Newton reinvents himself

Jonathan Rée

  • Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson
    Faber, 318 pp, £9.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22993 2

Towards the end of 1688 the Dutch Republic tried to bounce Britain into war with France by main military force. The chief plotter was a scion of the royal house of Orange-Nassau and nephew and son-in-law to the British king, but he had none of the poise and magnificence that were supposed to go with a royal pedigree. William, Prince of Orange was a mousy, middle-aged sociophobe, famous for combining blatant adultery and sanctimonious piety, and loved by no one except, maybe, his docile wife, Mary. But he was a skilful practitioner of the political arts, and over a period of twenty years he had won himself a battery of quasi-monarchical powers throughout the Dutch provinces. He thanked God for sending the wind that sped him and 15,000 Dutch soldiers to Torbay on the auspicious date of 5 November; but he also took care to smooth the path of providence by means of a web of alliances with dissident members of the British ruling class.

Some time before the invasion William altered his mission from policy change to regime change: he now intended to take the throne for himself and his consort Mary before leading Britain into war. He expected to do so with the overwhelming support – ‘19 parts out of 20’, he reckoned – of the people of England, Scotland and Ireland; but his judgment must have been warped by ambition. James was not unpopular, and he had proved an effective ruler during his three years in power, in spite of having two Dutch-sponsored rebellions to put down. He had shown that he was not averse to violence, but on the whole his subjects respected him as their duly anointed ruler, and he was revered by many as the last surviving child of the martyred Charles I. If he inspired distrust, it was not for the way he governed but for his open commitment to Roman Catholicism.

Ten years before, he had faced attempts to exclude him from the succession, fuelled by rumours of a Popish Plot, and when he eventually became king he dismayed the hierarchy of the Church of England by removing barriers to Catholic preferment, while offending parliamentarians by insisting on his God-given right to act on his own authority. But the resentment of bishops and politicians did not entail hostility from the population at large, and Dryden was able to present him as a ‘second Constantine’, soothing the wounds of Church and state with his ‘healing balm’. This testimony might be considered biased, coming as it did from the poet laureate, but the Declaration of Indulgence of 1687, in which James granted ‘freedom of conscience’ to all his subjects and a right to ‘meet and serve God after their own way and manner’, had been welcomed not only by Papists – a considerable constituency, especially in Scotland and Ireland – but also by tens of thousands of Quakers and other non-conformists.

During the weeks when William was rallying his forces in the west and leading them towards the capital, James could still count on the support of London’s crowds, and his warning that if William took power he might prove ‘a worse man than Cromwell’ played well with them. But James was prone to ominous forebodings, and when the crisis came his courage deserted him. On 18 December he allowed himself to be shuffled off to Rochester by a band of Dutch guards, leaving William to take over his palaces and prerogatives at the head of a foreign army.

Crowds filled the streets, as they had to, to admire the spectacle of revolution; and with the English army banished from the capital they amused themselves by harassing Papists and ransacking their chapels. Fearing political chaos, the lord mayor led a group of civic and religious leaders in pledging allegiance to the occupying forces, but even in the flush of victory William’s advisers were uneasy. ‘The treatment the king met with from the prince of Orange,’ as one of them put it, ‘moved compassion in some who were not very fond of him.’ In February 1689 a Convention Parliament decided to interpret James’s flight as abdication, but the archbishop of Canterbury refused to officiate when William and Mary were crowned in Westminster Abbey two months later.

The irregular British succession excited frenzied commentary abroad. In France, William was denounced, predictably, as a ‘new Cromwell’, an enraged Puritan plotting an international assault on the true Church. The Vatican, on the other hand, quite liked the prospect of a curb on the arrogance of France, and Spain concurred with Rome. In the Dutch Republic the coup was hailed as a triumph, especially as William and Mary had made a concession to republicanism by accepting the Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, later known as the Bill of Rights. Back in London, the ascendant section of the political class wrote the events of 1688-89 into history as the Glorious Revolution, and that, on the whole, is how they have been preserved in British political memory ever since.

The new king did not get much of a political honeymoon. You did not have to be a counter-revolutionary to resent Parliament’s decision to pay the Dutch government £600,000 for their pains in ‘fitting out an armament to support king William, and bringing him over’. And you did not have to be a Catholic to feel affronted by the Anglican privileges enshrined in the Bill of Rights, or to wince at triumphalist denunciations of James and his ‘divers evil counsellors’. Quakers and other non-conformists had lost their champion too, and no one could miss the fact that William’s reprisals against insurgents and recalcitrants – in Ireland on the Boyne and in Scotland at Glencoe – were at least as savage as any that could be held against his predecessor. From the beginning William was seen as a fanatical outsider, nursing ‘so great an antipathy to the English that he could be willing they were all knockt o’th head and our country repeopled with foreigners’. He did not miss a trick in turning himself, as Jonathan Israel once put it, into an object of ‘national detestation’.

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