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June 14, 2006

We should continue to regard the Glorious Revolution as glorious, argues David Womersley - Tim Harris's revisionist account of the Glorious Revolution does not persuade: Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 - Tim Harris

Posted by David Womersley

Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720
by Tim Harris
Pp. xviii + 622. London: Allen Lane, 2006
Hardback, £30

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - is unpersuaded by Tim Harris's revisionist account of the Glorious Revolution, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720.

Why have we customarily thought of the events of 1688-89 as comprising a "Glorious Revolution"? The case for that honourable and distinguishing epithet has traditionally rested on three arguments.

In the first place, and in sharp contrast to 1641, 1776 and 1789, 1688 was a largely bloodless affair, with England at least seeing no major military engagements, but only a couple of skirmishes in the Home Counties.

Secondly, there quickly arose an interpretation of 1688 which construed it as preventative and conservative in character, a matter of a revolution averted rather than actually performed. The key comparatively early account here is what Burke says about 1688 in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), where he depicts it as a statesmanlike response to a national crisis which to some extent dissolved the reality of discontinuity in an appearance of – insofar as this was possible – continuity. (However, the fact that in this section of the Reflections Burke is replying to what Richard Price had said about 1688 in his 1789 sermon "On the Love of Our Country", extolling the fledgling French Revolution, reminds us that, here as elsewhere, Burke's opinions were not those of the majority.)

Finally, 1688 was glorious because, as essentially a decapitation of James II's monarchy, a palace coup, it showed the British political class emerging into maturity, tempered by the upheavals of mid-century and the more recent tensions over Exclusion. The immortal seven signatories of the letter inviting William of Orange to intervene in the affairs of England, and to prevent his wife being defrauded of her rightful inheritance by her brother James set the mould of effective British political action for the next 150 years of Whig ascendancy.

Tim Harris's bold and wide-ranging new history of 1688, the successor to his Restoration (2005), takes issue with all of this.

Was 1688 bloodless? You can conclude that it was, argues Harris, only if you avert your eyes from events on England's fringe: in both Scotland and, in particular, in Ireland, the bodycount during the events of 1688 was far from trivial. In Revolution, the Scottish and Irish aspects of 1688 accordingly receive much fuller treatment than is customary. This is a welcome move from the standpoint of completeness of knowledge, but I wonder whether in fact the inclusion of Scottish and Irish experience really shifts our judgement of the character of the Glorious Revolution in the way that Harris contends. The key events in the ousting of James II occurred in England, and while events in Scotland and Ireland form a useful supplement to that received account, they should not preponderate in any final act of historical judgement. As is so often the case when the English periphery is evoked in historical writing, one senses a tacit and unholy alliance between historiographic revisionism and postcolonial political correctness.

Was 1688 conservative? On the contrary, says Harris, it was genuinely revolutionary, albeit in the slightly special and diluted sense that, unlike the republican flash-in-the-pan which was the Civil War, 1688 was genuinely and permanently transformative:

the British revolutions of the later seventeenth century nevertheless had a huge transformative impact. They changed the course of history for the three kingdoms and left a lasting legacy, the implications of which remain with us today.
In his "Conclusion" Harris crystallises the point by positing a thought-experiment. How would an Englishman of "moderate Whig leanings" who had died in 1630 respond if he were to return to the living in 1685? Not much change, according to Harris. But if the same man had died in 1687, and returned in 1720,
he would immediately notice dramatic differences.
It is an arresting move, but in the end not a fully persuasive one. Events have symbolic force, as well as practical consequences. Nothing happened in 1688 which could approach, for symbolic power, the execution of Charles I in 1649. Indeed, the comparison of 1688 with 1641 poses delicate problems of management for the historian who wishes to extol the later episode above the earlier, for the swift reduction of James II to the status of a pantomime king, and the, at best, tragi-comic quality of his escape to France, seem to offer anticipatory confirmation of the celebrated judgement of Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoléon, that history is always repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 1688 in many ways did transform the British polity. But that is not why it is remembered.

Was 1688 a surgical decapitation of James II's monarchy? Again, Harris wants to make us think again, and he encourages us to think about the role of the crowd in shaping and sustaining the high-political events of the Glorious Revolution. And, once more, the reader has the sense of evidence being made to work harder than it naturally can.

Harris, whose earliest work was on the crowd in the reign of Charles II, can point to a good deal of mob activity in 1688, and his claim that there was often a ritualistic quality to this activity, distinguishing it from mere criminality or looting, is a good one. Persuasive, too, is Harris's suggestion that mob activity exerted pressure on the main political actors during 1688 (although here one would have liked some precise information about the timeliness and accuracy of the reports of popular agitation which James and William received). Nevertheless, the old distinction of "necessary but not sufficient" comes to mind, although in the case of mob activity in 1688, one would have to revise it to "possibly helpful, possibly necessary, but not sufficient".

A comparison with a later episode of mob violence is instructive. On 2nd June 1780 the Gordon riots broke out in London following anti-Catholic incitements by Lord George Gordon from the windows of the House of Commons, and continued until 8th June when order was restored by means of military force. In the words of Gibbon (himself an M.P. at the time, and an eye-witness of the events):

forty thousand Puritans such as they might be in the time of Cromwell have started out of their graves, the tumult has been dreadful; and even the remedy of military force and martial law is unpleasant.
Yet this came to nothing. Why? Surely because, unlike in 1688, in 1780 there was no competent high-political leadership to take advantage of the ritualistic anti-Catholicism of the London mob, only the miserably deluded figure of Lord Gordon, who found himself in the Tower by 10th June.

Harris is more persuasive arguing for a deeper and wider causality at work in 1688 in his detailed and absorbing account of how James II undid himself by reversing the alliance with the Anglican interest forged by his wiser brother. But in this, of course, Harris is following in the footsteps of Macaulay.

The personal inadequacy of James II emerges very clearly from Revolution. Even James's mistresses mocked him, Catherine Sedley wittily saying that:

We are none of us handsome, and if we had wit, he has not enough to discover it
. Exiled in France, James passed the remainder of his life in self-reproach and, ultimately, the gloomy superstitions of corporal mortification. Undoubtedly he had much to repent. However, the laughable and disgusting rituals of St. Germain-en-Laye were offered in atonement for, not James's calamitous political misjudgements, but rather the libertinism of his youth (when to a sane eye he had perhaps been at his most fully human):
in his last years James took to scourging himself and wearing an iron chain around his thigh "with little sharp points which pierced his skin".
He was a king who understood neither what would keep him on the throne nor why he fell from it. It is surely right that generations of Englishmen have wanted to bestow the epithet of "Glorious" on the events which saved them from the fate of being ruled by the offspring of this vindictive, stupid, bigot.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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