The bloodless coup that sparked the 'glorious revolution'

Painting of William of Orange.

Dutch courage: William of Orange. - Credit: Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller

In November 1688, a vast Dutch invasion fleet sailed towards Devon.

With 40,000 men and 463 ships, it was the largest invasion fleet in English history.

It is often said that England has never once been invaded by a foreign power since the Norman Conquest of 1066. But this isn’t really true. In 1688, England was invaded as surely as it had been over 600 years earlier. There were only two differences: this time some people in England - Protestants keen for the overthrow of the unpopular Catholic King James II - had actively invited the invaders to come. The other difference was that this time, the King did not stand his ground and fight. In fairness, he would attempt to recapture his crown unsuccessfully by force later, but he would not succeed.

As in 1066, the potential conqueror was called William: this time, William of Orange. Onboard, the Duke was laid low with acute seasickness. His crew were in better spirits: some even played music as they sailed past Dover. Then, things started to go wrong. The sky was hazy. Visibility was poor. Soon the ship’s pilot had sailed past their intended destination of Torbay by mistake and it was too windy to turn back. Where to next? Plymouth was the next best option, but the king had already positioned a garrison there. The situation was becoming fraught. James II’s fleet was already in hot pursuit of William’s.

But then, things changed. Fortune smiled upon William of Orange that day. The weather improved, the sun came out. The fleet was able to turn around and land in Devon, after all. Some spoke of a favourable “Protestant wind” helping facilitate what was to become known as ‘the Glorious Revolution’ just as a similar quirk of the weather had helped the English fight off the Spanish Armada, a century before.

It had been hoped the landing might occur on November 4, 1688, as this was William’s 38th birthday. As it was, they arrived on November 5, the anniversary of the unravelling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, itself a Protestant date of celebration.

Onshore, William and his men were greeted warmly almost everywhere they went. In Exeter, the city’s mayor, Sir Thomas Jefford who had been knighted by James II, ordered the city gates be closed to bar William and his forces from entering. The Duke was apparently seriously discouraged until a lone porter, in a fateful decision, decided to defy the mayor’s orders and open the gates anyway. William’s forces entered Exeter and continued their advance.

Opposition evaporated. John Churchill (Winston’s ancestor) who had defeated the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against James II at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685 switched sides, now choosing to support William over James. Crowds were issued with orange ribbons as Dutch soldiers lined the king’s path through Knightsbridge.

James II chose not to fight, fleeing to France, tossing the Great Seal of England into the River Thames as he went. Uniquely, William and his wife ruled jointly as King William III (1689-1702) and Queen Mary II (1689-94). Mary was the daughter of the dethroned James.

The transfer of power was hailed as the Glorious Revolution. It was essentially a bloodless coup. The Toleration Act and the Bill of Rights were pushed through parliament, extending freedoms on the one hand but denying them to Roman Catholics on the other.

The dethroned James II was down but not yet out turning to England’s traditional enemy France for support as he attempted to stir up a civil war in Ireland. John Churchill, now Duke of Marlborough was sent to defend William’s Dutch borders while William III went in to deal with James in Ireland himself in a case of King Vs King. William was wounded by a cannonball but ultimately it was he who proved triumphant at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

James returned to France to lick his wounds. But he would never rule England again.