The Glorious Revolution and the Immortal 7’s Letter

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, includes picture of Henry Sydney, not just a link to that picture!

The picture above shows a picture (from a UK government website) of Henry Sydney who wrote the letter to William of Orange signed by the Immortal Seven, essentially inviting him to invade England in order to end absolutist monarchy. The Immortal Seven guaranteed parliamentary government and the rule of law in Britain.

One signatory was Edward Russell (descended from a merchant family which provided senior administrators for 16th Century monarchs; an ancestor of the 19th Century Prime Minister John Russell, the first liberal Prime Minister, and the instigator of the Great Reform Act of 1832; an ancestor of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, himself the father of Conrad Russell distinguished historian and Liberal Democrat politician). Edward Russell’s ancestor William Russell, fought in the 16 Century Dutch Revolt. It was that which made the Dutch provinces of the Spanish Netherlands independent under the leadership of the William, Prince of Orange. It was his descendent William III who was invited to rescue England from absolute monarchy, completing a circle.

Another circle was completed because Edward Russell’s ancestor William Russell had fought in the Netherlands alongside Philip Sidney, poet, thinker about poetry and senior administrator. Henry Sidney’s brother was Algernon Sidney, a politician and major republican thinker (click here for his Discourses Concerning Government), who was executed for his supposed links with the Rye House plot t assassinate King Charles II.

The complete Immortal 7 (some details are given for some of them in the text below) were

The Earl of Danby

The Earl of Shrewsbery

The Earl of Devonshire (William Cavendish, major aristocrat and political leader, as were other members of the family, rebuilt Chatsworth House and its grounds as one of the great English country residences)

The Viscount Lumley

Henry Compton (Bishop of London)

Edward Russell

Henry Sydney

I meant to write this post on 30th June which is the anniversary of the 1688 invitation from seven English parliamentarians to Prince William of Orange, holder of the post of Stadtholder of the United Provinces (what is now the monarchy of the Netherlands, and strictly speaking in William’s time the Satadtholder only had that role in some provinces, but anyway in practice he was the chief of military forces and the symbol of the whole state). The letter essentially invites William to invade England (and therefore Scotland and Ireland) in order to free the country of the rule of the Catholic and absolutist king, James II, and become the King of England by virtue of his marriage to Mary Stuart, daughter of James II.

Thomas Osborne (who signs the letter as Danby) had arranged the marriage which at that time (1677) seemed to ensure that the childless and Catholic James, would not be succeed by a Catholic. The marriage was conducted by Henry Compton who signed the letter as Bishop of London, and who already held that title at the time of the marriage. The letter was drawn up because James II did have a son James (later known as the Old Pretender because of his claims to the English crown, his son Charles was the Young Pretender, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) on the 10th June 1688.

The concerns behind the letter were religious and political. James II was a Catholic when the nation had been largely Protestants within the Church of England since the 16th Century. Not only was James a Catholic, he appeared determined to at least give the Catholic church equal status with the Church of England and transfer at least some of what belonged to the national church to the Catholic Church. He increased the rights of Catholics and ‘Dissenters’ (Protestants outside the state church) at the same time in the name of tolerance, but was suspected of wishing sooner or later to force the Catholic Church on England as the only official religion. Given the nature of state church relations at the time, it seems likely that James would have wished to do something like that. He blocked help for Protestant ‘Huguenot’ refugees from France and certainly never asked Louis XIV to adopt religious tolerance while in exile in France.

Even if we trust James’ claims of tolerance, it cannot be denied that he placed the monarchy above the law and parliament, assuming an unlimited ‘right of dispensation’ to unilaterally repeal any law, and that he assumed the right to put enormous royal pressure on political, legal, religious, military, local governmental and educational state institutions. His behaviour in this regard was so extreme that opposition to his rule grew in a few years from a few ultra-Whigs (advocates of parliamentary rule and rights for Protestants outside the state church) to most Whigs and Tories (advocates of the authority of crown and state church) in Parliament, even though this Parliament was elected on his accession in 1685, in elections he manipulated and which produced an overwhelming majority of strong Tories.

The consequence of James II’s autocracy and political ineptitude was that the signatories of a letter calling for his overthrow include 2 Tories: Thomas Osborne (signs as Danby) and Compton who as Bishop of London was third in the Church of England hierarchy and therefore closely tied to the Tory cause. James II imprisoned 7 bishops and stationed troops in the City of London (the self-governing part of London which then as now contained the financial and merchant centre of the country). The letter to William refers to liberty, religion and property and James II put an increasing number of natural supporters of monarchy, even those who supported the principle of passive obedience to kings, in intolerable fear in these areas.

The ‘Immortal Seven’ have been somewhat forgotten in British history, for reasons I will discuss in a later post. In short the pro-Protestant anti-Catholic aspects of the Glorious Revolution made the episode an embarrassment, particularly in Northern Ireland. Most people in Britain were greatly distressed to see William of Orange used as a sectarian symbol in recent years in Northern Ireland. Surely now in secular contemporary Britain, with peace in Northern Ireland, it’s time to remember and commemorate the Glorious Revolution while regretting the religious sectarian aspect. `and particularly the way in which it affected Irish Catholics. This was inevitable at that time when questions of politics and state legitimacy were deeply tied up with religion. The Glorious Revolution guaranteed parliamentary rule and the supremacy of law over persons in Britain, on the basis that the monarch would share the religion of most subjects of the crown. All people in what is now the UK and Ireland, of all religions, and all classes, benefited. The beneficiaries should be extended to all places where parliamentary constitutional traditions have British roots, including : USA, India, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.

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