Could James II Have Foreseen the Glorious Revolution?

Julian Whitehead

Early Modern
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He never saw it coming. James II was a Catholic king of a predominantly Protestant country. His people had largely accepted his Catholicism because he had promised to safeguard the Church of England. Additionally, his heir was his Protestant daughter Mary, the wife of his nephew, William of Orange, the de-facto ruler of Holland and leader of Protestant Europe.

By 1687, James had won much public support after crushing a rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth. His treasury was full thanks to a supportive parliament, and the few Whigs and Republicans who opposed him had fled abroad.

James was in a stronger position than many monarchs before him, yet on Christmas Eve the next year he fled England for France, never to return. William of Orange had invaded, received a widespread welcome and entered London, bringing about the ‘Glorious Revolution.’

The coronation procession of King James II and Queen Mary of Modena, 1685 (Credit: Public Domain).

One reason for this amazing turn of events was that James had been introducing pro-Catholic policies, such as giving civil and military appointments to Catholics. This caused grave Protestant concern which turned to panic when James’ Queen gave birth to a son and heir who would be brought up a Catholic.

Some leading Protestant nobles then decided to request William of Orange to land in England with a military force to protect the Protestant faith. William agreed and began making preparations, but James’ fall was not a foregone conclusion.

There was, however, another reason why the Glorious Revolution occurred; a complete failure of government intelligence.

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What intelligence did James have?

In 1667 James’ principal minister was the ambitious and self-serving earl of Sunderland. To win the king’s favour Sunderland had converted to Catholicism and showed himself ready to implement pro-Catholic policies. Sunderland was one of two secretaries of state, and as part of his power grab took over responsibility for all foreign intelligence.

The place of greatest intelligence interest was Holland, where most of James’ opponents had settled. In Holland, English intelligence was coordinated by the ambassador.

Sunderland replaced a reasonably effective ambassador with an Irish Catholic adventurer called Ignatious White. William of Orange took an instant dislike to the Catholic ambassador and the Dutch authorities withheld cooperation. Intelligence dried up on the subversive activities of Whig and Republican exiles in the Netherlands.

The Binnenhof in The Hague, 1625, where the States General of the Netherlands met (Credit: Public Domain).

What intelligence did William have?

William, on the other hand, had a good network of spies in England and Scotland. To these were added some official diplomats such as the charming Count Zylestein who made contact with increasingly disaffected Protestant peers such as the earls of Danby and Shrewsbury.

Zylestein also became friendly with James’ staunchly Anglican daughter Princess Anne and her husband Prince George of Denmark, whose lodgings at the Cockpit had become a nucleus for Protestant dissent.

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After Zylestein returned to The Hague, William sent Henry Sidney to England to promote his secret interests. Sidney was reinforced by James Johnson, one of the foremost secret agents of his generation. Johnson sent intelligence reports disguised as business letters using the name ‘Mr Rivers’ to an accommodation address in the Netherlands. The secret content was written in cipher in invisible ink.

On 10 June, when James’ Queen gave birth to a son, Henry was at hand to draft the letter from Shrewsbury and the other leading Protestant earls requesting William to invade. William sent the urbane Zylestein to London to congratulate James on the birth, but it was a cover to visit the Protestant peers and develop plans for an invasion. No one thought of placing Zylestein under surveillance.

James Francis Edward, 1703 (Credit: Public Domain).

Conspicuous escalation

William supported his covert operations with propaganda, attacking James Catholicism and declaring his newly born heir an imposter child secretly brought into the birth chamber. Propaganda became a major operation in which Johnson organised the distribution of as many as 30,000 smuggled copies of a single pamphlet.

The propaganda angered James but he still did not see the hand of his son-in-law. Nor did James and Sunderland think it ominous that William was commissioning twenty-four additional men-of-war and assembling an army at Nijmegen. They assumed it was for war against France.

With James and Sunderland in denial, all rested on the ability of White, the ambassador at The Hague. White completely failed to pick up on the indicators that William was moving against James. These were numerous; from William’s friendship with James’ enemy Bishop Burnett, to removing James’ new born son from prayers in the Hague, to the number of Whig and Republican exiles who were coming to the Hague court.

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Only in August did White realise that William might be planning an invasion, but this report was disregarded and Sunderland wrote back; ‘The country was never less in danger of rebellion.’

On 25 August, King Louis sent an envoy to James saying an invasion was being planned and offered the French fleet to help defend the English Channel. James scornfully dismissed the offer. On 5 September Louis sent the envoy back to James with a renewed offer of help, which was again spurned.

By then an invasion was almost common knowledge, as shown by the entry in John Evelyn’s diary for 10 August: ‘Dr Tension now told me there would suddenly be some great thing discovered. This was the Prince of Orange to come over.’ At last White became convinced of an imminent invasion and rushed back to England to inform Sunderland, but was merely rebuked for leaving his post without permission.

The frigat ‘Brielle’ on which William of Orange sailed to Britain, on the Maas off Rotterdam, 1689 (Credit: Public Domain).

The Papal Nuncio then warned James of William’s intentions, but to no avail and on the same day James wrote cordially to his son-in-law: ‘This place affords little news, what news from your side of the water?’ By then, William had assembled a fleet of 700 ships and a 15,000 strong army.

On 17 September Sunderland was informed by White that William was ready to embark and had published an invasion manifesto. Sunderland and James at last accepted the truth and began back peddling by removing recently appointed Catholics from office; it was now too late. William landed at Torbay on 5 November, the Glorious Revolution had begun.

Julian Whitehead read History at Oxford after which he joined the Intelligence Corps and spent a full career in government intelligence. Espionage in the Divided Stuart Dynasty is his fourth book for Pen and Sword.

Tags: Mary II James II Queen Anne William of Orange

Julian Whitehead