Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

James II and the Glorious Revolution (1688)

With the accession of James II we seem to take up the thread of events, especially the struggle between King and Parliament and the fight against Popery, that had been suspended by the Restoration.

The king's position was more secure than ever after the defeat of the Duke of Monmouth, the Whig candidate for the throne, who had raised rebellions for "the defense of the Protestant religion." The rebellions Act had placed a standing army in his hands. Parliament had voted ample supplies. The King of France, and the enemies of the King of France, were each anxious to secure his support. He now felt strong enough to effect the second part of his design. Had he attempted only to secure toleration for the Catholics, he would have met with little opposition; and the more prudent of the Catholics, even the Pope himself, wished him to adopt this course. Instead, he began to set the Test Act at defiance. He granted places in the army to zealous Catholics. He bluntly told the Parliament that he had appointed officers who were not qualified by the law, but he could guarantee their fidelity, and was determined to keep them in his service. As Parliament—though a Tory one—refused to repeal the Test Act, he tried to get the judges to override the act by deciding, in a famous lawsuit, that the king could "dispense'. with that or any other Act of Parliament. Next, he placed Roman Catholics in important positions not only in the State, but in the English Church itself. He actually appointed an avowed Catholic to be Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

James's next step was a bid for popularity in another direction. Charles II had often wished to secure toleration, and had therefore published a Declaration of Indulgence, which was rejected by his next Parliament. With James, the desire for toleration was a mere pretence. He wished to assert his power to dispense with any law whatsoever, and to unite the Protestant Dissenters with the Catholics to overthrow the power of the English Church. In April, 1687, be published a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all the laws against both Catholics and Protestant Dissenters.

It was a great temptation to the Dissenters, but most of them stood firm. They refused to accept a toleration that could only be got by sacrificing the laws of the country and the whole authority of Parliament to suit the schemes of a popish king. William Penn—the great Quaker, and the founder of Pennsylvania—and a few others went over to the king's side; but Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, and other leaders of the persecuted sects, who had suffered imprisonment, were not to be bought over, although James made great efforts to secure their support. So the Dissenters supported the Church of England in resisting the Declaration, and as a result some of the old intolerance was weakened. Eminent Churchmen began to see that the laws against the Protestant Dissenters must be relaxed. In the next reign the Toleration Act put an end to a century of persecution, as far as the Protestants were concerned.

James's first Declaration failed. Next year he published. another. Even yet he had not got to the end of his folly; for he now committed the most unwise act of his reign and one that cost him his crown. The clergy were ordered to read the Declaration from their pulpits on the last two Sundays in May, 1688, in London, and on the first two Sundays in June elsewhere. The Dissenters in London joined with the other clergy. Many of the greatest preachers of the age met in London and pledged themselves not to read the Declaration. A memorable meeting took place at Lambeth round the table of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A few bishops and the Earl of Clarendon were present. They decided to call together the most eminent leaders of the Church.

They little thought they were preparing a Revolution. They met again, and there they drew up the Petition of the Seven Bishops. Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, Lloyd of St. Asaph, Turner of Ely, Lake of Chichester, Ken of Bath and Wells, White of Peterborough, and Trelawney of Bristol, all signed. Compton of London, having been suspended, did not sign. They stated that the Church was and ever had been faithful to the throne, that the bishops would in Parliament show that they were in favour of granting some toleration, but that the Declaration was illegal, and that they could not in conscience publish an illegal Declaration in the house of God.

Seven Bishops


The petition was carried to James himself by six of the bishops. Sancroft stayed behind, as he had been forbidden to come to court. James had heard that the bishops were disposed to obey. He met them therefore in good humour, but when he read the petition he broke out in anger. "This is a standard of rebellion," he said.

The bishops retired. The king kept the petition in his hand; but some one had obtained a copy, and in a few hours it was hawked in the streets and sold by thousands. When Sunday came, out of a hundred London churches the Declaration was read only in four, and in these the congregations hastily left the church.

Before such signs of public indignation James hesitated. Sunderland and the Catholic lords in his council advised that the bishops should be merely reprimanded by the king. But Jeffreys advised that they should be tried as criminals for "publishing a seditious libel." They were first summoned to the Council Chamber in the hope that they would retract. They refused. James therefore gave orders to commit them to the Tower.

A week later they were brought before the Court of King's Bench, passing on their way through great crowds of admirers. The trial was not to take place before June 29th, and Lord Halifax had already arranged that twenty-one of the greatest peers of the realm would give bail for Bishops. The country was raging with indignation. The peasants and miners of Cornwall sang a ballad still remembered—

"And shall Trelawney die, and shall Trelawney die?

Then thirty thousand Cornish boys will know the reason why."

It was in these weeks before the trial of the Seven Bishops that a son was born to James. Instead of rejoicing, the nation was filled with rage and disappointment. Thousands had been content to serve the king faithfully while he lived, because they believed the Protestant cause was secure in the succession of James's Protestant daughter and the Prince of Orange. The birth of a son, who would certainly be brought up in the Catholic faith, increased all that hatred and fear of the Catholic cause which the king's conduct had aroused. In another week it was rumoured, and the rumour was well founded, that Sunderland, the king's chief minister, had openly become a Catholic. This was at the very time that the greatest leaders of the National Church were awaiting their trial for obeying their consciences and defending the Church.

Trial of Bishops


The trial began before the four judges of the King's Bench. Great lawyers were engaged on both sides. The court was crowded with peers and members of Parliament. Even the judges themselves were awed by the solemnity of the occasion and the presence of the greatest and most powerful men in the kingdom. After the speeches of the lawyers and the summing-up of the judges, the whole nation waited for the verdict.

While the rest of the court went home, the jury remained all night in a locked room under guard, without food or water—such was the custom of the time—considering their decision. Great numbers of people walked the neighbouring streets till dawn. Messengers came every hour from Whitehall to know what was happening. Not until six in the morning were the jury agreed. At ten the court met again to hear the verdict.

As the words "Not Guilty!" were heard, Lord Halifax, who was in court, sprang up and waved his hat. The ten thousand persons who filled the great hall raised a mighty "Not guilty!" shout. The crowd outside took it up, and the boats on the Thames answered with another. Guns were fired. Horsemen set off to carry the news over the whole country. The churches were opened, the bells were rang. All the following night London gave itself up to rejoicings. Bonfires were ablaze everywhere.

James might well be disturbed by these signs of the times. By his rashness and bigotry he had succeeded in doing what neither his father nor his brother had done. He had united the Church of England and the Protestant Dissenters, Tories and Whigs, Cavaliers and Roundheads, in one spirit of resentment against the crown.

On the very day that the bishops were acquitted, seven of the leading noblemen despatched a letter inviting William, Prince of Orange, to come at once to England to lead the nation against James. This letter was the outcome of a conspiracy, but one which deserves a place among the greatest events in our history. It was conceived by men who had great claims to act in the name of the nation, and who proved by their actions that they could carry out a revolution which preserved far more than it destroyed. James tried to make concessions; but he was now deserted by his friends, including the rising general, John, Lord Churchill. William landed at Torbay (November 5th, 1688); James fled to France, and so abdicated the throne.