A ‘Glorious’ Revolution?

This week the BBC’s new series ‘British History’s Biggest fibs’ tackles some of the myths surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-1689. Dr Robin Eagles casts a glance over some aspects of the revolution’s commemoration…

In July 1789 the House of Lords considered a motion introduced by Earl Stanhope for a day of national commemoration to be instituted marking the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. A similar measure was introduced to the Commons by Henry Beaufoy. Arguing against Stanhope’s proposal, the bishop of Bangor objected that a day of commemoration already existed as 5 November was taken to mark both the discovery of the Gunpowder plot and William of Orange’s arrival at Torbay. Following a few more speeches, Stanhope’s motion was voted down in a fairly empty House by six to 13. Stanhope’s failure to convince the Lords apparently confirmed his original concern that not enough attention was being paid to a moment of such significance in Whig mythology. While notices in the contemporary press make it clear that the centenary at least was observed with considerable gusto, Stanhope’s concern is supported in part by John Wilkes’s disappointment when he visited William’s landing place at Brixham in the summer of 1772 ‘ready to fall on my knees on the sacred spot’ only to find little evidence of commemoration there either.

The Glorious Revolution has always had a contested historiography and its memorialization helps to underline a number of reasons why that might be the case. At the very outset, William of Orange had been just as unimpressed by the very modest number of those willing to invite him to England – and then by the rather slow response to his invasion from those whom he had expected to rally to his cause. The so-called ‘Immortal Seven’, who put their names to the letter of invitation, also appeared to emphasize the underwhelming appeal on which he was depending for his legitimacy. However, while their numbers may have been slight, it should not be forgotten that each promised influence over an important constituency and had greater symbolic appeal than a mere seven signatures might otherwise suggest.

Two were top-rank politicians, Henry Compton, bishop of London – who thereby brought with him a degree of support from the Church of England – and Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, former principal minister of Charles II and a powerful figure in the north of England. Charles Talbot, 12th earl of Shrewsbury, was famous for a number of reasons – not least as a convert from Catholicism to Anglicanism – and Henry Sidney was well-known as brother of the martyred Algernon (executed in the wake of the 1683 Rye House Plot). Lord Lumley (another convert) was relatively junior but brought with him impressive influence in the north-east of England and a number of army connexions. William Cavendish, 4th earl of Devonshire, brought with him greater experience as well as a similar level of prestige in the midlands. Finally, like Sidney, Edward Russell represented another great noble family who had suffered at the hands of the Stuarts, and who could also offer significant influence in the Navy. Besides, in addition to the ‘Seven’, there was an array of colourful hangers-on who helped drive the plot forward: men like the alarmingly unpredictable Lord Lovelace or the rakish duellist, Thomas Wharton. Lovelace was a former friend of the dissolute poet earl of Rochester, and said never to have been sober since his days as a student at Wadham College, Oxford. His house at Ladye Place was used for at least some of their plotting and retained its mystique as one of the hideaways of the revolutionaries long afterwards. Wharton, composer (or rather librettist) of ‘Lilliburlero’ later liked to boast of having sung James II out of three kingdoms, and his role in the Glorious Revolution was made much of during his later career as lord lieutenant of Ireland.

Ladye Place.

If William’s level of support in England has been questioned, the very phrase ‘Glorious Revolution’ has also been the cause of dispute, partly because for some it is a distasteful epithet for a period that involved lengthy and bloody civil war. However, there is good evidence for it having been in use very soon after William’s successful invasion, so it can at least claim a certain contemporaneity. The man generally reputed to have coined the phrase was John Hampden, while speaking in a parliamentary committee in November 1689. He was not, though, the only one attempting to fashion the proceedings of the previous autumn into a manageable ‘sound-bite’. The following month Sir Henry Capel dubbed it ‘this great Revolution’ and Sir William Leveson Gower ‘this happy Revolution’: though neither caught on in quite the same way. Painting William’s triumph as ‘glorious’, however, was in no way original. The term called to mind past events – after all this was a revolution, a turning of the wheel, and thus as much a restoration as an innovation. A work of 1680 had, significantly, referred to Charles II’s return to the throne in 1660 as a ‘Glorious Revolution’; perhaps more obscurely another of 1653 had made the same claim of the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Whether or not Hampden was conscious of these allusions, what is clear is that the phrase was current long before November 1689 and it is a mark of the special place of the 1688 Revolution that it is to this rather than to those earlier examples that the title has stuck.

The mythologizing of the Glorious Revolution is the less remarkable when one considers how other comparable events had been similarly incorporated into the nation’s ‘rich tapestry’.  But equally important too was the need to forget or at least quietly amend certain aspects of what had occurred. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Viscount Say and Sele – prominent parliamentarian and known for his slippery politicking as ‘Old Subtlety’ – had had an inscription carved at his seat of Broughton Castle bearing the legend ‘Quod olim fuit, meminisse minime iuvat’ [There is no pleasure in the memory of the past]. After 1688 there was similar erasing of memory. James II’s former chief minister, the earl of Sunderland, wrote to William III from exile claiming boldly that the Revolution had been his doing all along – and how by his furthering James II’s unpopular policies he had ensured James’s rapid dismissal.

It is all too easy to dismiss such blatant repositioning for the fiction it was, and it is certainly true that many other false or misleading descriptions have attached to what happened in 1688/9. It was not, for example, in any way ‘bloodless’.  But for the people who risked their necks to bring over William, as well as for those who worked to oppose him, this was an historic moment – good or bad – and this is perhaps reflected in the way that it continues to resonate into modern times. Thus when in November 2008 the House of Commons debated the establishment of a ‘British Day’, Paul Holmes, the then Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, when suggesting a number of events that might form the basis for commemoration included 1688 among them. Reflecting the complex nature of the event, though, he added the all-important qualification: ‘History is a bit more complicated than simple labels, such as “the Glorious Revolution”.’


Further reading:

  • Ulrich Niggemann, ‘Some remarks on the origin of the term “Glorious Revolution”’, The Seventeenth Century, xxvii (2012)

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