Probably no-one who visits this blog regularly needs to be told that, but since I’m about to attempt a fairly straightforward piece of historical writing, I thought I’d just reiterate it at the outset, by way of apologising for the flubs, misinterpretations, omissions and over-simplifications in the following piece.
This post represents the return, after far too long spent dwelling on the sociopathic ramblings of Richard Head and Francis Kirkman, to my Chronobibliography. When we left off, we were in the middle of a stretch of fiction writing most notable for its thematic distance from the political writing that had flourished under Charles II, but which had become just too dangerous under James II. In 1688, however, the literary world was again a political battleground, as England became enmeshed in the upheaval which would pave the way for the “Glorious Revolution”. The aim of this piece is to outline the main events of James’ reign, highlighting those which had an impact upon the literature of the time – and vice-versa.
Through the writings of the Restoration, we’ve already witnessed the political and religious conflicts that marked the reign of Charles, most of them in fact aimed at his brother and heir. James’ first marriage to Anne Hyde, the daughter of Sir Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, produced two daughters, Anne and Mary – both of whom were raised as Protestants at Charles’ insistence. However, James himself had secretly converted to Catholicism in 1669; a fact which was not made public until the introduction of the Test Act in 1673 when, as Lord High Admiral, he was required to take an oath repudiating certain Catholic doctrines and practices, and to take Protestant communion. James refused, resigning his commission instead. Later the same year, to the alarm and dismay of everyone at court (and many outside it), he married Mary of Modena, also a Catholic. It was this that brought on the Exclusion Crisis, and the horrors of the Popish Plot.
After their efforts to have James removed from the royal succession failed, the Exclusionists were left in tatters. Their leader, the Earl of Shaftesbury, fled the country and, after one more failed attempt to raise a rebellion, died in January 1683. Subsequently, the exposure of the Rye House Plot in June of that same year (whatever the truth of the matter) gave Charles and James an excuse to rid themselves of what remained of the opposing faction. The remainder of Charles’ reign was without serious incident, and when he died in February 1685, there was barely a voice raised in opposition to James’ succession; while ultimately, the disastrous Monmouth Rebellion of July 1685 served only to entrench his position – and mark him as a dangerously vindictive enemy. In spite of the horrified public outcry against the “Bloody Assizes”, an unmoved James rewarded Judge George Jeffreys by raising him to the peerage, and later made him Lord Chancellor.
The litany of the Exclusionists during the years of the Crisis was a warning about what James – as a Catholic king – would do once he got to the throne, and as it turned out for the most part they were proved right. James was a staunch believer in the Divine Right, and had no intention of sharing his power with Parliament – or even tolerating opposition. He consolidated his power by significantly enlarging the standing army, entirely against long-standing English tradition, and by placing Catholic officers in charge of the regiments in violation of the Test Act. When Parliament objected, James prorogued it for the duration of his reign, and tried to secure a common-law ruling that he had the power as king to overturn Acts of Parliament. It took a series of dismissed judges and the removal of his Solicitor General until he found a legal panel that would give him the ruling he wanted, but he got there in the end.
James interference with the army was prompted by his fear that he could not depend upon the loyalty of the rank and file (and as it turned out, he was quite right). It was this “Catholicisation” of the armed forces that raised the spectre that was to haunt England all throughout James’ reign: the possibility of French troops being brought into the country to quell an English revolt.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to give a correct weight to these days is James’ doctrine of religious tolerance and his Declaration of Indulgence, which suspended the laws that enforced conformity with the Anglican church, allowed people (some people) to worship in their own way, and removed the requirement for swearing loyalty to the Church of England and rejecting Catholicism before attaining government office. It is hard today not to view this simply as a good and right thing; even as it is impossible to view the opposition to it as anything but bigotry. It is true enough that James thought only of lifting the social and legal restrictions upon the practice of Catholicism, but in order to achieve this end he was forced to offer similar liberties to the Dissenters, and even to roll back his persecution of the Presbyterians.
