Polychronicon 151: Interpreting the Revolution of 1688

Teaching History feature

By Ted Vallance, published 20th June 2013

The unrevolutionary revolution? Interpreting the Revolution of 1688

John Morrill, one of the foremost historians of the British civil wars, has described the events of 1688-9 as the ‘Sensible Revolution'. The phrase captures the essence of a long-standing scholarly consensus, that this was a very unrevolutionary revolution.

The origins of this interpretation go back to the late eighteenth century and, in particular, Edmund Burke's Reflections (1790). Burke contrasted the violent, popular upheaval in revolutionary France with, as he saw it, the peaceful process which had seen the Catholic James II replaced as king by his Protestant son-in-law, the Dutch stadholder, William of Orange. For Burke, this ‘revolution' did not involve a fundamental transformation of the English state. Instead, it restored and regenerated England's ancient constitution of King, Lords and Commons. This was effected not by the mob, as in France, but through Parliament: ‘They acted by the ancient organised states in the shape of their old organisation, and not by the organic moleculae of a disbanded people.'

In this narrative, William of Orange had landed at Brixham on 5 November 1688 to restore English liberties, threatened by the absolutist policies of the reigning monarch James II. James' flight from the kingdom in December 1688 had cleared the way for peaceful dynastic change, with William and his English wife Mary (James' eldest daughter) offered the throne as joint monarchs in February 1689. To ensure that no future rulers could threaten the English constitution in the manner of James, the new monarchs were presented with and accepted the Declaration of Rights along with the crown. This document, later incorporated into law as the Bill of Rights...

This resource is FREE for Secondary HA Members.

Non HA Members can get instant access for £2.49

Add to Basket Join the HA