By Pincus, Steven
History Today , Vol. 59, No. 10
England's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 holds a special place in our understanding of the modern world and the revolutions that shaped it. For the better part of three centuries scholars and commentators identified it as a defining moment in England's exceptional history. Political philosophers have associated it with the origins of liberalism. Sociologists have contrasted it with the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. Historians have pointed to the Glorious Revolution as confirming the unusual nature of the English state, the balanced ancient constitution which limited the excesses both of monarchical authority and popular liberty. Scholars of literature and culture highlight it as an important moment in defining English common sense and moderation. All of these interpretations derive their power from a deeply held and widely repeated narrative of the revolution.
Unfortunately, this narrative is wrong. Replacing it with a new one necessarily forces us to revise many of the basic historical, political, moral and sociological categories we use to make sense of the modern world. The old narrative emphasised the revolution as a great moment in which the English defended their unique political culture. In fact, the English revolutionaries created a new kind of modern state. It was that new state that has proved so influential in shaping the modern world.
In the familiar story the English people agreed to replace the Catholic King James II with the Protestants William III and Mary because, in his brief four-year reign, lames II had gradually and myopically alienated the moderate and sensible English people. He had done this, according to this narrative, in a series of well-known missteps. In late 1685 he over-reacted to the romantic but hopeless rebellion of his nephew, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, by judicially murdering hundreds of humble inhabitants of the English West Country in the Bloody Assizes. Determined to improve the social and political status of his Catholic co-religionists, James then ran roughshod over English law. He insisted on his right to defy parliamentary statute and awarded Roman Catholics military and naval commissions. In 1687 he used his newly formed and illegal Ecclesiastical Commission to force England's Protestant universities to accept Roman Catholic fellows. When the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford resisted their king's demands, he had the dons stripped of their fellowships and their institution turned into a Catholic seminary.
According to this once well-known narrative, after lames had failed to persuade the House of Commons or the House of Lords to repeal England's laws against Roman Catholicism, he decided to reduce the power of Parliament. He first asserted his right to nullify the Test Acts and Penal Laws. These parliamentary statutes--requiring, in the case of the Test Acts, that all political or military office-holders take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England and, in the case of the Penal Laws, punishing those who officiated at or attended non-Church of England services--had successfully insulated the English from continental Catholic practices. Then James determined to have his royal fiat ratified by a Parliament packed with men whom he knew would do his bidding. In June 1688, seven bishops of the Church of England defied James by refusing to have his Declaration of Indulgence, emasculating the Penal Laws and Test Acts, read from England's pulpits on the grounds of its illegality. James had the seven men dragged into court for a show trial. That even a carefully picked English jury acquitted the bishops demonstrated the limits to which the English were willing to go in support of their king. Soon after the trial, the English invited the Dutchman William III, Prince of Orange, to England to restore their religious and political liberty.
The English people enthusiastically welcomed William upon his arrival in the west of England in 1688. …