1688 is not the most visible of British constitutional landmarks. Especially in this 800th anniversary year, 1215 often gets more love, and Magna Carta is more often enthused about by politicians and historians alike than the Glorious Revolution. Likewise, 1649, the date of the execution of King Charles I at the close of the period of British Civil Wars, is seen as more dramatic and symbolic than 1688’s trip over the North Sea by William of Orange, and the fleeing from London of the Catholic English monarch, James II.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was in most senses a coup: invited to invade England by a coterie of peers, William of Orange, the Protestant husband of James II’s daughter, Mary, essentially leveraged the anti-Catholicism of the English people in order to fold the considerable resources of the British Isles into his ongoing continental war effort against Louis XIV of France. When another date – 1066 – is again more often invoked as the last time England was invaded by a foreign force, we would do well to remember 1688.
Perhaps that’s precisely why 1688 is a year less well remembered: it fits awkwardly into the grand Whiggish narrative that was developed around that time, in which England was a beacon of liberty and progress – a special nation at the centre of great change. In truth, in 1688 England was co-opted into another state’s story, and the dual monarchy of William and Mary covered for the forcible removal of a rightful monarch. And yet a year later in 1689, the two monarchs would sign a Bill of Rights passed by Parliament which resembles in far greater detail our current political settlement than anything signed at Runnymede in 1215.
History is a story – and the dates we hang that story off change its shape. 1688 is a case in point.