Royal dramas and national traumas

The Last Revolution - The Glorious Revolution - Revolution
January 12, 2007

Jeremy Black finds studies of Britain's revolutionary upheavals offer interest and value - if not the 'true causes' promised

These three books, each worthy and the one by Tim Harris particularly valuable, are of interest in part because of what they show about 1688, although there are limits to what can be added to the many books produced to mark the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution. 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 that promote them, which deserve 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.

The press release for Patrick Dillon's The Last Revolution 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 stock-market 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. In contrast, Edward Vallance, according to the puff for The Glorious Revolution , provides a "radical new interpretation" that "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 who has read the works that came out for the tercentenary, and Vallance indeed offers an interesting preface in which he draws attention to contention at the time of the tercentenary. But the press release indicates how books are supposed to be sold: for their novelty and for uncovering what the inside flap calls the "true causes of the revolution".

The press release for Harris's Revolution 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 is 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.

Revolution is a sequel to Harris's Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (2005) and is likewise a three kingdoms approach. At the same time, the author recognises that there is also a British story alongside the separate national histories and revolutions. Indeed, he cogently argues that the problems and crises that afflicted the later Stuarts were bound up with the fact that they ruled over a multiple-kingdom inheritance, which was equally true for the crisis that engulfed Charles I, and for those the Hanoverians overcame in 1715-16, 1745-46 and 1797-98, but not in 1775-83. Harris also discusses the consequences of the revolution for Scotland and Ireland, not least the high level of suffering.

His three-kingdoms approach entails much narrative. But, unlike many narratives, his is not only well written but also reflective and open to different interpretations. It is characterised by an extensive use of pertinent and interesting archival material, too. 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, too, adopts a narrative approach, albeit a more concise one. He accepts that there is much to support the view that 1688 represented a Dutch invasion and occupation, though with considerable support from a "fifth column". Indeed, William arrived with a substantial army and siege train, clearly expecting a difficult campaign against James's large army.

He was not to know that James's will would collapse.

But Vallance 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 exaggerates the popular role and 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. 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 provides 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, 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 the book does not compare 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 does with great success. Neither of the other authors has 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, 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, of the divisions within England and Britain arising from the Henrician Reformation. Such disorder was not, however, restricted to Britain: there are instructive parallels in the difficulties the Habsburgs faced in Hungary and in the long, bitter war of succession in Spain after the death of Carlos II in 1700.

From a different perspective, Britain from the 1680s was part of the more general movement towards a reconciliation between crowns and elites characteristic of late 17th-century Europe.

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 had been mistakenly transformed into the irresistible consequence of British society's desire for progress and liberty, but also that foreign historians may have a more acute perception than their British colleagues of the seriousness 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, involving Britain from 1689 to 1697, is considered. This was the longest foreign war since that with Spain in 1585-1604, and, like that conflict, it 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. But this makes little 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, Exeter University.

The Last Revolution: 1688 and the Creation of the Modern World

Author - Patrick Dillon
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 464
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 07195 5

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