I’m surprised at how many momentous events in British history go unmarked, and wonder if some of them are actively hidden lest we start to rethink our settled establishment.
On this day* in 1688, William of Orange landed at Torbay, Devon (my home county), with Dutch troops and began a march on London that began our very own coup d’état: the Glorious Revolution. Most modern commentators will begin this story with the wisecrack that it was neither glorious nor a revolution, yet the Glorious Revolution is fundamental to an understanding of the British constitution today.
The problem with monarchies is what to do with a bad king. Elected presidents serve for a limited term, and can be ousted by a constitutional process. However, the British constitution provides no mechanism for ousting bad kings. That’s not to say that it can’t be done. We only have to look as far back as 1936 to see a British monarch be forcibly removed. Edward David Windsor was removed on account of his proposed marriage to a US divorcée, a rather meaningless moral qualm. However, it is apparent that his avid support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi cause, his non-stop racism as governor of the Bahamas and his criminal activity as a currency speculator were not the kind of traits one would expect in a British head of state.
Throughout the 17th century, Britain was blighted by a succession of bad kings. The Stuart family were a selfishly extravagant and power hungry bunch of autocratic rulers who dabbled in politics, religion and warfare, always placing their own self-interest above that of their peoples. It took a long and bloody civil war to oust Charles Stuart sr in 1649. In 1660, with no consensus on how to develop the Commonwealth government, Charles Stuart jr was made king with certain limitations. However, it was his brother James Stuart jr who renewed the autocratic tendencies of his father. James seems to have become quite devoted to Catholicism and gradually came to despise Protestantism, and as such can be seen as an advocate for freedom of expression. Whereas his elder brother had exercised his freedom of expression in debauchery, James chose a far more controversial path. It must be remembered that in the European politics of the time Catholicism also stood for monarchical absolutism, making it very attractive for a monarch who wished to get his hands on more power. What often goes unmentioned is James’s summary dismissal of Protestants from official positions and his creation of a standing army under Catholic officers. Understandably, Parliament saw that all the freedoms from tyranny that had been fought for against James’s father were imperilled.
There are many details, but a majority in Parliament favoured ousting James and replacing him with his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, who was Stadhouder of the major provinces of the Dutch Republic. Trying to avoid this looking like a foreign invasion, Mary and William requested that a formal invitation be issued, and received a letter signed by seven English notables (including Henry Compton, Bishop of London) saying that they would rise up in support of a military expedition to England. William landed near Brixham in Devon with around 20,000 troops, of whom around 200 were the descendants of African plantation-slaves from the Dutch colony of Suriname. On 9 November, these Black soldiers marched triumphantly as guards of honour surrounding William at the head of the column into my home town, Exeter. On 9 December, the only major engagement in the Glorious Revolution was fought at Reading by fewer than a thousand soldiers, resulting in around fifty casualties.
The royal family fled to France that night, but James was captured by fishermen and returned to London. There followed some protracted period where no one really knew who was running the country. Until William put James in such a position where he was achieving little and could easily escape, letting him flee unhindered to France on 23 December. Mary and William eventually were crowned joint monarchs and a Bill of Rights was drawn up regulating their ability to wield political power, so that raising an army, taxation and declaring war could only be done with the consent of Parliament.
Neither glorious nor a revolution, this was the moment when Britain struck a deal to say that we’ll have a monarch as long as they abide by the rules set down by Parliament and recognise. It also gives us precedent for changing a monarch who interferes in political processes.
* The landing was made on 15 November according to the Gregorian calendar, which is in general use today and was used in parts of Europe at the time. However, the same day is 5 November according to the Julian calendar which was official in Britain until 1752.