Atlantic History Glorious Revolution
Gary S. De Krey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0112


The Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 was for long a well-known historical landmark. The Whig interpretation of the revolution, which was epitomized in the work of the great Victorian historian Thomas B. Macaulay, was largely responsible for this familiarity. Macaulay and writers who followed him saw the revolution as a constitutional milestone. They maintained that Whig leaders committed to parliamentary government took the initiative in the Convention of 1689 (an irregular meeting of Parliament) in ousting a despotic and Catholic James II in favor of his Protestant son-in-law and daughter, William III (also stadtholder of the Netherlands) and Mary II. This largely bloodless revolution at Westminster, which promoted Parliament at the expense of the crown, also secured Protestantism by maintaining the privileged position of the established Anglican Church and by extending toleration to Protestant dissenters who preferred to remain outside the religious establishment. Moreover, according to the Whig view, the revolution protected property and personal rights from arbitrary taxation and royal interference. Whig interpreters also utilized the contractual thought of John Locke, whose Two Treatises of Government was published in 1689, to vest the revolution with a liberal ethos. By the third quarter of the 20th century, however, this comfortable construction of the revolution was disintegrating, and popular interest in it was fading. Marxists and some historians dismissed 1688–1689 as an inconsequential alteration in the monarchy. Specialists found fault with particular aspects of the Whig interpretation. Some scholars sought to rehabilitate James II, especially in light of his religious toleration. Other historians emphasized the ideological compromises involved in an event that owed as much to royalist Tories as to their Whig partisan opponents. Locke’s arguments for resistance were relegated to the periphery of the event. But dismissal of the Glorious Revolution has proved premature. Since its tercentenary in 1988–1989, the revolution has been interpreted as a watershed in all three British kingdoms, and it has also increasingly been understood as an event with both a European and a global importance. William III led his new kingdoms into warfare against the France of Louis XIV, which transformed England into the preeminent imperial and commercial power of the 18th century. The Scottish and the Irish revolutions, neither of which was bloodless, also had momentous consequences, stimulating parliamentary assertiveness in both kingdoms, contributing to the union of Scotland with England in 1707, and marginalizing both Irish Catholics and Scottish Episcopalians. In the North American colonies the revolution helped confirm the position of colonial assemblies and reaffirmed Anglo-American anti-Catholicism. As the Glorious Revolution has acquired new dimensions as a British, European, Atlantic, and global event, some elements of the Whig interpretation have also retained a place in scholarly interpretation, albeit in more nuanced form.

General Overviews

The appearance, beginning in 2000, of several new general overviews of the Glorious Revolution by professional historians points to the increasing visibility of 1688–1689 in historical discussion. Students and readers new to the topic will probably gain the most by starting with Valance 2006, a lucid narrative of the revolution that addresses major interpretive issues. Those with some background will want to begin with Harris 2006 or Pincus 2009, both of which are more heavily researched and argued and which are intended to advance scholarly debate about the revolution. Harris provides the most serious effort at finding a common framework for investigation of the revolution in the three British kingdoms. Pincus places James II in a European context of Catholic modernization and proposes that 1688–1689 was the first modern revolution. Cruickshanks 2000 is the briefest of the more recent accounts intended for students and general readers. A controversial inversion of the Whig interpretation that rehabilitates James II and skewers William III, it is best read in conjunction with other accounts. Hoppit 2000 provides a readable and comprehensive account of the political and commercial development of Britain in the wartime decades that followed the revolution. Somewhat older general accounts that still offer important approaches include Jones 1972 and Speck 1988. Jones intended to challenge principal elements of the Whig interpretation, whereas Speck offers qualified endorsements of some Whig arguments. Speck is especially suitable for students.

  • Cruickshanks, Eveline. The Glorious Revolution. British History in Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

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    Systematic challenge to Whig interpretation: James was sincere in advocating toleration and civil rights for all religious persuasions. The revolution lacked popular support; it was a military invasion by William, who wanted the English crown with its prerogatives intact and who was focused on European events. Attention to Scotland, Ireland, warfare.

  • Harris, Tim. Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685–1720. London and New York: Allen Lane, 2006.

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    Comprehensive examination of the revolution and of James II, whose manner of rule undermined a royalist revival and challenged contemporary understandings of law. Pioneering integration of English, Scottish, and Irish revolutions. A nuanced interpretation of the revolution as a victory for Protestantism and parliamentary government against Catholic absolutism.

  • Hoppit, Julian. A Land of Liberty? England 1689–1727. The New Oxford History of England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Account of the aftermath of the revolution as an era both of uncertainty and of prospects in the midst of unprecedented warfare and imperial competition. Emphasis on party political divisions, the slow emergence of stability, commercial opportunity, fiscal innovation, and the lives of ordinary people.

  • Jones, J. R. The Revolution of 1688 in England. Revolutions in the Modern World. New York: Norton, 1972.

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    Most important account between Trevelyan 1938 (cited under Reference Works) and Speck 1988. Challenges inevitability of the revolution in England, suggesting greater potential for James’s program, which pointed toward absolutism in important respects. Asserts that 1688, and not the earlier “English Revolution,” marked the real departure from the traditional order. Little attention to ideas.

  • Pincus, Steve. 1688: The First Modern Revolution. Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

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    Provocative, massively researched study arguing for the overthrow of James II as the first modern revolution. Rehabilitates James’s political acumen, reconceives his program as one of Catholic (absolutist) modernization, connects the revolution to the emergence of a commercial society, emphasizes popular involvement, and places all in a European perspective.

  • Speck, W. A. Reluctant Revolutionaries: Englishmen and the Revolution of 1688. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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    Contribution to tercentenary of 1688–1689. Emphasizes James’s Catholicism as prompting a defensive revolution to protect Protestantism and the constitution. Suggests that, although James’s attempt to move toward absolutism was within the law, the Convention of 1689 did—intentionally or not—establish a new framework by subordinating the crown to law and Parliament.

  • Valance, Edward. The Glorious Revolution: 1688—Britain’s Fight for Liberty. London: Little Brown, 2006.

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    Readable, colorful account. Emphasizes the importance of anti-Catholicism as a roadblock for James, the involvement of ordinary people in the revolution, the securing of parliamentary government, and the importance of 1688–1689 in Anglo-American history. Incorporates Scotland, Ireland, and the reign of William III.

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