Taking back control of a ‘disordered and distracted nation’: the Provisional Government 11-25 December 1688

As many of us face a very unusual and unsettled Christmas due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded that Christmases of past have also been observed during periods of great uncertainty. In today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles of our House of Lords 1715-90 project explores the Provisional Government that followed the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688…

In the winter of 1688, the country briefly found itself without a government. Faced with the prospect of an invading army bearing down on London, James II had opted for flight leaving no agreed alternative in place. In some ways this was a problem that had been taxing the minds of senior politicians for some time. Even before the king had fled, in early December an anonymous ‘memorial’ sent to the marquess of Halifax had advised recalling the 1681 Oxford Parliament. It considered this the best solution to the crisis created by William of Orange’s invasion of 5 November, as it was the last

ever soe Freely and Fairely elected Illegally dissolved, and since whose dissolution the liberties, laws and religion of the nation have been undermined.

The proposal, ignoring James’s own Parliament of 1685, underscored the extent of the turmoil facing the country and just how far the king’s authority had crumbled.

This is not to say that James had not tried to find a resolution. In early December, with William’s army firmly established in the country, the king had sent commissioners to the prince offering to summon a new Parliament and to guarantee its safety. In the meantime, he convened meetings of the bishops and peers gathered in the capital. According to one of James’s supporters, the earl of Ailesbury , this latter was ‘what they called in Poland a Senatus Concilium’, but he found the meeting unedifying. In particular, he complained about the earl of Clarendon (James’s brother-in-law), who ‘behaved himself like a pedagogue towards a pupil’ [Ailesbury Memoirs]. Clarendon afterwards joined the steady flow of grandees paying court to William as he made his way steadily towards London.

On 9 December James concluded that he had no options left. He sent Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales into exile and in the small hours of the 10th put his own escape plan into operation. The people of England thus awoke on the 11th to a country lacking a government and with an invading army bearing down on the capital.

Into the vacuum stepped members of the House of Lords gathered in London, joined by a few other members of the Privy Council, to form what came to be known as the ‘Provisional Government’. From the 11th until Christmas Day (with a break in the middle) the transition to a new regime headed by William of Orange was managed by this self-selected assembly. Their first meeting was held at Guildhall in the City of London, where they convened ‘to consider what fit to be done in this present conjuncture’ [Luttrell]. Later on they adjourned to the Council Chamber in Whitehall and other locations in and around Westminster. On one matter, though, some of the procedural sticklers were clear, and that was that the House of Lords itself should not be used for such an irregular gathering.

The Guildhall, City of London

At the group’s first meeting a sub-committee was appointed to compose a declaration to be sent to William to explain the meaning of the assembly. They resolved to send to the prince undertaking ‘to assist him in calling a free parliament for the settlement of the kingdom’ and to ‘secure the peace in London and Westminster’. On the 12th ‘We the peers of the realm with some of the Lords of the Privy Council now assembled in the Council Chamber’ issued orders to the lieutenant of the Tower of London for releasing some prisoners and securing others, and generally got on with responding to the breakdown in law and order.

The Provisional Government’s programme was interrupted soon after it came into being by news that James had been arrested in Kent. According to one account, after being seized by local fishermen, the king was subjected to a humiliating search ‘even to his privities’. There was a stand-off while the locals debated what to do with him, and ultimately information was conveyed to London and a rescue party was dispatched to bring the unlucky king back to the Capital. Ailesbury, who was one of them, found the king unshaven and ‘looking like Charles I at his trial’ [Miller, 206-7].

James’s return to London presented the Provisional Government with a considerable headache. On the 17th a meeting of a dozen peers debated what to do with the unwanted monarch. Lord Delamer suggested sending him to the Tower, a proposition that was backed by some others, though the duke of Grafton and Lord Churchill both opposed it. All, though, were in agreement that James should not be permitted to go to one of his own residences. On the same day a delegation of bishops waited on James, where Francis Turner of Ely, for one, seemed heartened that the king seemed ready to compromise and that his continuing as king might be possible.

Others were far less willing to accept James’s apparent change of tone, and the question of what to do with James was ultimately answered by William himself. He sent a delegation comprising Halifax, Delamer and the earl of Shrewsbury, to inform the king that it was thought ‘convenient’ for his safety and ‘the greater quiet of the City’ that he should leave Whitehall and be taken to the quiet residence of Ham House, just outside of London. Terrified by the memory of what had happened to his father and that this was simply a precursor to a more severe type of incarceration, James opted not to wait. He staged a second flight, this time almost certainly assisted quietly by William, who wanted nothing better than for James to be out of his way.

The removal of the king forced the Provisional Government to reconvene and left it with the central issue still to be resolved: how to respond to William’s presence in the country (backed by a sizeable professional army)? By now William was making it increasingly clear that he wanted the throne and that if he was not offered it on reasonable terms, he would head for home. At Christmas a resolution was finally arrived at: power would be ceded to William for the time being, while a new Parliament (or more properly Convention) would be called for January 1689. It was that body that was ultimately to resolve that James’s flight constituted abdication and, after much extended horse-trading, to offer the crown jointly to William and Princess Mary (James’s eldest daughter), but with William exercising full executive authority.

Historians continue to debate the true meaning of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and indeed whether it constituted a revolution at all. Without doubt, the actions of a few senior politicians, who took charge for the space of a few weeks in December 1688, was a significant demonstration of their belief in the dynamic authority of the House of Lords when the apex of the parliamentary trinity (the king) was no more, and there was no House of Commons to join them. In festive terms it might be said that in the absence of an infant in the manger, and with no shepherds to hand, it was left to the Wise Men to take charge.


Further Reading

Robert Beddard, A Kingdom without a King: Journal of the Provisional Government in the Revolution of 1688

John Miller, James II

Ailesbury Memoirs

Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs… (volume 1)

For more from Robin’s project be sure to head over to our Georgian Lords blog page and follow the team on Twitter.

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