James II's Two Rebellions
Why did Monmouth fail and William of Orange succeed? Robin Clifton investigates the tale of two rebellions.
The history of revolutions is generally written by winners; and, however much historians may commend 'the contemporary perspective', if a victory is apparently achieved with ease a certain feeling of inevitability will soon envelop the account. England's Revolution of 1688 is termed 'Glorious' not least for the smooth and bloodless manner of its accomplishment. William of Orange, it seems, consistently made all the right moves, and his opponent lames II all the wrong ones. It is salutory therefore to recall that James faced not one but two rebellions during his short reign, and that he suppressed the first, led in 1685 by his late brother's illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth, with all the firmness and skill noticeably lacking in his response to William just three years later.
The two rebellions came, of course, to very different ends, and it is indeed precisely this contrast in their destinies which makes a comparison between the two instructive: for, despite the gulf between total victory and abject defeat, several similarities and parallels can be found. Considered together these reduce the sense of a unique and inevitable success to which concentration upon 1688 in isolation can give rise. Comparison may also save James II from the role to which he is often condemned, the luckless and predestined victim of a wily Dutchman. Finally, contemporaries naturally faced William's incursion in 1688 with memories of Monmouth's disaster three years earlier fresh in their memories, and among all concerned – William no less than James, the political grandees and the mass of the nation – a determination not to repeat earlier mistakes strongly affected their behaviour.
In spite of their very different outcomes, both rebellions were, firstly, specimens of that most risky of political ventures, the invasion from abroad of an efficiently governed sovereign nation. Because his gamble failed, the risks taken by the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 seem appallingly clear. Landing with only eighty-two supporters and equipment for barely a thousand more, he hoped to raise, equip and train an army as he marched to London, spurred on by support from the Whig gentry, undenounced by a Parliament then in session, and permitted to pass on to the capital by a regular army still loyal to its former commander. It was a large gamble.
Resounding success has however tended to obscure the different risks faced by William III: he had to secure the Netherland's Estates' consent to taking the better part of their army out of the country, wait until late October to be certain that Louis XIV's army was safely committed to an offensive well to the south of the Netherlands at Phillipsburg, and then face a Channel crossing in the teeth of the autumnal gales. Storms, in fact, aborted his first sailing and cost him most of the horses for his cavalry. He had to avoid interception by the English fleet, hoping that assurances of its loyalty to his cause were well-founded. Once ashore, he had to avoid battle with an English army which outnumbered his by around 25,000 to 15,000 – for win or lose, to fight an English army and kill English soldiers would wreck William's claim to be England's deliverance. As in 1685, so in 1688: neutralisation of the royal army was the indispensable precondition for success. Both rebel leaders recognised this, both thought they had the means to encompass it, both were to suffer some disappointment. Monmouth put his faith in an appeal to the army's Protestant sentiments, and in its loyalty to a former commander at home and abroad; and when it became clear that the army would fight him (a few desertions notwithstanding) he was in despair. Benefiting from the unfortunate duke's experience, William in 1688 resolved, firstly, to rely as little as possible on English supporters and to take his own army with him, despite the risk that it might collide with and fight James'; secondly, he demanded copper-bottomed guarantees of the English army's readiness not merely to remain neutral, but actively to desert to his side. Without these assurances he would not move, and hence the importance of Churchill, Trelawney and Kirke in negotiations with William, and of the guarantee given him that among 'many of the officers... and very many of the common soldiers... there is the greatest probability imaginable of great numbers of deserters... should there be an occasion'. However, when occasion came in 1688, the great bulk of the army for the second time stayed loyal to James, but with the critical difference that the small percentage of deserters contained this time many senior officers, instead of mere common soldiers as in 1685.
