Who should sit on the throne?: the Commons, Lords and William & Mary, 1689

325 years ago today Parliament offered the crown to William and Mary, along with the Declaration of Rights (later to become the Bill of Rights). Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, looks back at the two weeks of momentous debates in the Lords and Commons leading up to this moment…

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ is the name given to the invasion of England by a Dutch force led by Prince William of Orange in November 1688 in response to a wave of unrest against King James II’s determined attempt to reinstate Catholic worship in the country and the events that followed: the crumbling of James’s army, his flight to France, and the summoning of a new revolutionary Parliament – the ‘Convention’ to decide what to do next. Their debates were imbued with the splits about religion and politics that went back to the Civil War of the 1640s, and the arguments in the early 1680s provoked by James’s Catholicism. The result had been a division between opposing camps, Whigs and Tories, which would run through British politics for the next century or more.

On 28th January, six days after the Convention Parliament first assembled, the House of Commons voted that the King had ‘abdicated the government’ by ‘breaking the original contract between king and people’ and having ‘withdrawn himself out of the government’ he had left the throne vacant.  The Commons vote caused consternation among Tories in the Lords, already aware of Whig plans to formally depose James and to make William and his wife Mary (James’s daughter) King and Queen. Only a handful of them – including the Earl of Clarendon and Francis Turner, the Bishop of Ely – believed that there were any circumstances under which James could resume the reins of government, but all of them,  firmly wedded to the principle of an indefeasible hereditary right, were horrified by the implication that the succession could be determined by parliament.  Over two days of open party warfare in the Lords, carried on ‘with the greatest passion and violence’ and calling up all of the partisan hatreds of the last sixty years (at one point the old Whig Lord Wharton bitterly attacked Clarendon for calling the Civil War a ‘rebellion’), Tories tried to replace the word ‘abdicated’ by ‘deserted’ and rejected the idea that the throne was vacant.  In order to preserve the constitutional niceties they proposed a regency instead – with William, as regent, heading the government during James’ lifetime. One man who did not join in was the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, the intellectual leader of the Tories and hero of the prosecution of the seven bishops the previous year, whose curious passivity in the face of the extraordinary events surrounding him and refusal to attend the Lords was a source of intense frustration to his colleagues.

Their action precipitated a confrontation between the majorities in the Lords and in the Commons. On 3 February the Commons rejected the Lords’ changes, flinging them back to the upper House. The arcane debates about constitutional law in the Lords and Commons were ended only when William himself weighed in. So far he had scrupulously avoided advancing his own claims to the throne, but now, in command of the only viable military force in the country and firmly in control of London, he told a group of senior peers that he would settle for nothing less than the crown in his own right and in that of his wife.  On 6 February the Whigs successfully marshalled their support in the Lords to back him.  In his diary of events of that day, the Earl of Clarendon described how ‘all imaginable pains were taken to bring other lords to the House, who never used to come: as the Earl of Lincoln, who, to confirm the opinion several had of his being half-mad, declared he came to do whatever my Lord Shrewsbury and Lord Mordaunt would have him’.  Edward Howard, the gouty Earl of Carlisle ‘was brought upon his crutches’; even Nathaniel Crew, the Bishop of Durham, previously a staunch Tory, though a man ‘who had been at the House but twice before’ in his life and had not previously attended the Convention was persuaded to attend and vote to agree with the Commons.  The Earl of Montagu, later looking for a dukedom, claimed credit for swinging the vote by persuading the Earl of Huntingdon, Lord Astley and the Bishop of Durham. After the division Clarendon queried Thomas Tufton, 6th Earl of Thanet, who had previously refused to acknowledge that the throne was vacant, why he ‘came to leave us in this last vote’. Thanet responded that

he was of our mind, and thought we had done ill in admitting the monarchy to be elective; for so this vote had made it: but he thought there was an absolute necessity of having a government; and he did not see it likely to be any other way than this.

In the end, although forty-six peers resisted the idea of vacancy to the end, the margin of victory was large enough. The Lords voted to agree with the Commons in declaring that James had abdicated and that the throne was thereby vacant.

On the 13th, both Houses went together ‘in a body’ to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where they offered William and Mary the Crown, together with the Declaration of Rights agreed on.  The latter, which in statutory form would become known as the Bill of Rights, laid out the misgovernment of Charles II and James II, and set out the principles which Parliament believed to be fundamental to the law and the constitution of England. It implied that the Revolution had restored an old order: but the feeling that an old order had been profoundly changed was hard to dispel, and few would guess quite how much – driven by the demands of war as much as by the formality of a new constitutional document – the government of England would change in the following quarter of a century.


This blog has been adapted from the History’s short introduction to the history of the House of Lords 1660-1715, published in 2010. The highly illustrated book is still available from Boydell and Brewer: see here for details.

For more on the background to these events, see our Explore article Religion and Politics, 1660-1690‘.

You can read more on the events of 1688-89 in ‘The first meeting of the ‘Provisional Government’ and the signing of the Guildhall Declaration’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s