The English Revolution- Lord Acton 1906

United Kingdom


Three–quarters of a century of struggling and experiment, from the fall of Bacon to the death of Charles II., had ended in failure, and the government of England had been brought into line with continental monarchy when James ascended the throne.

The House of Commons refused to listen to Seymour’s warning speech, and voted, nemine discrepante, a revenue which, by the growth of trade, soon rose to near two millions. It was in the king’s power to retain that loyal and submissive parliament as long as he chose, and he was not obliged to meet it annually. He had the control of the constituencies. The press was not free, and the proceedings of the legislature were withdrawn from public knowledge. Judges could be dismissed at will, until the bench was filled with prerogative lawyers. There was an army kept in foreign pay that could be recalled when it was wanted. Passive obedience was taught as a precept by the universities, and as a religious dogma by the Church.

It was no secret that James was resolved to be master, and to abolish the restraints and safeguards of the constitution. Penn, reporting his intentions to William of Orange, declared that he would have all or nothing. He had repeatedly avowed that he meant to do it by a standing army and by claiming the right to dispense with laws. Monmouth’s rebellion gave him the standing army. Although it was unsupported either by the exclusionists or the limitationists, and although it was contemptibly managed, there had been a moment of serious danger. It was the general opinion that the night attack at Sedgemoor would have succeeded, and that the royal army would have been destroyed, if the rebels, instead of betraying their approach with musketry, had come to close quarters with axe and scythe. The king took advantage of what had happened, and he had the means of paying a force which amounted to 14,000 men.

Charles had been in perpetual want of money through the expensive scandals of his court. There were half a dozen ducal titles needing to be provided with ducal incomes, and obliging the king to become a dependent pensionary of the liberal paymaster in France. At his death all this was changed, and Catherine Sedley disappeared from Whitehall. It is true that her absence was not prolonged, and that she had obscurer rivals. But a decorous economy was observed in a branch of expenditure which had been profuse. Nevertheless Lewis XIV. hastened to make offers of pecuniary aid to the frugal James as to the extravagant Charles. He sent over a sum of £60,000 or £70,000, consisting partly of arrears already due. This was to be paid only if James found himself in difficulties after having proclaimed liberty of conscience. If there was no disturbance, there was to be no payment. And when the session ended without any measure of the kind, Lewis gave orders that the money should be returned to him. In the autumn of 1685 James proceeded to adopt his advice. He had been victorious. His birthday, in October, was celebrated more heartily than his brother’s had ever been, and the atrocities of the Western Assize did not affect opinion to his disadvantage.

He made known his plans. Besides the standing army and the recall of the Habeas Corpus, he demanded the dispensing power. Nobody supposed that the head of the executive was to persecute his own religion. To admit his right of succession was to admit that the Elizabethan Code was to be practically dormant. The  Catholics desired no more. It was enough that they ceased to suffer oppression. Halifax, the ablest though not the strongest of James’s ministers, agreed to that, and did not object to a moderate number of Catholic officers. The Prince of Orange was of the same opinion. Toleration was therefore assured, and the era of persecution had passed away. That was of no use to Lewis XIV., who in that month of October suppressed the Protestant religion in France. And it was of little use to James himself, as it added nothing to his power. He insisted on introducing toleration by dispensing with the laws, by right of his prerogative, and on abolishing the Test Act. But the Test Act was a security against arbitrary power, by depriving him of the assistance of Catholics in office. His desire for arbitrary power was notorious, and the country did not believe that his zeal for the liberty of conscience was sincere. They believed, and they believed rightly, that he demanded more than that which would satisfy the just and obvious necessities of his Church in order to strengthen his prerogative, and that he was tolerant in order that he might be absolute. He professed openly the maxim that toleration was the necessary condition of absolutism. He urged Lewis, secretly, to pursue the work of the revocation, and was reluctant to allow collections to be made for the Huguenot fugitives.

Later, when he was himself an exile, and nothing could be more inopportune than the profession of tolerant sympathies at the French court, he seriously and consistently proclaimed them. And it is very possible that he was then sincere, and that a change had taken place. Another change took place when he became acquainted with the famous Rancé, who had made the abbey of La Trappe the most edifying seat of religion in France, and a favourite retreat for men like Bossuet and St. Simon. James also visited him and corresponded with him, and sixty of their letters are extant. At Versailles people did not understand how so much devotion could be combined with so much tolerance in religion. The letters to Rancé show that the religion of James, when he was on the throne, was very near the surface. Whether it was different afterwards, as they believed in France, is not quite certain. And in this connection it will be convenient to mention the assassination plot.