A second problem shared by both Monmouth and William was the need to make extensive preparations both in England and in the Netherlands for the invasion, but at the same time to preserve security so that James would remain ignorant of time and place, and the names of English supporters, until it was too late for him to use that information. Here, for a long time, William did much better than Monmouth had. With all the resources of the Dutch state at his disposal, including official and unofficial visitors to England, secret agents, and mariners willing to deliver messages to unfrequented parts – and assisted by the active desire of many well-placed Englishmen to get into contact with him – William was for many months able to receive and send assurances, and to co-ordinate plans with a considerable number of very influential English supporters, in almost total secrecy. By contrast, Monmouth could send only a few messages, guardedly worded, to the handful of Whigs in 1685 who might still be sympathetic, most of them men of little consequence. Worse still, the Scottish expedition, launched by the Earl of Argyll in May 1685 (a month before the English rebels could be ready) gave the government ample warning; and Monmouth's own preparations – raising money, finding men, collecting supplies, hiring ships – could not be hidden from English agents. Mass preventive arrests followed in England (over a thousand were committed to prison), crippling the potential English support on which Monmouth so greatly depended. The army and militia were also in readiness when the rebels arrived off Lyme Regis in June 1688 – although ironically a week-long storm had so delayed their passage down-Channel that their time and place of landing were tactical successes.
Despite the resources at his disposal, however, there came a point when Williams' preparations, like those of Monmouth, became evident to James II. But this point came very late, not until the beginning of October 1688, a matter of weeks before the invasion. This was partly because James' ambassador at the Hague was incompetent and failed to pass information on to London, and partly because James was reluctant, for personal and family reasons, to believe that his Dutch son-in-law would move in force against him. (A frantically-improvised rebellion by contrast, was only to be expected from his irresponsible and disloyal nephew.)
Even so, the three to four weeks left before William arrived on November 5th should have been time enough to take precautions similar to those of 1685; but this time James could not order mass arrests, because in October 1688 he had suddenly abandoned his reliance upon dissenters and former Whigs, and tried to win the support of Tories and Anglicans – who included the very people conspiring against him. The armed forces were however alerted, and in the end William achieved rather less tactical surprise than Monmouth. But the crucial difference was that William landed with abundant assurances of support from key members of the government, Court and armed forces, the product not merely of a better system of communication than y Monmouth's but also of an immeasurably greater alarm in the establishment circles and consequent willingness to support an invasion, than in 1685.
Apart from arranging for English support when the invasion took place, the other central issue to decide in planning each rebellion was where the landing should be made. Here similar needs dictated similar s solutions. Both invaders needed to seize a small and undefended port to a land men and supplies. This should be in an area where local support could be expected, and where a sizeable town lay to hand as a base for operations. The landing point, finally, had to be a considerable distance from London where most of the royal army was based, to give the invaders time to organise. Monmouth in 1685 chose Lyme Regis, a small port in Dorset; William in 1688 also opted for the southwest, landing at Torbay, some forty miles further west from Lyme. Both moved to occupy a large town nearby as soon as they could, Monmouth marching on Taunton and William seizing Exeter. Each found that their choice of invasion point indeed gave them sufficient time to organise before the main royal army could advance upon them, although Monmouth had to deal immediately with local militia units, which in 1688 were no challenge to William.
The choice of landing site, and communication with supporters in England were, although important, essentially tactical considerations. They followed upon the more fundamental decision to invade in the first place; and, when the motives and purposes of each invasion are considered, some curious parallels are revealed. Both William and Monmouth found that the decision to invade, and to invade quickly, was one forced upon them; at first, neither wanted to act, and each was only driven to move when boxed in and constrained by circumstances. Monmouth had received the news of his father's death in February 1685 with deep despair and the abandonment of hopes of ever returning to England from his Continental exile, and he began planning to serve with the armies of Hungary or Sweden. Only word that the exiled Earl of Argyll was actively planning to land in the Scottish Highlands and raise them against James II, and reflection upon the deep harm that would befall his reputation if the attack upon James II was led by anyone but himself – 'a consideration of honour' as he put it – persuaded Monmouth to give way to pressure from the small fry of English exiles in the Netherlands and strike a blow before James' grip upon the government had hardened. As the leading enemy of the Catholic king, and his principal living victim, Monmouth would be unable to hold up his head if he stood by while another attacked. Similarly, William felt utterly obliged in 1688 to cast aside his cautious neutrality, which in 1685 had allowed Monmouth to launch an invasion from a Netherlands base, and which during s the Exclusion Crisis had kept him on the sideline, despite temptations to s intervene. By l688 James' Catholicising policy was leading to doubts as to whether England would ever again s ally herself with the Dutch against France. Louis XIV was speaking publicly of English support and James' denials were sounding hollow, and the English king's swift four-fold increase in the size of his army suggested that a new and interventionist phase in English foreign policy might be at hand. And when news of the queen's pregnancy and then the birth of a male heir was followed by direct appeals for help from English notables, William was left with absolutely no option but to act, despite his natural caution and misgivings over the risks involved.
