Revolution on British government and society Essay
Revolution on British government and society
It is not so much the events of 1688 that constitute a revolution as the subsequent changes in the constitution that show a transformation in the nature and ideology of government. There was no internal uprising, no civil war and most importantly, the succession of William of Orange and his wife Mary to the English throne was authorised by a Convention, acting in lieu of parliament in the absence of King James II. Indeed it could be argued that this was not a revolution at all, if James’ departure is to be interpreted as his abdication.
Contemporaries, keen to replace the unpopular, Catholic monarch with a man who was seen as a deliverer from popery and slavery, reasoned as such. In actual fact James never did renounce his claim to the throne. Fleeing London in the dead of night, he took with him The Great Seal, traditionally held by the monarch and dropped it in the Thames and he burnt the writs that were to call anew parliament. He would later attempt to recapture his crown, rallying support in Ireland to prepare for an invasion that was to fail.
But whether or not this dynastic change, made by those who, in theory, did not have the authority to do so, is enough to deserve the title revolution, what cannot be denied is that this marks the end of the era of the absolute monarch. William’s Declaration of Rights, which was to become statute within a year, echoed Lockean ideas of sovereignty, supporting a parliament that was to keep check on the authority of the monarch and protecting “Rights and Liberties” of the people. No King or Queen thereafter would be able to rule as James or Charles had done before them.
In the years following the revolution a system of government working through the authority of the executive Privy Council and the houses of Lords and commons, headed by the monarch soon evolved into a working body that formed the basis of what we still have for government today. By the 1720s the way Britain is ruled had been turned around, but the changes cannot be solely accredited to the events of 1688. When William invaded England he had European motives at heart. He was keen to avoid a union of France and England that would be a threat to the Protestants of the Northern and Germanic lands.
He was aware of James’ unpopularity as a Catholic ruler of an overwhelmingly Protestant nation and he sought to take advantage of this to try and win allies. He expected to meet with resistance and had prepared and army of troops, but James’ was deserted by the little support he had to begin with in the face of danger, eventually even by his closest advisors and his own sister. William toured England for four weeks, propagandising himself as a saviour from James’ “evil counsellors,” who had challenged the “laws, liberties, customs and religion” and wanted to revive Catholicism.
He arrived in London and in the absence of the monarch the city was occupied and ordered by his Dutch soldiers while a decision could be reached. It is important to remember that William never independently laid any claim to the throne; he had expected to meet resistance in England. He aimed to battle against what he saw as a catholic threat, which he was careful to stress as being on the part of James’ advisors and not the King himself, and although the impact that this revolution had was profound, it was not all part of a pre-ordained plan. What followed was an immediate crisis.
The capital was under the order of foreign troops and the King had deserted. It forced the political nation to examine the constitution and find a solution. A Convention was called and a vote was taken to offer the throne to William and his wife Mary, daughter of the departed king on January 22nd 1689, only a month after James’ departure. It was a hasty political decision, pressure was felt by the presence of Dutch troops, but there was also a Protestant fear of James gathering support and returning, or claims being laid for his infant son, whom he had taken with him.
There was resistance, the House of Lords initially voted against the idea, feeling they had sworn an oath of loyalty to James, that he was still their king, and that such radical action was not right. A monarch is not elective. The theory was that the monarch was granted his authority form God and man was not to meddle with His choice. There was no support for a republic, with the feeling that a firm figurehead was necessary to maintain order and a deep attachment felt for hierarchy and patriarchy.
Yet to instate a new monarch seemed in itself to mock the whole principal of monarchy. Under pressure from the Commons and from William and Mary themselves and with no other solution, the Lords were finally swayed, their stance weakened by internal disunity and mistrust. Interpretation of the finer details of the theory of monarchy and nuances of vocabulary played and important role in this unique revolution, which, on the whole, was met with popular support. William and Mary had been put on the throne as an alternative to James II.
Parliament had granted them this privilege and they were willing to allow parliament a more active role in government. The revolution had been almost ad hoc and there was sparse new ideology to implement, the Convention drawn up by parliament was effectively a reaction to the way in which both Charles II and James II had ruled and a call to protect the people’s “ancient and indubitable rights. ” It was more of a written version of what was previously expected behaviour with little fundamental change to the relationship between legislative and executive powers specified.
But William had to accept this as a code of practise from his parliament, recognising that even if the monarch had popularity and capability, he needed to work through the legislative powers. The monarch was required to call parliament to session, but this would be inevitable as William was only granted a year’s revenue. Parliament had the authority to oversee all public expenditure and so the monarch would always be dependant on them. Changes to the structure of government took effect gradually during the years following the revolution, but from the start the role of parliament was augmented, which initiated subsequent developments.
They met for much longer sessions than before 1688, enabling a great deal more legislation to be passed, and allowing for Bills to be more thoroughly debated. Much of the legislation passed was still local or occasional in essence, such as permission to build a workhouse, but although this could be viewed as undermining the revolutionary nature of parliament’s more prominent role, the fact that MPs were more available to take action on their electorate’s specific grievances, helped to ease the frictions between local and executive power as the nation’s political make-up was evolving.
