How England’s Revolution Set the Stage for Modern Politics


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

Soon after James II was abdicated from authority, a self-identified provisional government of peers and former members of the House of Lords offered the crown to William, the Prince of Orange, and his wife, Mary, as co-monarchs. But the offer came with conditions. In exchange for the English throne, the royals had to agree to abide by a bill of rights drafted by the convention.

Image of a statue of William of Orange on horse on a Street in Dublin
William of Orange’s power came in light of James II being abdicated from the throne and losing his authority to rule. (Image: National Library of Ireland on The Commons/Public domain)

The Parliament’s Power Over the Monarchy

The document accused James of efforts to ‘subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of the kingdom’. Conversely, the Prince of Orange was described as the ‘glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power’.”

Portrait of William and Mary
William and Mary accepted the terms and conditions that the Parliament offered them in exchange for becoming co-monarchs. (Image: James Thornhill/Public domain)

Still, no matter how glorious William might have been, he would not be absolute. Yes, he and Mary were the acknowledged monarchs. But neither was sovereign. Rather, sovereignty in England now rested in the tradition of shared power. The bill of rights asserted the English parliament’s abiding right to exercise restraint on a monarch’s actions. And William and Mary, with their vow to adhere to this bill of rights, became the first constitutional monarchs.

The new king and queen gave permanent sanction to the notion that a monarch’s power to suspend or execute laws, raise taxes, and maintain a standing army in peacetime, was subject to Parliament’s consent. In turn, Parliament would be freely elected. And once it was, its members had the right to freedom of speech and debate. Taken together, these developments in governance established key democratic principles that would define the modern era.

Next, the monarchs and Parliament agreed to the Act of Toleration, which extended freedom of worship to Protestant dissenters while otherwise maintaining the Church of England’s privileged position. As persecution gave way to peace, the path was paved for the eventual separation of church and state.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Portrait of John Locke
John Locke believed that the government was now legitimate because of the voluntary compact that existed between ruled and ruler. (Image: Godfrey Kneller/Public domain)

John Lock’s Praise for England’s Revolution 

John Locke, in his 1689 tract, Two Treatises of Government, celebrated the contractual nature of the new state. Having witnessed decades of instability, Locke viewed the source of the government’s legitimacy as now resting in a voluntary compact between ruled and ruler. 

He argued, furthermore, that should the government violate its contract with the people by not fulfilling its obligations, the contract was null and void. The people would then owe no loyalty to the government and were entitled to remove it from power—by force if necessary.

Taken together, the transition to constitutional rule and the steps toward religious toleration became known as England’s Glorious Revolution. It set a standard of rational, limited government for the modern era. 

If we consider the revolution to have encompassed only the years of James II’s reign, it seems to lack the violence and turbulence that comes with revolutionary upheaval. And, therefore, it seems glorious in both its results and its process. Yet we need to remember that the drama that swirled around England’s last Catholic king was just the final act in a saga that encompassed much of the 17th century.

The Revolution’s Domino Effect

England’s Glorious Revolution was a transformative event in England’s century of upheaval, and also in world history writ large. It demonstrated the potential of rule by law and of a rational system rather than one that rested on the divine rights of kings. 

The Scottish philosopher David Hume called it, “The most entire system of liberty that ever was known amongst mankind.” Few considered the disorders of the 1640s and 1650s to have been revolutionary at the time. But England’s civil wars set the stage for a shift in the ‘“institutional balance of power’.

The Glorious Revolution established justification, and legitimacy, for subsequent revolutions, and models for liberal, constitutional forms of government beyond England itself. Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century drew inspiration from its contractual nature, and reasoned stability, both of which seemed the keys to progress in the modern world.

Among future revolutionaries inspired by this Glorious Revolution were none other than American colonists of the late 18th century. They, too, questioned the legitimacy and power of the British king and parliament just as some of their forebears had. Hoping to forge their own Glorious Revolution, these American revolutionaries challenged the British monarchy, declared their independence, and crafted their own democratic experiment.

Common Questions about How England’s Revolution Set the Stage for Modern Politics

Q: After England’s revolution, what was the difference between the new monarchs and their predecessors?

England’s revolution ended with new acknowledged monarchs but this time they were the first constitutional monarchs. They did not have sovereignty like their predecessors and they accepted that their power to execute laws among other things were subject to the consent of Parliament.

Q: What was John Locke’s opinion of the new contractual nature of the new state?

John Locke believed that England’s Revolution had led to a legitimate government after years of instability because of the voluntary compact between ruled and ruler. He also argued that if the government did not fulfill its obligations, then it would no longer be legitimate and had to be removed, even by force if necessary.

Q: How did England’s Glorious Revolution affect the modern world?

England’s revolution inspired other revolutions because it became a model for establishing liberal and constitutional forms of government. Later Enlightenment thinkers were influenced by the stability of the government, and people such as American colonists would soon follow in their footsteps, declare their independence, and experiment with democracy in a new way.

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