England's Glorious Revolution 1688-1689, By Steven Pincus: A Scholarly Review Of The Book

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The book England's Glorious Revolution: 1688-1689, written by Steven Pincus, presents a series of primary historical sources that illustrate practically every angle of the Glorious Revolution, as well as providing an accompanying commentary in the form of

In England’s Glorious Revolution: 1688-1689, Steven Pincus presents a series of primary historical sources that illustrate practically every angle of the Glorious Revolution, as well as providing an accompanying commentary in the form of an introduction and transitory paragraphs in between documents. The Revolution caused a strong sense of unity to come about all peoples of England in 1688, “wherein Whigs, Tories, princes, prelates, nobles, clergy, common people, and a standing army were unanimous” and indeed, “all England [was] of one mind” (Pincus 48). When the William, the Prince of Orange, arrived, and forced the tyrannical James II to flee, the people were literally giddy with happiness, and “instead of having to fight his way to London, William was escorted the entire way by cheering crowds” (Pincus 3).

William of Orange's Landing at Brixham (Image Source)

The Revolution was extraordinary in both its swift character and its improbability. For in all hitherto known history, “never anything happened with so many amazing circumstances as this hath done – the bonding of the spirits of people so universally one way, nay even the minds of persons whose long differings with each other made one think ‘twas impossible they should be reconciled in anything, did agree to help on this work” (Pincus 45). Virtually all nobility, gentry, and commonalty crossed over to the Prince of Orange’s side, even those that were the so-called friends of James II, and so, bloodlessly, power passed over to a new set of monarchs, William and Mary. A key point stressed in the documents is that the Revolution was “a bloodless victory,” which makes it all the greater, and through it, “the fetters which despotism had been long preparing for us were broken and the rights of the people were asserted” (Pincus 51). This new era of light and liberty changed the way people looked at their lives in the 17th century, in that they knew that they were free people and that they could fight for their own rights.

To begin with, however, the Revolution of 1688, soon to be known as the Glorious Revolution, wasn’t as distinct as some hoped it to be, and William of Orange’s “invasion seemed [very much] doomed to disaster” (Pincus 1). All the cards seemed to be the hands of the current English monarch, James II. However, one thing William of Orange did have was the support of the English people, them being “generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government in relation to their religion, liberties, and properties” and “in such expectations of their prospects being daily worse ... [that practically] nineteen parts of twenty of the people throughout the kingdom [were] desirous of a change” (Pincus 38). 1688 definitely appeared, especially to Continental Europe, to be ripe for a change. After all, it seemed quite possible that something could happen, considering the perception of “most Europeans [that] England [was] a remarkably tumultuous place,” and they were right in doing so, for “between 1640 and 1660, the British Isles were torn apart by a series of civil wars” (Pincus 11). Socially, English society had changed radically during this time period leading up to 1688. Pincus supports this statement when he states that, “the Civil War and the interregnum had turned England upside down,” so that “the English ruled by Charles II were a different people than his father governed” (Pincus 12). Essentially, this meant that on the whole, the English were now a very politically aware people, and that at every opportunity, the political balance could be tipped to suit their interests. And indeed, the balance was very much tipped in the favour of the English people when William of Orange landed in south-west England. As Pincus said, there was a “notion that the power of England’s kings was limited by law,” and this of course, was evidenced by England’s new Bill of Rights (Pincus 16). William of Orange, and his wife Mary, acknowledged and ratified these new recorded Rights. One of the first tenants on the list of rights was “that the pretended power of suspending laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal” (Pincus 69). This was a noticeable trend of the time of the decline of the power of the English monarch, especially compared with the absolutist rulers like James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II.

