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August 29, 2006

Making a world safe for Whigs - Revisiting the Glorious Revolution: Patrick Dillon, Tim Harris and Edward Vallance on the Glorious Revolution

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Last Revolution: 1688 and the Creation of the Modern World
by Patrick Dillon
Pp. 464. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, £20

Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720
by Tim Harris
Pp. 640. London: Allen Lane, 2006
Hardback, £30

The Glorious Revolution: 1688 - Britain's Fight for Liberty
by Edward Vallance
Pp. 372. London: Little Brown, 2006
Hardback, £20

The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9 used to be a key episode in public memory, but that stage is long past, in part as a result of the foreshortening of public history so that it focuses on the last century. These three books, each worthy and one, that by Harris, a particularly valuable book, are of interest in part because of what they show about 1688, although there are limits to what can be added to recent scholarship because the "Glorious Revolution" was extensively covered in the many books produced to mark the tercentenary.

They are also of interest for the light they throw on what is seen as topical and pertinent, and also on the commerce of scholarship. This is true not only of the books themselves but also of the press releases, which deserve considerable attention for the perspective they throw on historiography and the interplay between academic and popular history. Such releases tend to be ignored in historiographical works, an aspect of a more general neglect of the crucial issue of presentation. Indeed, these releases are rarely kept by libraries, a fate frequently shared by dust-jackets.

The press-release for Dillon's book presents a conventional view focused on modernity:

The settlement which followed would place England decisively on the path to freedom, toleration, parliamentary democracy and empire … This was the time of Isaac Newton's scientific breakthroughs and John Locke's philosophy. The 1690s would see free market ideas emerge, the first stockmarket boom and bust, the end of press censorship and the arrival of religious toleration… the emergence of the dynamic, constantly changing world we inhabit today.
So far, so maybe 1950s. Vallance, in contrast, according to the puff, provides a:
radical new interpretation [which] challenges the view that it was a bloodless coup in the name of progress and wonders whether in fact it created as many problems as it addressed. Certainly in Scotland and Ireland the Revolution was characterised by warfare and massacre.
This should be news to no-one, certainly no-one reading the numerous works that came out for the tercentenary. Vallance indeed offers an interesting preface in which he draws attention to contention at the time of the tercentenary, which included interesting differences among parliamentarians, but the press release indicates how books are supposed to be sold: novelty and, even more, uncovering what the inside flap calls the "true causes of the revolution".

The press release for Harris is more cautious, although his book also allegedly:

challenges some of the basic assumptions that historians have made about the era.
What a dim lot these historians clearly are. Ironically, each of the books under review are neo-Whiggish as far as England is concerned, not least in underplaying Tory views, although this Whiggery is contested in the accounts of developments in Scotland and Ireland. This return to Whiggery is itself instructive.

Harris's book is a sequel to his Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (Allen Lane, 2005), and, like that, is a three kingdoms approach. At the same time, there is a dynamic recognised by Harris in which, alongside separate national histories and revolutions, there is also a British story. Indeed, he cogently argues that the problems and crises that afflicted the later Stuarts were bound up with the fact that the Stuarts ruled over a multiple-kingdom inheritance, a perspective equally true for the crisis that engulfed Charles I, and for those the Hanoverians overcame in 1715-16 (Jacobitism), 1745-6 (Jacobitism), and 1797-8 (naval mutiny, Irish rebellion and not much), but not in 1775-83 (American Revolution). Harris also discusses the consequences of the Revolution for both Scotland and Ireland, not least a high level of suffering.

Tackling this three kingdoms approach entails much narrative, and Harris's book indeed is preponderantly narrative. Unlike many narratives, however, this is one that is not only well-written but also reflective and open to different interpretations. It is also characterised by an extensive use of pertinent and interesting archival material. For example, in June 1685, Katherine Hall, the wife of a London malt factor, was accused by her servant, Thomas Tothall, of saying that:

the late King [Charles II] was a blacke bastard and that the Duke of Yorke his present Majestie was a duke of Devills.
Harris is particularly good on the latter, and succeeds in showing how James II and VII squandered a good political inheritance predominantly by maladroit religious policies. Harris moreover offers an able introduction to the ideas at stake and skilfully integrates them into the narrative.

