Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

William III and the Revolution Settlement

William, Prince of Orange, was one of the greatest men of his own age, and one of the greatest kings who ever reigned over England. Yet he was never popular in England, and was worse served than the worst king who brought misers upon the nation he governed.

Before proceeding with the narrative of William's career, there is one aspect of the Revolution that must receive attention. For sixty years, if we go back no further than the Petition of Right in 1628, there had been strife between King and Parliament. There had been a long civil war, the execution of a king, the establishment of a republic, a military despotism, a Restoration, and now another Revolution. James had been driven from the throne chiefly because of his attempt to overthrow the Church of England and to impose Catholicism on the nation. Had James been a member of the Church of England, his civil tyranny alone would never have provoked a revolution; for the Parliament was prepared to support him.

Nevertheless, now that the occasion had come, the Whigs were desirous of setting the monarchy upon a new footing, and of placing the power of Parliament beyond the reach of attack. All previous attempts to arrive at a just balance of power between crown and Parliament had failed. With a man less wise and moderate than William, this attempt also would have failed.

The Convention Parliament drew up a Declaration of Right, which stated what the chief illegal acts of James had been. It went on to, declare that the king had no power to suspend or dispense with laws; nor to levy taxes without consent of Parliament; nor to keep a standing army in time of peace. Further, that elections to Parliament ought to be free; that speech in Parliament ought to be free; that Parliaments ought to be held frequently; and that no one but a Protestant should be king or queen of England. They then offered the crown to William and Mary as joint sovereigns, on their accepting and ratifying the Declaration of Right. This was afterwards made into an Act of Parliament, and so the "Bill of Rights" still stands as one Of the few great Acts of Parliament upon which the British Constitution rests.

Parliament for the first time declared its right freely to dispose of the crown, and, acting on this right, it decided also the succession to the throne. For it gave to William, and not to Mary, the right to act as king, both whilst Mary lived and so long as he survived. It gave the succession first to the children of William and Mary; then to her sister Anne and her children; then to any heir of William. The doctrine of divine right—of the Lord's Anointed—was thus put an end to by Act of Parliament.

All previous attempts to make kings dependent on Parliament for their supplies had only been partially successful. The king's revenue was now so ordered that he simply could not carry on the ordinary government in time of peace without frequent resort to Parliament. As for the army and navy, without the annual votes of supplies from Parliament it was absolutely impossible to maintain them. As William's whole policy was dependent upon having an army to fight Louis on the Continent, this made the control of Parliament perfectly secure.

Again, although William was free to choose his own ministers, and did so from both parties at the same time, he soon found that it was better to choose his council from the party which had a majority in meat the House of Commons, for unless the House of Commons supported the acts of his ministers, all sorts of obstacles could be put in his way. A general election thus decided which party was to direct the government, for the Cabinet was now chosen from the party which had a majority in the House of Commons; and this has ever since been the most important feature in the Constitution of the country.

We can now turn to the chief events of William's reign. In spite of the wrangling of parties and the intrigues of self-seeking politicians, some good measures were enacted. Among the first of these was the Toleration Act. It might have been expected that the Dissenters, who had really done so much to support the Revolution, would have been now rewarded by complete toleration. William and the Whigs would have granted this, but the Tory Churchmen would only consent to the penal laws being suspended. The old penal laws were not repealed; but any Dissenter who would take certain oaths was relieved from the penalties. The Corporation and Test Acts were still retained, and thus for a century more, although not persecuted, the Dissenters were still excluded from office in the State, the corporations, and the army. They were also excluded from the Universities.

William III of England


Mary II of England


But they submitted loyally and waited until the nineteenth century for complete toleration. The Catholics, on the other hand, hated by Whigs and Tories alike, were oppressed by new laws, both in England and Ireland.

Scotland and Ireland both required William's attention. Scotland was a separate kingdom. Its people were strongly Presbyterian, but by means of packed Parliaments and the special powers of the crown, the country had been ruled in the interests of the followers of the bishops. The Scottish Parliament took advantage of James's "desertion" to effect a more complete revolution than had taken place in England. They abolished "prelacy," or the rule of bishops, altered the constitution of their Parliament, and put restrictions on the power of the crown, before they offered it to William. He had no choice but to accept their terms, for the kingdom was divided by fiercer factions than England; a "Jacobite" party was forming, supported by whole clans of the Highlanders.

Battle of Boyne


The Jacobites caught William's general at a disadvantage in the Pass of Killiecrankie (Perthshire), but the revolt soon died down. There followed, however; a terrible crime: because the Macdonalds of Glencoe did not take the oath to William in time, they were nearly all put to the sword at the terrible Massacre of Glencoe.

Affairs in Ireland were worse than in Scotland. The Ulstermen were cooped up in Londonderry, besieged by a French and Irish army, and suffered the agonies of famine before they were relieved by William. Next year (1690), William defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne. Still Ireland took another fifteen months to. conquer.

The war ended by the Treaty of Limerick, which promised the Catholics the privileges they had enjoyed in Charles II's time. The Irish Protestant Parliament, however, repudiated the terms, though the Irish were entitled to them by every sentiment of honour.

Whilst William had been winning, the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, England had passed through a great danger. On June 30th, the very day the two armies faced each other across the Boyne, the English Admiral Herbert, now Lord Torrington, was shamefully beaten by the French, under Tourville. Torrington behaved badly, both by retreating before the French fleet until he received positive orders from the Government to fight at all costs, and by allowing the brunt of the battle to fall upon his Dutch allies, who formed part of his fleet of sixty ships. By the battle off Beachy Head, the French became for the moment masters of the Channel, and burnt the town of Teignmouth. It was two years before the English wiped out the national disgrace by the great victory of La Hogue, won by Admiral Russell in May, 1692.

To William the affairs of England were but a part of that great struggle against France which was the supreme object of his life. Louis had at his command the richest nation, the greatest army, the best generals, that had been seen in Europe for a thousand years. William had to rely upon uncertain alliances with Austria, Spain, Brandenburg, and England. To keep them faithful to their promises, to get them to act together, and with such means to hold in check the mighty power of France, was a great achievement.

Although war was declared against France in 1689, William could not go to the Continent until two years afterwards. He was an unlucky general. He hardly ever won a victory. Yet he achieved his ends by holding on in spite of defeat, and keeping his armies together. Consequently, although Louie won nearly all the battles, France was worn out and defeated in the long run.

The good queen, Mary, had died in 1694. In September, 1701, James II died at St. Germains. The last of Anne's children had died in 1700. It was therefore necessary to decide the question of the lawful succession to the throne. The Act of Succession (or Act of Settlement) decided that the crown was to descend to Anne, then to Sophia, Electress or Princess of Hanover (a grand-daughter of James I of England), and to her heirs, being Protestants. It carried further the principles of the Bill of Rights by providing that all future monarchs must belong to the Church of England; that no English sovereign should leave the kingdom without the consent of Parliament; that no pensioner or placeman should serve as a member of Parliament; that no pardon under the Great Seal should prevent impeachment by the Commons, and that the judges should hold their offices during good behaviour, and not be removed except by an address from both Houses of Parliament. Thus we see that the efforts of the Long Parliament had after all not been in vain. William III was the first "constitutional king," that is, the first king who really ruled through Parliament.

William died on March 8th, 1702, in consequence of a fall from his horse. He was preparing for a renewal of the great war against France, which was to be carried out by England's greatest general in the next reign.