Jonathan Wright looks at the way William of Orange’s invasion was rebranded
GOINGDUTCH:HOWENGLAND PLUNDEREDHOLLAND’SGLORY Lisa Jardine Harper Press £25
The Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 is one of the most misunderstood events in British history. For more than two centuries, the Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange has routinely been cast as rescuing England from the tyrannical, arbitrary rule of his father-inlaw, James II, arriving at Torbay from Holland in November 1688 under the banner of “liberty and the Protestant religion”. And yet, as Lisa Jardine reminds us in her intriguing new book, it is decidedly odd that the events of 1688 are remembered “as a liberation rather than a conquest”. William was leading an invasion force – his more than 400 ships carried 20,000 troops. In spite of all the well-judged propaganda, he was not acting out of some lofty commitment to English freedoms, but in service to Dutch political interests. A pre-emptive strike was required in order to supplant James II and prevent him from forging an alliance with Holland’s chief enemy, the France of Louis XIV. And if William and his wife – James’s daughter Mary – could be the dynastic beneficiaries of the conquest, then so much the better.
As things fell out, there was no fighting, the key dynastic spanner in the works was removed by declaring James’ newborn son to be illegitimate, and James himself obligingly headed off into continental exile at the first opportunity. But the Glorious Revolution was still not quite so seemly and straightforward as one might think. The often forgotten fact is that, for months on end, Dutch troops were posted across London, guarding all of its major buildings and sensitive locations. One of the great historical mysteries is why, as Jonathan Israel, one of the leading Anglophone scholars of Dutch history puts it, this armed occupation “came to seem so improbable to later generations that by common consent, scholarly and popular, it was simply erased from the record.” OneofthekeyobjectivesofJardine’sbook is to account for this historical amnesia. Why do we forget what the Glorious Revolution was all about? Why did it so quickly come to be seen as a defining moment in the fight for English political liberty? Many of the answers lie in the specific events of 1688. The rhetorical justification of the invasion was expertly stage-managed from the outset. William may not have meant everything he said in his bold manifesto – his famous Declaration – but he said things that important sectors of the English political elite (fearful of Catholicism, tired of incompetent governance) desperately wanted to hear. Sixty thousand copies of the Declaration were sent around England – with many more winging their way across the continent in various translations – and a staggering propagandist victory was secured. In the face of all the evidence, William managed to convince England that he was the champion of its “public peace and happiness” and of its treasured “law, liberties, and customs” – and England has mostly continued to be convinced ever since.
Which all begs an important question: bluntly put, how did William get away with it? Why was a foreign interloper taken so avidly to the English political bosom? Part of Jardine’s answer is that, as a Dutchman, William was less “foreign”, less of an interloper than might be supposed. Over the previous century, Jardine explains, England and Holland had been engaged in a mutually enriching artistic, intellectual and scientific encounter – one that made the arrival of a Dutch conqueror far more palatable. Painters, sculptors, musicians and architects had shuttled between London, Antwerp and The Hague, while scientists on both sides of the North Sea had corresponded with one another and helped to advance their shared researches. Crucially, in this cultural relationship, Holland was often regarded as the senior partner. In everything from garden design to architectural fashion or banking practice, Dutch advances and sensibilities were embraced and imitated by the English. Of course, there had always been political and commercial tensions between the two nations – rivalry in their colonial spheres of influence, not to mention three armed conflicts since the 1650s – but these were unable to obscure all the shared “paths of cultural, artistic and intellectual interest.” It was precisely such bonds – not to mention a thriving tradition of Anglo-Dutch marriage alliances – that allowed the unexpected intervention of a Dutch political leader (who, advantag e o u s l y, spoke impeccable English) to look less like an invasion and “more like a merger”.
Jardine – with her customary blend of authority and accessibility – does a fine job of describing this fertile cultural terrain. Whether her analysis fully explains the bizarre response of the English to a Dutch military coup is doubtful. More was in play in 1688 than a fondness for Rubens, Antwerp jewellery, and groves of lime trees, but Jardine certainly brings us closer to a nuanced understanding of the far-from-glorious revolution.
In her intriguing history, Lisa Jardine describes the 1688 arrival of William of Orange in England as a conquest as much as a liberation