And, like Monmouth before him, he was probably quite undecided what his fundamental purpose was. Should he simply provide teeth to the call for a free Parliament to decide England's affairs? Should he impose new domestic and foreign policies upon James II and devise, somehow, the means to hold him to them? Or should he simply and bluntly depose and replace James? Did the first two courses go far enough to guarantee Dutch interests? Did not the last go too far for English susceptibilities? Monmouth's first Declaration in June 1685 called simply for a free Parliament to determine James II's fate, and only later was he persuaded to claim the Crown directly. Similarly, William landed with assurances that his only purpose was to secure England's religion and liberties by calling a free Parliament. Like Monmouth, however, circumstances led him to claim the Crown – although under the far more favourable condition of James II's flight from the country.
Once ashore, the two invading forces marched out to very different receptions. Monmouth was received with enthusiasm by the common people, recruiting nearly 5,000 men in less than three weeks; but the upper classes cold-shouldered him and virtually no gentry at all rallied to his cause. William in 1688 was quickly joined by those members of the establishment who had invited him over, and after some days, hesitantly, by some of the local gentry. The mass of the population showed little enthusiasm for his cause, although they did little to assist James either. Various factors explain this contrast, not least the lesson all in the south-west received after the 1685 rebellion from Judge Jeffrey's 'Bloody Assizes'. Monmouth's rebellion also looked a desperate gamble to the more politically aware gentry, who had been impressed by James II's moderation as he took over from his dead brother. But the contrast in the popular reception of the two risings owes much also to the personality and popularity of the two leaders. William was a foreigner, a cold and reserved Dutchman, known to the Court of England but not to its people. When, during the Exclusion Crisis, the Whigs had compared him with Monmouth as a possible candidate for the succession, they agreed that William had little appeal to the masses. By contrast Monmouth was, if anything, too popular: handsome and youthful, a successful and popular military commander, of royal birth and possessing a sure instinct for the common touch in his dealings with ordinary folk, his mere presence could bring enthusiastic crowds into the streets in most towns of England.
As it did, briefly, in 1685. Monmouth and his planners relied heavily for success upon a revival of the anti-Catholic hysteria of the Popish Plot, and their Declaration when the Duke landed was replete with propaganda claims drawn from the period 1678 to 1681. But by 1685 the passions they sought to raise were several years in the past. Titus Oates' allegations were no longer credited, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey's mysterious death no longer spawned sinister rumours, and recent events such as the Rye House Plot and the Tory reaction had buried the Exclusion Crisis. James, Duke of York, had succeeded peacefully to the throne, and had promised reassuringly to rule under the law, and with respect for his subjects' liberties and religion. The embers of anti-Catholicism were not dead, but they could only be blown into life in a few places and among a minority of the population.
It was far otherwise in 1688. Whereas the Duke of Monmouth could only point to the relatively distant past and issue warnings about the rather distant future, William of Orange and his backers could point to a very concrete series of deeds by James II, either in the very immediate past, or actually in train. These seemed to reveal, all too clearly, a settled resolution to impose popery and absolute government upon England. Catholics were being appointed in the government and the army, as Justices of the Peace and Lords Lieutenant, as Fellows of the Universities, as schoolteachers and as town aldermen. The Anglican Church was losing its monopoly in religion, and would be forced to compete with preachers and writers extolling the merits of popery, and to vie with the richness of Catholic ceremonial – with the monarch assisting his coreligionists at every point. Historians today may conclude that James II intended no more for Catholics than toleration and civic rights, that Catholicism should enjoy the same position as Anglicanism: but one can see why contemporaries feared otherwise.
It was the same with James' political programme. In 1685 Monmouth could do no more than warn of his uncle's arbitrary inclinations. But the following three years had seen the closeting of JP's and Members of Parliament, wholesale purges of the Commission of the Peace and the Lieutenancy" the use of law courts to intimidate opposition, and finally the initiation of a campaign to pack a new Parliament by manipulating borough charters. An unparalleled expansion of the army from 6,000 men to 25,000 and rumours that it was to be 'remodelled' with Catholic officers along the lines of the army in Ireland, apparently completed the picture of an emerging despot.
