Historical Notes: Glorious revolution or Orange invasion?
Wednesday 26 May 1999
Switch the viewpoint and examine William's coup from his jumping-off point, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, roughly today's Holland. This small republic was the most powerful trading nation in the world, its commercial capital, Amsterdam, the centre of European finance, the Bank of Amsterdam the sinews of world trade. The republic was governed by an oligarchy of merchants, styled "regents", who sent representatives from towns and cities to provincial assemblies known as "states", delegations from which sat to debate national policy in the "States General" at the Hague.
Merchant power was balanced by the house of Orange which provided the hereditary head of state and war leader, known as the Stadtholder. Significantly, however, military decision-making was reserved for civilian ministers in the States General. The republic was a "one-off'. It was also unique in its prosperity and freedoms of expression and religion. It was, indeed, the prototype for today's "West".
Be that as it may, in 1688 the republic found itself in mortal danger from Louis XIV of France, exemplar of autocratic centralisation. Already possessing the most powerful army in Europe, Louis had built a superb navy twice the size of the republic's own, and was embarked on a tariff war to break the republic's grip on French commerce. It was this that awoke the regents. Anxious not to annoy their powerful neighbour, they had failed to read the signs. Fortunately, the Stadtholder, William III, was a man of historic stature. Recognising that Louis aimed to overrun the Netherlands, make himself master of the trade and finance of Amsterdam, and so gain the hegemony of Europe by land and sea, William also recognised his own destiny to contain him; and by June 1688, after Louis's trade war had bitten into merchant profits he felt able to confide in a select inner circle of Amsterdam regents.
The plan he outlined was breathtaking: besides re-arming and forging alliances with the Austrian emperor and German rulers, it involved sending the best part of the army and the fleet to England to mount an invasion and bring that country into the grand anti-French alliance.The enterprise was bold to the point of recklessness, and if not completely successful must provoke the disaster it was designed to avert, the greatest army in Europe and the two largest navies allied against the republic.
Probably no other nation could have mounted an operation of the size and complexity now begun. More important even than mobilisation and procurement were extraordinarily thorough deception, propaganda and subversion campaigns in England. When the invasion armada finally put out in early November, easterly winds blew it down- Channel to an unopposed landing in Torbay while holding the English locked in the Thames estuary. As William marched towards London, James was unnerved by desertions from his flag, and after his most brilliant officer, John Churchill, left him on the night of 23 November, he fled.
William's coup ranks in conception and consequences alongside the 1944 Normandy landings as one of the master-strokes of world history. He not only harnessed England to the anti-French cause, but changed her into a constitutional monarchy where royal prerogative was subordinate to common law, thereby ensuring Dutch freedoms, allowing the foundation of the Bank of England and Dutch-style financing by long-term loans. This was to give Britain the edge in the long series of French wars - and eventually world primacy.
Peter Padfield is the author of `Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind' (John Murray, pounds 25)
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