However, James’ insistence upon his doctrines being announced from the pulpit – which was, to be fair, one of the main ways of broadcasting news at the time, when much of the population was still illiterate – was viewed by the Protestant clergy as an intolerable insult; and was, as transpired, a significant factor in James’ ultimate fate.
Meanwhile, James continued to fill court positions with his Catholic supporters, and likewise replaced many high-ranking officials in other civil offices – including in the strictly Anglican colleges of the University of Oxford. He also received at court the papal nuncio, Ferdinando d’Adda; the first English monarch to do so since Bloody Mary.
Then, in 1688, two critical things happened almost simultaneously.
In April of that year, James reissued his Declaration of Indulgence and ordered it to be read out in all churches. A panel of seven bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, reacted to this dictum by submitting to James a petition requesting that he reconsider his religious policies. They also had the petition published and distributed in the form of a broadsheet. In response, a furious James fatally overplayed his hand: he had all seven arrested and tried for seditious libel. They were held in the Tower of London for a month before their trial, which took place on the 29th June, and ended in a verdict of not guilty. This outcome was a serious blow to James, the second he had suffered in that month; although the first was undoubtedly not recognised as such at the time, but would, on the contrary, have been viewed as the ultimate consolidation of the king’s position: the birth, on 10th June, of James Francis Edward Stuart, Prince of Wales.
One of the most bewildering aspects of this period in history, one which more than any other shaped its events, is the inability of the Stuarts to reproduce themselves – legitimately, that is. Most of Charles’ own woes stemmed from his childless marriage, although he had at least twelve children by women other than his wife; while James had at least five. In the next generation, neither Mary nor Anne would produce an heir (Anne therefore succeeding her sister and brother-in-law), with the former losing three babies in their infancy and the latter suffering through eighteen pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, stillbirth or early death. A generation back, James and Anne Hyde had had six children who did not survive childhood; while in the first fourteen years of her marriage, Mary of Modena suffered eight miscarriages, and bore and lost five children.
The ongoing failure of Mary to produce an heir was the major preventative of an open rebellion against James, since there was always the reassurance that his daughters, his heirs, were both Protestant, and so whatever James did would be undone in due course. Over time, people even stopped worrying about that aspect of the situation—not least because in 1687, James Stuart was fifty-four years old and (like all good Stuart men) syphilitic. And even when Mary’s pregnancy became public knowledge early in 1688, there was no particular concern. It was simply assumed that things would go wrong this time as they always had before—only they didn’t. Suddenly, England was confronted with the genuine threat of a Catholic dynasty, and those who had stayed their hands while waiting and hoping for the death of a childless James realised that they could sit still no longer. James had to go.
Although the removal of James from the throne in what would be become known as “the Glorious Revolution” (its history being written, as always, by the victors) occurred in November 1688, the fight began many months before that—as soon as Mary’s pregnancy began to be seen as a genuine threat—and ironically, it was the actions of James’ supporters that put the ultimate weapon into his enemies’ hands. In spite of what we have said here, James did have many supporters other than the Catholics, and the Dissenters who sided with them. The old Tory faction that believed in the Divine Right and loyalty to the monarch no matter what, and which had clung to its theory and looked away from reality all through Charles’ reign, did precisely the same thing through James’. To their minds, the birth of an heir to James and Mary was a sign of God’s approval of the incumbent—even if he was a Catholic. The ever-present prospect of civil war would surely be quelled by this proof of Divine favour.
