Break their teeth, O God

Colin Kidd

  • Faction Displayed: Reconsidering the Impeachment of Dr Henry Sacheverell edited by Mark Knights
    Wiley-Blackwell, 132 pp, £19.99, February 2012, ISBN 978 1 4443 6187 2
  • The State Trial of Doctor Henry Sacheverell edited by Brian Cowan
    Wiley-Blackwell, 307 pp, £22.99, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 4443 3223 0

The birth of Prince George obviates the immediate need for the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 which introduced gender equality into the line of succession. Section 2 of the Act addresses, though only in part, another outmoded form of discrimination: ‘A person is not disqualified from succeeding to the crown or from possessing it as a result of marrying a person of the Roman Catholic faith.’ So, while Catholicism is now acceptable in a royal spouse, a future monarch must still avoid the snares of Catholic worship.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, from which the forms of our constitutional monarchy derive, the new Bill of Rights banned Roman Catholics from the throne of England, as ‘inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom’. This was the primary reason King James II was forced out and replaced by reliably Protestant co-rulers, William and Mary. This Revolution brought in its train several other constitutional changes. Within two decades the succession had been diverted through the Act of Settlement (1701) to the Protestant Hanoverian line whose direct descendants have reigned since the death of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, in 1714; and England had been united with Scotland as the Kingdom of Great Britain in the Union of 1707. Notwithstanding various important extensions after 1832, which widened the electoral franchise, and several additional embellishments, the foundations of the modern British state, where Crown-in-Parliament is sovereign, were laid at the Glorious Revolution and in the troubled decades that followed.

The Revolution engendered a climate of uncertainty in politics; for while there was rough agreement between Whigs and Tories about the basic course of events in 1688 – or at least those which occurred outside the royal boudoir – there was no consensus about what the Revolution meant, and about what ‘Revolution principles’, were they to be invoked, might mean in the future. Did the Revolution confer a popular licence to revolt against perceived royal tyranny? The big picture was blurry. Had James been overthrown by his own subjects in 1688? Or had he merely abdicated? In England alone there emerged three rival interpretations, those of Whigs, Tories and Nonjuring Jacobites, with numerous ingenious variants in the interstices. Scotland’s Revolution of 1689 had been bloodier than England’s and was more decisive in its eventual resolution, with the Scots declaring James to have ‘forefaulted’ (forfeited) the crown; as a result partisanship carried different inflections north of the border. The experience of Ireland was more violent still and even further removed from the English template. Civil war on the magnitude Ireland witnessed between 1689 and 1691 could not be squeezed into a pint-pot labelled ‘revolution’. Ironically, the foundational moment of an enduring British state was greeted not with the quiet assurance that comes from universal acclamation, but with the din of disputed narratives. What exactly had happened at the Revolution?

Domestic discord and private misery were the lot of royals long before the era of paparazzi, long-lens photography and phone-tapping. The Revolution was a preposterously involved family saga which would lack plausibility as fiction. But royal dynasties in the early modern era were very different from ordinary families in that political imperatives consistently trumped personal inclination, though not necessarily all inclinations. Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685, had no legitimate offspring by his wife, Catherine of Braganza, though plenty of bastards from his mistresses – as did his brother James. He had married Anne Hyde, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism, and his wife’s defection drew James himself over to Rome. As a precautionary measure to avoid the contagion of Catholicism the couple’s daughters, Mary and Anne, were brought up separately from their parents – as Protestants. James’s wife died in 1671, and in 1673 he married the Catholic princess Mary of Modena. By the mid-1680s there were no surviving children from this second marriage, which meant that James, who succeeded to the throne in 1685 as the Catholic king of a Protestant realm, would be unable to establish a Catholic dynasty in England; his successor would be his elder daughter, Mary, a Protestant. In the interim she had married William of Orange, who was engaged in a series of desperate wars to preserve the independence and Protestantism of the Dutch United Provinces against the might of Europe’s dominant Catholic power, Louis XIV’s France.

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