Before the Glorious Revolution: The Making of Absolute Monarchy? Graham Goodlad Examines the Controversies Surrounding the Development of Royal Power under Charles II and James II

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Before the Glorious Revolution: The Making of Absolute Monarchy? Graham Goodlad Examines the Controversies Surrounding the Development of Royal Power under Charles II and James II


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


The Debate

The traditional view of the Glorious Revolution was that it saved England from the power-seeking designs of James II and secured the development of constitutional monarchy, civil and religious liberty and the rule of law. This heroic interpretation of the events of 1688-89 was fixed in the national consciousness by the enormously influential History of England, written by the mid-nineteenth century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. It established a widely held picture of a tyrannical ruler whose ambition was to establish a Catholic absolute monarchy, modelled on the example of Louis XIV's France.

Although later historians reacted against Macaulay's Whig triumphalism, subsequent research tended to confirm the essentials of this interpretation. In Monarchy and Revolution (1972), J.R. Western argued that James continued a trend towards royal absolutism, which had begun in the final years of Charles II's reign. Only the intervention of William of Orange in the autumn of 1688 brought about a change of direction, perhaps at the last possible moment.

A more benign view of the later Stuart regime emerged in the work of John Miller. He argued that Charles II lacked the application to develop a coherent 'absolutist' policy, and tended to shift his ground in response to pressure. His sense of insecurity, arising from England's recent past of civil war and republican rule, meant that his priority was survival--the preservation of existing royal powers rather than their systematic extension. The less pragmatic James II was driven by his passionate commitment to Roman Catholicism, to which he had become converted during his brother's reign. James did not seek power for its own sake, but aimed to place Catholics on an equal footing with Protestants by securing for them religious toleration and access to public office. Miller detected in the 1680s a piecemeal abuse of the monarchy's traditional powers, but this fell far short of a consistent strategy to enhance royal authority.

In recent years there have been signs of a reaction against this more charitable interpretation. W.A. Speck's profile of James II argues that, although the king did not seek to impose Catholicism on his subjects, his ambitions went beyond a quest for equal treatment for his co-religionists. He 'did increase the powers of the Crown independently of using them to promote toleration'. The strengthening of royal power in the last four years of Charles II's reign, and the collapse of the regime under his successor, has been analysed in depth in Tim Harris's recent two volume study, Restoration and Revolution. A major theme of Harris's work is the monarchy's recovery, following the near-disaster of the Exclusion crisis of 1679-81. Charles showed ruthless skill in defeating this attempt, by the regime's Whig opponents, to exploit popular anti-Catholicism in order to debar his brother from the succession. The Whigs were effectively routed, but at a cost of making the Crown the prisoner of a Tory, Anglican faction, upon whose continuing co-operation it now depended. James' alienation of this group after 1685, through his pro-Catholic policies, was to bring about his downfall.

This article reviews the continuing debate on the decade prior to the Glorious Revolution, first by assessing the resources at the Crown's disposal, and then by examining its relationship with key institutions and its attitude to the law. For reasons of space it focuses on England and excludes Scotland and Ireland, whose distinctive experience requires separate consideration.

Potential for Absolutism?

The financial settlement agreed at the Restoration in 1660 was apparently favourable to the Crown, but in practice Charles II struggled to reconcile his resources with his spending commitments for the greater part of his reign. The king's principal source of revenue was to be the customs and excise, which was expected to bring in approximately 1. …

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