However—in their zeal to place this interpretation upon the situation, many of the Tories jumped the gun, publishing pamphlets throughout the early months of 1688 in which they declared their absolute conviction that Mary’s baby would be a boy. In this they were joined by the Catholics, who saw their own vindication in Mary’s pregnancy, and likewise took the view that the birth of a son and heir was inevitable. This over-eagerness gave the opposing faction the opening it was looking for, and it began a literary campaign of its own, demanding to know how the Tories and Catholics could be so very sure that the baby would be a boy?—unless they had already arranged for it to be a boy.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the war of words that followed is that it appears to have been financed and at least partly orchestrated by William of Orange himself. While the official invitation to invade was not issued until October 1688, various interested parties had been in communication with William all throughout James’ reign, keeping him well-informed of the situation, and all of them waiting their chance. The signing of a naval pact between England and France in April 1688 seems to have been viewed by William as the beginning of James’ end, as he began planning for his eventual invasion of England from that date; although at the same time, he made it clear to those in England that he would take no action without being formally invited to do so.
Meanwhile, the opportunity offered by the presumption of the James-ites was recognised and swiftly seized upon by the conspirators, who initiated a spiralling campaign of slander and mockery that did incalculable damage to James, and left him open to a decisive attack, and in which James’ own thin skin played a significant part.
Instead of rising above the situation and ignoring what a bunch of scurrilous pamphlets might have to say, as (in an act of either unusual wisdom or, more likely, laziness) Charles had done, James made the fatal mistake of reacting to what was being said, thereby giving it credibility. The first rumour to take hold was that Mary was not really pregnant at all; that there was a plot afoot to simply “produce” a male baby on cue. In response, James insisted upon his unfortunate wife giving birth with a large gathering of witnesses in the next room, there to confirm that the labour was genuine; while later, the bloody bed-sheets were displayed to interested parties. James then gathered the witnesses’ testimony and published it, solemnly affirming his paternity at the same time – which only increased the scorn and laughter of the population, and provoked an outbreak of obscene ballads containing vivid descriptions of the gathered nobles peering solemnly between Mary’s legs.
By this time, indeed, the idea of the “sham prince”, as he became known, had taken too strong a hold on the imagination of the English people to be easily shaken loose – although whether anyone actually believed it, or merely chose to believe it, is moot. The pamphleteers kept busy circulating the most delicious stories, until there were two main scenarios from which the snickering crowds in the coffee-houses could take their choice.
The first option was that of a substituted child, in which the baby boy of a loyal Catholic woman was given up in order to pose as the Prince of Wales. This story began circulating almost as soon as Mary’s pregnancy was known, and took on a life of its own when the baby was born, and the infamous “warming-pan” was added to the mix – the means taken by one of Mary’s midwives to warm her bed being reinterpreted as the means by which the sham prince was smuggled into the birth chamber. This version of events was greatly bolstered by the fact that Mary went into labour prematurely, before the birth chamber could be officially searched for secret passages (really). That she did not nurse the baby herself – she may, of course, have been unable to do so – was considered the clinching bit of evidence.
The alternative, still more malicious tale, was that Mary had had a baby – but that James was not the father. Opinions varied on whether Mary had given up on her impotent husband and taken her own steps to pregnancy, or James had pimped his wife out to an appropriate (i.e. Catholic) substitute. Many and varied were the men offered up as the baby’s real father, but without question the overwhelming popular favourite was the papal nuncio, the unfortunately named Father d’Adda. Jokes aside (and really, how can you blame them for latching onto that?), this twist to the tale allowed the sham prince to be woven into the fabric of the long-running saga of the “popish plot”.
Astonishing as it is to contemplate, this smear campaign actually did more to weaken James’ position than any of the serious attacks made upon him over the preceding twenty years—simply because, whereas the Popish Plot had sought to demonise him, this made him ridiculous. Indeed, it was a common saying in the wake of James’ eventual flight to France that he had been laughed off the throne.
And by the way—don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that the pen is not mightier than the sword.
Anyway—while the general population rocked with laughter, and those in high places put on very shocked and solemn faces and pretended to take the matter seriously, behind the scenes the men who would earn themselves the collective title of the “Immortal Seven” waited only until the 18th June to issue the invitation that William had been waiting for. This fatal letter did not stoop to mentioning the sham prince, but stated England’s grievances in general terms, asserting that “nineteen parts out of twenty” of England’s population were in favour of William’s intervention and that “much the greatest part of the nobility and gentry” would rally behind him. Simultaneously, a second and considerably more serious pamphleteering campaign began, presenting William to the people as the desirable option of a Stuart free of the traditional Stuart vices…including Catholicism.
