The next king of England, Scotland and Ireland landed his army on the Devon coast 330 years ago today in what would become the last successful armed invasion of Britain… so far.
It wasn’t quite the all-out war you might imagine though. William of Orange (pictured), a sovereign prince from Holland, was ‘invited to invade’ by some of Britain’s leading Protestants, who were fed up of being ruled over by their Roman Catholic King, James II (who was also James VII of Scotland).
When news came that William’s invading army had landed at Brixham on November 5th, 1688, rather than take up arms against them, many people in Britain rushed to welcome them and join their march on London.
At that time, Britain was divided between Catholics and Protestants, with strife between them for the nation’s throne. King James, a Roman Catholic, had been king for three-and-a-half years, but was unpopular. Britain’s largely Protestant political elite suspected him of being pro-French and having designs on becoming an all-powerful ‘absolute monarch’ with the military backing of Catholic France. Things worsened when he and his devoutly Catholic second wife produced a son and heir to the throne, also called James.
Up to that point, next in line for the throne had been James’ eldest surviving daughter from his previous marriage, Mary, who was a Protestant and married to the Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange. British Protestants had pinned their hopes on Mary succeeding her father, but the birth of a new male Catholic heir threatened that. Unlike James, William of Orange was an enemy of Catholic France, which made him a friend to Britain’s influential Protestants. Several of them wrote to him urging him to invade Britain and claim the throne for his wife.
At first William resisted their pleas, but when James refused to join the League of Ausberg (an anti-French alliance), relations between the two worsened and William began to assemble an invading army. The time was ripe, since France was preoccupied with military campaigns in Germany and Italy and unlikely to intervene on James’ behalf.
William was still reluctant to act, fearing the English would oppose any foreign invasion, but in June 1688 a group of seven leading English political figures – including three Earls, a Viscount and the Bishop of London – wrote to him. Their letter was essentially a formal invitation to invade Britain, and an assurance that opposition to that invasion would be minimal.
William was persuaded and on November 5th his invasion fleet landed on the Devon coast at Brixham. It was vastly larger than the Spanish Armada which threatened Britain a century early and was repelled by Sir Francis Drake. A hundred years on, the Dutch invaders encountered no such opposition. Around 250 ships and 60 fishing boats carried a force of 35,0000 men, including 11,000 professional foot soldiers and 4,000 cavalrymen.
As news of the invasion spread, support for King James melted away. Protestant officers defected from his army, many taking their loyal soldiers with them and some going to join the invaders. Across the country, Protestant noblemen publicly declared their support for William, with the implication that if there was to be war, they and their people would fight on the invader’s side.
After brief attempts at defiance, James soon realised the game was up. He sent emissaries to negotiate with William, but in early December he tried to flee London in secret, throwing the Great Seal (the official symbol of his sovereignty) into the Thames on his way. He was heading for France, hoping to enlist Catholic support, but was discovered by a group of fishermen who brought him back to London. A few days later, William allowed him to ‘escape’ to France, not wanting to make James a martyr to the Catholic cause.
On April 11th the following year, William and Mary were crowned together at Westminster Abbey, becoming joint rulers and sealing what became known as the “Glorious Revolution”. There had been some hasty rewriting of laws in parliament allowing William and Mary to rule together, rather than Mary (as James’ daughter and heir to the throne) being crowned Queen with William as her Consort. The prospect of that happening saw William threaten to pack up his army and go home to Holland, with Mary, as a loyal wife, backing him up.
Instead they reigned together for the next six years until Mary died of smallpox at the end of 1694. William then ruled alone for the next eight years until he died of pneumonia after falling from his horse and breaking his collarbone. The couple produced no children, so it was Mary’s younger sister, Anne, who became the next Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.