Charles II converted to Catholicism on his death bed in February 1685 and, because he had no legitimate heirs (though he apparently had plenty of illegitimate ones), his brother, the Catholic James II, succeeded him to the throne. James had had a successful public life as the Duke of York since the Restoration, busying himself with naval and colonial matters – and winning admiration for helping to lead the fight against the Great Fire of London in 1666. In 1664, New York was named after him – not after the city in Yorkshire, as is often believed.
James’s succession to the throne was regarded with suspicion by some Protestants, who regarded him as possibly pro-French and definitely pro-Catholic. In June 1685, the Duke of Monmouth, the oldest illegitimate son of Charles II born to his mistress Lucy Walter, landed at Lyme Regis with just 82 followers, hoping to rally Protestants to his cause and depose his uncle. Although Monmouth gathered some support from the West Country, the Monmouth Rebellion ended in tears at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset on 6 July 1685, where the Duke’s largely peasant army was easily defeated by the better-led regulars. Hundreds of Monmouth’s followers were subsequently hanged or deported to the West Indies – a reaction which disgusted even some of the King’s supporters. Monmouth himself was captured and, despite Uncle James granting him a personal audience, was beheaded at Tower Hill on 15 July. It is said that Jack Ketch, the executioner, botched the job and it took several blows of the axe to sever poor Monmouth’s head; there is also a legend – disputed – that his portrait was painted after his death.
In 1688, James and his second wife, the equally Catholic Mary of Modena, had a son, James Francis Edward Stuart. This was a step too far for many Protestants. Conversations had already taken place between leading Whigs, fearful of ‘Popery’, and the Protestant William of Orange – Charles I’s Dutch grandson, married to James II’s oldest daughter, Mary (previously heir to the throne before the arrival of the new baby). A group of peers, encouraged by William, wrote to him claiming that ‘nineteen parts of twenty people’ wanted to change their monarch. That may or may not have been true, but the prospect of another Catholic on the throne of Britain, and possibly even a Franco-British alliance, was the last thing Protestant Holland needed anyway; William planned to invade. Miraculously slipping past the Royal Navy with his invasion fleet of some 450 ships, he landed an army of 40,000, unopposed, at Brixham, in Torbay. His troops were well-equipped and included Dutch, Germans, Swiss, Swedes, Lapps and even 200 or so blacks (presumably, slaves) brought over from Dutch plantations in America. Gradually, William marched this huge force across south-west England to London, with bafflingly little resistance apart from a few skirmishes, including at Wincanton and Reading. Mary of Modena fled to France with her baby, the young Prince of Wales. After some faffing about, James followed – with William’s connivance. These events secured Torbay’s place in history and the following year William and Mary jointly became King and Queen. When doing so, WilliamandMary (as I think we should now call them) accepted the Declaration of Right, passed by Parliament, which declared the arbitrary use of royal power illegal and provided the basis for constitutional monarchy – one of the most important events in British history.
In a nutshell, this was the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ – the last successful invasion of these islands; you can stumble across memorials to it all over the place.
Yet WilliamandMary’s often allegedly ‘bloodless’ coup was technically an invasion by a foreign power which overturned a legitimate monarch. Nor was it bloodless, not least because James still had many supporters – known as ‘Jacobites’ (‘Jacob’ is the Latin form of ‘James’) – and they weren’t going quietly. To kick things off, a Jacobite Highland army defeated a Protestant army at Killiekranke in 1689. Also that year James II landed in Ireland, with assistance from France, and was acknowledged as king in Dublin. Gathering enormous support, James was soon in effective control of most of the country. However, his Irish/French army was decisively beaten by William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and Ireland was systematically re-conquered. Further dissatisfaction with the succession in the Scottish Highlands also directly led to the Massacre of Glencoe 1692, when government soldiers, mainly from the Campbell Clan, treacherously murdered 38 men, women and children of the MacDonalds.
But unfortunately this was not the final chapter of the story of the ‘Glorious Revolution’; the Jacobites would be back. Indeed, tensions between some of the more excitable Catholics and Protestants over the past 300 years or so have had some pretty grim consequences.