helped to crystallise the real geopolitical threat the Low Countries faced. Louis XIV was again making belligerent noises and informed sources expected him to make a renewed attack on the Netherlands in 1689. Like his brother before him, James was a confirmed Francophile and was actually on the payroll of Louis XIV, who was subsidising his government.

Thus the situation for William was one of cold political realities: he needed to neutralise England by any means necessary in order to avoid an attack not just by France, but France in alliance with England.

William had been in touch for some time with opponents of James’s regime in England who had developed a network of dissidents and gauged the extent of opposition, not just in political circles but, crucially, in the army and navy – and the birth of the Prince of Wales triggered action on both sides.

William suggests the letter It was William who actively asked the seven leading British political figures to write him a letter and suggesting the subject, making it an invitation to him to come and investigate a) the circumstances of the birth of James’s son and heir and b) to protect English liberties.

Even so it took four long months for William to mount an amphibious landing on England’s shores, and this period was long enough for James to discover what was being planned.

James suddenly reverses direction In Kishlansky’s account it is almost comic the way that James, suddenly realising how many people he had alienated, set out on a charm offensive to rebuild his reputation. He suddenly announced that no Catholics would be allowed to sit in the upcoming parliament. He restored the bishop he had suspended and abolished the hated Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes. He restored all the Anglican fellows he’s sacked from Magdelen College. He abrogated all the charters on cities and boroughs since 1679, which had the effect of reinstating Tory Anglican mayors, aldermen and councillors. In the counties Tory lords lieutenant and JPs were reinstated.

William of Orange’s declaration It was too late. In October William published a declaration in which he announced he planned to come to England in order to preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties and customs’ of the nation. Another plank of William’s strategy was to be claiming to defend the hereditary rights of his wife, Mary, as one in line to the throne, by investigating the alleged ‘supposititious’ birth of the Prince of Wales. In other words, his declaration carefully laid out a suite of arguments designed to appeal to Tories and traditionalists.

William’s invasion fleet William assembled a huge invasion fleet, 500 ships carrying 20,000 of his best soldiers and 5,000 horses. He warned supporters to expect him on the North or West but let himself be guided by the wind which carried him down the Channel (and kept the English fleet in harbour) making landfall at Brixham in Devon on 5 November, an auspicious day for Protestants. It took two weeks to disembark his army which he marched to Exeter.

James’s army On 17 November James left London for Salisbury where his own army was encamped. On paper he commanded 25,000 men and could expect local militias to supply at least as many again. On paper, it looked like things were heading towards an epic battle to decide the future of England. But there was no battle.

James panics As soon as he arrived at Salisbury, James’s nerve broke. He suffered from insomnia and nosebleeds. He decided his army wasn’t large enough. Two of his most senior commanders defected. On 23 November he returned to London to discover his other daughter, Anne, had deserted him and gone to the Midlands, where insurgents for William had already taken major towns. His advisers told him to call a parliament and send envoys for peace and to ‘pardon’ William.

Negotiations On the short wet December days the envoys struggled to make William an offer. William’s Whig advisers weren’t, in fact, that keen for a parliament to be called since they needed to time to assure their support around the country. While these negotiations were stuttering forward, all sides were astonished by the news that James had fled London. His last acts were to officially disband his army, destroy the writs required to summon a Parliament, then he threw the Great Seal into the Thames i.e. James did everything he could to sabotage the machinery of government.

Anti-Catholic riots When Londoners learned James had fled there was an outbreak of anti-Catholic violence with rioters attacking and burning Catholic chapels. And it was now that James, in disguise, was captured by local fishermen in Kent hunting for just such fleeing Catholic priests and officials. After he was recognised, James returned to London where at least some of the crowd cheered his arrival.

William orders James to leave William had begun his march on London and he and his supporters were stymied by this sudden reversal in the situation. After pondering all the alternatives, William sent an order to James to vacate the capital within ten hours, and an escort of Dutch guards to assist him to do so and to accompany him to Rochester.

Second time lucky The great mystery in all of this is why James didn’t stand his ground and rally whatever patriots he could find against what was clearly a foreign invasion. But he didn’t. He meekly went along with the Dutch guard who were given instructions to let him slip away at the first opportunity and now, for the second time, James made an escape to the Kent coast, and this time successfully took ship to France.

