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The English and Welsh Crowds and their Glorious Revolution of 1688

Joey Crozier | Aberystwyth University

Most people familiar with early modern Britain have probably stumbled across the invitation of the English Gentry which asked William of Orange to depose the Catholic James II, and his absolutist style of government. It is an oft-told story recycled from Whig writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and often repeated by students in classes about 1688. The trouble with this narrative, and in mainstream scholarship more generally, is that the role of the English and Welsh lower orders tends to be underrepresented. After assessing newspapers, pamphlets, and petitions from the period of William of Orange’s military intervention in England (November 1688 to February 1689), it is clear that the common people were responsive to the direction of the revolution. Indeed, the English and Welsh lower orders expressed allegiance to William of Orange and were a crucial component in the progression of the 1688 revolution.

The Glorious Revolution was ignited by William’s appearance in England when he landed in Torbay with an army of 14,000 troops. These preparations were done very hastily and caught James II off guard. A leading group of seven gentlemen, later known as the Immortal Seven, had promised William military support and upon his arrival captured the northern cities of Derby, Nottingham, and York. The momentum behind William’s accession to the English throne and the lethargic resistance that the Stadtholder encountered was particularly extraordinary. Indeed, William had only landed on 5 November, and by 23 December, James II had packed up and fled for France. By Christmas, William had sent orders to assemble a convention at Westminster to legitimise the abdication and was pronounced in February as joint Monarch with Mary Stuart (his wife, and James’ daughter).

A series of three pictures, each of which depicts a single playing card. On each card is a picture depicting a single event from the course of the Glorious Revolution.
Playing cards depicting the events of the Glorious Revolution. (Willshire 1876/ A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and other Cards in the British Museum, British Museum Trustees, London, 1876)

In England, more so than in Wales, William seemed to enjoy a genuine amount of support from the common people. The Immortal Seven had promised William that nineteen in every twenty men were ready to take up arms for him, and Dutch intelligence – on the persuasion of town militia – seemed to further confirm this. Wales, on the other hand, would prove resistant to William after his capture of the English crown in 1689. Like all revolutionary governments, the new regime sought to prove its legitimacy through expansion. In that same year, Wales was totally annexed into England when the new king dissolved the Council of the Marches. This decision by William was in stark contrast to James, who had large admiration and respect for Welsh customs and language. Indeed, it is unsurprising then that the subsequent Georgian government faced Jacobite opposition there. Given these reforms, why were English and Welsh lower orders so ready to abandon James II in favour of William of Orange in the autumn of 1688?

Although public responses to James’ coronation in 1685 were mostly favourable, the government was concerned about seditious behaviour and remarks against the King from revellers at taverns across London. In part, this was a result of James’ openness about his Catholic faith. To make matters worse for James, his government would continue to struggle to find favour amongst the common people after the bloody massacre of supporters of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. The memory of the Bloody Assizes – which brought an end to Monmouth’s rebellion – became entrenched in popular culture through print and song. 1686 witnessed a dramatic reversal of royal policy, as James II won a legal case to dispense with the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. The Test Acts banned Catholics from holding civil and military offices by obliging holders to take a sacramental test as well as oaths of alliance and supremacy. Through the power of dispensation, James was then able to exploit the system by appointing Catholics to military office on a three-month tenure, and in theory, he could keep them there indefinitely provided that these holdings were renewed.

Anglican hostility to James peaked in 1688 when seven bishops, including William Sancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were arrested for refusing to read aloud the king’s second Declaration of Indulgence. The Indulgence granted toleration of Christian worship, but many in the church suspected that compliance to James’ mission would jeopardise the Anglican establishment. For refusal to comply with the king’s demands, the bishops were rounded up and imprisoned in the Tower of London. They were put on trial for seditious libel by James, in which the bishops spectacularly defeated the king and emerged victorious to a crowd of cheering Londoners.