Even the most loyal Tories found this too much to stomach. The Church of England was under attack and none could tell where it would end; papists and Protestant dissenters were to enjoy full religious toleration and civic rights; and the political power of the squirearchy, entrenched in the Commission of the Peace and the House of Commons, was being eroded. England's 'natural rulers', the Tory-Anglican gentry, could see only a concerted attack upon their religious principles and political power. They supported Williams' descent on England, not to depose and replace their ruler (for they could not so totally desert their principles of loyalty and obedience), but as a desperate measure to recall James II to order by forcing him to drop his controversial policies and summon a free Parliament.
Anti-Catholicism was therefore a vital, but complex, element in both rebellions, It was vital in 1688 because of James' recent and current actions. It was vital in 1685 to Monmouth's hopes – but not decisive then because at that point it was reasonable to put trust in the new king, Anti-Catholicism was however complex factor in both rebellions because though important, it was mixed with more secular considerations. In 1688 the Protestant establishment was defending its political power as well as its religion. In 1685 some rebels, besides fighting for their faith, also believed that James, Duke of Monmouth, was the legitimate son of Charles II, by an admittedly early and hasty marriage around 1649, and they turned out to uphold the cause of the 'rightful king' who was also, of course, what they believed the King of England should be: youthful, vigorous, accomplished in the military arts, possessing a 'common touch', and a firm Protestant.
Perhaps the most instructive comparison between 1685 and 1688 however centres upon James II's reaction to each of the challenges, since the single most important reason for Williams' apparently easy success in 1688 was his opponent's psychological collapse; a collapse itself the climax of a series of hesitations, policy changes, and mistakes. The odd fact is that, three years earlier against Monmouth, the newly crowned king had scarcely put a foot wrong, remaining calm under pressure when the militia collapsed, identifying Bristol as the key to containing the rebels and sending his small force of regulars directly to it, and keeping his head when the army unaccountably failed to destroy the insurgents in their first encounter at Norton St Phillip. The contrast with 1688 could hardly be greater: James' coolness against Monmouth, together with his courage much earlier in the 1665 sea battle against the Dutch off Lowestoft when he commanded the English fleet, and the solid reputation he made in the 1650s as a junior officer under the great Turenne, all emphasise the need for a convincing explanation of his collapse in 1688.
Traditionally, this has been sought in the cumulative effect of desertions to William among the government, Court and army, and from his family, together with news of several provincial risings against him. These were plainly important, but they may simply have increased the strain upon the king caused by a less obvious military factor. James was an experienced but thoroughly conventional soldier. He accepted the conventional wisdom that battles were decided less by numbers or enthusiasm, than by campaign experience of soldiers and the quality of an army's officers. Thus in 1685 he could anticipate that his regular army would certainly defeat his nephew's force which, though slightly larger, lacked experience and trained officers – a judgement with which Monmouth, himself a veteran, at the time concurred. Conversely however, in 1688 James' army, although larger than Williams', lacked experience and (after the desertions) clearly-loyal officers; and James gave way to despair. Again, in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne, James was opposed by a smaller, but veteran army, and though he joined battle he quickly despaired of his unseasoned army, and fled before the conflict was decided. Referring to 1688 James was repeatedly to claim that it was the quality of his army which led to his flight, and it was certainly when he was with his army on Salisbury Plain that his personal crisis occurred. Unable to believe that battle would bring victory, too brave readily to retreat, surrounded by men whom he distrusted, James vacillated until he collapsed.
Ironically James II lost his throne primarily because he was too conscious of the differences between the rebellion he faced in 1688, and that which he had confidently crushed in 1685. Believing defeat to be inevitable he made it so, and thus helped to found the legend of Williams' inevitable and glorious victory in 1688. The loser for once provided the 'explanation' for a revolution.
- J.R. Jones, The Revolution of 1688 in England (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972)
- J. Miller, The Glorious Revolution (Longman, 1983)
- J. Miller, James II: A Study in Kingship (Wayland, 1978)
- J. Childs, The Army, James II and the Glorious Revolution (Manchester University Press, 1980)
- R. Clifton, The Revolution of 1688 (Warwick History Videos).
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