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5.1: The English Background (1660-1715)

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    In 1660, following the English Civil War, the decapitation of Charles I, and the period when England was a republic under Oliver Cromwell, Charles II was restored to the throne at the invitation of Parliament; both houses of Parliament were also restored (Lords had been abolished during the period of the English Republic), as was an established Anglican Church. Far removed from the austere person of Oliver Cromwell, who “had been converted to a strong Puritan faith,” the style of Charles II was “extravagant, irresponsible and un-businesslike.” Charles II’s reign would witness a continued distrust on the part of Parliament and the English people generally of any move toward introducing Catholic practices into the liturgy of the Anglican Church, or Catholics themselves into the inner circle of the King.

    Reign of Charles II

    Several issues arose almost immediately after Charles’s coronation in 1660. One was the question as to the position Charles should take regarding the large number of religious sects that had appeared during the 1650s, a period when religious toleration by the Puritan leadership was the norm. Another question was about the future relationship between the king and Parliament, especially whether Parliament would vote adequate funds to support the monarchy; this problem was faced by both Charles II’s father, Charles I, and grandfather, James I. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was the question as to who would follow Charles to the throne. He had no children, which meant that the throne would pass to his brother, James, who was an avowed Catholic, and Catholics had been hated and distrusted by Parliament and the Anglican leadership since the death of “Bloody” Mary Tudor, oldest daughter of Henry VIII.

    The first question was answered by the Test Act, passed by Parliament in 1673 and reluctantly accepted by Charles. This act defined religious orthodoxy and specified that those outside of the Church of England, including Catholics, could not vote, hold public office, preach, teach, or attend universities. The issue of funding developed almost immediately because Parliament was unwilling to accept Charles’s assertion that Parliamentary funds were not adequate, especially in light of the blatant, very visible extravagance of his personal lifestyle. In the opinion of the Members of Parliament, public money was being wasted rather than falling short.

    Unfortunately, in an attempt to increase the revenues of the Crown, in 1671 Charles signed the secret Treaty of Dover with his cousin, the Catholic Louis XIV of France. The treaty specified that England would join France in war against Holland, Charles would publicly convert to Catholicism, and the laws against Catholics in England would be relaxed; if this occurred, 100 years of anti-Catholic legislation would be reversed. In return, Charles would receive an annual allowance of £200,000 from France and the prospect of victory spoils; both sources of income would solve his fiscal problems. Details of the agreement with Louis XIV inevitably leaked out and anti-Catholic, anti-Charles fervor swept the nation. As if these problems were not enough, Charles had no legitimate heir, having married a Portuguese princess who was unable to have children. Though Charles had many illegitimate children, they could not assume the throne, so it was obvious from early in his reign that his successor would be his younger brother, James, who had openly converted to Catholicism in 1673.

    If Charles had been capable of adopting policies that reassured the English people of his determination to defend their traditional religion and civil liberties, and of his basic soundness and responsibility as a leader, none of these difficulties would have caused as much trouble as they did. Instead Charles made these problems worse, and by the end of his reign, England was failing as a leader in European affairs, nonconformists were rebelling and being savagely persecuted, and, because Charles could not work with Parliaments, he called none. Fiscal chaos was the result. Charles had created a country that was weak abroad and severely divided at home. It was this situation that Charles’s brother, James, an avowed Catholic, would inherit when Charles died in 1685.

    James II and the Glorious Revolution

    If Charles II was unsuccessful as a monarch, James II was a disaster. As a Catholic, James moved quickly to put aside the limitations placed on Catholics by the Test Act of 1673 by appointing Roman Catholics to positions in the army, the church, the universities, and local governments. When his actions were taken before the courts of law, he began suspending laws, and by 1687 his opponents feared that he would suspend the Test Act altogether. It appeared that James was about to impose absolutism on England when in the summer of 1687 he dissolved Parliament. Historian John Miller remarks that “James’s actions seemed to threaten to destroy the laws and the independence of Parliament, the very foundations of the traditional constitution.”

    The final blow came when James’s second wife (his first wife, a Protestant, had died after giving birth to two daughters), the Catholic Italian princess Mary of Modena, became pregnant; a healthy boy was born in June 1688. It was now inevitable that James’s Protestant daughter, Mary, would not succeed her father to the throne, but rather the new son—called James III by some—would do so; this new son was a Catholic. Rumors abounded in England that the child had actually been a girl who was switched at birth for a baby boy, although this was never proven. Contemporary pamphlets circulated with images of what would happen if a “Papist” came to the throne of England. The troops would ravish “your wives and daughters, dashing your little children’s brains out against the walls, plundering your houses and cutting your own throats.”