Furthermore, there was strong pressure from the United Provinces of the Netherlands in opposition to James’ desire to fully remove the Tests Acts through Parliament. Thousands of Dutch prints showcasing the Prince and Princess of Orange’s commitment to defending the English Church soon circulated in London. William’s spies monitored the progression of the campaign, notably from coffeehouses and taverns in London. Indeed, it seemed then that James’ grave political mismanagement and Dutch soft power would soon make William a captivating choice.

A series of three pictures, each of which depicts a single playing card. On each card is a picture depicting a single event from the course of the Glorious Revolution.
Playing cards depicting the events of the Glorious Revolution. (Willshire 1876/ A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and other Cards in the British Museum, British Museum Trustees, London, 1876)

When the prince landed at Torbay on the auspicious Protestant Gunpowder-treason day (5 November 1688), he was warmly greeted there by an English crowd. At the prince’s request, the villagers provided horses, and local fishermen informed the Dutch army of suitable locations for landfall. According to the Diary of Secretary Constantijn Huygens, as the Dutch marched closer to London, ‘along the roads stood all over the country people, like the previous day, women, men and children, all shouting, “God bless you”, and bestowing a hundred good wishes’. 

This trend continued all through the Dutch progression to London. When William arrived at Windsor on 14 December, he was ‘huzza’d by the inhabitants, and a numerous concourse of other people’. Then, as the Prince of Orange’s flag was placed on top of the ‘round Tower’ of Windsor Castle, he was welcomed by a discharge of cannon fire, ‘and all other Demonstrations of Publick joy’. At the same time, a crowd armed with sticks and oranges – likely imported from the Netherlands - gathered at the Strand and cried out for the Prince of Orange before marching to the house of the Pope’s Nuncio. In February 1689, the London crowds finally marked William and Mary’s coronation with bonfires, papal effigies, and fireworks.

The English lower order’s favourable response to William was further displayed by the public reading of the prince’s manifesto, the Declaration of Reasons. In October 1688, the Declaration was released across England as part of the Dutch propaganda campaign to convince the English that William would arrive in their interest. The print run saw over 100,000 copies – or nearly two staterooms worth – of the pamphlet produced, and it was circulated through urban and mercantile networks. The most notable public reading of the Declaration of Reasons was at the marketplace in Nottingham, where William’s third declaration was read aloud, and the gentry announced their intention to support the prince. This reading was well attended by principal resistance leaders such as Lords Devonshire and Delamere, and by Princess Anne, which gave the assembly further legitimacy. Similar public readings took place across England during December 1688. In Maidstone, ‘persons of quality met to read the Declaration at the local market place’; in Falmouth, ‘the Prince’s Declaration was read in this Town, with universal acclimations of joy’; and on 29 December in Chester, forty or so people secured the castle early that morning, and pressed the governor into reading William’s Declaration to ‘the loud acclamations of the people’.

A series of three pictures, each of which depicts a single playing card. On each card is a picture depicting a single event from the course of the Glorious Revolution.
Playing cards depicting the events of the Glorious Revolution. (Willshire 1876/ A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and other Cards in the British Museum, British Museum Trustees, London, 1876)

The English and Welsh common people further responded to William’s appearance through the medium of popular anti-Catholic violence. Even before the protestant Dutch arrived, the London crowd was reported to have attacked small private Catholic chapels in Lime Street and Bucklers-bury, there they dealt £400 worth of damage to the alter furnishings. Within a fortnight of calling a truce with the Dutch at Plymouth on 6 December, James had fled England and rioting broken out again in the capital. Well-known associates of James’ administration were not spared the violence either, as Judge Jefferies was captured by the crowd during a remarkable escape and carried to the Lord Mayor’s house. The most remarkable attack of the London crowd was on the residency of the (catholic) Spanish ambassador. The crowds removed the furnishings from the building and subsequently burned them in the street.

