Not-so-glo­ri­ous re­volt

Jonathan Wright looks at the way William of Orange’s in­va­sion was re­branded

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


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

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