The fourth volume of Peter Ackroyd's enthralling History of England, beginning in 1688 with a revolution and ending in 1815 with a famous victory.
In Revolution, Peter Ackroyd takes readers from William of Orange's accession following the Glorious Revolution to the Regency, when the flamboyant Prince of Wales ruled in the stead of his mad father, George III, and England wasagainat war with France, a war that would end with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Late Stuart and Georgian England marked the creation of the great pillars of the English state. The Bank of England was founded, as was the stock exchange; the Church of England was fully established as the guardian of the spiritual life of the nation, and parliament became the sovereign body of the nation with responsibilities and duties far beyond those of the monarch. It was a revolutionary era in English letters, too, a time in which newspapers first flourished and the English novel was born. It was an era in which coffee houses and playhouses boomed, gin flowed freely, and in which shops, as we know them today, began to proliferate in towns and villages. But it was also a time of extraordinary and unprecedented technological innovation, which saw England utterly and irrevocably transformed from a country of blue skies and farmland to one of soot and steel and coal.
Ackroyd is the author of the first, second, and third volumes of his history of England, Foundation, Tudors, and Rebellion.
About the Author
PETER ACKROYD is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet, and historian. He is the author of the acclaimed London: The Biography, and the first, second, and third volumes of his history of England, Foundation, Tudors, and Rebellion. He holds a CBE for services to literature and lives in London.
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What do you think of predestination now?
The king had fled, in the face of an invading army. Even though James II had reached the safety of France and William, prince of Orange, was ensconced in Whitehall, it was not at all clear who was the true sovereign of Britain. So a 'Convention', half way between an assembly of notables and a parliament, was called at the beginning of 1689. Since no recognized king was readily available to call an election it was a somewhat hasty and improvised affair; but it was not without the most important consequences. It marked a revolution in the affairs of state.
The Convenion met towards the end of January 1689 to consider the respective positions of James and William; there was at once a conference on the meanings of a throne 'deserted' or 'vacant', a learned debate but one driven by the need to exclude for ever the absent king. The Commons finally declared that James II had 'abdicated', but there was no such term in law so this was essentially a legislative fiction. Yet there was no plausible alternative to the usurper's rule. As an authoritarian Catholic, James had been the worst possible monarch for a strongly Protestant nation. The fact that a group of notables had asked William of Orange to intervene in an increasingly fraught situation had granted a measure of legitimacy to the prince's easy conquest. Yet he could not be seen as a king by conquest; that would bring back horrid memories of William I, whom good republicans loved to hate. So he had somehow to be proclaimed as king by right, a conveniently loose description that might cover almost any set of circumstances.
By the beginning of February a 'declaration of rights' had been composed by the members of the Convention. One of its clauses forbade the establishment of a standing army in times of peace, regarded as one of the most obvious tokens of arbitrary royal power. Other clauses tended in the same direction. Laws could not be executed or suspended without the consent of parliament; taxes could not be raised for the benefit of the Crown without parliamentary agreement; freedom of speech in parliament was paramount and, in the final clause of the declaration, 'parliaments ought to be held frequently'.
The Declaration, later the Bill, of Rights was formally recited to William and to his consort, Mary, daughter of the deposed king; they sat in state in the Banqueting House and, after William had affirmed that 'we thankfully accept what you have offered us', they were proclaimed to be conjoint sovereigns. It was a delicate juggle. It could only be assumed that William had understood and accepted the Declaration as a prelude to his crowning, as William III, but he had not been pressed to any formal oath of assent. Many now believed, however, that he had been granted sovereignty by way of parliament. The divine right of kings had come to an end. Daniel Defoe declared later that parliament had 'an Unbounded Unlimited Reach, a kind of Infinite attends their Power'.
