How James II Was Overthrown in England


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

The Magna Carta, which restricted the king’s power in England, was an important document. In 1215, King John had imposed heavy taxes to pay for his wars, and he’d imprisoned certain delinquent barons for their failure to pay. As a result, some barons rebelled. They captured the king and forced him to sign an agreement known as the Magna Carta, Latin for “great charter”. Read on to know why the Magna Carta came in picture during James II’s almost tyrannical rule.

Image of the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta acknowledged the individual right of free men and also that nobody’s power, not even the king’s, was absolute. (Image: The barons and King John of England/Public domain)

Not Honoring the Magna Carta

The document stipulated that no power, not even that of the king, was absolute. Making the point, taxation now required assent; and all free men were entitled to certain rights, including a right to justice. The Magna Carta was amended many times over the centuries, but the principles it conveyed endured. The charter symbolized individual rights and censored monarchical overreach. 

Until the summer of 1688, some of England’s more moderate elements urged patience in the face of James II’s Catholicism and autocratic inclinations. After all, the king had a Protestant daughter who was next in line for the crown. His reign might be just a short, egregious aberration. But two issues tipped the scales that summer.

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Religious Liberty in Jeopardy

First, James found no support in Parliament to overturn legislations—the Test Act and Penal Laws—that prohibited the public worship of Catholicism and so he settled on a different tactic. He directed Anglican clergy to announce from the pulpit that the Penal Laws would no longer be enforced. 

Portrait of William, Prince of Orange
William’s key advantage was that he had the support of the common people of England in his invasion. (Image: Thomas Murray/Public domain)

Seven leading bishops pushed back against this directive. And so, James ordered them to be imprisoned and tried. The bishops were acquitted. But the clash convinced many Englishmen that if James was left to his own devices, then the country’s political and religious liberty would be in grave jeopardy.

A Prince’s Birth Tipped the Balance of Power

The second issue that brought this simmering distrust to a head was the birth of a new prince. As bells in the Tower of London rung to announce the occasion, consternation rather than celebration prevailed. 

The birth of the Catholic king’s Catholic heir signaled troubling times ahead for Protestant England. A small group of aristocrats and gentlemen now wrote to the staunch Protestant, Prince William of Orange, in Holland, who was married to James’ eldest daughter, Mary. 

William was told: “The people are so generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government in relation to their religion, liberties, and properties… and they are in such expectation of their prospects being daily worse” that the vast majority of them would support William’s ascension to the throne.

This was a key point. William needed the support of commoners as well as of the elite. For a revolution to succeed, the upper crust—and lower—needed to share a strategic consensus. Without it, the replacement of James II with William and Mary would amount to no more than a coup d’état. Trusting the many assurances he received, William sailed to England in November 1688. By the time he and his forces landed, William enjoyed significant goodwill and support.

Portrait of James II
In the end, James II had no choice but to flee the country. (Image: Benedetto Gennari II/Public domain)

James II: The Most Hated Man in England

And to reaffirm his defense of English rights and tradition, the Prince of Orange promulgated a declaration—in English, Dutch, French and German—that cataloged James’s alleged violations of English traditions of rule. 

William also expressed a commitment to respect Parliament’s authority. And he referred to Parliament the matter of rampant rumors that the newborn Prince of Wales wasn’t really the king’s son at all but rather a random infant who had been smuggled into the queen’s bedchamber in a warming pot.

As William made his way up to London from the Devon coast, many Englishmen volunteered to join his ranks. And Englishwomen offered provisions for his troops. Meanwhile, Irish Catholic soldiers were rumored to be en route to exact revenge on James’ behalf. And though such reports were unfounded, angry mobs attacked and ransacked Catholic schools and chapels in London.

All across the country, William’s arrival unleashed the pent-up frustration of common people and gentry alike. As a result, when William and his forces entered London in mid-December, they were greeted with widespread support.

At the same time, James II couldn’t escape realizing how deeply hated he had become. First, he sent his wife and infant son to France for their safety. Then, James himself slipped out of the country, reaching his wife and son on Christmas Day, 1688.

Common Questions about How James II Was Overthrown in England

Q: What was the document called the Magna Carta all about?

The Magna Carta was a document that King John had been forced to sign in 1215 after a rebellion against him. The document stipulated that no power in England was absolute. It recognized individual rights and was a step toward implementing justice.

Q: How did James II try to overturn the legislations that were against Catholics?

James II tried to overturn the legislation that prohibited Catholicism to be worshiped in public. But nobody in Parliament supported James’s intentions. So instead, given his power in England, he directed the Anglican clergy to announce that the Penal Laws would no longer be enforced, effectively nulling the law without the Parliament’s help.

Q: Why was Prince William of Orange met with widespread support in England?

The people of England were tired of the rule of James II, the absolute power in England. They had suffered and would welcome a new face that was Protestant, and also someone who respected the authority of the Parliament, which meant a lot to the dissatisfied people of English cities who joined his forces and supplied his army.

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