“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.
As a piece of fearless iconoclasm, 1688 can hardly be bettered. Moreover, having destroyed the old image of the revolution Pincus puts a new and bolder one in its place. He clearly has no time for the post-modernist reluctance to impose order on the past that is detectable in some recent accounts of the English Civil War — the mid-century revolution that did for James’s father, Charles I. Nevertheless, if it’s a gripping story you’re after then look elsewhere. Pincus provides no sustained narrative, no character vignettes of his leading players to enliven the plot. Entertaining readers comes second to educating them. And here he uses his trademark style of massed ranks of contemporary quotations, supported by a vast array of archival references, to full effect. His quote-strewn text will be manna to other academics foraging for their own work. But the general reader may well find it harder to digest.
Pincus wants to do more than just rehabilitate the Glorious Revolution, however. He wants to exalt it as the daddy of all revolutions — a status usually reserved for its mid-century predecessor. To do so, he employs Burke’s strategy — that is, by denying that the events of the 1640s and 1650s constituted a revolution at all. Proper revolutions, he claims, succeed in the long term. And proper “modern” revolutions are not motivated by religion. A defining feature of modernity for Pincus is the abandonment of religious hatreds. His Whig revolutionaries were willing to ally with Catholic powers to defeat Louis. Consequently, they were more modern than Oliver Cromwell and co. with their supposedly “early Protestant worldview”.
Unfortunately, this completely overlooks the fact that English politicians since Elizabethan times had been positively eager to join Catholics in defending Christendom against “popish” aggressors such as Spain, or later France. The Whigs’ language on this score echoes that of Elizabeth’s courtiers who were cosying up to anti-Spanish Catholics in the 1590s. Similarly, the modernising programme of Pincus’s revolutionaries bears a close resemblance to that of Charles I’s leading opponents in the early 1640s. They too wanted to beef up the state, open the church to godly Protestants and lead the fight against popery on the continent. If their revolution failed in the long term it was not because their aims were any less “modern”. It was simply that they lacked what Pincus’s revolutionaries were lucky enough to have-a warlike, godly prince, William of Orange — on whom to graft their reform programme.
Pincus’s “first modern revolution” succeeded because it had that most ancient and exclusive component of the constitution to build upon, monarchy. It is hard to disagree with him that England was a more commercial and tolerant society in 1688 than it had been 40 years earlier. But this seems beside the point. In the words of James II’s opponents in 1066 and All That, “the answer was an Orange” all along.