Vallance also adopts a narrative approach, albeit a more concise and therefore less detailed one. He accepts that there is much to support the view that 1688 represented a Dutch invasion and occupation, albeit with considerable support from a "fifth column". Indeed William arrived with a substantial army and siege train and clearly expected a difficult campaign against James's large army. He was not to know that James's will would collapse.

Vallance, however, argues that this approach misses much that is significant, and that the people were "deeply involved in the changes", a view that is a variant on the claim that there would have been a revolution anyway. This view exaggerates the popular role and indeed underrates the extent to which there was popular opposition to the Revolution, as well as support. To claim that

it was the verdict of the people, as well as the peers and commons in Westminster which would settle the crown on William's head
risks a new teleology and a revived Whig interpretation. Harris also emphasises the role of those below the elite.

Vallance suggests that the outcomes of the revolutions in Scotland and Ireland revealed the extent to which these kingdoms were only a minor concern to William and that they mainly impinged on his consciousness as areas of civil unrest that could weaken him in his struggle with Louis XIV.

Dillon ranges more widely to provide a longer-range context and an account of the "new era" created by the Revolution, although he does not draw on the archival sources considered by the others. To Dillon, the Revolution's first phase was military, and its second political. Its third phase was the long aftermath during which 1688 was reinterpreted as a Glorious Revolution. Dillon ranges widely, although many of his comments lack novelty - "theatre in the 1690s was topical and fast-moving", and it cannot be said that the book compares favourably with the other two. It is, however, sufficiently different to make it worth reading.

The most surprising feature of these works is that they do not devote more space to the European context and to comparisons with developments there, while events in the colonies also tend to be underplayed. Harris reveals an agreement with Steve Pincus that the latter would cover the context in his forthcoming book, while he himself tackled the British dimension, which he certainly does with great success. Neither of the others have this excuse.

From 1688, Britain might seem to have diverged from a common European course, not because of a more "liberal" constitutional regime in the Revolution settlement, certainly on the British dimension, but rather as a result of the breach in the succession and the consequence of instability and civil violence. This thus represented a repetition, at a time when domestic political and religious order had been restored in most European states, albeit with considerable differences, of the divisions within England and Britain arising from the Henrician Reformation. Such disorder was not, however, restricted to Britain. Indeed, there are instructive parallels in the difficulties the Habsburgs faced in Hungary, and also in the long and bitter war of succession in Spain following the death of Carlos II in 1700.

From a different perspective, albeit with the delays consequent upon the disruption of the Glorious Revolution, Britain, from the 1680s, took place in the more general movement towards a reconciliation between Crowns and elite that was so characteristic of Europe in the late-seventeenth century. Whether the emphasis is placed on similarities or on contrasts, it is not clear how best to reconcile such approaches with the narrative style. Reconciling narrative with analysis in the multiple contexts that are relevant is far from easy.

Another challenge was advanced in 1982 by Bruno Neveu. He suggested not only that the expulsion of James, and his son's failure to prevent the Hanoverian accession or to challenge it successfully thereafter, events seen by contemporaries as violent ruptures and extreme developments, had been mistakenly transformed into irresistible manifestations of a general aspiration by British society for progress and liberty, but also that foreign historians have possibly a more acute perception than their British colleagues of the seriousness both of the overt crises and of the ideological, political and diplomatic tensions of the period.

The last would be an unfair charge to direct against Harris or Vallance, but there is certainly a need to consider European perspectives. This becomes even clearer when the lengthy and difficult war that resulted from the Revolution, a war which involved Britain from 1689 to 1697, is considered. This was the longest foreign war since that with Spain in 1585-1604, and, like that conflict, entailed serious strains.

Within a publishing world that presses for significance, it is difficult for authors to avoid the perils of teleology, and Whiggery appears a very attractive option, as does the claim for revolutionary significance. This, however, does not make much sense not only of the crisis, but also of contemporary responses in a difficult aftermath that included civil war in Scotland and Ireland, conspiracies in England, and an international conflict that created many difficulties. The period was indeed, as Harris notes, a great crisis.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

To read Prof. David Womersley's take on Tim Harris's Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720, see: 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.


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