There was an Irish divine, Martin of Connemara, who suggested that, in time of war, it would be well that a chosen band should devote themselves to the task of falling upon the Prince of Orange and putting him to death. It would, he said, be a legitimate act of warfare. Lewis XIV. required no such arguments, and sent a miscreant named Grandval to rid him of the obnoxious prince. Berwick preferred the advice of the theologian, and, at the battle of Landen, he led a troop of 200 horsemen to the place where his kinsman stood, crying out to them to kill him. Three years later, in 1696, he was in London, communicating with the managers of the plot, who thought that it would be no murder to shoot the king on the road to Hampton Court, when surrounded by his guards. A beacon fire on Shakespeare’s Cliff was to send the news across the sea, and at that signal James was to come over, in French ships. When the plot thickened, Berwick made his escape, and met his father changing horses at Clermont. Having learnt how matters stood, James pursued his way to Calais, and there, while he watched the northern horizon for the desired signal, he wrote edifying letters to the Abbé de Rancé. When the plot was betrayed he showed the deepest sympathy with the assassins, and never lamented their crime.

The series of measures by which he lost the crown form a drama in three acts. First, he tried to obtain the co–operation of the Established Church. When that failed, he turned against the Church and worked through the Dissenters. And then he brought on that quarrel with the clergy which proved fatal to him. James did not believe in the reality of Protestant religion. Sunderland assured him that in two years not a Protestant would be left in England, if compulsion ceased, and his mind was bewildered by two very remarkable facts. One of these was the theology of recent Caroline divines. Archbishop Bramhall could hardly be distinguished from a Gallican. Archbishop Leighton was in close touch with Jansenists. One Roman doctrine was adopted by Montagu, another by Thorndike, a third by Isaac Barrow. Bull received the thanks of the French clergy for his vindication of the early fathers against the most learned of the Jesuits. To an ignorant and narrow–minded man all these things pointed to one conclusion, the instability and want of solidity in the Anglican system. Then there was the astounding collapse of the French Huguenots. Lewis boasted that, in a few months, without real violence, he had effected 800,000 conversions. And James was eager to believe it. He asked himself, says Barillon, why he could not do as much in England. He desired the Roman congregations to examine the question, whether the English bishops might retain their sees. Some said they would be better than the Catholic clergy, who were accused of Jansenism. One thing he considered absolutely certain. The Church would never resist his authority. The Bishop of Winchester intreated him not to rely on the passive obedience of Churchmen. James replied that the bishop had lost his nerve.

Having decided to risk a quarrel with loyal Anglicans, he assumed the dispensing power. The judges approved. There was precedent in his favour. He had support not only in the past but in the future, for William III. followed his example. He could claim that he was acting for the reason of State against shameful prejudice and sordid passion. The greatest historic figure of the age, William Penn, was on his side, and went over to explain the principle of his policy to the Prince of Orange. Lewis XIV. urged him on. And although the body of English Catholics were much opposed, his immediate advisers, who were men in the French interest, or survivors of the Dover Treaty, Arundel, Bellasis, Dover, Tyrconnel, encouraged his fixed design. A few men in high office, he said, would do more for Catholicism than many hearing mass without impediment.

We must imagine not a sinister tyrant brooding schemes of oppression, but an unintelligent absolutist, in the hands of men, some of whom were able and some sincere, plying him with plausible arguments. Therefore, when the primate and six bishops protested against the Declaration of Indulgence, James sent them to the Tower. Sunderland advised caution. The time for extreme measures, he said, had not come. The violent members of the council thought that they had their enemies at their mercy, and they prevailed.

James thought that he was triumphing, for just then the Prince of Wales was born. The future of his policy was assured. The crown was not to pass to the head of the Protestant interest in Europe. James’s enemies, says the imperial envoy, gave up their cause for lost. In their despair they at once invented the lie about the warming pan. James’s opportunity had now come. He could declare an amnesty for the event which had so profoundly changed his fortunes. The seven bishops could be released without a trial, and the impending catastrophe could be averted. The king, disagreeing with his advisers, with Sunderland, with the nuncio, even with Jeffreys, determined to go on. He intended that the bishops should be tried, condemned, and pardoned. With that, his victory would be complete. Instead of which, the bishops were acquitted, and the king’s attack on the Church ended in defeat.

