History in the making: The Glorious Revolution of 1688-91 was really a Dutch invasion; this distortion of the facts reflects our narrow view of Britain's past, argues Jonathan Israel

Jonathan Israel
Monday 28 December 1992 01:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is not often that crucial aspects of a nation's history remain almost totally hidden despite the efforts of generations of historians to bring to light what is important. But it can happen even in the case of something so fundamental as the Glorious Revolution of 1688-91, a turning-point not only in the history of England but also of Scotland, Ireland, the American colonies, the Dutch Republic and the European balance of power. So grotesque a distortion of our past is unlikely to stem from haphazard oversight. Rather, it is likely to reflect assumptions and prejudgements deeply rooted in our culture and reinforced by our approach to the study and teaching of history.

Hitherto, all British interpretations of the Glorious Revolution, whether in the so-called 'Whig' tradition which celebrates it as a great and triumphant event, or 'revisionist' and less adulatory, have viewed the upheaval as a domestic revolution generated by a broad coalition of groups opposed to the royal absolutism and religious policies of James II (who reigned 1685-88). With the help of a small foreign army under the Dutch Stadholder, the Prince of Orange (William III) Parliament gained control of the country, dethroned James II with the support of much of the public, disinherited his heir, the Prince of Wales, passed the Bill of Rights and the Toleration Act, secured the special position of the Church of England, and created a constitutional monarchy in England in which there was a wholly new balance between Crown and Parliament - with Parliament supreme. Parliament remodelled the monarchy in England, Scotland and Ireland by putting William and Mary on the throne, as joint sovereigns, in place of James II.

This is the picture presented in the history books and taught at school. Yet the truth is dramatically different. In reality England (and later Ireland) was invaded by a large and well-trained foreign army, initially 21,000 men but later increased, that was brought here in November 1688 on 500 ships - an armada four times larger than the Spanish armada of 1588. This vast strategic exercise drew additional troops and resources from Germany and Scandinavia and was undertaken in collusion with several other Protestant and Catholic powers.

The invasion was planned and organised long before a tiny group of unrepresentative, and not particularly important, English dissidents sent their so-called 'invitation' to the Prince of Orange. And although William led the invasion, he had very limited powers in the Dutch Republic. The armada and army were sent, and paid for, by the Dutch States General, Amsterdam and the regents, the group of urban patricians who ran the Dutch state. The Dutch army landed in Devon and gained military control of southern England. It had little assistance from the English rebels. They were too frightened to move against James II's substantial standing army until some three weeks after William's invasion had begun.

The Prince of Orange held the strategic initiative from the outset. On paper, James had 40,000 men, but they were dispersed all over the country and there was no way he could concentrate an army as large as William's quickly enough. James finally drew up his forces on Salisbury Plain to bar William's path to London, but his army was smaller than the Prince's, as well as inferior in training, experience and equipment, and it was clear that if he fought, he would probably lose. That is why James abandoned the fight for London and retreated, demoralised.

Readers will not find a word about the next episode in any British school, university, textbook or standard work. But the truth is that when the Prince of Orange marched in triumph into London, in December 1688, he did so after ordering all the remaining English troops in the capital to withdraw a minimum of 20 miles from the city. The bulk of the Dutch army was brought into, or placed around, London; Dutch Blue Guards took up all the posts around Whitehall and Hyde Park; and London remained under Dutch military occupation for 18 months. James II, who had received a remarkably friendly reception from the London crowd on being brought back to the capital after an attempt to escape, was then 'escorted' to Rochester and encouraged to leave for France. In effect, the King of England was deported, by the Prince of Orange and a foreign army, from his own land.

The States General would hardly have taken the extremely risky course of sending the cream of their army, navy and artillery to England when they were about to go to war with France, had English society not been deeply divided and had James II not faced extensive domestic opposition. They clearly calculated on being able to topple James II quickly and turn England, with her resources, ships and troops, against France, thereby putting an end to Louis XIV's threatened dominance of continental Europe in general and the Low Countries in particular. For the Dutch, that was the point of the whole exercise.

Many, possibly most, Englishmen were sympathetic to the initial invasion, having been convinced by a systematic, and clever, Dutch propaganda campaign that it was not an invasion by the Dutch state and that William had come only to rescue Englishmen's liberties and the Church of England. But it by no means follows that English opinion was still supportive after William had occupied London and deported the King. Indeed, there is clear evidence that most Londoners, and probably most Englishmen, opposed William III and the Glorious Revolution (in fact, the most inglorious of all revolutions) as early as spring 1689 and certainly by the summer.

When William entered London, however, in December 1688, the Prince of Orange was without doubt master of England. Parliament, far from being in a strong position, was extremely weak, and the Prince in effect controlled England's administration and finances even before James II was formally 'dethroned'. He was also strong enough to send large numbers of English troops to fight the French in the Low Countries.

During 1689, the year in which most English and Irish as well as much Scottish opinion swung against the new King and his revolution, William III sent about two-thirds of the English army to the Low Countries and to Ireland. But he did not trust the English regiments and, by the summer of 1689, the Dutch army in Britain was considerably larger than the one-third of the English army that remained there.

By June 1689, both James and the French were receiving emphatic reports that the English had turned against William and the Dutch and they began to plan an immediate counter-invasion of England from Ireland, where James now held sway. The Spanish ambassador in London reported that only the Dutch troops in England were now preventing James from regaining his throne.

In the event, William forestalled him by crossing to Ireland, and the decisive battle, fought at the Boyne in the summer of 1690, decided the fate not only of Ireland but also of Britain. William defeated the Jacobite army and destroyed James II's prospects.

But it was not the British troops in William's army that achieved this victory. The new King continued to distrust the English and placed the English regiments at the back, using Dutch Blue Guards to spearhead his attack.

The eventual effect of the Revolution was to create a new balance between Crown and Parliament. But this was not because it had been 'glorious', but because the King lacked all legitimacy and because William's concern all along had been to exploit English resources to fight France, not to maximise his power as monarch in Britain. During the 1690s he spent much of his time campaigning in the Low Countries, content to let Parliament assume control of the administration and taxation in England so long as it provided him with money, troops, ships and supplies. After the defeat of the Jacobites in Ireland and Scotland in 1691, most - but not all - of the foreign troops in Britain were withdrawn.

The real story of the 'Glorious Revolution' prompts one to ask why the distortion - that it was an essentially domestic affair - has gone so entirely unchallenged for so long. A simplistic answer might be that you need to read Dutch to study William III and his intervention in Britain and that those who research British history normally have no knowledge of that language. In fact, the need to read Dutch was not even perceived and, in any case, part of the truth can be glimpsed from a range of British, French and other sources.

No, what has happened here seems to be the most glaring example of the harm done by our traditionally insular approach to so-called 'British' history, which is rarely studied with anything like adequate reference to Scotland, Ireland and the American colonies, let alone continental Europe.

The deeply ingrained and undiminished segregation of 'British' - in reality English - history from European history, which pervades its teaching and study in our schools and universities creates a narrowness of vision that has become a powerfully constricting cultural factor. The basic assumption is that everything important in British history can be explained in terms of British causes. But it is an assumption which, as the story of the Glorious Revolution and its interpretation shows, is a fallacy.

'The Anglo-Dutch Moment. Essays on the Glorious Revolution and its World Impact', edited by Jonathan Israel, was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1991.

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