Dr Charles Littleton discusses the ‘Provisional Government’ that formed on this day – 11 December – in 1688 to take control after James II’s first flight from William of Orange.
The members of the late 17th-century House of Lords were in no doubt that they were the ‘natural’ governors of the realm next to the king himself. Thus on 11-16 December 1688, for the brief period when the kingdom was left without a monarch following James II’s unexpected flight from Westminster, they were happy to assume this role. James had fled in the wake of the steady advance of William of Orange on the capital and the desertion of so many trusted royal military officers and even his own daughter, Anne. When the king’s absence was discovered six lords spiritual and 21 lords temporal met together in the Guildhall of the City of London to take the order and safety of the realm in their own hands. They derived their authority from ‘an inexpressible authority and jurisdiction kneaded (next to that invested into the imperial crown of England) into the very essence and fundamental constitution of our laws’.
George Savile, marquess of Halifax acted as Speaker and Francis Gwyn was appointed secretary to the assembly. Their first action was to halt the possibility of hostilities between the opposing forces and they sent executive orders, under the authority of ‘the Lords Spiritual and Temporal’, to the general of the royal land forces, the earl of Feversham, and to the admiral of the Navy, Lord Dartmouth, to desist from fighting. These lords spiritual and temporal also signed the ‘Guildhall Declaration’ in which they declared that in the king’s absence they would assist as far as they could the Prince of Orange in executing the publicly-stated reason for his invasion, the summoning of a ‘free parliament’ to settle the crisis in religion and government.
Over the next few days this irregular meeting of peers and bishops took on the form of an emergency government to maintain order and security. On 13 December nine peers even assembled at three in the morning to give orders to settle disturbances in the capital, following panic that Irish Catholic solders from the disbanded royal forces were marching on London. The provisional government’s proceedings, though, were quickly complicated by the discovery later on the 13th that King James had not made good his escape, but had been detained at the Kentish port of Faversham. The government, after some debate, dispatched three of James’s courtiers to Kent to secure the king and bring him back to Whitehall. The short-lived provisional government’s last meeting took place on 15 December, as James returned to the capital the following day to a rapturous reception and nominally took up power again.
The job of this government was not over, however, as a still disheartened James soon bowed to the implicit threat contained in William’s ‘advice’ that he should leave the capital ‘for his own safety’ and departed for Rochester on 18 December. The lords spiritual and temporal were quickly called on again to assume their roles as advisors, as William of Orange summoned the whole body of the episcopate and the peerage to discuss the best way of convening a ‘free parliament’. It was this second meeting that, after a stormy Christmas debate, agreed to address the Prince of Orange to take over the government of the realm and to issue writs of summons for a ‘Convention’ – a Parliament to be convened without royal authority – which would later offer the Crown to William and his wife Mary.