Revolutions: The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991

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4

1688: A political revolution

W. A. Speck


Introduction

On 11 December 1688 James II fled from his capital city and made his way down the Thames hoping to escape to France. His departure produced the first breakdown of government in the Glorious Revolution. For a time a group of peers agreed to ‘take upon them the Government for the preservation of the Kingdom and this great City’. As one of them noted, ‘we had otherwise been a state of banditi, and London had certainly been the spoil of the rabble’. This alternative administration did not last long, for the King returned to the capital on 16 December. He had been intercepted by fishermen at Faversham, from whom he had been rescued by a party of guards sent to bring him back to London. James tried to resume the reins of power and even held a meeting of the privy council. But when William of Orange entered the capital on 18 December he asked the King to remove himself from the seat of government and James agreed, retiring to Rochester. Once more there was a vacuum of power, which the peers, meeting in the House of Lords, again attempted to fill. When James fled to France on 23 December, however, this time successfully, they met on Christmas Eve and asked William to call a free Parliament to meet on 22 January, and meanwhile to take upon himself ‘the administration of public affairs, both civil and military, and the disposal of the public revenue’. He delayed acceptance until former Members of Parliament of King Charles II’s time also asked him to govern the country on 26 December. William then carried out the task not just until the Convention assembled, for it too asked him to be chief executive until the constitutional position had been resolved. He therefore governed the country by virtue of these informal ad hoc arrangements until 13 February, when he and his wife Mary, James’ daughter, accepted the Convention’s offer of the Crown.

For seven weeks, therefore, England was without a king or queen. This was a unique era in constitutional history, for the rule was ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. No interregnum was recognised legally even between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of 1660. Charles II dated his reign from the day of his father’s death. The Convention elected in 1689, however, accepted that the throne was vacant

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