James was late taking the threat of William seriously, and when he finally did, he overestimated the size of his forces—which might explain his later behaviour. William finally landed in Torbay, in Devon, early in November 1688. He chose to maintain a defensive posture, hoping that the monarchy would collapse without the need for serious warfare. Meanwhile, knowing that it would only turn England against him the more passionately, James reluctantly declined an offer of French assistance and tried to drum up support amongst the Tories; but his refusal even at this late date to give up any of his pro-Catholic policies cost him the majority of his remaining followers. Across the country, anti-Catholic rioting broke out, and in the aftermath of this James saw for himself that he would not be able to depend upon his army beyond its officers. The navy had already defected.
Early in December, James sent Mary and his infant son to France. No attempt was made to hinder their departure. However, when James himself fled the next day – dropping the Great Seal in the Thames on his way, without which Parliament could not technically be summoned – he was embarrassingly captured by a group of fishermen and compelled to return to London. There he was met with an unexpected show of support, and began to contemplate ways and means of holding onto his throne—much to William’s exasperation, which grew when James tried to open negotiations with him. Desperate to avoid both an open conflict and the necessity of dealing with James were he to be forcibly deposed – the last thing anyone wanted being another martyred Stuart – William tried a bluff, sending back an ominously worded warning about his inability to guarantee James’ personal safety. It worked. James agreed to withdraw, and in return was placed under Dutch protection, which escorted him into Kent—from where he subsequently “escaped” to France on the 23rd December, while his guards were busy looking the other way.
Of course—the overriding irony of this situation is that England didn’t really want William any more than it had ever wanted Monmouth. It was true that as an alternative to James, William was a much more justifiable option: he was half-Stuart, he was Protestant, and he was married to James’ daughter. On the other hand, while Monmouth had been weak and indecisive, and easy to manipulate, William was pig-headed, hot-tempered—and Dutch. All along there had been an unspoken intention, particularly on the part of the Tory conspirators, still clinging to “the true line”, to use William to get rid of James and then offer the crown to Mary. Surprisingly, although he insisted on being crowned, William agreed both to Mary being the monarch, and to Anne’s heirs being in line for the throne in preference to his own. (Not that, as it turned out, anyone had anything to worry about in that respect.) However, whether she genuinely didn’t want it, or whether she thought it would be an ungrateful return for her father being allowed to slip quietly and safely away, Mary played the submissive wife and refused to be elevated over her husband. Finally a compromise was reached, and William and Mary were jointly crowned in February 1689, although the coronation did not take place until April.
In between those two events, one of even greater historical significance – one, indeed, whose significance can hardly be estimated – had taken place. In December 1688, Parliament reassembled (although it called itself a “Convention”, since only a monarch could assemble a Parliament) and immediately began working on “An Act declareing the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Setleing the Succession of the Crowne” – better known as the Bill of Rights. Amongst its many provisions were laws making it illegal for the monarch of England to be a Catholic, or for the monarch or the heir to the throne to marry a Catholic—laws that were not repealed until 2011!! Also included in this Act were sweeping reforms that markedly restricted the power of the monarchy, for example, removing the king or queen’s right to suspend laws, levy taxes, make royal appointments, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament’s permission. At the same time, Parliament’s own powers were greatly increased. The requirement for regular elections was introduced, and freedom of speech within Parliament guaranteed. The Act also re-emphasised the long-ignored necessity for the Crown, in certain situations, “to seek the consent of the people, as represented in Parliament”.
In March 1689, William and Mary put their signatures to this remarkable document. It was the beginning of Constitutional Monarchy, and the end of the Divine Right of Kings.