"Why on earth was William of Orange? (Seriously, though)" asks a sample exam question in the historical spoof 1066 and All That. The joke would not work quite so well perhaps if the faintly ridiculous ring to William's title did not also attach to the event for which he is best remembered, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. After leading the last successful invasion of England, the Dutch ruler and head of the French principality of Orange was installed on the throne in place of the Stuart king James II. A revolution that merely replaces one hereditary monarch with another is difficult to take too seriously, surely? But Steve Pincus, a professor of history at Yale, thinks otherwise. In 1688: The First Modern Revolution, he has written a swashbuckling book on what has become, over the centuries, a somewhat tame subject.
During the course of the 18th century, argues Pincus, the English establishment succeeded in pulling the revolution's teeth. In 1790, for example, Edmund Burke famously contrasted the "treasons, robberies, rapes, assassinations, slaughters, and burnings" of the revolution in France, with the reasonable way in which the English had gone about regime-change a century earlier. In substituting William, a sensible Protestant, for James, a tyrannical Catholic, the English had not abandoned their native conservatism, Burke argued, but rather reinforced "the ancient fundamental principles of our government". The revolution was glorious precisely because it was unrevolutionary.
Yet Burke at least thought that James's overthrow involved matters of high principle. There is a tendency today to see the revolution as little more than a family spat. James's two nieces help William — who had married the eldest of them, Mary — to chase their uncle into exile, after which it is business as usual. The revolution had become such a non-event by the time of its tercentenary in 1988 that it was considered less worthy of a commemorative set of stamps than the foundation of the Linnean Society.
Much of Pincus's previous work has attacked the bowdlerisation of the Glorious Revolution. But in 1688 he declares all-out war. Far from being aristocratic and consensual, the revolution was, he insists, a bloody and prolonged contest between two sets of radical reformers, each with a large popular following. James II is recast here as an eager disciple of his French cousin, the arch-absolutist Louis XIV. He worked tirelessly to modernise the state, to re-Catholicise his subjects and to achieve global mastery over England's great trading rivals the Dutch. Opposition to his agenda was spearheaded by the Whigs, who were themselves intent on revamping the state — along Dutch lines. Their focus was on boosting domestic manufacture and introducing religious tolerance. Above all, they were committed to bringing England into William's continental alliance "against that great Monster the French king".
William of Orange with his future bride, the ten-year-old Mary Stuart. Painted by Van Dyck.