Throughout history, England has been held up as an example of calm pragmatism and moderation. While almost every other European state has endured one violent revolution after another, England did not appear to experience anything like the reformist ravages that occurred in other countries during the same period, most notably in France. In fact, it’s peaceful manner of achieving change gave it the reputation of an “empire for good,” as it brought its moderate spirit all over the world under the British Empire.
But historians are beginning to reexamine these traditional views of English reforms. Some believe that the reforms which have taken place in England, though not as dramatic as the rest of Europe, were in their own way just as radical.
The earliest, and possibly the most well-known, revolution was the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89. It was so named precisely because of the relatively non-violent manner in which one form of leadership completely replaced another. But both sides of this revolution were passionately devoted to a religious cause and the escape from all-out violence was narrow. The English at that time had a deep-seated fear of what was known at the time as “popery,” a term which describes the efforts of the Catholic Church to take over leadership of the country. It seemed to many that these fears would become reality when James II, who was openly Catholic, succeeded his brother to the throne and began granting unprecedented liberties to Catholics, even appointing them to public office. These actions eventually ignited the people of England to rebel, enlisting the help of James’ Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange. James was forced to flee to France, and William and James’ daughter Mary then ruled jointly over England.
This revolution was notable because of the long-term effects it left in its wake. It led to greater parliamentary power and scrutiny over taxation, appointments, war, and finance. It led to a shift from an agrarian economy to manufacturing and ushered in a greater sense of openness to differing religious perspectives. Meanwhile, the curtailing of the rights of Catholics increased a sense of bitter division in Scotland and Ireland.
Elsewhere in its history, England was again on the brink of violence many times. Inspired by the French Revolution, reformists in 1794-95 agitated to replace the English monarchy with a government based on the Rights of Man. These reformers were quickly squelched by new laws about treason, which barred them from meeting in public and made them easy targets for arrest. Later on, similar reformist attempts led to the execution of radical leaders, in 1803 and 1820. In August 1819, British authorities massacred a group that had gathered to hear a famous radical orator at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester. In 1832, the pro-reform Whig party won a majority in the House of Commons, but quickly reached a bitter stalemate when they could not win over the House of Lords to pass a Reform Bill.
In the face of widespread violent riots, the House of Lords finally had to back down and the Reform Bill was passed. In addition to this violent but semi-forgotten revolution, there was ongoing rioting in Ireland and Scotland, where many resented the rule of the British monarchy.
We all remember learning about the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the various revolutions of England, though less memorable, were sparked by equally deep passion and had equally far-reaching consequences.
- Evans, Eric. “A British Revolution in the 19th Century?” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/revolution_01.shtml.
- Vallance, Edward. “The Glorious Revolution.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/glorious_revolution_01.shtml.
- “England’s Revolution.” The Economist, 15 Oct. 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14636916.