A further area of far-reaching and deep-rooted transformation was the Church, in which power was radically shifted in 1688 to 1689. Indeed, William of Orange, in his Declaration in October of 1688, stated that one of his reasons for intervening in English politics was to “establish a good agreement between the Church of England, and all Protestant Dissenters” (Pincus 42-43). This ‘good agreement’ also worked in the favour of William as it eroded the basis of James II’s claim to absolute rule and power, while gaining the support of the English people, who as previously mentioned, were very much desirous for a political change. To further explain this basis of James II’s power, one must examine the tenants of the divine right of kings and see how much this mentality proved in the face of such radically altering times. The king, as it were, “disclaims all usurpation, popular, or papal; neither pope nor presbyter may control him; none but the great God, the only ruler of princes, can over-rule him” (Pincus 72). And since the King was made a King himself by God’s will, his rule cannot be limited by such secular means as Law or Parliament, meaning that he must, in accordance with his divine right, do as he pleases. Such a point was made by the Tories, in The Case for Royal Power, when they said that, “prithee why should not the King govern according to his conscience...Will you ever be satisfied? And what is it then that you pray for – the liberty of turning three kingdoms once again into shambles; first by uniting your arms against the King, the Church and the laws; and then to fight it over again among yourselves for the booty” (Pincus 142). As such, the new claim of the government of William and Mary diminished the rule of the divine right of kings, replacing it with the steadfast and permanent laws of Parliament. Such a view is supported when it is said that, “It is certain, that God, as the creator and governor of this world, may set up whom he will to rule over other men. But this pretence of a divine delegation can be carried no further than to those who are thus expressly marked out, and are unjustly claimed by those who can prove no such declaration to have been ever made in favour of them or their families. Nor does it appear reasonable to conclude from their being in possession, that it is the will of God that it should be so. This justifies all usurpers, when they are successful” (Pincus 77). Such a criticism, written by Gilbert Burnet, is perhaps one of the best in the case both against James II, and in support of William and Mary. This perspective was again supported by the philosopher John Locke, who stated that, “Salus Populi Suprema Lex,” meaning that the welfare of the people is the highest law, “is certainly so just and fundamental a rule” (Pincus 162).

Another aspect of the 1660s period was the division between what James II thought of foreign policy and the conflicting view of the English people; James II viewed the Dutch as the biggest threat, while the people mainly viewed France as the biggest threat. This issue was easily seen in matters of trade, “trade being the true and chief intrinsic interest of England” (Pincus 121). In accordance with this, “the French were a danger” because their “protectionist policies excluded English manufactures from French markets,” while the Dutch depended on trade that was “infinitely expandable” and thus, non-threatening (Pincus 24). It was widely viewed that England could become ever greater if it would only remove the French danger and accept as friends the Dutch. This view was heavily supported in an Anti-French tract, saying that, “Would the King of England only be pleased to open his eyes, fast closed with the enchanted slumbers of the French Delilah, to take a view of his own strength and true interest,” but that to arrive afterwards in “grandeur and authority”...“His Majesty [must] do comport himself so, as to engage the love of his people and keep a right understanding between him and his Parliament” (Pincus 97). The solution of this, after it was plainly seen that the King wished only to antagonize the Dutch and maintain a ‘friendship with the French,’ as well as alienating Parliament, that the only solution was to replace James II with William of Orange. Doing so would unite the English with the Dutch, and bring England to war with France. Going along with this particular mindset, it is said that “William descended on England in the autumn of 1688 in part to provoke a realignment that would serve to contain the growing power of Louis XIV of France” (Pincus 82). This favoured the inclinations of the English people, detracting from the rule of James II himself, again supporting William of Orange in his quest for the English throne. When William of Orange finally gained the throne in 1688, and declared war against France, one can clearly see the significance of this French animosity and its role in the Glorious Revolution. To illustrate this concept, it is said that, “England, for these twenty years past, has been groaning after a war with France...Now we have our wishes: our King has declared war against France; a war we longed for, the obstruction whereof we laid at the door of our last two kings, as one of our greatest grievances” (Pincus 102).

In conclusion, Pincus was vastly able to summarize and develop the causes and significance of England’s Glorious Revolution in the year 1668, both with his own provided input and with contemporary documents of the period. After reading this book, one can certainly say that it was written for an audience with a high level of reading and writing. No basic background information is really needed for one to know before reading this book, as Pincus does a very good job of introducing the turnover of power in 1668 and practically all sides of political and social contention. Pincus’ work is truly a masterpiece in the way it thoroughly analyzes and interprets various characteristics of 1668’s revolution, as well as doing so in a strictly chronological and politically significant order.


Pincus, Steven. England’s Glorious Revolution 1688-1689. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.

Bonney, Richard. The Short Oxford History of the Modern World: The European Dynastic States 1494-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.

© 2011 Gregory Markov


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