On that day Admiral Herbert, disguised as a blue–jacket, left with the invitation to the Prince of Orange to come over. It was written by Algernon Sidney’s brother, and bore the signatures of seven considerable men, who were prepared to risk their lives. Several others acquiesced, and it was not the act of one party. The thing had become inevitable when the prince was born. It was delayed until the issue was decided between the crown and the Church. The associates assured William that the Prince of Wales was an imposture, and that he must come, in order to secure his own birthright, as well as the liberties of England. William of Orange had not intrigued that the crown should pass to his wife before the time, and had given his uncle much good advice. For him it was everything that England should not be against him in the struggle with Lewis XIV. For that, he had the Habsburgs on his side, and it was essential that they should still be with him if he obeyed the call of his friends. He had been preparing for it ever since he sent Dykvelt over in 1687, and had asked the States of Holland to hold twenty–five men–of–war and 9000 sailors in readiness, to meet the danger which threatened from France.

James took alarm, and warned William that the succession was not absolutely safe. Lewis, who much dreaded the prospect of having his ablest and most formidable enemy at Whitehall, wished the Princess Anne to precede her elder sister. To strengthen her claim with her father he proposed that she should become a Catholic, and sent over books of controversy for that purpose. James, on the other hand, told William that there would be no crown to inherit, but a commonwealth in England, if he did not succeed in his endeavour to make himself master. Dykvelt had conducted the secret negotiation which ended in the invitation of 30th June.

A still more delicate negotiation was pursued on the Continent. William could not allow it to appear that his expedition implied a war of religion. He would forfeit the alliance of the Emperor, which was the very pivot of his policy. Leopold was a devout and scrupulous man, and it was uncertain how he would regard an enterprise which was to substitute a Protestant dynasty for a Catholic dynasty in England. There was only one way of ensuring his assistance. In order to have the support of the Empire it was requisite to obtain the support of the Papacy. In a religious question Leopold would follow the pope. William sent one of his generals, the Prince de Vaudémont, to Rome; and, through Count Dohna, he opened a correspondence with the Vatican. He represented that the Catholics would obtain from him the toleration which they could never be sure of under James. There would be not only a serious political advantage gained by the detachment of England from the French interest, but also a positive and measurable benefit for the Church of Rome. The pope understood and assented, and took the Habsburgs with him into the camp of the Great Deliverer. This is the touch of mystery in the Revolution of 1688. James, the champion of the Church, had alienated Rome.

The pope, Innocent XI., Odescalchi, is a rare and original figure, and James said truly that no man like him had sat on the see of Rome for centuries. He began the reform of the court, which consisted in the abolition of nepotism. All through the century his predecessors had founded great princely families — Borghese, Ludovisi, Barberini, Pamphili, Chigi, Rospigliosi, Altieri. These great houses grew wealthy out of the spoils of the Church, and, as their founders died without making restitution, opponents of nepotism affirmed that they died unrepentant, and might be found in those regions of the other world where Dante delighted to exhibit the pontiffs of his time. In his zeal for a strict morality Innocent tried to rectify the teaching of the Casuists, and was involved in trouble with the Jesuits. In France he was spoken of as a Jansenist, and in England Oldmixon called him a Protestant pope. He endeavoured, as nobody had done since the Reformation, to find a remedy for the divisions of Western Christendom. The movement had not ceased since Richelieu was minister and Grotius ambassador at Paris, and it became active on both sides. Innocent sanctioned a scheme of concessions which was deemed satisfactory in the universities of Protestant Germany.

When Lewis revoked the edict of toleration the pope did not conceal his displeasure. He was compelled at last to allow Te Deums and illuminations; but he made no secret of his disbelief in the armed apostolate of missionaries in jackboots. He was bitterly opposed to the Gallican system, out of which the persecution proceeded. James II. was odious to him for many reasons. First as a promoter of French tendencies, both in politics and in religion. For James, like Lewis, was a Gallican in  Church questions. When an Englishman defended ultramontane propositions in a disputation at Louvain, he expressed his indignation that such an attack should have been permitted in his presence on the plenary authority of kings. He offended the pope by sending as his ambassador Lord Castlemaine, who was ridiculous not only as the Duchess of Cleveland’s husband, but as the author of a book in which he pleaded for toleration on the ground that Catholics should be as well treated in England as Protestants in France. With great reluctance the pope consented that his agent, D’Adda, should be appointed a nuncio; but when James made the Jesuit Petre a privy councillor, giving him his own apartment at Whitehall, and represented that he would be fitter for such a position if he was made a bishop or a cardinal, Innocent refused.

