The Glorious Revolution, by Edward Vallance <br/> Revolution, by Tim Harris

Stories of a very British coup
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On 5 November 1688, an invasion force approached the Devon coast. A century earlier a Spanish Catholic fleet might have toppled England's Protestant queen had God not scattered the ships; now a Dutch Protestant prince was coming to oust a Catholic king, James II.

This armada, four times the size of its predecessor, landed safely, and the soon-to-be King William stepped ashore. He was a shortish man with long auburn hair, a hooked nose and black teeth, but it was his accent that locals sniggered at. In return, William's secretary was amused to see everyone smoking: even a baby, he noted, swapped the teat for a pipe. Meanwhile, in between nosebleeds, King James struggled to rally a dispersed army of dubious loyalty. William and his 15,000 troops advanced on London unopposed.

Today historians wonder whether the "Glorious Revolution" was either glorious or a revolution. Whigs once revered it as a triumph of constitutional liberalism, while radicals remained focused on a glorious revolution to come. Tories emphasised its conservative qualities; Jacobites were actively hostile.

In our own time Marxists have presented William's accession as act two of the bourgeois revolution of 1649, though none the less glorious for its bloodlessness. Revisionists have rebranded 1688 as a dynastic revolution serving Dutch interests - especially conflict with France - rather than the defence of England's "ancient constitution".

Post-revisionism pervades Edward Vallance's brisk, taut and lucid account. Although the Glorious Revolution was not the coherent settlement its champions pretended, the effects were profound, not least in William's dependence on parliament to fight Louis XIV. Vallance also insists that we need to look earlier than the 1680s, when exclusionists and rebels first tried to stop the monarch dragging England back to Rome.

Instead, anti-Catholic hysteria in the 1670s offers the key. Just as the English Civil War is now seen as a war of three kingdoms, so we should view 1688 in a British and continental context. Through a wider aperture, the revolution appears less bloodless, less glorious.

Even in an age of terrorism it's hard to imagine how paranoid English people were about Catholics. Vallance retells the story of the Popish Plot with the pace of a thriller, building the sense that something was rotten in the state of England. Charles II, his bed crowded with courtesans and spaniels, did little to stop that rot, and when his Catholic brother James succeeded the trouble really began.

James II was still too popular in 1685 for Monmouth's Rebellion to win sufficient support, but by 1688 the king's private Catholicism had grown disturbingly public and patience ran out. A cabal of peers invited William of Orange, husband of James's daughter Mary, to invade England.

Tim Harris's magisterial work, a sequel to his Restoration, shares these perspectives, stressing the British dimension. There was little glory in the Glencoe massacre or the Battle of Aughrim where the wounded Irish, smothered by corpses, begged to be put to the sword. Beyond England's borders, the revolution was violent and pitiless. In pursuit of these forgotten truths, Harris deploys confident prose, trenchant insight and vivid illustration.

He traces the vicissitudes of the mighty, making us feel the urgency of political crisis. James II's failure to play his kingdoms off against one another as skilfully as Charles did sparked off three interconnected revolutions and a transformation of Britain more profound, Harris believes, than that of the 1640s.

Both books describe a seismic shift conceived by statesmen but energised by plebeian agitators. We see them drinking provocative toasts, squinting at broadsides (William brought his own presses), and gleefully sacking Catholic homes. Harris, an expert on 17th-century crowds, delights in the excavation of what he calls "the social history of politics". The Civil War and subsequent revolution - if we can still call it that - created a delicate problem for the later Stuarts: how to police a demonstrably dangerous people without inflaming suspicions of tyranny.

Local government had long been an amateur arrangement, but the reliance of later 17th-century monarchs on ordinary provincial office-holders was unprecedented. Suddenly, public opinion mattered.

The events Harris describes in detail stop in 1691, his purpose being to explain how James II orchestrated his own descent into the abyss. He begins with a deft dissection of how the king was unseated by the birth of his son. The boy, also James, took precedence over his Protestant sisters and offered a vision of long-term Catholic rule, unacceptable to the mainly Protestant English and Scots.

More damaging still was the offence caused by James riding roughshod over parliamentary statute - an error for which his father had been beheaded. James extended religious toleration to dissenters and Catholics, uniting Whigs and Tory Anglicans in defence of the Protestant faith, the constitution, and the rule of law. This miscalculation sealed his fate.

History is a contest to shape the past for the future. James II is usually caricatured as a despotic monster undone by providence, although corrective versions can go too far. Evidently he was more than a dim or unlucky chairman of the board. Yet this tale of two kings also casts William in an ambiguous light.

How significant was his invasion for the development of English sovereignty? Did he love his adopted subjects, and did they reciprocate? His popularity (and legitimacy) was derived largely from fondness for his English wife and co-ruler, Mary. Today the House of Orange is tainted by sectarianism, unhelpful to William's historical cause.

All of which makes it hard to pin down the legacy of 1688, which can still be seen, nonsensically, as a non-revolutionary revolution to establish a vague constitution that may already have existed. Perhaps its revolutionary credentials only emerge clearly in the rhetoric of liberty and rights which helped to transform America and France a century later.

Malcolm Gaskill teaches history at Churchill College, Cambridge; his book 'Witchfinders' is published by John Murray