The Revolution of 1688 and the Flight of James II

A.A. Mitchell profiles James II: the last Stuart King; brave in battle but futile as a monarch; and who signally failed to reconcile his subjects to his ossified political beliefs.

The international context of the English Revolution is one aspect of the event that generations of Whig teaching neglected in favour of an enumeration of domestic constitutional blessings; another, is the more abstruse problem of motive. It is no part of my purpose to whitewash James II; his shortcomings were many and obvious. Yet a reappraisal of his reasons for quitting England is perhaps now overdue, since historians have become more inclined to agree that William of Orange was not quite the altruist he and his colleagues made out. The inscribed banner on William’s flagship purported to proclaim his mission, although the addition of the phrase “the Liberties of England and the Protestant Religion” to his personal motto, Je Maintiendrai, was the result of a last-minute suggestion by Admiral Herbert. William’s primary interest in 1688 was not England’s liberties, still less England’s religion, but her place in the alignment of European powers. As the leader of the coalition against the encroachments of Louis XIV, William was understandably anxious that English resources should not strengthen France. England under a Catholic sovereign was a doubtful factor in William’s diplomacy; and, once he had decided to invade, he could not afford moral scruples about taking his father-in-law’s crown. In the late autumn of 1688, therefore, James II’s actions were of the greatest importance—not only a crown was at stake; and it is essential to attempt an understanding of the pressures to which James was then subjected.

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