The World of William and Mary; and William III and the Godly Revolution
John Spurr reviews two books on the Glorious Revolution.
The World of William and Mary: Anglo-Dutch Perspectives on the Revolution of 1688-89
edited by Dale Hoak and Mordechai Feingold (Stanford University Press xv + 339 pp.)
William III and the Godly Revolution
by Tony Claydon (Cambridge University Press xvi + 272 pp.)
In 1688-89 William of Orange conquered England and took the crown for himself: William III was a king of his own making. This simple fact, obscured by generation of Anglocentric interpretation, is glaringly obvious once the 'Glorious Revolution' is seen from a European perspective. And it has been one of the lasting achievements of the academic reassessment prompted by the Revolution's tercentenary to restore that European viewpoint.
It is very much to the fore in a late, but welcome, collection of papers on 'the world of William and Mary' from a conference held at Virginia's College of William and Mary. These fifteen essays are grouped under two headings, 'Politics, Economics and War, and 'Ideas and Mentality'. The whole is introduced by Dale Hoak's helpful survey of current thinking on the Glorious Revolution and his powerful restatement of the case for William's opportunism, the overwhelming military might brought to bear, and the importance of Dutch backing and French provocation. The first section is more obviously linked to the Revolution with essays on the Bill of Rights, the war effort of the 1690s, and the need to persuade the English that their Dutch rivals were now their allies. Professor Nenner's essay on the succession offers a penetrating discussion of the principle of indefeasibility and the late J.P. Kenyon is on splendid form in demonstrating the non-relationship of the Glorious Revolution and the American Constitution.
The second half of the collection is more divergent. It includes enlightening discussions of the Toleration Act and of the fashion for Dutch gardens; accounts of Dutch thinking on the millennium, the supernatural, and French cultural imperialism; and a long essay by Professor Feingold on how English intellectuals stole a march on the Dutch in the fields of philosophy, theology and science.
This mixed bag of essays includes some rather tired contributions, and two have appeared in print elsewhere, but the volume as a whole lives up to the promise of its subtitle. This is a collection which specialists of many kinds will wish to consult.
Anglo-centrism is not, of course, the only reason for the misinterpretation of William's conquest of England. The English establishment has long been keen to obscure the nature of events in 1688-89. A Whig smoke-screen was put down almost immediately. And within a few years the Glorious Revolution has been re-written as a Whig-led revolution and by the eighteenth century it had been invested with Lockean principles. To the Hanoverians the Revolution was the best of all possible revolutions resulting in the best of all possible regimes. Or as Bruce Lenman's feisty essay in The World of William and Mary has it, 'most Britons in the first three generations after the Glorious Revolution accepted the regime's basic propaganda line: life is freer and better here.'
Much of the success of this message is attributable to the Whig Bishop Gilbert Burnet, William's leading spin-doctor. Yet in 1688 the Whigs barely existed as a coherent ideological grouping and William took pains to conciliate the much more significant Tories. The Tories leapt to defend William's accession with arguments from divine providence or from the de jure/de facto distinction – arguments produced for them by Anglican clerics. But William had his own propaganda machine too. Although it has long been known that William arrived with printers, presses and propagandists, surprisingly little effort has been made to find out what use he made of his publicity machine. Now Tony Claydon has explored government publicity and court ideology under William III in depth.
Dr Claydon identifies 'courtly reformation' as the central motif of William's publicity campaign. This was an ambiguous, many-stranded appeal designed to reassure the English of the legitimacy of their new ruler, to sell them the war in alliance with the Dutch, and to win Parliamentary support. 'Courtly reformation' was the brainchild of none other than Gilbert Burnet, and it was elaborated in the many official sermons and publications produced by a clerical coterie. The Burnetine – as Dr Claydon insists on calling it – ideology portrayed William as legitimate because he was a divinely- appointed agent of moral reform and religious renewal. The propaganda strategy revolved around fast-days and thanksgivings which presented the royal court as purged of sin, William as a nursing father to the English church and a patron of the reformation of manners, the executive as frugal, and the war as the defence of international Protestantism.
Written with ease, style and humour, this is a rhetorical book about rhetoric. The author tries every trick in the book to persuade us of the importance of his subject: he shows the internal coherence and the ambiguity of courtly reformation; he places his material in the context of general debates; he underlines the parallels with earlier strategies and claims this as evidence of the persistence of a deeply Christian world-view; and he candidly acknowledges that the best indication of this publicity's success is that people bothered to produce it.
In some ways this enterprise – the exploration of a rhetorical universe – comes more easily to literature experts who can justify their speculations by the inherent worth of their authors' creations. Historians like Dr Claydon cannot and do not make any claims for publicity of this sort as literature. But they do make us aware of the successful revolutionaries' need to sell themselves as both inaugurating a new regime and restoring a lost one, of their desire to appeal to old values and new hopes. In several subtle ways Dr Claydon's work offers further confirmation of the deeply conservative nature of the revolution of 1688-89 and of late seventeenth-century England.
John Spurr is the author of the forthcoming English Puritanism 1603-1649 for Macmillan.
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