William's reticence on the substance of the declaration did not necessarily imply consent. He was by no means enamoured of its principles; it was a very English production, being almost entirely non-theoretical, but he knew well enough that it circumscribed his power. He said that he had no wish to confirm some of its clauses but that 'the condition of his affairs overruled his inclinations'; later he complained that 'the worst of all governments was that of a king without treasure and without power'. On the day after the marquis of Halifax tendered the crown to him in the Banqueting House he told the marquis that 'he fancied, he was like a king in a play'. But he had to maintain his part at all costs.
A combination of gentry and aristocracy had in effect formulated a settlement that eliminated the threat of royal absolutism and protected property from arbitrary seizure. They were not interested in the idea of remedial legislation by parliament for the sake of social good or some benign notion of order. They wanted the rewards for themselves only. So was crafted what became known as the 'glorious revolution' promoted in theory by divine providence but supervised in effect by an organized elite, an aristocracy and oligarchy bolstered by the support of the landed gentry; the members of this elite would retain their power for the next 200 years.
The new order was bitterly opposed by those who believed that former oaths of loyalty to the deposed king could not and should not be broken; if the most solemn pact could be overturned, where could proper order and authority be found? The objectors, who refused to swear a new oath of allegiance to William and Mary, became known as 'non-jurors'. Some of the most senior clerics in the country were of their number, among them William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury. Eight bishops, and 400 clergy, adopted his stance. At the coronation of William and his consort in Westminster Abbey on 11 April, the archbishop was absent; the bishop of London raised the crown. Sancroft himself was forced into retirement in the following year.
The non-jurors were the measure of a divided kingdom; many of them became Jacobites, or supporters of the exiled James, in spirit if not in practice. It cannot be doubted that loyalty to William was distinctly muted in many parts of the country, and that he was conceived by some to be a foreign king imposed in the first place by force. Yet what could be done? The crown was on his head. Indifference, or resignation, was the inevitable response.
The Convention was converted into a parliament by the new king, with the simple expedient of delivering a speech from the throne to both houses. In his coronation oath he had consented to govern according to 'the statutes in parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same'; it was a sign of the new balance in the constitution. Yet the relationship between Crown and parliament was not necessarily happy; in a further indication of their new power the members refused to grant William a revenue for life, and failed fully to fund his approaching campaign against France. They had learnt the unhappy lesson of the former king who had been able to support himself without their aid. William was as a result wholly reliant upon frequent parliaments to service his debts. Parliament now met every year, with sessions lasting for several months; general elections were held, on average, every two years. This quickened activity of course raised the temperature of the political atmosphere, encouraging what came to be known as 'the rage of party'.
This was not to the liking of the new king who detested fractious politicians. He did not speak good English, and was in any case reserved in nature to the point of being sullen or morose. He always longed to be back in his native land, away from the hypocrisy and importunity of the English court. He hated pomp. His manner and appearance did not necessarily recommend themselves to his new subjects. He spoke slowly and briefly. He was by nature calculating, cool and methodical. Though he was of slight frame he managed to carry himself with authority; he was an asthmatic, however, and his conversation was interrupted by a continual deep cough. He soon removed himself from the fog and damp air of Westminster to the relatively healthy ambience of Kensington. He was generally severe, or even solemn, and was rarely cheerful; only with his inner circle of Dutch advisers did he relax.
It was rumoured at the time that members of his court were homosexual and that, in particular, two of William's 'favourites', the first earl of Portland and the earl of Albemarle, had been granted half a million acres of land. The wife of Philippe, duke of Orléans and the French king's younger brother, Princess Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte, asked if the court of William had become a 'château de derrière'. Her husband, known as 'Monsieur', was a notorious homosexual; so she may have acquired her information at first hand. A verse was circulated that included the lines: Let's pray for the good of our State and his soul That he's put his Roger in the right Hole.
Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury and a firm supporter of the new dispensation, remarked somewhat mysteriously that the king 'had no vice, but of one sort, in which he was very cautious and secret'. This might have been alcohol, but it is unlikely. It is also true that intimations of homosexuality can be found in any male-dominated militaristic court, like that of William III. As in most stories of royal homosexuality, however, there is no actual evidence to support the claim.