Petre laid the blame on the nuncio, and the Jesuits asked that he should be sent out of the country. He would be forced, said the king, to do without the Court of Rome. D’Adda gave the same advice as the Prince of Orange, that the Penal Laws should not be executed, but the Test Acts retained; and he was one of those who, when the crisis came, maintained that there was nothing to fear from William. After Innocent’s death in 1689 there was a change, but Rome declared in favour of taking the oath to William III. Perth wrote from Rome in 1695: “The Prince of Orange has more friends here than either in England or Holland, and the king is universally hated. It’s scandalous to hear what is said every day, publicly, when they make comparisons betwixt an heretical, unnatural, usurping tyrant and His Majesty.”

On this state of feeling, far stronger in 1688 than in 1695, William built his plan. It was in the power of Lewis at any moment to prevent the expedition. He had an army ready for war, and could have held William fast by sending it against the Netherlands. He preferred to attack the empire on the Upper Rhine. For twenty years it had been his desire to neutralise England by internal broils, and he was glad to have the Dutch out of the way while he dealt a blow at Leopold. It was impossible that the conflict between James and William should not yield him an opportunity. For the beginning he stood carefully aside, letting things take their course. There was no resistance, by land or sea, and it proved almost as easy to dethrone the Stuarts as it had been to restore them. The balance of parties, the lack of energetic conviction in England, had allowed things to settle down, when the real struggle began, in Ireland, in Scotland, and in the Channel. The Scots rising did not postpone the issue, but it is valuable to us for the sake of one transaction.

The deed that was done in Glencoe is familiar to us all, by a patch of Tyrian purple in the most splendid of our histories. It affords a basis for judging the character of William and of his government. They desired that some of the Highlanders should stand out, that an example might be made; and they hoped that it might be the one Catholic clan, as they were likely to be the most dangerous Jacobites. “Who knows,” wrote Stair, “but, by God’s providence, they are permitted to fall into this delusion that they may only be extirpat.” Four days later another writes: “The king does not care that some do it, that he may make examples of them.” Accordingly, by his orders, one branch of the Macdonalds was destroyed by Campbell of Glenlyon. There is no doubt about the order. But it is not certain that William knew that the chieftain had taken the oath. The people concerned were rewarded in due proportion. One became a colonel, another a knight, a third a peer, and a fourth an earl. It was a way King William had. When the murder of De Witt made him supreme, he kept away from the Hague, but then saw that the murderers were recompensed. Eighty years later a deserter from one of our regiments was under sentence to be shot. The officer commanding the firing party, another Captain Campbell of Glenlyon, had received a reprieve, with secret orders not to produce it until the culprit stood facing the levelled muskets. At that moment, as he drew the reprieve from his pocket, his handkerchief, coming with it, fell to the ground. The soldiers took it for their signal and fired. Glenlyon exclaimed, “It is the curse of Glencoe!” and at once left the service.

When James escaped to France, he at once went over to Ireland, with a French army, while a French fleet covered the expedition and swept the Channel. James had long intended to make Ireland independent of England, that, under his Protestant successors, it might be an impregnable refuge for persecuted Catholics. He estimated that it would take five years of preparation. Tyrconnel also contemplated separation, and arranged for a French invasion, if James died. When James came over Tyrconnel thought him hopelessly incompetent, and offered his country to Lewis XIV. Sarsfield detested his treachery, and invited Berwick to undertake the government. Of James’s French counsellors, one was Lauzun, who commanded the auxiliary army, and proposed to burn Dublin to the ground and ravage the open country. The other was the ambassador D’Avaux, who wished him to make short work of all the Protestants in the island.

James rejected the advice with indignation. Lewis also rejected it, but without the indignation you would expect in a most Christian king, and without thinking the adviser unworthy of his service. D’Avaux relates it all, without reserve, in his despatches, which are among the curiosities of History. They were printed at the Foreign Office, and never published. The only copy I ever saw was uncut when it came into my hands.

