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05 Nov

Who called it a “Glorious Revolution”?

On the 5th November 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay, a key event in the “Glorious Revolution”. It has been said of the Glorious Revolution that it was not glorious and not a revolution. But who called it that in the first place?

The first history of the events which culminated in the crowning of William and Mary was written in 1689. The title called the change in ruler a revolution (“The history of the late revolution in England”). The first person recorded adding the adjective “Glorious” was a Whig radical, John Hampden Jr, who used the term while giving testimony to a committee of the House of Lords in the autumn of 1689. “When that term appeared again it was in 1706 in sermons by Bishop Gilbert Burnet (a friend and confidant of King William and Queen Mary) and nonconformist preachers.”1

“People who used the epithet revealed how narrow and myopic was their perspective, for obviously ‘Glorious Revolution’ could apply only to England, not to Scotland or Ireland” 2. While this contention has merit when the bloodless coup in England is compared to the warfare in Ireland, the term was used by Anglo-Irish writers. The first use in print seems to be in Willam Molyneux’s Case of Ireland. (While I know I have read this in a book about Irish politics, I can’t find the reference. Any suggestions in the comments please!)

Ironically enough, the Case of Ireland makes an extended historical and philosophical argument for Ireland’s parliament making laws for Ireland without the interference of the parliament at Westminster. While arguing that the method of repaying the cost to England of suppressing rebellion should be left to the Irish parliament, Molyneux says “We have an Example of this in Point between England and Holland in the glorious revolution under King William the Third: Holland, in assisting England, expended 600000 Pounds, and the English Parliament fairly repaid them” 3

Another example comes from the non-juror Charles Leslie. He certainly read Molyneux’s Case, since he replied to it in Considerations of importance to Ireland in a letter to a member of Parliament there; upon occasion of Mr Molyneaux’s late book. In his 1708 A Letter from a Gentleman in Scotland to His Friend in England Leslie uses the term a number of times, including the following: “It is a principle of undoubted certainty, and on which the late glorious Revolution turn’d, That the Civil Constitution is founded upon contract” 4. The only other descriptor he uses for “revolution” is “happy” (once).

Probably more read was the use of the term (this time a fully initialised “Glorious Revolution”) in The Guardian no. 41 (1713), in which Steele defended Lady Charlotte, the daughter of the Earl of Nottingham and rebuked The Examiner for attacking her (a much more politically explosive issue than it sounds)5.

Between Leslie and Steele, the term had been used in “Faction Display’d” (1709), a satirical poem about (Steel’s printer and friend) Tonson and his Kit-Kat Club and in High-Church Display’d: Being a Compleat History of the Affair of Dr. Sacheverel, a pamphlet written by John Toland in 1711 (perhaps prompted by this satiric print?) Google Books shows that in 1710 Burnet used the phrase in two thanksgiving sermons, and in 1712 it was used by Abel Boyer in his History of Great Britain. The dissenters Thomas Ely in London, John Abernathy in Antrim and Nathaniel Weld in Dublin (whose son later attended Francis Hutcheson’s academy) all used the phrase in sermons in 1714.

In this time period, then, the phrase was used by Irish writers William Molyneux, John Toland, Charles Leslie, Richard Steele, John Abernathy and Nathaniel Weld: a high proportion of the examples in Google Books. It would be interesting to know if the apparent Irish link to the phrase is real or only a artifact. If there is a link, it peters out after 1714. The phrase (based on Google n-gram) only gained popularity in print after 1735. However, the first historian to use the phrase was also Anglo-Irish: “Walter Harris, whose history was published in 1749” (Walter Harris (1749) The History of the Life and Reign of William-Henry, Prince of Nassau and Orange, Dublin)6.

william-1688Featured Image: William of Orange landing in England, Romeyn de Hooge (detail). Wikimedia/Public Domain.

Further reading/resources

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time: The Glorious Revolution (podcast)


  1. Lois G. Schwoerer (2004) “Introduction” in The Revolution of 1688-89: Changing Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, pp 1-20. See pp. 2-3.
  2. Schwoerer (2004), p. 3
  3. William Molyneux (1698) The Case of Ireland’s Being Bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated Vol. 1, Dublin: Printed for Augustus Long and Henry Hawker, p. 51 (google books).
  4. Charles Leslie (1708) A Letter from a Gentleman in Scotland to His Friend in England, Against the Sacramental Test, London: Benj. Bragg, p. 18 (google books)
  5. Richard Steele (1714) “The Guardian No. 41” in J. Tonson (ed) (1714) The Guardian Vol. I London: J. Tonson, p. 145
  6. Schwoerer (2004), p. 3
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