One illegal newspaper, the Universal Intelligence, stated that in mid-December, Protestants had dismantled Catholic chapels in Birmingham, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Gloucester, Shrewsbury, Stafford, Wolverhampton, Worcester, and York. Even in Wales, English agitators were suspected to have incited a brawl between Protestants and Catholics in Welshpool and disruptions to the Earl of Powis’ property in Buttington. More radicalised expression was driven by Williamite propaganda. Alongside the Declaration, accompanying prints suggested a design by James to ‘put your country under popish slavery of Irish and forrignors who ar in radinesse to compleate your destrustion’ in the form of ‘Irish nights’. Here, town militia in English and Welsh peripheral towns armed themselves in preparation for a suspected Irish Jacobite army. Similarly, in Somerset, there were fearful rumours that an Irish army had raided Plymouth, and in Dolgellau the townsfolk there had fired upon the local customs collector, mistaking him for Irish raiders.

A series of three pictures, each of which depicts a single playing card. On each card is a picture depicting a single event from the course of the Glorious Revolution.
Playing cards depicting the events of the Glorious Revolution. (Willshire 1876/ A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and other Cards in the British Museum, British Museum Trustees, London, 1876)

When Parliament assembled to resolve the succession crisis, huge numbers of English men and women gathered to observe it. On 31 January a large crowd had gathered outside of the Lords, armed with a petition of 15,000 signatures which urged for the crowning of William and Mary. After two days of demonstrations, it was read aloud in the Commons. Horrified, Westminster appealed to the Lord Mayor to suppress the petition. To outmanoeuvre the Commons, a revised petition, The Humble petition of great number of citizens, and other inhabitants of the cities of London and Westminster, appeared in John Wallis’ London Intelligencer on 6 February 1689, and again on the following day in the London Mercury. The petition highlighted the crowd’s enthusiasm for William. It urged that William ‘and his royal consort the Princess: be speedily settled to the throne’ since ‘We are in a deep Sence (in) danger of delays, and perplex Debates about settling the Government’. The mass signing of the petition, as well as the crowd gathering at Parliament, showed that ordinary men and women desired to be part of the revolution settlement. Through this display of strength, the common people forced Parliament to confront the petition.

The English and Welsh crowds were not radical, but they were responsive to the hardships of James’ government in their support of William. Many had accepted that Mary would succeed the king, nevertheless, the extraordinary reversal of James’ government on defending the Anglican Church, amongst other reasons, had prompted popular frustration.

At present, there is little suggestion that the lower orders were party-politically motivated, other than broadly united to undermine the crumbling administration of James II. Moreover, mobilisation for William, and his military intervention, seemed to have been evident in the metropole as well as the periphery, perhaps emphasising the prince’s strong visibility through propaganda. To claim that crowds in Powis or Nottinghamshire knew as much as their counterparts in London would be farfetched. Nevertheless, the broad trends of ‘Irish night’ and the public participation in reading the Declaration suggest that local lower orders were far more active in the revolution than previously acknowledged.


Further Reading:

  • Eveline Cruickshanks, By Force or By Default? The Revolution of 1688-89 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989).

  • Tim Harris, Revolution, the Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 (London: Penguin, 2007).

  • David Hosford, Nottingham, Nobles and the North, Aspects of the Revolution of 1688 (Springfield, Ohio: Archon Books, 1976).

  • Clare Jackson, Devil-Land England Under Siege 1588-1688 (London: Allen Lane, 2021).

Joey Crozier is a part-time PhD candidate in the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. Joey’s project explores the pivotal role of British spies throughout the era of the Glorious Revolution (1687-1697). In 2023, he achieved an associate fellowship for teaching in higher education (AFHEA) and completed his first appointment as a Lecturer in AU’s School of Art. He currently chairs AU’s History and Welsh History Postgraduate Seminars; and is lead organiser of the Communication and Exchange in the Early Modern (1500-1850) conference.


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