Although from a modern perspective these changes are viewed as progressing towards a more rational system of government, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, people were often concerned about social stability which they believed was at risk with so much legal development. It was a commonly held view that life should be stable and predictable. People wanted to feel sure of their position, their income and their king and government.
In an era where the poor always risked slipping into poverty after a bad harvest, increasing involvement in foreign warfare and frequent changes in the government, questions were raised about the permanence of law, and whether Common Laws of liberty and property, viewed by many as sacred, were at risk. But at court the belief that good government was upheld by frequent parliament, against the weakness of individual MPs or encroachment by the monarch led to the Triennial Act of 1694, limiting parliament to three years. Elections were held on average every two years and there were various amendments and contests in between.
This Act was later replaced and the time extended to seven years, the advisors to the king often too easily influenced elections proved costly and short-lived parliaments. The Act shows parliament as uncertain of its own role, and is an example of a developing government that was evolving along its own path in the years following the revolution, more caused by what the revolution’s changes allowed rather than what they intended. The development of the two key political parties, the Whigs and the Tories is another feature of this evolution of government.
With three active parts to the government all being of equally weighted importance, and more frequent changes of personnel in parliament, there was more of a need than ever for politicians to associate themselves with a certain ideology and for Lords and MPs to support each other to push through Bills. William himself wanted to remain above the level of party, which he did, and indeed, there were members of parliament, more so in the House of Lords who chose to be independent and cast their vote on issues individually.
But the solidarity of party was the most effective way of getting laws passed and King George himself, not many years later, was aligned with the Whigs, who although in the days of the revolution had been in favour of political progression, now came of as the monarchical party and there were suspicions of Jacobinism in the Tories. Religion was still a very important factor in politics, despite the Act of Toleration in 1689, which allowed non-Anglican Protestants to swear allegiance to the throne.
There was still a widely held belief that religious homogony was key to social stability, but it had been the clergy that had shown the most resistance to William taking the crown, and with no clear heir in line for the throne the problem of succession and the possibility of a Jacobite up-rising prompted him, a Calvinist himself, to attempt to include Protestant minorities, especially those in Scotland and Ireland. Although the law did not make any exception for Catholics or Quakers, it did encourage a sense of tolerance that was benefited by both groups.
The Quakers would be later allowed the right to practise in legalised meetinghouses, but Catholics still posed a threat, especially in Ireland, where the population was largely Catholic. After the Revolution, James had attempted to reclaim his throne, starting in Ireland, arranging support from France for the Catholic cause. But James lacked the leadership and resolve that he met in William when they met at battle in Derry and Enniskillen and he again escaped to France. The so-called “bloodless revolution” may have been so in England, but in both Ireland and Scotland the transition was not so smooth.
Civil war in Ireland exhausted James’ supporters into defeat and in Scotland a series of “highland wars” lasted around five months in 1691, which initially started as a Jacobite up rising. William found Scotland impossible to manage. Although not dominated by Catholics, it was not predominantly Anglican either and James had more support here because of his family’s close ties with Scotland. In the years following the Revolution, Scotland was only reluctantly part of Britain.
She had her own laws and traditions, presided over by a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which declared even further independence with the abolition of the Lord of Articles, further undermining control from Westminster and making Scotland appear more of a threat. William would not be able to exert his Royal will through Edinburgh. But following a bad harvest in 1695, with many dying of hunger or fleeing to Ulster, Scotland realised the benefits of a closer union with England to involve herself in England’s efficient internal trade and lucrative colonial empire.
The Act of union came into effect in 1707, dissolving the parliament in Edinburgh and instating peers and MPs from Scotland at Westminster. In England, the union provoked little reaction, but in Scotland it was bitterly opposed by many. Problems within Scotland were often a result of internal social divisions, most markedly between the highland clans and their more anglicised lowland neighbours, who had seen the union as a way to improve Scotland’s economy. The death of Queen Anne in 1714 proved a difficult start for the union.
The question was raised of the possible succession of her Catholic half brother, but with the Act of Settlement from 1701 forbidding any non-Protestant to sit on the throne, the Crown was inherited by George I. He faced a Jacobite uprising within the year, but his reign is largely characterised as a time of peace and relative stability after the turbulent post-revolutionary years. The Glorious Revolution had seemed on the surface to be swift, decisive and painless, yet the principals of change that as Burke claimed justified it as a revolution took years to really take shape.
By the time of King George the role of monarch had been dramatically reviewed, no longer seen as a ruler from God, but as a figure head for a nation governed by a system of parliament, which relied on the mutual dependency of the two houses and the executive to abide by a sense of appropriate behaviour. Queen Anne was the last to use the Royal veto, something much exploited by the monarchs before 1688, the workings of parliament and the Privy Council had become more regular and thorough and a system of party politics had developed.
The characters of William, Anne and George, who all failed to immerse themselves in domestic affaires and the extraordinary calibre of ministers at work during this time, perhaps eased the transition but it still remains that, while the revolution of 1688 had a profound and lasting impact on British society and government, the relationship worked both ways. The practical workings of British society and government were what moulded the developments after the revolution, developments that justified the glorious revolution to be called as such.
Subject: Great Seal,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 4 September 2017
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