William was, in any case, a sincere Calvinist who upheld the strictest possible interpretation of preordination. That is why he possessed a sense of destiny. He had said to Burnet, after he had landed at Torbay ready to confront James II, 'Well, doctor, what do you think of predestination now?' He believed himself to be fated, in particular, to lead a war against the Catholic French king. It was the great cause of his life. His faith may also have provided the context for his bravery and fearlessness in battle. Certainly it influenced his explicit toleration for those dissenters outside the Anglican fold.
One of the first measures of the new parliament was a bill to introduce and to encourage religious moderation. The Toleration Act granted freedom of public worship, and legal protection, to dissenters. Over the next twenty years more than 2,500 chapels or conventicles were licensed for worship. It seemed just and right that William should indulge the inclinations of those believers who were, after all, fellow Protestants if not fellow Calvinists. This is the setting for the Methodist revival of the 1740s, but many in the larger body of Anglicans believed that the rights of the national faith were being overlooked; certainly, by the mid-eighteenth century, the orthodox Church was beset by apathy or indifference in the face of more enthusiastic creeds.
William had declared war on France in the spring of 1689. The principal reasons for the invasion of the previous year had been his intention and desire to recruit the wealth and resources of England in his long campaign against French domination of Europe and, in particular, against French threats to the independence of the Dutch republic of which he was 'stadtholder' or head of state. This had been his guiding purpose for the last sixteen years. In 1672, in the face of French invasion, he had stated that he would die defending his country 'in the last ditch'; in turn Louis XIV had described William as 'my mortal enemy'. The French king wished to create a grandiose Bourbon empire, with himself at its head. He wanted to rule from Versailles. The sun king, or le Roi-Soleil, might rise all over Europe. If he conquered Holland, too, he would have defeated the strongest Protestant power on the continent. English ambitions were more simple. They agreed to William's war in order to preserve themselves from the return of James II under French auspices; they did not wish to become, as it was said, 'papists or slaves'. It was hoped that the war would be a brief one.
That hope was not fulfilled. William in effect now guided what became known as the 'Nine Years War' against the traditional foe; he became his own foreign minister and put together a coalition of other powers, including Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, for the attack. That 'empire' was in large part a loose confederation of independent princes who ruled the states of central Europe and who also feared French domination. Yet William's war was only the prelude to a much larger and longer conflict. The war of England against France lasted for fifty-eight years and the long hostility only found its quietus at Waterloo in 1815. This prolonged culture of war changed the social, fiscal and political aspects of English life. Larger and larger armies were brought into operation. Taxes increased exponentially. This will be one of the stories of the volume.
William had already become disenchanted with his English parliament. In the spring and summer of 1689 he complained variously that 'the Commons used him like a dog' and that 'he could not bear them'. The lines between the two largest parties, Whigs and Tories, had been carved in stone during the reign of James II. The Whigs were the enemies of popery and arbitrary government, and thus had attempted to limit royal power; the Tories had determined to defend the monarchy against the onslaught of those whom they considered to be republicans or rebels. Yet with the advent of William III, all had changed.
Of the 'immortal seven' who had invited William to land with his army in England and supplant James, five were Whigs and two were Tories. The Whigs, then, felt that they had the advantage over their opponents. In the first months of William's rule they demanded vengeance for the indignities imposed upon them during the last king's reign; they were also determined to guide William's counsels. But the new king knew well enough that he could not rule with the support of only one party; he had to strive for parity and balance in national affairs, favouring neither Whigs nor Tories but governing with the assistance of both. He wished to construct a 'court party' from the two sides.
The Whigs were not interested. They were particularly incensed against those Tory parliamentarians who had expressed their allegiance to the court of James II. Certain noblemen were accused of treason for joining the Church of Rome. The mayors and aldermen of all the towns and cities who had surrendered their charters to the previous king were to be deprived of any office for seven years. It was even proposed that a retrospective penal law should be applied to the entire Tory party. William, however, expressed his desire for an amnesty, a bill of 'general pardon and oblivion' for any who had engaged in arbitrary or illegal acts in the previous reign; in the summer of 1689 an 'Indemnity Bill' was presented to the Commons but it got no further than a second reading and was left on the table of the house. It was effectively dead.
