If there has been a single transformative event in English political history since the Norman Conquest, it is the Revolution of 1688. Yet who now knows or cares about it? For some time it has barely been taught in our schools and not much taught in universities. In 1988 the tercentenary was met with public indifference. By contrast, anniversaries of the deaths of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, the leading figures in the civil wars earlier in the century, excite public debate. The Puritan Revolution ended in crushing failure. The later Revolution succeeded, with fundamental and permanent consequences. In the years preceding it the Stuart monarchy seemed to have finally overcome the parliamentarian and Puritan dissent that had convulsed politics and society since the 1640s. In 1684 Charles II, with a tide of Tory and Anglican sentiment behind him, was able simply to ignore his legal obligation to call a parliament. In 1685 James II succeeded him, to national acclamation. A prophet of the constitutional future of England would have predicted the triumph of absolute monarchy, on the French model of the Stuarts’ ally Louis XIV. Instead James fled in 1688 from the invading army of his Dutch son-in-law William of Orange, who was installed as a parliamentary monarch. Since 1689 a parliament has met every year. The eighteenth century told itself that the Revolution had introduced a ‘new era’ that had confined the tyranny and instability of Stuart rule to the past and opened the way to ‘light and liberty’. In the mid-nineteenth century that claim was endorsed by perhaps the most popular work of sophisticated political history ever published, Macaulay’s The History of England from the Accession of James the Second.
Yet there are revolutions and revolutions. Macaulay, shuddering at the violent continental revolutions of 1848, congratulated his country on the peaceful, moderate, consensual seventeenth-century coup that had made England safe from similar upheavals. Victorian England, he argued, was free because in 1688–9 the nation’s leaders had behaved pragmatically