England’s Revolutionary coyness

It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it building in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Derbyshire village – and you have to wonder whether that’s how most people here like it. The only museum in England dedicated to the events of 1688-91, which had such a huge impact on the history of the world, not just that of Britain and Ireland, is a preserved early-modern alehouse consisting of just three exhibition rooms, the largest of which is barely big enough to fit a family of five. It was in Revolution House on High Street in Old Whittington, Derbyshire (although in 1688 it was an alehouse called the Cock and Pynot), that Tory leader Lord Danby, and the Whig politicians Lord Devonshire and John Darcy, fourth son of Lord Holderness, met up to discuss how best to invite William of Orange over to the country so that he could help them depose England’s unpopular king James II (who was also James VII of Scotland).

Revolution House, Old Whittington, Derbyshire
Revolution House, Old Whittington, Derbyshire

It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider the implications of what they were doing: here were three ultra-conservative pillars of high English society, none of whom had any time for Levellers-style popular politics, actually planning to dislodge their king. It could very easily have gone spectacularly wrong for them – as it had already done for James’s nephew the Duke of Monmouth after his defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685.

The problem was not just that James II (and VII) was Catholic (this had, after all, been known for years, and hardly anyone in any of his three kingdoms thought it was worth physically barring him from the throne) – he was also short-tempered with a tetchy, authoritarian streak, and had no idea how to manage his cabinet. He shut Parliament down shortly after his reign began in 1685 when it dared to criticise his ideas, he sacked academics and arrested clerics who questioned his policies, he employed intrusive bureaucrats, and shamelessly paraded through his realm with a standing army. In fairness to James, not all his ideas were necessarily bad ones – his Declarations of Indulgence were well-meaning aims at imposing religious toleration, for the benefit not just of Catholics but also of Nonconformists. The trouble was that, just as multi-millionaire entertainers are the wrong people to start lecturing us about charitable giving on Comic Relief Night, similarly the authoritarian and accident-prone James was the wrong apostle for the creation of a new, get-along kingdom.

James II of England (and VII of Scotland)
James II of England (and VII of Scotland)

After the public-relations own goal that was the failed Trial of the Bishops in 1688, Danby, Devonshire, and others finally decided that enough was enough, and so wrote their letter to William – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The importance of the lives and careers of James and William to Ireland and Irish history are well documented, and familiar even to people in Ireland who don’t do anything on Eleventh Night. In England, however, it’s almost as if the nation is embarrassed about its last successful Revolution – despite its importance when it comes to understanding the development of the country’s political institutions. We on this side of the Irish Sea are uniquely encouraged to be coy about our revolutionary past – an attiude that is unimaginable in America and France. In the same week that the new Museum of Orange Culture opened in Belfast, the planners in Chesterfield council were preparing to line Old Whittington’s High Street with a carousel and jumble sales in time for a weekend family event. Most visitors simply bypassed Revolution House in favour of the fairground attractions and face painting.

The terminology for the event is particularly telling. It has been called the Glorious Revolution – although it clearly was not a glorious time for Scottish and Irish Catholics (as the historian Simon Schama put it, if the Revolution ‘was a triumph for England, it was a tragedy for Britain.‘). It has also been termed the Bloodless or Quiet Revolution, with Conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke honestly believing this to be true, and using that myth as a stick to beat those who saw similarities with the French Revolution. In fact, as the historian Steve Pincus has shown, the events of 1688-9 in England were a picture of popular rebellion against authority, and widespread violence, principally against Catholic civilians:

Violence erupted in town after town in late 1688. Popular uprisings in York, Hull, and Carlisle achieved quick victories. Chester was seething with discontent. The dragoons quartered there were so frequently reviled and attacked by the townsmen that the men ‘wish[ed] themselves at home’. Portsmouth was even more of a flashpoint.

As if further proof were needed that the Revolution was a popular and not just aristocratic affair, King James’s fate was, for half a week in December 1688, in the hands of a trio of fishermen in Kent. He had attempted to throw William and the Dutch off his scent by first agreeing to a meeting with them, and then burning the writs for a new parliament and throwing the royal seal into the Thames, before taking to a boat for France. He got as far as the town of Faversham by the Isle of Sheppey, where the fishermen caught him, initially mistaking him for a priest. After four days in their captivity, the fleeing king was handed over to guards whose sympathies were clearly with William, but as the Prince of Orange and his allies regarded James as less of a threat than an embarrassment the guards were encouraged to turn a blind eye and give the deposed king several hints that no-one would stop him if he tried to escape again. Finally, James took the hint, and left England for good just a couple of days before Christmas. There’s something to ponder over: for a few days a proud king is detained and humiliated by three of his blue-collar subjects, and so far no-one has yet written a screenplay about it.

The Revolution of 1688-91 and its outworkings exercised the minds of many long after the ink had dried on the Treaty of Limerick. The Whig propagandists in the newly united British state of the 18th Century waxed lyrical and artistic about the legal and constitutional gains that had been wrested in 1688-91. They were gains that reverberated across the world, too: America’s Founding Fathers used the 1689 Bill of Rights as a model for their Bill and also their Declaration of Independence, and France’s revolutionaries in the 1780s were similarly inspired by the actions of their neighbours across the Channel a century before. The events were deemed important enough for the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay to have them comprise the bulk of his “History of England”, a classic work whose stirring prose had an enormous effect on, among others, Winston Churchill. Such far-reaching inspiration makes it all the more puzzling why more is not made in the present time of the Revolution – at least in England.

The comic writer John O’Farrell was only half-joking when he wrote in 2001 that ‘When it comes to being not that bothered about patriotism, nobody does it quite like us Brits‘, but in an age in which immigrants to the country are expected to show proper respect for, and knowledge of, our history and traditions, it is more than a little puzzling that many people who were born and raised here are not only unaware of how their forbears helped to bring down a bad king, but are also not encouraged to be so aware. Perhaps this was the point of Burke and co in pretending that if change in England happens then it is always orderly and seamless, and the preserve only of wise and all-knowing monarchs, statesmen, and army officers, rather than those of us struggling from below. It is only in godforsaken foreign climes inhabited by excitable foreigners where things like revolutions break out.

I hope I’m not coming over too misty-eyed about 1688: in addition to modern accountable parliamentary government, it also produced a more poisonous legacy of religious divisions, a legacy that clearly proved to be particularly enduring in Ireland. Nonetheless, in a time where our parliamentary institutions are coming under increasing scrutiny and the political challenges become more acute, we could do worse than start to take more pride publicly in what Steve Pincus called the First Modern Revolution.