What do we do now? At this point the situation became humorous with the kind of comedy we find in the history of human affairs again and again, because – Nobody knew what to do. The Tories would certainly not have welcomed William’s invasion if they had thought of it as such, as a conquest by a foreign prince. The Whigs were William’s natural supporters but were themselves divided, some saying William should place Mary on the throne, convene a Parliament to ratify her succession, and then retire to become merely a king-consort. The more full-blooded Whigs wanted William as king. The leading figure of the day, Lord Halifax, pithily summed up the confusion:

As nobody knew what to do with him, so nobody knew what to do without him. (quoted on page 283)

The Convention Parliament When he arrived in London, William summoned the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual to assemble, and they were joined by the privy councillors on 12 December 1688. On 26 December they were joined by the surviving MPs from Charles’s last Parliament, the one he held in Oxford (none from James’s tainted Catholic Parliaments). This assembly in turn summoned the Convention Parliament, consisting of Lords and Commoners, which recommended setting up of a ‘Convention’ to decide a way forward, which was formally opened on 22 January 1689.

The key fact was that nobody wanted civil war or the outbreak of rebellion in either Scotland or Ireland. The solution had to be fast. And so it was that the knottiest problem in English history was solved by the Convention Parliament in just two weeks!

Lords and Tories In the House of Lords some, especially the bishops, wanted a simple restoration of James, the rightful king. Other Tories suggested that William and Mary might rule as ‘regents’ until the death of James II, and then Mary would reign as rightful queen thereafter. William, Mary and Anne all let it be known that they opposed this option, the two women deferring to the male monarch.

Whigs In the House of Commons, Whigs put forward a formula that James had abrogated the contract between a sovereign and his people by abdicating. But 1. the notion that monarchy rested on some kind of voluntary contract between sovereign and people was unprecedented and revolutionary in implication, and 2. it was far from clear that James had, in fact, abdicated. He had been ordered to leave.

Plus 3. the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is that the throne is never vacant: the moment one monarch dies, his or her heir succeeds. Even if James had abdicated, then his son the Prince of Wales automatically became the rightful heir – but nobody at all wanted rule by a baby (referred to by many of the debaters as ‘the brat’, according to Kishlansky). And 4. the notion that abdication created a sort of vacuum which had to be sorted out by the people implied another revolutionary idea – that the people in some sense elected their monarch. An elective monarchy.

Reluctant acceptance Nobody wanted to explicitly say this, as it made a mockery of the fixed hierarchical principles on which the whole of English society rested. But nonetheless, this notion of an agreement by the people to choose a sovereign was the formula which was eventually accepted for the simple reason that the alternative – that the king had been overthrown by an armed invasion – was worse. That idea would legitimise the violent overthrow of the rightful monarch and take everyone back to the constitutional chaos of the 1640s.

Arguments The differing arguments were played out in disagreement between the Commons, which accepted the new reality, and the Lords who held out for significant rewording the Act agreed by the Commons. The deadlock dragged on for days until William, always a busy man, threatened to go back to Holland and leave the English with a broken country.

The Lords capitulated and both Houses passed an Act declaring William and Mary joint King and Queen of Britain.

The Declaration of Rights While the politicians had been arguing, the nation’s top lawyers had been drafting a Declaration of Rights. Like the Act, the Declaration had to be very careful in its language, ambiguous at a number of key moments in order not to alienate the different groupings of Whigs and Tories.

A compromise Like many other constitutional documents (the Magna Carta or the American ConstitutionThe Declaration of Rights was less a bold statement of timeless principles than a fix-up designed to be acceptable to the largest number of the political nation. As it progressed through drafts, it evolved into a ringing restatement of old and existing laws and liberties, sweeping away James’s innovations, but not proposing anything new.

Even then, the situation called for equivocation. If William had been forced to agree to the Declaration, he would have become in effect an elected monarch and the monarchy and elective monarchy – something which was anathema to most of the bishops and lords and Tories throughout the land.

A tricky coronation William’s coronation had to be accompanied by the Declaration but not dependent on it. Hence the peculiar fact that at William’s more-elaborate-than-usual coronation on 11 April 1689, the Declaration was read out before William was crowned, and he referred to it in the speech after his coronation as embodying the principles for which he had entered the country – but it was carefully made clear that his crowning was in no way dependent on accepting the Declaration. And no-one mentioned abdication or contracts or elective monarchies or anything like that. Shhh.

Muddling through Once again the English had managed their way through a massive constitutional crisis on the basis not of logical principles, but of fudging and mudging, of masking ambiguity and unclarity in robes and orbs and high ceremonial. Was it a triumph of enlightened constitutional principles, or of English pragmatism, or of barely concealed hypocrisy?

However you interpret it, what came to be called ‘the Glorious Revolution’ certainly solved one immediate and pressing problem, but laid up a whole series of longer-term challenges for the future.


Related links

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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


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