In spite of these discordant counsels, the Jacobite prospects in Ireland brightened when a fleet of seventy–eight ships sailed from Brest. “If they were only commanded by De Ruyter,” said Louvois, whose control stopped with the shore, “there would be something to hope for.” Instead of De Ruyter, Tourville defeated the combined Dutch and English at Beachy Head. The allies lost sixteen ships out of fifty–eight; the French not one. Tourville was master of the Channel. Torrington left the Dutch to do the fighting, and kept as far as he could from the scene of danger. He had to lament the  death of his favourite dog. They said that the dog died the death of an admiral, and the admiral lived the life of a dog. That 30th of June is the most disgraceful date in our naval annals.

On the following day the battle of the Boyne was won, not in the legendary manner, by William, with his sword in his left hand, or Schomberg, plunging into the river to meet a soldier’s death, but by the younger Schomberg, who crossed higher up and outflanked the French. Tourville’s victory, after that, was entirely useless. William offered an amnesty, which was frustrated by the English hunger for Irish estates; and the capitulation of Limerick, rejected by the Irish parliament, gave it the name of the City of the Broken Treaty.

The reign of James came to an end when he fled from the Boyne to St. Germains. He became the king of the Nonjurors. In 1693, when the French had been victorious at Steenkerk and Landen, he issued a Declaration, with the doubting approval of French divines, which the nonjuring bishops repudiated. Such concessions, they affirmed, would ruin the monarchy. Kerr was of the same opinion; but he went on to say that when the Declaration had served its purpose and restored the king, he would not be bound to observe it. The war was unprofitable to the allies on land; but after the victory of La Hogue the three kingdoms were safe from invasion. This is the war to which we owe the National Debt, the Bank of England, the growth of the moneyed interest.

But the agrarian interest still largely predominated, and the landlords, as the ruling class, required a reward for their share in the elevation of William. Nineteen years earlier the Corn Laws had been invented for their benefit. Protection against foreign importation did much; but in 1689 a premium on the exportation of English–grown corn was added, and it is this which caused the immense prosperity of English agriculture in the eighteenth century, enriching the landlord with capital at the expense of the yeoman without it.

Two of our greatest writers, to speak truly, our two greatest writers, Burke and Macaulay, have taken pains to show that the Revolution of 1688 was not revolutionary but conservative, that it was little more than a rectification of recent error, and a return to ancient principles. It was essentially monarchical. The king was acknowledged to be a necessity in the then state of England. The idea of a Commonwealth did not appear. The Revolution was mainly the work of Conservatives, that is, of Churchmen who, where Church interests were not threatened, strictly upheld authority, and reverted to their original doctrine when the crisis was over. No change took place in the governing class. The gentry who managed the affairs of the county managed the affairs of the country after 1688 as they had done before. There was no transfer of force from the aristocratic element of society to the democratic. The essentials of free government, religious liberty, national education, emancipation of slaves, freedom of trade, relief of poverty, freedom of the press, solidarity of ministers, publicity of debates, were not mentioned in the resolutions of the Convention or in the Bill of Rights. Nothing was done to determine whether the future belonged to the Tory or the Whig.

And yet it is the greatest thing done by the English nation. It established the State upon a contract, and set up the doctrine that a breach of contract forfeited the crown—the former, in the English convention; the latter, in the Scottish. Parliament gave the crown, and gave it under conditions. Parliament became supreme in administration as well as in legislation. The king became its servant on good behaviour, liable to dismissal for himself or his ministers. All this was not restitution, but inversion. Passive obedience had been the law of England. Conditional obedience and the right of resistance became the law. Authority was limited and regulated and controlled. The Whig theory of government was substituted for the Tory theory on the fundamental points of political science. The great achievement is that this was done without bloodshed, without vengeance, without exclusion  of entire parties, with so little definiteness in point of doctrine that it could be accepted, and the consequences could be left to work themselves out. The Act itself was narrow, spiritless, confused, tame, and unsatisfactory. It was perfectly compatible with the oppression of class by class, and of the country by the State, as the agent of a class. It was strangely imperfect.

The consequences ripened slowly, and a time came, under George III., when it seemed that they were exhausted. It was then that another and a more glorious Revolution, infinitely more definite and clear–cut, with a stronger grasp of principle, and depending less on conciliation and compromise, began to influence England and Europe.

Source: John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History [1906]

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