So as far as William was concerned, parliament had failed. It had achieved nothing to his purpose and, in addition, had not granted him the easy supplies of revenue that he desired. One further im-position antagonized him even more. He proposed to sail with an army to Ireland in order to subdue the Catholics, and the remaining followers of James II, who posed a serious threat to the security of England. But the Whigs did not want him to go. They feared for his health in a land of rain and fog. They disliked the idea of a large army of recruits and mercenaries, many of them from northern Europe, standing on British soil. Before they could act with any decision, however, William dissolved the parliament and called for fresh elections.
The campaign of March 1690 was fiercely fought. 'Never', Diana Paget wrote to her relative, Lord Paget, 'was greater animosities and divisions than there is at this day, Whig and Tory more than ever.' It was, according to Macaulay, a struggle for life or death. Sermons and pamphlets and street ballads raised the temperature; lists of parliamentary divisions were published for the first time, with the purpose of 'informing' the constituents about the competing members. The result in fact favoured the Tories with 'the Church of England men', as they were sometimes called, winning the majority. In this more amenable climate the king returned the compliment by issuing 'an act of grace', for the pardon of all offences committed by the followers of James II; it required only one courteous reading by Lords and Commons in May to pass into law. In the following month William sailed for Ireland with his army.
The case against Ireland was similar to that against France. In both countries the pretensions of the Stuart monarchy were upheld. In the spring of 1689 James II had landed at Kinsale, on the south-west coast of Ireland, with a body of French troops. The parliament at Dublin proclaimed him to be the lawful king and passed a bill of attainder against his rebellious enemies. So in June 1690, William was poised to strike back with artillery and a larger army. The English regiments, from Cheshire, Cumberland and elsewhere, were strengthened with German and Scandinavian mercenaries.
The state of Ireland was for the new English king vexatious. He had already sent an army, under the command of the duke of Schomberg, to subdue the hostile population and its leaders; the duke had remained on the defensive and did not risk open battle, on the good grounds that his troops were untrained and that the opposing troops of James II were at that stage the stronger. William himself was obliged to take command. He sailed from Chester with a further 16,000, carried over the Irish Sea in 280 transports.
When he landed at Carrickfergus on the north-eastern coast of Ireland, he joined with Schomberg's forces and began the march south to Dublin; when he reached Drogheda, 35 miles north of the capital, he received the news that the enemy army was close by on the south side of the River Boyne. The Jacobite force, consisting largely of Irish Catholics, was the first line of defence for Dublin. William had feared that his Irish campaign might be hindered by a wet autumn and a frozen winter, but the opportunity for a decisive victory had come. 'I am glad to see you, gentlemen,' he is supposed to have remarked as he surveyed the Irish forces. 'If you escape me now, the fault will be mine.'
Excerpted from "Revolution"
Copyright © 2016 Peter Ackroyd.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations vii
1 What do you think of predestination now? 1
2 A bull or a bear? 15
3 The idol of the age 27
4 Hay day 41
5 The prose of gold 49
6 Waiting for the day 61
7 The great Scriblerus 67
8 The Germans are coming! 74
9 Bubbles in the air 83
10 The invisible hand 95
11 Consuming passions 110
12 The What D'Ye Call It? 122
13 The dead ear 133
14 Mother Geneva 144
15 The pack of cards 156
16 What shall I do? 162
17 Do or die 169
18 The violists 174
19 A call for liberty 178
20 Here we are again! 188
21 The broad bottom 199
22 The magical machines 213
23 Having a tea party 228
24 The schoolboy 247
25 The steam machines 257
26 On a darkling plain 281
27 Fire and moonlight 295
28 The red bonnet 298
29 The mad kings 321
30 The beast and the whore 329
31 A Romantic tale 342
32 Pleasures of peace 347
Further reading 373