    In April 1688, even before the birth of the baby, William of Orange, a Dutch prince from the noble family of Orange and husband of Mary, James’s oldest daughter, had made it known that “if he was invited by some men of the best interest to…come and rescue the nation and religion” he was agreeable to invading England. There is much controversy about William’s true motives, but the prevailing theory is that “he wished to bring England into his war against Louis XIV’s France and a free Parliament was seen as more likely to support this.”

    For this invasion, the prince of Orange amassed an armada “four times the size of that launched by the Spanish in 1588.”8 A “Protestant wind,” as the English had called it in 1588, prevailed once again; William’s invasion began in early November. By late December, James had fled the country, and the family of Orange had come to the throne of England.

    In his 1690 defence of William’s accession to the throne of England, John Locke emphasized that “when such a single person or prince sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws which are the will of the society…who shall be judge whether the prince or the legislative act contrary to their trust[?]… To this I reply the people shall be the judge.”

    Historians refer to the events of 1688 and 1689 as the Glorious Revolution, mainly because the change in monarchs was accomplished with little bloodshed. With the Revolution also came a series of reforms forced on William and Mary by Parliament; these reforms created a permanent definition of the relationship between the monarchy and Parliament.

    According to the Settlement, William and Mary were to rule as joint monarchs, the first time this had occurred in English history. William insisted on this action, as he had a claim in his own right to the English throne. In exchange for Parliament’s recognition of the dual reign, he and Mary agreed to the following: Parliament was to be called every three years whether or not called by a monarch (the Triennial Act); Parliamentary laws, once passed, could not be suspended by a monarch; funds could not be created by royal prerogative; and a standing army in peacetime must be approved by Parliament. In other words, the source of law was to be in the hands of Parliament.

    In addition, the Revolutionary Settlement included a series of penalties levied at English Catholics, who would not be allowed to bear arms or worship freely. It also specified that the kings of England would forever be Protestants as “none of the royal family [will] marry Catholics.” An Act of Toleration guaranteed freedom of worship to all sects except Catholics. As William assured Parliament, “I had no other intention in coming hither than to preserve your religion, law and liberties, so you may be sure that I shall endeavor to support them.”

    The Glorious Revolution was by no means a democratic one, but it created a Bill of Rights that recognized equality under the law. However, voting was limited to the nobility and gentry, and Parliament continued to represent these two classes alone. There was no universal male suffrage, and women were not given the right to vote until 1928.

    William and Mary ruled jointly until her death in 1694. William remained as the sole monarch until his own death in 1702. William was followed on the throne by Mary’s younger sister Anne, the last Stuart ruler, under whom the Act of Union was created, unifying the Parliaments of Scotland and England. From this point in time on, England is referred to as Great Britain. Because Anne’s heir had predeceased her, upon her death the English Crown passed to the nearest Protestant relatives of the Stuarts, the Electors of Hanover. George I was the first Hanoverian to take the throne of England. His grandson George III was the king at the time of the American Revolution.


    Events in seventeenth century England were important to the establishment and progress of the colonies in America. During the Puritan Revolution, when there was freedom of religion in the mother country, and when no grants of land in the Americas were forthcoming from the government (for there was no “Crown”), no colonies were founded. With the Restoration of Charles II, however, who was excessively extravagant and a great believer in rewarding his friends and nobility for their service to the Crown, colonization began again. The period 1660-1688 was one of struggle for political ascendency in England between Parliament and the king. The Glorious Revolution, like the Civil War and Restoration, was played out in the colonies, as the latter chaffed against controls by the royal governors and the Crown. The ideals of the English Bill of Rights adopted in 1689 were reflected in the literature that came out of the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century as colonial leaders increasingly insisted on their rights as English and into the state constitutions adopted during the American Revolution.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The term “Restoration” refers to:

    1. the restoring of power to Parliament in 1689.
    2. Charles II’s being brought to the throne of England in 1660.
    3. the Bill of Rights.
    4. William and Mary’s accession to the throne in 1688.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    According to the Triennial Act,

    1. no Catholic could become an English monarch.
    2. Parliament must raise the salary of the monarchy at least once in every three years.
    3. Parliament must meet every three years even if not called by the Crown.
    4. England would have not one, but three Parliaments.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    According to John Locke, the Glorious Revolution was a legitimate one.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which of the following was NOT one of the restrictions placed on Catholics after the Glorious Revolution?

    1. Catholics could not sit in Parliament.
    2. Catholics could not worship freely.
    3. Catholics could not marry.
    4. Catholics could not bear arms.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Although William of Orange was married to James II’s daughter, Mary, he also was in line for the throne of England.

    1. True
    2. False


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